Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Are You In?" -- Reading at the Poetry Open Mic for the First Time

I've been speaking or performing in public for as long as I can remember -- from as early as age five and six, singing Monkees songs for my parents' friends on the staircase stoop in our living room, to as recently as two weekends ago, when I M.C.'ed an auction for work at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. I've become the go-to guy for mastering ceremonies in my community, and friends and family know and have experienced my passion for karaoke . . . so reading a few poems at a local open mic should really be no sweat for a guy like me, right?

Wrong. Very wrong, indeed.

For a few months now, I've been attending this poetry open mic at an independent coffee shop here in Orange County, initially in the hopes of meeting chicks, but eventually because I'm inspired by the regulars' creativity. Particularly these past few weeks, I've been itching to graduate from spectator to join the ranks of the readers, but sharing one's poetry is much different than my other pretentious vice, karaoke. First of all, in karaoke, the words aren't yours -- you're merely channeling them, perhaps reinterpreting them, but either way you can't be blamed for any of their faults . . . and in fact karaoke often celebrates that. Secondly, in poetry reading, one has no synthesized instrumental in which to hide; it's just your voice and the very potential stillness of the crowd. No booze, either, but rather coffee, to make any smoldering criticism that much more aware. Finally, unlike M.C.'ing an event that requires specific salutations or agendas, one has complete control over his topical content when reading poetry. Love poems are the easy way out, but politics? Religion? Social commentary? Personal memories? All fair game. The gamble is, will anyone really care about what you have to say?

So, tonight, I dove in. For some reason, I've been listening to Incubus' "Are You In?" a lot lately, so I decided to answer its call. My girlfriend will be disappointed that she wasn't there, but I think she'll understand that I preferred it that way, that this virgin experience remains introspective in its afterglow. I had printed a "set list" a few weeks ago, but I started a new poem just yesterday, so I decided to finish it and include it, as well, like inviting a new friend to an old friend's party. Long story short, the reading went well enough; I was fifth on the list, and the first in a trio of "new readers." The guy that sits in the front and laughs way too loud laughed at the lines I intended for humor or cleverness, and the whole crowd responded well when I began my second poem, the new piece, with this:

"One of the things I've been enjoying about these readings is when a poet tells an introductory story about their poem. So, I'm going to do that for this new piece, called 'Cowboy at Bus Stop.' I wrote it when I saw a cowboy at a bus stop. Here it goes . . ."

Then, when I sat down, a lady behind me whispered, "That was awesome." Good thing, because the kid after me, proudly fresh to California from Indiana, was all about the performance, with an extroverted spoken word style most folks associate with such forums. I might've shrunk in his shadow. Fortunately, everything went well enough for me to want to do it again. My life has been a testament to the fact that, once you taste the spotlight, you'll take it any way you can.

Incidentally, my first "set list" was: "Picking Up the Party," "Cowboy at Bus Stop," and "An Answer for Everything." You can find two of them buried in this blog, and the other will find its way here soon enough. Thanks for listening.

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