Facing Up to Poetry

What the poets are doin’ – 2013 Poetry Prowl in Red Deer, Alberta. Photo by Grant Ursuliak

There’s an old Jerry Seinfeld joke rooted in a dubious claim that more people fear public speaking than fear death.  Seinfeld’s punch-line (in case anyone out there missed the 1990s) is “to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

It’s probably a better joke than it is a reliable piece of social science but there is a glimmer of truth in it.  Speaking in front of a crowd can be scary.  However, we all know a lot of scary things are also fun.  And while I don’t enjoy thrill-rides like sky-diving or giving high-strung driving lessons to my kids, I do enjoy public speaking.  I might even be good at it.

So I was surprised at myself when I realized late in my 30s that since I’ve started writing professionally, I have never stood up and read my work out loud and in public.  I’ve done some radio work but those productions were easy and chatty — not much like careful, literary writing where even tiny prepositions are weighed against something vague and dynamic called “art.”

Art is another one of those things that’s frightening and beloved at the same time.  It needs to be worked out with reverence and caution and that can make handling it in front an audience an intimidating prospect.  But I don’t think the gravity of art is what kept me from finding venues for reading my work to strangers.

The first obstacle was simply time.  With a larger than average sized family, my mommie gig is a larger than average sized time commitment.  That’s the easy excuse.

The more complicated excuse is full of traumatic memories from junior high school – some adolescent persecution over the fact that the perfectly fine face I inherited from my grandfather didn’t play so well on a young girl.  I’ll spare all of us a recital of the harrowing details.  It’s enough to say that the long-term effects aren’t simple and superficial.  They’re not the kinds of things that can be undone by Dove soap commercials.  And it means that I mistrust my face – the one that has stayed happily hidden on the radio and in print.  My face has sabotaged me before and, even though junior high was long ago, I still look like my grandfather and it makes me wonder if his lady-fied face might distract and disturb my presentation of my art.

Of course, all of that’s nonsense and it’s time for it to end.  And it did, a few weeks ago.  To celebrate poetry month every April, a group of poets from Calgary (the big city two hours south of my neighbourhood) travels through what is invariably terrible weather to spend an afternoon in the small city of Red Deer meeting those of us toiling in obscurity.  The event is known as The Poetry Prowl.

It’s fabulous – far better than I expected it to be.

The other poets at the event were high quality artists.  They were editors and writing instructors as well as artists – educated, experienced, and highly polished.  The chief organizer, Emily Ursuliak, even managed to bring along the city of Calgary’s current poet laureate.  The local contributors — all men except for me — were delightful too.  Performance after performance, I was pleased and surprised and honoured to be included.

What was nearly as impressive as the poetry was the personable warmth of the poets themselves.  Despite the haughty ring to his official title, Calgary’s Poet Laureate, Kris Demeanor, backed up some of his work by playing the pink acoustic guitar strapped around his back with a lace from a hockey skate.

The more educated and decorated the poets were the more humble and decent they seemed to be.  The man who’d written articles on “the philosophy of death” for academic anthologies gave me his program when he saw I didn’t have one and apologized that his bio in it sounded so much like a CV.  I pointed out that mine sounded like one too only it wasn’t nearly as impressive.  And my bio wasn’t just a CV it was also a plug for my upcoming novel.  So, yeah – there’s nothing to apologize for here.

Since re-entering arty society, I have no proof that the cold-hearted, self-involved, hipster jerk stereotype actually exists in real life.  So far, everyone I’ve met is lovely and collegial.

And by the time I was introduced and called to the microphone to read my work – the small collection of short poems I’d written during the Dark Ages of my artistic career when “creativity” was more literal than literary and meant blood and amniotic fluid and breastmilk – I wasn’t afraid to match my work to my face anymore.  I owned my physical appearance.  I joked about it, referred to myself with all irony as a “trophy wife” and let everyone laugh with me.

It had to happen.  I’m glad it did.  I can now say I’ve put all of myself into my work – even my face.

4 thoughts on “Facing Up to Poetry

  1. Lovely post! I can relate to the indelible scars left by the taunts of youth – and also how raggedly naked one feels when sharing one’s art face-to-face. It’s a beautiful, affirming process though, 99% of the time. In my experience readings and conferences and artsy gigs are more a giant love fest than anything. We’re there because we all love the word, the power of story, and delight in how our colleagues dance with words. It was such fun to meet you on The Prowl!

    • I managed to hold it together — barely. I thought Kris Demeanor was charming. His poem about eavesdropping on a lady talking about the new house she was having built was squeamishly familiar.

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