Recently, I read some of my poems as part of the Boundless Tales Reading Series in Queens, New York. It was a wonderful night! It was great to meet local writers and spend the evening with an open, friendly and supportive community of people.
It is always an interesting experience to read one’s work aloud to an audience. For an intrinsically shy person, it is also an act of courage. It is an experience in moving outside of oneself, expanding one’s comfort zone.
The earliest experiences I had reading aloud was at school, which I think is true for most people. I always loved reading, and I always read very well, but when I had to read out loud in class, my voice was too quiet.
I was quiet in general. I hated attracting attention and I certainly didn’t want to be the center of attention. In school, I was studious but I didn’t raise my hand or talk in class. I was shy. I liked to observe. I liked to read. I liked to be inside my head. I didn’t think of my introversion as a bad thing, but I became well aware that others did. Teachers, my parents, relatives, peers, the world it seemed – either could not or would not – hear me. I spoke and they would admonish me: “Speak louder!” and inside, I would want to die.
(Later, in one of my earliest undergraduate poetry workshops, I had written a poem which contained a line to the effect of “I have a quiet voice” and the professor had underlined the line and commented next to it “The voice in this poem is LOUD!!!” In my young writer’s mind, that comment affected me like a revolution.)
I can honestly say that it wasn’t until I took creative writing classes that I spoke in class and raised my hand and offered my opinions and read my work aloud. I had to push myself to do it. I blushed furiously the entire time. But I just stumbled forward. No one asked me to talk louder or to read louder. No one had a problem hearing me at all. I think that is part of what makes a writing workshop a sacred space; everyone listens, everyone is heard.
A reading can imbue that sacred space feeling. But at a reading, there are microphones! At a reading, you are standing in front of an audience! They don’t necessarily know you or your work! They are all listening to you! They are all looking at you! They are all judging you!
And yet, you are there. You are there because you wanted to be there. You are there because you think you have something to give, if only to yourself. You are so vulnerable. Your life, your heart, your soul is spilling from your lips. Your breath, your words, your voice is filling the space with sound.
Afterwards, a rush of applause and you take your seat, slowly returning to yourself. You did it! You are strong, stronger than you thought. You are triumphant! (You are also riding a sort of adrenaline high lol)
But seriously, there is something very special about reading one’s work to an audience. For writers like myself, we want our work to be read. I don’t need to stand in front of an audience. It’s not in my comfort zone. In fact, I love the idea that my “audience” engages my work privately.
When I first went to an open mic several years ago, I … well, it was not something I sought out. I was dating someone who came by this particular open mic by a random series of coincidences. After his experience there, he was insistent that I would love it and he had to take me there! He wanted to take me on an official date – into Manhattan for dinner and this open mic.
He told me to bring something to read, so I brought a poem of mine. I had some experience reading from my workshop classes, and I had been to some readings as a guest. But I really didn’t know what to expect at an open mic. I put my name in, and I was called dead last.
As the night progressed, I became increasingly nervous. I was completely out of my element. I was not a performer. I was not a performance poet. I was not a spoken word artist. I was a writer.
My friend had been called to do his set about half-way through the night. And it was a fabulous open mic! I did love it. We were there until almost 3 am, and they were just hitting the reserve list. My friend wanted to go. We were both tired, we had an hour drive back home, we had work in the morning. He asked if it was okay that we leave.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Okay?! I was relieved. The nagging fear and anxiety in the back of my mind that had followed me all night, briefly surfacing at times to remind me that I, too, would be standing at that microphone in front of that audience suddenly dissipated.
“Let me just use the bathroom and we’ll go.”
I heard the host calling the names of those on the reserve list. And after each name, it was discovered that the person had left. Then … “is Michelle still here?” I stilled with fear. I was still in the bathroom! I was leaving! Fuck!
There was a knock on the door. I took a deep breath.
“Be right out!” I called, my heart ready to burst through my chest.
Then I heard singing. First my name-song which quickly morphed into another song – “you’ve lost that loving feeling” – I still don’t know why. But I opened the door to find the house guitarist, another musician, and my friend serenading me. The guys handed me the microphone and led me to the stage. I had no choice but to go on.
All I remember is that I stood as close to the back wall as possible. I felt literally backed up against that wall. The light was bright and blinding and I couldn’t actually see the audience very well. My voice sounded so loud in the microphone. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely hold the paper. I read eight lines.
But reading those eight lines changed me.
It wasn’t the open mic, or my friend, or any other factor that night. It was what I struggled with within myself that changed me. I had all the confidence in the world about that poem. I loved that poem. I wasn’t concerned about that poem. But the action of reading it to an audience brought my work into another realm – one that was more immediate, more temporal, and more confrontational.
Since that time, it’s been significantly easier to read my work aloud to an audience. I think that practicing and going to places like open mics and participating in readings had a lot to do with increasing my comfort level. But the most important part of what has made it easier for me has been my mind-set.
I feel that writing sometimes can set you apart from the world. I know that extroverted writers exist, but I’m speaking for myself and other introverted writers. And with my natural tendencies, I don’t really mind being a little distant from the world. I don’t mind spending long hours alone, writing. I like being alone! I don’t care that I might not speak to people for days, except through writing or daily exchanges. I don’t thrive on contact with many other people, and events and large groups often make me feel anxious.
These aspects to myself may have helped make me a good writer, but I also think that by confronting these aspects to myself, I am trying to be a better writer. Writing is about overcoming fear and moving outside your comfort zone. It’s believing in your self and your work. And sometimes, it’s standing in front of an audience saying, “I believe I have something to give through my writing.” At a reading, I am there, first and foremost, to share my work. Because I think that it is worth sharing.
That is very powerful.
As part of this reading series, I wanted to share the poems I read at the reading! But in the course of writing this post, I decided that I would rather share the full poem – the one I read eight lines from, the first time I went to an open mic. The above photo was taken a couple of months after that experience.
The poem is called “Astronavigation” and it was published in Issue Six of Bare Hands Poetry. As an audio companion to the publication, Bare Hands also created a site on soundcloud. I will share that link too! Click here to read/listen to Astronavigation.