On this Reading and That: a Vague Sort of History
Yesterday I read at the Curtis Memorial Library, in Brunswick, as part of the
Longfellow Days celebration (ol’ Henry’s birthday is at the end of the month–the 27th). I’ve done this reading before, a couple of years ago. Each Sunday in February, three readers present before the fire in the aptly named Fireplace Room, in the original building. It’s a great room, though rather small, with wide leather chairs and sofas a person could sink into up to her eyes. The ambience is to die for.
Because the whole shebang is ostensibly in celebration of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an 1825 graduate of Bowdoin College–he predates me by 162 years–readers are asked to start of with a piece of his. I chose “A Summer Day by the Sea” because, after Saturday
night’s snow and ice, I was feeling slightly ironic. Because the readers are lined up by H. R. Coursen, who attended Amherst College, they are also asked to bring along an Emily Dickinson poem as well: don’t ask. (Some guy in the audience did, and didn’t get a real answer at all.) My Emily was the piece I’d lined up to read in classes the next Monday: “It’s All I Have to Bring Today”–a poem with fields and bees and other warm-weather things.
Then it was time for my stuff. I read an old piece, “To My Son, Playing Rec Basketball,” mostly because I’d watched Ben in the freshman Nokomis-MDI game the day before; but it’s a poem that always has an effect–more often than not, after reading it, I find I’ve won the audience over. After that, I can read anything else I feel like: this time I threw out some stuff from either book, hoping to entice people into buying (it worked). But then I read a handful of the pieces from the Elizabeth project (not the cold shower one, though), to see how they would go over: fairly well, though I didn’t get the kind of response I got at the Stone House last month. That was interesting. After the other two readers–I was on the program with Edward Gottfried and Herb Coursen–the floor was opened for questions and comments. A couple of women remarked upon my quest to read a poem a day to all my classes, which pleased me. I had a long conversation with another woman about our parallel lives. I sold a bunch of books and signed them all in purple ink.
On the way home, though, I had a flashback to the first public reading I ever did, some twenty years ago. That, too, was in an historic
building, the Isaac Farrar mansion at the YWCA in Bangor. I had been taking a poetry class at the University of Maine; a young person I’d known when I was teaching at Bangor High was also in the class, which made it kind of fun. The teacher lined Heather Day and me up to read at the mansion’s Wednesday Tea series; we were under the impression that the professor would be along with us, but at the last minute, she bailed, and Heather and I faced an enormous crowd of elderly women in summer frocks and hats, all by ourselves. Scary.
As I recall, Heather’s poetry at the time was somewhat experimental, filled with images of smoking cigarettes and wild animals. Mine was…eh. I don’t remember what I read–I don’t remember much, as I was so terrified. I do remember Heather, in her black skirt, black sweater, black tights, black boots and black hair, reading a poem with the line “I hold the eyes of the wolves in my hand”…and some old woman in the back suddenly pounding an umbrella on her table, so hard the teacups clattered, and shouting “Speak up!” Yeah. Scary. It’s a wonder I didn’t flee right then. It’s a wonder that I’ve kept up with this poetry game still, and that I dare go out and face a crowd at all. Twenty years later, I’m still scarred. I should ask if Heather is. Later, that same elderly woman marched up, armed with that dreadful umbrella, and introduced herself as the former elocution teacher at Bangor High. She then proceeded to reprimand us both for our poor posture, our poor delivery, our poor enunciation. I hope I’ve gotten better since then. I should ask if Heather has.
But at least we got tea out of it. Come to think of it, I got tea out of the Longfellow Days reading, too. I guess some things never change.
My sister asked me, after yesterday’s reading, how I dared stand up in front of people and do this stuff. The answer is that I pretend I’m someone else, and that someone else can be any sort of person I want. It’s part of my fantasy life, to be a person who is not so easily frightened. The other part of the adventure is that I get to be a professional writer: people come to hear me read from my work, then they ask about it, and then they pay me. It’s pretty awesome.