Working With White Noise or What It Means As A Performer To Have Social Anxiety
My friend and I met as if on cue at the convergence of the taco trucks. He attends Fridays at the Oakland Museum regularly on his way home from work and agreed to meet when I told him about the poetry reading. We made a brief lap through the modest community of neighbors here at evening’s picnic, on the city’s first cool Friday night. I told him finally, “I went through therapy recently. And the doctor pointed out to me I have social anxiety.”
My unsurprised friend: Well, yeah. I see that totally. You don’t mingle. He said. His mention of the word mingle chilled me. I barely looked up at the tiered residents of Oakland munching on international food while hip hop played from the DJ booth and people danced with children.
He wanted to eat and I couldn’t. I wanted to read first and get it over with. We walked around again but nothing screamed out to either of us. The ice cream taco truck was doing zero business and looked dark. Then, we ran into Tongo, the main feature for the night, walking up the street carrying books to sell: “Have you heard the good news,” he said. My friend knew his name very well by then and was there to hear him do his thing live. We all walked towards the amphitheater, a small stage loaded with a drum set and mics. We greeted the producer for the evening and met the third poet, a woman neither of us knew who was performing with us. She came armed with a cadre of friends who stood in a circle across the courtyard.
It relived me to be asked to go first. Being first is a kind of thankless warm up — a luring of the audience away from the music and conversation and asking them for a different mindset. Didn’t the producer say this was a kind of experiment, a first time of using poetry here and doing so in association with a forthcoming exhibit? Most audiences click in with attention by the second speaker. I mounted the stage.
The exhibit we were loosely connected to was Question Bridge, and I thought to bring poems written from meaningful, personal questions and their hard answers. No matter what, the 10 minute collection of poems I chose, were the only poems that felt right and I wanted to do them. They were poems about and around my father. They were personal.
And reading them in that space made me feel unexpectedly raw and exposed. At first, the concrete courtyard at the foot of the stage was busy with dancers, mostly guardians and their children. When the music stopped, some of the children remained, looking confused from the sudden stop or to just stare at the activity and people. Somehow, I couldn’t look past the kids into the audience, tiered stairs full of people sitting, eating, dating, and — staring at me. I felt as if I were interrupting something. I felt self-conscious as all the people here had been asked to cease what they were doing and listen.
And what did I give them? A poem about racism and rights. Conversations about my dead father… Whom I suddenly began missing what with the children at my feet and women with babies tethered to their backs. Mid-reading, I fell into a deep, sticky loneliness. I looked up at the woman who was reading second, standing with her friends, watching me solemnly. I gazed quickly up at the audience, mostly seeing bright white containers. I relaxed and read the poems. Get to the end, I thought.
But from stage I felt nervous as if I’d resurrected my father through language. I felt awkward: I shouldn’t have read such serious work while people are here having a good time. I was embarrassed as if I’d just opened my shirt and flashed my heart, to blank faces staring back. I ended, climbed down from the stage, and left quickly. The friend I met, I ghosted, leaving him behind somewhere in the audience. I couldn’t say goodbye. He was going to stay for the remainder of the show, I couldn’t. I didn’t want people to see me. I wanted to turn invisible. I disappeared, climbing the backstairs and exiting at the farthest end of the museum towards the last taco trucks. I kept my head down and almost got away until strangers stopped me. Three people, including a woman swaddling a baby. They asked if I was just on stage. I said yes, guiltily. They thanked me, I acknowledged the baby, smiled, then ran to the bus stop.
The previous public reading before this, in similar circumstances, was one I looked forward to. White Noise – Black Masks was an exhibit at the UC Berkeley Museum, curated by a longtime friend, Marvin White. Five poets read standing in a circle of speakers on the floor emitting a white noise that, during the reading, gets progressively louder drowning out or erasing the poets work and voice while asking the audience to grasp meaning for themselves.
