Welcome to our new column, The First Time, in which we ask poets to talk about the first poetry reading they attended. Ishion Hutchinson, the author of Far District, which won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, starts off our series with his first reading, which took place in his hometown of Port Antonio, Jamaica.
I was in the sixth form at Titchfield High School when I had my first public reading. It happened one evening at the Port Antonio Public Library, a two-room concrete building near the market by the harbour. There were two other poets, a Rastafarian woman, fiftyish, who had lived many years in Canada where she had published some chapbooks (it was in her presence that I first heard the word ‘chapbook’; in fact, she was the first published writer I had ever met). The second reader was a man, a primary school teacher I believe, also fiftyish, but he had that look of someone simultaneously older and younger. He had two hardcover notebooks the length and girth of those you find only in courthouses. He balanced them on his lap when seated; they were at his chest when he stood, and at the podium he alternated shifting each from under his armpits. I don’t remember why I was the last to read; however that came about, it was a very bad idea. I was wearing my school uniform of white shirt, purple tie—one of the few occasions I bothered to noose myself—and khaki pants. The Rastafarian woman read first in what I remembered to be a tone of half chanting and half muttering. Her locks rivered down both shoulders, she rocked her body as she read from one of her chapbooks, pushed out from in front of her like something menacing. Strange thing was she didn’t return to her seat (my place was between the two) after she read but left through a side door, all eyes on her. I have never seen her again. The man read second, very rapid and dramatic, poems with beginnings, middles and ends, narratives filled with slapstick characters set in local situations the room could easily identify. He was starring; the audience gave loud applause even before he could finish a poem. I sat there watching him, realizing there was no way I could follow that. He came back to his seat, significantly changed, younger looking, clutching his tomes. I went up to the podium and took a deep breath to settle my nerves and my knees; I closed my eyes and recited in utter darkness to the room. Not for a moment of the roughly ten minutes I stood there did I know what was happening in front of me as I belted out things like, ‘Elysian field,’ ‘nirvana,’ ‘ménage à trios’—all of what I thought then to be the delicious and correct language of poetry. Well, I opened my eyes to silence, everybody statue-faced under the three or four aluminum ceiling fans. Why were they so quiet? Even as I sat back down, the right chair now abysmally empty, they were still silent. My friend who had come along to support me told me they were not quiet but reverent. No doubt, ten years later, if I were ask him the same question, he would tell me the same lie.
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