Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Poetry Reading: A Home Game

Going to poetry readings – to read my poems in public – reminds me of going to a funeral. I want to go. It’s what I need to do. I know I’ll feel better later for having done it. But I always dread facing it, and I always feel uncomfortable...

Back in elementary school, I was one of those kids – you probably had one in your class, or maybe you were one yourself – who was terrified to get up in front of the class to give an oral report. The first time it happened, I was caught off guard and felt like I had come down with an illness. My heart pounded. My mind went blank. Embarrassed that I had no control over my shaking voice and hands, my face turned bright red, making the obvious worse.

I really don’t understand stage fright. It’s not a logical fear. It’s not as if anyone is going to shoot you, but somehow you feel in danger, adrenaline coursing through your veins...

When I first began reading my poetry in public, about 15 years ago, the trauma of public speaking was already deeply grooved into my nervous system. Back then, I couldn’t even bear to put my name on a sign-up sheet because I was never sure if I would actually get up and read. If the MC was an understanding one, I would signal when I was ready.

I’ve given more poetry readings in the last couple of years than I probably have in the last 15 years. The more I do them, the easier it gets. But it isn’t easy.
I have to rest the day before a reading, take rescue remedy (a Bach flower tincture for hysteria) as the reading time approaches, and if the reading is held in a restaurant, drinking a beer can really help. I begin to have pangs of anxiety about 2 days before a scheduled reading. Hanging out at the threshold of fear, but not opening the door to it, I repeat my mantram OM MANI PADME HUM (the jewel in the lotus of the heart) every time my mind wants to sink into panic.

My Writers’ Workshop and Oddfella’s Cantina hosted a spoken word evening this past Sunday night. My reading went fine. The variety and quality of work others shared was rhythmically rich and deeply touching. Not only was there a decent attendance of attentive guests, but I enjoyed myself and was probably was less nervous than I have ever been (that bottle of New Castle didn’t hurt).

Even so, I (half jokingly) said to my husband, who is well aware of the challenges I face keeping my phobias at bay, “You know, training my mind to resist the compulsion to sink into fear is hard work. Maybe it would be easier just to let myself be a nervous wreck?”

Oddly, it’s easier to do a reading than it is to deal with the anxiety of waiting for it to happen. When it’s over, I always feel better for having spoken-up. I think it’s our job as human beings to speak-up for each other and for those who are voiceless. For poets that’s especially true. And not only have I never been shot at while speaking-up at a poetry reading, when I finish reading, people usually clap.

Post Note: No one took pictures the night of the readings. The one posted here is of me reading at Floyd’s Pine Tavern, taken a year ago. The italic text above is excerpted from an essay that appears in my poetry collection, “Muses Like Moonlight” (pictured above). It’s one I occasionally use at readings as a sort of homeopathic remedy for stage fright. This post was originally posted on on September 21, 2005.

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