Today’s guest for our new The First Time column is contributor Anna Ross, who talks about her first poetry reading, which, like in the case of our last guest, was her own. Anna Ross is the author of the chapbook Hawk Weather, winner of the 2008 New Women’s Voices contest by Finishing Line Press.
First Reading (an Impression)
I’d been on a stage before–many times, in fact. I was one of those Suzuki kids with the miniature violin who learned to face front and smile from age 5 onward. And I knew how to use a mic too—this due to the music program at my high school, where we put on a yearly jazz variety program involving more lycra and make-up than I care to admit. So this would be no big deal. Just up the 3 steps and walk quickly–but not too quickly–across to the center–back straight, don’t pull at your clothes. Adjust the podium mic while avoiding breathing into it, and don’t ask if everyone can hear you–they heard the last person, didn’t they? Not a big deal at all–just some contest that I’d entered principally to convince my mother that I wasn’t completely blowing off the last semester of my senior year of high school. It was the first year they’d run this contest, and it hadn’t yet gained much notice, which was probably why I was one of the 4 or 5 students selected. Our prize was to read our work as part of Young Poets Night in the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival on the grounds of the Hill-stead Museum in Farmington, CT.
Memory is mutable. Now that I’m a mother myself, I spend quite a bit of my time wondering what will stick with my kids–the perfectly (or imperfectly) executed birthday cakes; the shiny, foil-wrapped piece of candy from the piñata snatched out from under their nose by another child; the gorgeous final day at the park before school started up (could the sky really have been that clear, with just a slight breeze to break the heat?), when, for once, no one was it or out and everyone shared their snacks? I once inadvertently disappointed my own mother by admitting to her that what I principally remembered about being read my bedtime stories as a child was my father falling asleep midway through. (He was like a wind-up toy gradually losing power: his voice slowing to a whisper, the spaces between the words growing longer and longer until we nudged him–“Daa-ad!”–and he’d jerk awake for the last few pages.) “But I tried to put so much expression into my voice when I read to you,” my mom said, crushed. “I’d even make up the tunes if there were songs in the story.”
So what do I remember about my own first reading? I remember that Galway Kinnell was recruited, and graciously agreed, to have lunch with us winners a week or so before the event to give us tips on reading in front of an audience. (Galway Kinnell! Why was my 17-year-old self not more impressed? Why didn’t she look up from her final semester of high school life long enough to realize her luck and maybe formulate a question or two or make a remark that proved she wasn’t just a slightly animated block of wood sitting there chewing on her sandwich across the table from Galway Kinnell?! Another aspect of memory is that it often breeds regret.) He wisely recommended that we type clean copies of our poems to read from–something I probably wouldn’t have thought to do–and self-deprecatingly remarked that he often printed things in large-point font and double-spaced them just to make things as easy for himself as possible. I wouldn’t need to go that far, I remember thinking to myself.
My fingers twitched as I mounted the stairs that lovely summer evening (just a hint of breeze to break the heat), but I managed to resist tugging at my skirt as I walked across the stage to the podium and turned to face the crowd arrayed on the lawn of the museum. “Um, can everyone hear me?” (Dammit!!). I looked down at my first poem, the page suddenly miles away and its text nearly indecipherable (touché, Kinnell). Not much else remains for me of the evening. One of the poems I read was about picking strawberries. One of the other poets used the image a of rearview mirror in a poem and got a big laugh from the audience–to this day, I aspire, with mainly disappointing results, to insert humor into my work. But if the concrete elements of the reading have (mercifully) faded, the emotions they engendered have not: against all expectations, this most certainly was a big deal. This was not the “Twinkle, twinkle” variations of endless Suzuki recitals or the suburban jazz stylings of high school chorus (with deep apologies to Nat King Cole). This was me, floating out through the speakers to hang in the air above all of those silent listening faces, the gulf between each word and line almost insurmountable, the muscles in my calves clenching and unclenching in their quest not to let my legs buckle, the moment (was it a year, a decade?) of quiet after I’d finished reading and before the audience began to applaud.
Poetry had always been a given to me–something I just did while other kids drew or painted, learned to cook, perfected skateboard tricks, played soccer, joined the school paper or yearbook club, memorized the lyrics to their favorite songs (not that I didn’t do some of those things too). It would be hyperbolic and wildly oversimplifying things to say that poetry became a vocation that evening at the Hill-stead Museum–it was years before I dared to answer that I was a poet when someone asked me what I did. But that reading did teach me something of the abject terror and (one hopes) equivalent bravery of being an artist, of allowing something of oneself to move outward and away from the comfort and protection of the interior and into the evening of other people, who will accept it, ignore it, love, scorn, remember, or forget it.
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