Thursday, March 04, 2021

voice and the spaces between, part two

As an addendum to my previous post on reading poems aloud, tonight, I stumbled upon an old recording from a Chicago Poetry Center reading in 2004 and was thinking how strange it is to encounter your older self.  I feel this much with writing--poems and blog posts and old drafts of things, but much stranger audio-wise. I kept thinking how my voice sounds different, but maybe it's all in my head.  The girl (and I say girl, though she was already 30) who showed up in the swanky SAIC ballroom clutching her handmade copies of Blood Mary seems very far away.  I was there becuase I had somehow won their juried reading the previous spring. You could have knocked me over with a feather when not only did people want to buy copies, but they wanted, in one of my first writerly moments, to actually sign them. 

I was not entirely new to readings at that point, but it may have been one of the first times I read for a reasonably largish audience that was not part of an open-mic oriented event. My first reading ever was at the Evanston Public Library in 2002.  (My first try at the Juried Reading had garnered me 3rd Place, so all the finalists read in Evanston and the CPL's Poetry Fest. )  I was terrified, because outside of having read my work aloud in undergrad workshops, I was completely a novice. Other things, sure. Dramatic readings in theatre classes in high school and college, story hours at my first job in the elementary school library. But I had never read my own work for a real audience.  Taking the el train north, I nearly panicked and bailed, though I'd brought my sister for moral support. I still remember the anxiety of going somewhere new, which is my brain chemistry curse, was now combined with the anxiety of having to get up in front of people and read.  It was hard, but the second one was easier. A year or so later, I read in the Myopic Book's basement to two people (one of whom was the host.) In the months after, there were open mic events and poetry festivals, and while usually just a couple poems, they helped me be more confident.  I was also in a writing program, which after the vivisection of the workshop, I really grew to love reading to less prickly audiences who seemed to really like my poems instead of tearing them apart. By the time the reading at the Poetry Center happened, I was just getting comfortable and actually I sound pretty good..only a couple of stumbles, not too fast or poet-voicey. 

Also, what stands out is the poems themselves, which are mostly pieces that eventually went into what became the fever almanac, which I was in the process of compiling during those years of 1st book fever. A year or so later, Ghost Road would accept the manuscript.  A year after that, they would publish it. The poems vary slightly from what was included in the book..bits swapped and cut out.  I think there is a title on one of the poems that actually was swapped to another poem. If I remember correctly, most were pretty freshly written that summer and fall. 

It's strange to confront that 30 year old version of me, who in many ways was just starting out.  I'd been writing poetry since I was a teenager, but this was the point where the efforts toward a career in it began to bear fruit. While I'd gotten my first publication five years earlier, I'd spent the intervening time beginning to publish regularly in web journals, putting together those first chapbooks, and applying to the MFA. 2004 and the Poetry Center prize was the first big sort of recognition, the first big "yes" that felt like I wasn't just deluding myself that I was a decent writer. It seemed tenuous in those days--the demands of real life and day jobs and my first forays outside academia. Many times I nearly abandoned it even as I clung to it. 

That 30 year old hadn't had her heart really, really,  broken yet.  Hadn't suffered the sort of losses that come with getting older. And it's stranger still to think of the value of those things to one's writing at the same time.   She hadn't been worn down to a stone, but still had some rough edges. She also hadn't become quite so dissilusioned with the poetry biz status quo and was quite a bit more the optimist than the realist she finds herself now. At the same time, in some ways, it might have well happened last week. Last month. Last year.  I don't know if pandemic time is especially disorienting, but maybe it's always like this. 

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