The weirdness of that reading — the tension between artist, voice, and audience, was invigorating in ways I’m still processing. A new intimacy emerged with my effort to be heard over the white noise and the audiences efforts to hear me or let it go. One poet ended the evening in a way whose memory I will take to my grave. How she demanded to be heard! –physically– while tugging emotionally at the audience… During the Question/Answer segment, the white noise continued so questions were partially obliterated and their answers may not have matched.
The event made me consider all my years as a poet: Where was my voice in the midst of the white noise in my head and what was it trying to tell me? It was okay for me to lose my voice in context of that night, in practice of art. It was a gamesman-like challenge. There is always with poetry a desire to cut through the noise in the minds of the audience, or reader. Poetry aims to gently, lovingly, offer a unique perspective or understanding of life and experience. It is the flower that sprouts from the ground at a crime scene. It aims to underscore what beauty gets lost in our regular failure to pay attention to the world.
But what of my own personal noise and issues? In sharing poetry there is a giving of the artists self that applause does not always compensate or satiate. For whatever I once expected, I was fine with just being heard. It was good therapy for me to be present and observant and to write through my experience, however dispiriting it was. But there remains the hole or wound from which any work was originally excavated. The trick is to not confuse your self with the wound or not comfortably identify as a victim. Victimhood is seductive and deadly. You are not your story but rather the vessel through which stories fall and are collected. Draw from those stories to create work and then ruthlessly let them go or risk being drowned by the weight.
(SPOILER: I have not let everything go. I still carry residual weight. I flounder, splash water, but am still afloat)
Thus all I want is to be heard. So much of my life feels meaningless– having no family, no place to call home or have my emotional battery recharged. There is no place, beyond my quiet apartment, where I feel safe and wanted. I emerge to share poems with the world and all I want is to be held in attention. If no arms are available, then I wish to be held with eyes and hearts. Its difficult in some instances to truly feel connection with a room– the distraction of a noisy bar, the competition of the outdoors. My body stands reading the work, while my mind wishes I were at a table with a lover, happily ignoring the background noise and navel gazing cries of poets.
But its not the rooms responsibility to connect, its mine. Its my responsibility to befriend the entire space, even and especially as every square inch of my body wants to run and hide. That conflict, that push pull, is agony. It feels counter-intuitive to push through fear and find love. Love is all I’ve wanted and fear is all I’ve had.
For example, Saturday night, after ghosting the museum, I was to appear on Pirate Radio in San Francisco with a couple of other artists. But there was a huge misunderstanding I won’t untangle here. Just to say: the event was cancelled and the main feature invited us to the bar across the street and consolation beers since we were kicked out of the radio station due to scheduling problems.
I sat in a circle of a dozen people in a comfortable bar. After apologies, drinks were passed out, mostly beers and tonic waters. And we settled into a sharing circle, gathering closer to hear over the room noise, the echoing conversations and jukebox.
The people, mostly women, were beautiful, kind, warm, accepting. I was desperate to be out of there. Since I didn’t have to ‘work’, behind the anonymity of the mic, then I felt like I was wasting my time. I was in a hurry to get back to my aloneness. I didn’t want to read poems in the bar, even as it offered a guaranteed audience that wanted them. I wasn’t very sociable, either. I could barely hear and physically seemed to dissolve into the couch. This should have been the entire point of being a poet– to stop everything and present my heart on a table in a bar to be examined by strangers. To be in a bar! To be in supportive community! To make a reading happen when another was cancelled! I should have felt love and encouragement, I should have felt that this audience of young women is the entire purpose of the evening, a gift offered by the universe. The radio was never meant to play a part of the evening– THIS was the evening, THIS was the gathering to be part of.
But I felt so alone in that circle. So uncomfortable and elsewhere. Despite the crowd, there was just me and the explosive white noise in my head, drowning out my own prayers for change, for love, for acceptance, for a different paradigm. A white noise so loud, I couldn’t hear or see what surrounded me and smiled: Love bursts in great abundance all around. Once you stop gazing at your pain, you can see it.