I feared I would be late to the lounge for the 7pm reading, but as usual I was compulsively early. I sat at the end of the bar, not recognizing the friendly couple next to me until they spoke, we all but arriving together, and me knowing them from a reading in my neighborhood a month prior. He, too, was published in the journal we were both there to read for. I ordered a beer, though I wanted nothing except to get down to the work. They ordered food, getting bar food so expensive and modest they may as well had burned a twenty dollar bill, the smoke fulfilling the same hungers.
I followed them upstairs to the performance area, which I hadn’t known existed. A huge wood ballroom with a red carpeted stage and DJ Booth set up, several tea candle lit tall tables. A huge dance floor. A bar in the corner. Two tables set up with merch in the back. On the wall between the stage and bar, a youtube video of commercials from the 1970’s was projected. The room was too big for the people in it. As soon as we entered, the couple I was with was approached by another couple they both knew and that couple invited us to join them. The man from the second couple was introduced to me as a teacher, about to do intro to poetry class for high schoolers. Though listening to him as he talked …scared me for the sake of those kids.
By some miracle I wasn’t self conscious being the odd man out. The unpaired black thumb at the table. How I am usually the unpaired black thumb at any table. I joined them and remained cool. It didn’t take long before the event started, and the man I knew got up to read first. Then a cartoonist was invited onstage to talk about his work while his strips were projected onto the wall. I was next, climbed onto the stage and faced the room.
From the stage, the room was huge, nearly cavernous. I thought of every Backpack MC’s I’d ever seen who’d stalk the stage like a caged animal and demand the audience to come up front and be with her. Support her. Feel her. I wanted to encourage everyone to move towards me since the room felt so distant and distracted. It was quiet, or perhaps I just couldn’t hear anything. I looked best I could through the spotlight and saw a group of friends standing at a tall table. More people were crammed into the distant booths well across the room, almost too far for me to underhand throw a tennis ball. Even the pair of couples I sat with had shrank in the distance to the size of large paperclips. I read three poems. Could anyone hear? Am I doing this right? At the end of one poem there was a huge lag between my voice and any response. They clapped automatically after I stopped talking. I read a poem I thought was funny and it was greeted with stoic silence. This was the reading I’d been most looking forward to, yet it flamed out before anything sparked. I finished, came back to the table with the couples. One man gave me his fist, which I should have met mid-air with my chin. A woman leaned forward and asked: What were the little houses?
The little green houses? I asked, of the poems title. Yeah. Monopoly houses. She leaned back and said, Oh. And in the ensuing silence, I thought: Didn’t I explain that? It isn’t in the poem? Um, damn.
The night went on like that. So little energy so much time. It was as if there were a rushing river between the stage and audience and nothing could be heard over the noise of the moving water. What could I have done better? Differently?
When the event broke for music, the dj climbed the stage and got in position. I passed off my drink ticket, grabbed a complimentary journal and escaped out of there quickly, thanks to Lyft. The driver barely spoke to me. I tipped him well for leaving me alone.
The next reading the next night: I didn’t want to go. I nearly skipped it, but decided, stop being a hater, stop being negative. There could be a huge blessing in the middle of every room you avoid.
I tried to be late, and couldn’t. I burned time in the courtyard of the Asian Art Cultural Center. By the hour of 7, most of the venues were closed. A woman entertained her two toddlers, a couple of friends sat talking. Then I grabbed a bench at fountain stocked with a half dozen coi and tried to breathe. When I finally made it to the gallery, it felt quiet and warm. The audience sat zombied and waited while music played. I couldn’t immediately sit down and though I saw one person I wanted to say hello to, I instead looked at the art on the wall. The host came over and greeted me. I said all of nothing. I considered the art for a long time before the event finally started. Why did the room feel so… Heavy. Warm. Inactive. Narcoleptic. A toddler took over the back rows of the event, trying out non-sense language on a pre-teen girl who’d been cuddling her stuffed Pikachu doll. He touched it lovingly before the event started. The host tried to shake the room slightly, telling them its okay to move and speak as if this were church, though no one did.
I was introduced after a pastor blessed the room, then after a woman who dismissed herself as a poet– yet read beautiful little poems.
The crowd was larger than I expected, 25, 30 people I’d guess. I refused the mic though cameras were set up to record it. I used my voice to fill the space and read three poems.
What did I see? People were with me, with warm listening eyes. One or two actually smiled to the degree I thought they really heard what I was doing. But most, yeah, stared like zombies. I appreciated one woman to my left who listened actively. One bearded brother in back I seemed to mostly read to. He would have been cool talk with afterwards. I thought of the old David Letterman show, how he would keep his theater close to freezing, he once said because when its colder audiences are more active and lively. I went back to my seat, feeling guilty somehow. I regained my seat and the main event started.
It wasn’t late, it wasn’t quite 9, but I was so distracted and nervous, I had to leave. Two women flanked either side of the performance stage, and I knew they were waiting for a signal from the reader to dance. I awaited for the same signal, but ran out of patience, got up as to take another photo of the room, then wandered over to the bathroom.
When I left the bathroom, I left the gallery, its resonating silence reaching even out to the street. The sun had just set. Though my legs felt stiff and achy, I ran away from there pretty quickly, not totally clear as to what was wrong with me. Both readings in their own way were gorgeous ceremonies, if just church quiet. I paced the bus stop, nervous. If I didn’t want to be there, where did I want to be? And with whom?