I promised that I would provide more details about my poetry reading once I was done writing about Otakon, so I'm finally ready to do so.
The reading took place last Thursday evening at Milkboy Acoustic Cafe. It was organized by Mad Poets Society, who had published a poem by me in a recent issue. They run a poetry reading series where two featured poets each read for about 20 minutes, followed by an open mic. This is pretty brilliant programming, if you ask me, because it guarantees an audience, as people are more likely to show up if they know there's a chance to read their own work.
It had been a long time since I'd given a poetry reading, although I'd read a poem or two at occasional events and even read a few poems a couple years ago at Philcon, urged on by science fiction and fantasy writer Stephanie Burke.
Poet Camille Norvaisas reads
Even though I was a little rusty, I was familiar with the process, so I sat down that afternoon and went through my poetry to determine a rundown. First, I paged through Picturebook of the Martyrs, which was published back in 2003. I marked pages with purple Post-It notes for the poems I definitely wanted to read and pink Post-It notes for the ones I'd read if I could work them in.
Then I went through my most recent poetry manuscript, for a book that will be called As Truth to Water, and did the same thing. Finally, I went through an additional stack of poems to see if there was anything else I wanted to add.
Once I had all the potential poems marked, I worked out an order, starting with a couple poems that could almost be an ars poetica, poems that introduce my thoughts on poetry and writing, "The Obsessed Writers' Group" and "Contemplating Postmodernism, Language Poetry and the Meaning of Life in a 10-Minute Class Exercise." Then, since I wanted to wow my listeners, I moved into some poems that make good use of multi-textured sound, one of of which, "Banana Wine," I'd previously published in Wild Violet.
I followed that with a couple unusual love poems, "Spring in the Lab" and "A Cyberpunk Speaks of Love," both of which I thought would appeal to some friends and fellow geeks who would be in the audience.
Then I moved into poems from Picturebook of the Martyrs, following that with a couple recent poems in a similar vein, and ending with some lighter poems, including a couple dog poems and finally, one of my personal favorites, which I knew would be a crowd pleaser: "Do Something Ultimate!" That poem was published a couple years ago in the Texas Poetry Journal, which unfortunately no longer exists. It will also appear in As Truth to Water.
Do Something Ultimate!
Till your eyeballs throb
and the floorboards spin
and the diodes chafe
and neighbors break in
Till you quiver and shake
like a poisoned rat
(The kingdom of heaven
is exactly that)
Do not do surpass
break the safety glass
Snub a crucifix
dip your comb in brass
Wave your sword at
the frumious bandersnatch
(The kingdom of heaven
is exactly that)
Do it now! Make it wild!
Snatch a crocodile's child!
Eat a honeybee!
Be frivolous, spurious, unfit and furious
illustrate bikers, make altar boys curious
Be immortal, immediate, immense and expedient
bake a Boston cream pie with the wrong ingredients
And when you're exhausted
with mud in your hair
and you're frizzy and frowzy
and gulping for air
then find a good pastor
and tip him your hat
for the kingdom of heaven
is exactly that!
I worked out an outfit to wear. I wanted something that looked professional but also looked a little artsy. So I paired a paisley turquoise faux-wrap shirt and white cami with my sleeveless jacket and a white A-line skirt that featured a lot of sequins and beadwork, which I reasoned would look good on-stage. For shoes, I wore lime high-heeled sandals.
The last task was to put together my bag for the evening. I put in my folder of poems, some copies of Picturebook of the Martyrs, in case anyone wanted to buy it, and a notebook to collect names for my mailing list.
When the time arrived, I made my way to Gullifties, where I would be meeting The Browncoat, The Science Writer, and possibly some other friends, along with The Gryphon. This was all The Browncoat's idea; she wanted to buy me a drink and help me relax before the reading. She'd put out word to a few friends and arranged the place for us to meet. I really appreciated the effort, because weekday nights are a terrible time for most people, and many friends responded to say they wouldn't be able to make it. It's always good to see at least a couple friendly faces.
I figured that, if nobody showed, I'd at least have a few people in the audience for me, plus the event host and the other poet. Right?
The Mapquest directions were needlessly complicated, winding me through little roads in order to take the most direct way, rather than the easiest approach, which involved only two turns. Despite driving past the restaurant the first time due a lack of signage, I reached my destination. Inside, I immediately saw The Science Writer, whom I recognized from Philcon and numerous parties, including a recent barbecue.
He gave me a hug and told me that The Browncoat was also there and they were expecting one or two others. The Filmmaker arrived then and hugged me, as well. Incidentally, two of his short films will be screened this Sunday at Pi-Con in West Springfield, Massachusetts. I was surprised to see him, because I wasn't sure anyone was coming other than The Browncoat and The Science Writer. The Filmmaker told me that, while he had work to do and couldn't stay for the reading, he wanted to attend the dinner to express his support. Again, I was touched. It's good to have people in your court.
I was still trying to save my voice, since I was recovering from the hoarseness that I typically experience after Otakon, partly from vocal strain, and partly, a mild cold from being exposed to germs from all over the world. For one and a half days, I had spoken only sparingly, and thus, my voice was nearly recovered.
The hostess seated us at a large table on the upper level, and I called The Gryphon to find out when he might arrive. He said he had just gotten off the train and was about a 10-minute walk away but urged us to order anyway, so I wouldn't be late. We ordered drinks and appetizers. I had a glass of Pinot Grigio, and we put in an order to cheese fries to share. For my entree, I ordered the Green Goddess Tuna, which is topped with an avocado puree, served with white rice and asparagus.
