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Poet's vision belies his blindness

David Simpson, blind since birth, has been named poet laureate of Montgomery County.

Sitting in his office, David Simpson uses voice-recognition software in writing a poem. He says poetry keeps people alive by sharpening the senses.
Sitting in his office, David Simpson uses voice-recognition software in writing a poem. He says poetry keeps people alive by sharpening the senses.Read more

The night they named David Simpson poet laureate of Montgomery County, his mother showed up.

So did his twin brother, Dan. When it was all over, Miriam Dell bought each a book from a vendor at Arcadia University, where Simpson was feted April 13. Then she turned to Joanne Leva, founder and director of the laureate program, and poet Carolyn Forche, celebrity judge for this year's competition.

"I don't know why they want books," Dell said. "They both have so many of them, and they can't read them."

Leva's laughter rippled through the phone last week as she told the story. Simpson and his brother have been blind since birth. The mother's grousing trumpeted triumph, not exasperation.

Lack of vision hasn't meant lack of gumption for David Simpson. Now 55, he retired from Verizon in November 2003, after 21 years in mainframe database design. For a quarter-century, he has sung baritone with the Mendelssohn Club, a prominent choral force in Philadelphia, and in December he made his acting debut with the city's Amaryllis Theatre.

"He's really serious about living," said Leva, also awed by the fact that Simpson has to "describe things he has never seen."

"I have not allowed myself to get old," Simpson said at his Glenside home.

A burly man, just over 6 feet with a silver-streaked braid that trails off at the shoulder blades, he dominated his small study. He was seated in an office chair that swiveled, and his fingers skipped up and down the traditional keyboard on his lap, commanding a computerized voice that rapidly fired off the contents of his computer as he searched for poems to share.

Occasionally, he swiveled around to the braille keyboard at his left to help out. A Casio keyboard sat at his right elbow.

"I decided later in life that I really wanted to write, and kind of by accident," Simpson was saying. An engaging man, he tells his life in anecdotes. This one was about an old girlfriend taking a night course at Temple University, the Voice Within. Her experience took him to the Natalie Goldberg book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

That was 1993. Within two years, the man who had considered himself "not good enough" to be an English major as an undergraduate at Bucknell University dropped to part time at Verizon and entered New York University to earn a master's in creative writing.

"I just took a sleeping bag up there and slept on classmates' floors," Simpson said. "I was 43 . . . 'old enough to be my father,' " one classmate told him.

"Something like only 30 percent of blind people are gainfully employed," he remembered thinking at the doorstep of the program. "Do I really want to ditch my job? What am I going to do after the two-year program?"

Looking at his life, it would be harder to imagine him not ditching the job. Passion gripped him and, as in the past, he ached to chase after the new challenge relentlessly.

Simpson, who labels himself "competitive," first plied ambition at age 14 when he and his brother nudged their parents into letting them leave the Overbrook School for the Blind for junior high in the Great Valley School District.

"That was one of the first key decisions that I made," he said.

After that it was Bucknell, where, as a freshman Spanish major, he started skipping his

9 a.m. Spanish class to eat Lancaster County pretzels and drink rum-and-cokes with a pal who was "playing me all this choral music."

"It just turned my whole life around," said Simpson, who took a double major in Spanish and music and, later, a master's in organ performance from Westminster Choir College. But a year of organ study in Paris with a master convinced him that "I was good, but I wasn't going to be international."

So he became a computer guy at what was then Bell Atlantic.

"Music and poetry and computer languages are all symbolic languages," he said.

Now, he has become a poet, with an unpublished manuscript and the mantle of county laureate. As usual, he questions whether he is "good enough" for the honor. But that doesn't stop him from asking what he can accomplish in the next year.

He hopes to conduct snippet interviews with area poets and post them online. And he'd like to get into the schools.

"I want students to realize that language matters," Simpson said. "I want them to know the pleasure and the excitement that I've had with words."

Poetry, Simpson said, keeps people alive by sharpening the senses.

"I think we need to be in the moment," he said. "I want people to be alive."


Write this sonnet out. Write it in braille,

Then sweep your fingers down through all its lines

To know its shape, the way someone who's blind

Would come to know it: intimate, tactile.

Let it be a topographical map

Where dots are mountains of two mountain ranges

And the space between is where a river rages,

Cutting a gulf of longing, long and deep.

Or, let it be a circuit, wires hot

With logic whose bright voltage seeks to span

Enjambed lines of poetry. But not

Forever. Fourteen lines. That's the plan.

No more. It tunes us for what lies beneath:

The sonnet of our first to final breath.

- David Simpson