I Shared My Poetry In Public, And Strangers' Reactions Were The Best Part
I'm a writer, but not a performer — which is why, as I stood in front of at least 60 people at an open mic, I wondered, "Why the heck am I here? Did I really think it would be a good idea to share my love poetry in public?" We all do stupid things in our 20s, but sometimes, what started out as a stupid decision ends up being one of the best. Performing at an open mic didn't change my life in any tangible way afterwards, but it sure did teach me what romantic comedies have been trying to tell me all along: Love makes you do things that you would've never done otherwise.
It was February 2014, and there were only three months left until my college graduation. My boyfriend and I had been dating for just over a year. We met through a leadership program at school and went on a couple of coffee dates, each lasting about four hours long. When he recommended his favorite book (The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje) to me and I actually followed through on my promise to read the whole thing, I knew this was more than just a flirtation. We ended up watching the movie based on The English Patient in the basement of his dorm. Even though he pulled the classic casually-yawning-and-putting-his-arm-on-my-shoulder move and even though we held each other's cold, sweaty hands (pretty much confirming that the feelings were mutual), nothing became of it.
A couple of days later, he left to study abroad in London and was gone for about four months. During that time, we wrote 3,000-word long "letters" to each other on Facebook and went on Skype dates every week. We decided to start dating long-distance, breaking just about every conventional relationship rule in the book. In the end, it was our LDR that inspired me to try my hand at love poetry.
I don't write poetry often, but when I do it's usually when I'm feeling distressed. Half of my poems are about living with a disability in a society that favors able-bodied people. The other half are related to matters of the heart, mainly the pain of missing someone you deeply care about. My boyfriend and I ended up doing the LDR thing at least four more times (most recently, for an entire year). Every time we were apart, I'd write new poems.
Toward the end of winter in 2014, I started to feel like I should actually do something with my love poems. Unlike my angsty, rhyming poems from sixth grade, I felt like my new love poems were actually, well, not terrible. Each love poem took about five hours to write. Three of those hours involved staring outside at the birds and wondering if "a bottomless lake filled with spilled ink" sounded like I was trying too hard.
Around the same time, I'd developed a hobby of attending open mic nights at my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill. The poems were always fresh and tackled sociopolitical issues that were foreign to me at the time. When the poets didn't talk about politics, they spoke of falling in love, healing from abuse, and being an outsider. Open mics were raw and unpretentious and always, for lack of a better word, poetic.
I finally decided that one of my final creative acts as a college student would be participating in an open mic. Before waiting for the chance to talk myself out of it, I signed up for an open mic called "Love Potions" in early February 2014, hosted by the UNC Wordsmiths, a poetry group that was especially well-known for being supportive of poets on campus, both beginners and veterans. The open mic's theme was broad on purpose so that poets could interpret it however they wished, so essentially any poem about love worked.
I was nervous to read my love poem out loud for two reasons: One, my disability makes my breathing sound like Darth Vader (you can imagine what that sounds like through a microphone). Two: My chosen love poem wasn't spoken word — the kind where you spit out word play in the form of rhythmic beats while bouncing energy between your hands — but the kind of poetry that sounds best when it's read slowly.
Before I knew it, though, I found myself standing in front of the packed room, with many more people than I'd expected. There were several familiar faces (including my boyfriend's), which was both encouraging and terrifying at the same time. I had no idea when it would be my turn; I only knew there was a list of poets' names that the emcees would randomly call out during the open mic. Somewhere around the 11th or 12th poet, my name was called.
Every time I go up to speak in front of a crowd, there are about 15 seconds between the time I stand up and the time I reach the microphone when my mind goes totally blank. It's like I forget everything I'm going to say before it all comes rushing back. It reminds me of when I used to play piano as a child and how my fingers would freeze up on the piano keys during concerts, just before they start to fly.
Those reactions struck me the most, even if they were subtler, because it meant I had written something that resonated with specific people.
Fortunately, I brought a little slip of paper with me to the front of the room — just in case. I took the microphone and looked up at all the eyes that were staring back at me. Eye contact is key to interacting with the audience, I reminded myself. I took a deep breath and my heart began to read:
Every poet receives claps at the end because it was a part of fostering that supportive community — so I knew some claps were coming. But what I hadn't expected were the encouraging finger snaps between different stanzas. Those reactions struck me the most, even if they were subtler, because it meant I had written something that resonated with specific people. Someone else, I thought, also makes believe that time is just an illusion. Another person knows what it's like to be in love and wishes that it would last forever.
All I'd wanted was for my love poetry to strike a chord in someone else's heart. It was already enough to read my love poems to my boyfriend, the one who had inspired them, and watch as his sparkling eyes said everything. It was more than I could've hoped for to have strangers clap and snap their fingers one-two-three and tell me at the end of the open mic that they enjoyed my poem. As the claps died down, I made my way back to him, a tiny smile dancing on my lips.