Some time ago at a popular poetry venue, I saw a woman take the stage and tell the audience she’d been going for eight years, but it was her first time on the open mic. I leaned into a friend’s ear and asked if he’d seen her before. He hadn’t. The crowd gave her a warm, enthusiastic first-timer’s applause, imbued with polite gasps at her confession of going unnoticed for so long in near-religious devotion. She was more of a regular than many people known as regulars, and she was likely telling the truth because she emerged from the center region of dense, anonymous space known as the audience. The regular regulars would be vining their way around the bar, slouching along the walls, and clustering in blooms near the stage, playing to the fact that we look out toward the edges, not in.
I can relate to that veteran novice waiting for years in a hopeful stasis for something, anything, to happen. I married at twenty, much younger than most of my peers, and for sixteen years, I focused on obligations that didn’t involve developing friendships or creative interests. I discount prior shortchanged, private romps into music and poetry. When the marriage ended, I decided to ignore anything practical my head directed, and instead to follow my rabbit heart. I took some old poems and read at an open mic. The first moment of stage-light was blinding, like getting ambushed by cotton balls. I anxiously plucked each word from the page, uttering them in a weak, quivering voice while my body vibrated on shaky knees. When I finished, the audience responded warmly. I returned again and again, and a new life emerged that included friends and sturdier knees.
“I’m awkward,” is often said by poets. I go to most poetry events alone. Each time, it feels a like a reenactment of my first day of school. I step into the bus, see more kids than I ever have in my life, and the first thing I do is put my hotshot hands on my hips and loudly announce, “My grandfather said I’m a princess!” A boy much bigger than me gets up, plants his enormous foot on my ass, and says, “You’re not a princess! You’re a liar!” and push-kicks me so hard that I fall forward on my hands and knees, punctuating my grand entrance with a shoe print on my butt. I learned early not to blurt out declarations I assumed would grab a new crowd.
I frequented poetry venues enough that I started getting invites to home events and parties, which created opportune times to say absurd things, which is a way to take a wrecking ball to the shanties of shy-town. For example, a speculative question like “Would you rather eat a dead person if starving, or have a sexless marriage for the rest of your life?” Outbursts and answers vary, along with a feigned sincerity to refine the context: “Did the person die naturally?” “Do I get to choose how the person is prepared?” My answer would be that a sexless marriage happens to be more common than cannibalism, but a more depraved and ridiculous answer would have been okay.
The poetry scene helped me work through social anxiety, and it set the business of making a new life in motion. I found my niches. I started the poetry journal Amethyst Arsenic. I host salons out of my home, and I’m involved in several literary groups and organizations. The outcome of ventures is never certain, but doing them reinforces a resolve to try more, to evolve with circumstance and what I genuinely want. There is more to this. It’s a squaring against what haunted me about shame and obligations, the things that kept me at the edge looking in, and moving past that, to feel freer to do my best in what makes me happy without being encumbered by thoughts of getting a kick in the ass.