3 Small Lessons in Great Expectations:
First thing: the entrance to Antigone Bookstore was virtually impossible to get to. The city of Tucson is in the midst of installing a light rail system, which runs directly down 4th Avenue, Antigone's thoroughfare. Chaos and bewilderment, to say the least. No parking. Lots of chain link fences. The street itself now a meandering walk-through, jackhammered asphalt, shiny bright unfinished rail lines in shiny bright new asphalt. The cool university bohos took it all in stride. Lisa, who I was reading with, was unable to make the reading at the very last minute. Which I didn't know. Liza, the moderator for the Other Voices series, was unable to be there because she caught a nasty cold from her child. Which I didn't know. I knew nothing until I sauntered into the bookstore, only to be met by Debbie, one of the proprietresses. Her face bore a combined look of I-take-this-all-in-stride-only-some-of-the-time-niceness, and some measure of winced concern.
What Debbie didn't know I knew because I now know, finally, from so much darn mishugina sweet life, is to expect nothing, and raise my aim. I sat calmly in the back with "But the Gentleman to My Right" Daniel Edlow, and reviewed my set list. I was bemused by my own calm. As usual, the gentleman was an exemplar of regal quietude.
And then, as if sprung from the bookshelves themselves, people gathered. The crowd grew into an intimate, energized gathering. It was a special crowd, as there were local Tucson legends present, and above all, people I didn't know, and they were so, so present as I read those poems. And that was the moment when I realized the lesson was, as usual, mine to learn: I did not race my way through a single poem. During "The Birthday Earrings," which begins with the remembrance of an early boyfriend who later in life has a full-scale sex-change operation, which gets somewhat graphic, to the same poem ending as a love anthem to my cat, I read each line, each word, purposefully and with variable weight. The poem which was my first-ever request from an audience member, "Autopsy: Upon the Tamis Table," is fraught with one graphic and distressing, if not fully disturbing, image after another. Additionally, it's well, uh, medical. And I read that poem so the people could see and feel each moment, each item of specificity. "Bad Boy in Post Office" -- I wired that poem to hit all the comedic moments spot-on, instead of a bleeping-miss on the beat after.
The audience nodded in affirmation during whole segments of poems, some rocked gently back and forth in their chairs sharing their own exhibition of relating to something assorted poems were saying; at the humorous pieces, they laughed aloud unselfconsciously. Their gift of comradery with my work allowed me to see with immense clarity what I'd only briefly speculated on in the past, and once or twice happened upon by accident. My voice. The poet's voice is the primary tool in a live presentation. I know this may sound elementary to some of you, but for most poets it is SO hard to get up at the lectern and read their art. The poem on the page awaits a driver. What these musicians I've been hanging out with have been working to get me to see is true. All the vocal devices -- modulation, inflection, pause, intensity -- that's what serves an audience. Without the voice, the poems are designed to be heard aloud in the mind. I cannot believe how much I intrinsically learned how powerful the voice is designed to be.
And the second thing I learned? That "But the Gentleman to My Right" is an honor to know. Julie Andrews said it best for me in "The Sound of Music," when she sang these lines "...Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must've done something good..."
The third thing? Being my own cashbox for the first time was a wild, wonderful trip! To take money for my own work? Exhilarating. Bizarre. Thankful.