The Gryphon arrived while we were enjoying our drinks and sharing our appetizer, so the timing wasn't actually too bad. The tuna was tender and delicious, and it was actually a reasonable amount of food, so I ate nearly all of it, leaving some of the rice, since I got full.
The dinner conversation helped put my mind at ease, as we spoke about a number of different topics including, as I remember, how Google conducts image searches. Seeing that I was a bit distracted, The Browncoat reassured me I'd do well. I felt that I would, but they say if you're not a little bit nervous, there's something wrong with you.
After dinner, The Filmmaker wished me luck and headed for home, while the rest of us drove to Milkboy Acoustic Cafe. It's a good thing we were following The Browncoat, because otherwise I might have gone to the wrong Milkboy. I had been to an event organized by Philadelphia Stories last spring, held at the Milkboy in Ardmore. As it turns out, this was the correct place. There was a message on the chalkboard to that effect. And, walking in, we saw the event host and the other poet. How did we recognize them? Well, funny you should ask.
By a strange coincidence, they had met for dinner at the same time our group had, in the same restaurant. We never would have known this, except that I mentioned to the hostess that we were expecting a couple other people. She said, "Are you with the poetry reading?" And she pointed to someone in the hallway I didn't recognize, who turned out to be the other poet, Camille Norvaisas. Later, we saw the event host joining her.
The coffee house was small, but there was still room to sit. We put two tables together so we could seat four people and sat fairly near the front. This was actually a good size for the event. The last thing you want is a large space without very many people in it.
The Gryphon got me some coffee while I wrestled one last time with my nerves. The event host, who was named Joseph, told me I'd be reading second. I don't know how he made that determination. Perhaps the other poet had wanted to go first. At any rate, it was fine with me.
While it was a little hard to concentrate, I listened as attentively as I could to Camille's poetry. Milkboy has a very small stage by the front window, where bright neon signs provide an interesting backdrop, as well as passersby, who glance in, perhaps wondering what's happening.
I found it ironic that somehow, without ever having met, Camille and I had hit on exactly the same color combination in our outfits: an aqua patterned shirt and a white skirt. Camille read a lot of personal, reflective poems, some of which were about her grandmother, for whom she cared in the last years of her life.
Then Joseph read my introduction, and it was my turn. I took my coffee up, just in case my throat got dry. I'd been expecting a podium, but I managed to balance all my poems in my folder, along with the book. I didn't even drop them on the stage, so I guess I wasn't all that nervous after all.
After reading the first couple of poems, I apologized for my voice, explaining that I'd been at a convention for Japanese animation, anime. I asked for a show of hands for people who knew what that was. A couple people raised their hands besides our friends. Fortunately, the microphone made up for my voice difficulties, and my voice didn't give out on me, as I'd feared.
The reading went better than I could have anticipated. You can see in an audience's eyes how they're receiving you. During the first couple of poems, they were still trying to figure out where I was coming from, although they really enjoyed the playfulness of "Contemplating Postmodernism," which makes abundant use of alliteration, assonance, slant rhyme and other devices. The central theme of that poem, stated somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is that it doesn't matter what you write about, as long as it sounds good.
As the reading progressed, I could tell my strategy had worked. The lighter poems drew them in, got them relaxed, so they were more attentive for the serious poems. I could tell, as I looked at the 20 or so faces in the audience, that they were hanging on every word. During the funny poems, I got laughter and a spattering of applause. It was a good feeling.
When I finally ended, I was greeted by a round of enthusiastic applause, which I foolishly interrupted by mentioning that I had a mailing list at the table, as well as books for sale. I should have mentioned that earlier, but like I said, I'm a little rusty.
Joseph shook my hand and told me I'd done a really good job. To the first open mic reader, he apologized, saying he was sorry he'd have to follow me. I also got compliments from The Browncoat and The Science Writer.
As I listened to the rest of the poems, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. When the whole event was over, I was greeted at the table by several people who wanted to tell me how much they'd liked my poetry. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me to nudge them to sign my mailing list. Next time I do something like this, I'd try to get The Gryphon to make those suggestions for me, so that I don't have to remember to mention it.
I would say, over all, it went very well. Hopefully, some of these people will remember me and look for my future work. I also made two sales: to The Browncoat and The Science Writer. As I signed them, I joked that maybe some day literary historians would be interested in what I'd written to them. To The Browncoat, I wrote, "Thanks for the support. You can be my manager." She tells me that she's had similar offers from other writers, because she's a good promoter and, on top of that, is also a lawyer.
We all hung around afterwards, talking. The Science Writer gave me a big compliment. He said I was one of the few poets he's heard who actually knows how to read their work. I think it's just like anything else with writing: you don't write good poetry unless you read good poetry. And you don't understand how to read your poems out loud unless you've heard someone like Maya Angelou do it or other skilled readers. From them, you can learn how to draw an audience in, how to place emphasis where it's necessary, how to enunciate and pace your reading. Of course, it also helps to have several years of college radio experience.
We were actually the last people in the coffee shop, and they eventually announced they were closing the doors, so we had to leave. I couldn't have asked for a better reintroduction of myself to the world as a poet.
The nerves go away as soon as you step on-stage.