I’m an essential worker. I’m a nurse in this time of pandemic. I’m an introvert who relishes in brief periods of extroverted pleasure. I am still suffering the loss of socialization in meaningful ways. This is important to note. I miss the exchanges that cost me or pay me nothing. I miss the human condition.
The other night I was scrolling through a page where poetry is posted. I’m trying to keep up with the world through the eyes of poets because the media makes me question humanity. There was a post for a drop in workshop at the SF Creative Writing Institute which was facilitated by the man who gave me my first ever poetry reading gig, Paul Corman-Roberts.
In 2007, I flew out to SF for a weekend to read in a lineup of amazing women. Kathy Acker’s Dangerous Daughters. Mission District. Fucking San Francisco! On the plane all I could think of was: why did he ask me?
I am not dangerous.
I didn’t know who the hell Kathy Acker was.
I wasn’t pretty.
I wasn’t known.
I was scared out of my mind.
I was a small town girl full of city dreams.
I had traveled but been nowhere.
I didn’t think I was good enough.
I performed at the reading. I remember the first poem only because it was the longest one I’d ever written. Because it was trauma. Because it was painful. I remember trembling, heart racing, and quite sure I’d pass out. It was a large room of strangers who had a steady diet of great poets at their fingertips. This was so much to live up to. After the first few stanzas, I noticed something amazing. The crowd, all of them, leaned forward in their seats. This moment made me understand the power of words. They were listening to my trauma. Not only listening, but hearing it.
That weekend I hung out with some SF legends, drank pitchers of margaritas, went to City Lights, had drinks at Vesuvio, slept on a poet’s couch, and saw the most amazing art exhibits at the MoMA. This trip changed my writing life.
So, when I saw Paul Corman-Roberts was promoting a workshop on poetry, I decided to sign up. It didn’t matter that I had to wake up at five thirty in the morning for a nursing shift or that I was already completely exhausted from the day. It was placed in front of me for a reason. The poet teaching the class was Tongo Eisen-Martin. I had no idea who he was. A poet that my friend knew. Good enough for me.
Tongo was ill with stomach problems that night but he stayed with us for three hours teaching the anatomy of a good line, how to push off writer’s block, and how to read a poem. At the end, he asked us all to find a line of our own work. He asked for a volunteer. The zoom room was silent, so I went first. I didn’t want to, but hell, he was sick and trying to show us something. I was raised with manners.
I read my line without any flourish. I had to read it bare and then he wanted me to give each word its own space. A long space. A painful when-is-this-fucking-going-to-end sort of space. The breathing trick irritated me. Nope. Do it again. Nope. Longer. Do it again. No. Read the next word only when I point at you. No. Stop thinking about the next word. Again.
The entire time, my Fitbit is capturing a heart rate of 130 because it feels like I’m being punished. It feels like he is telling me that I’m not good enough, that I’m wrong, that I’m not teachable. That is my reel. Not his. And this is sort of what he was getting at. We read fast because we are afraid. Because we worry what people will think we look like, sound like, and act like. But why are we there? For the poem. For the words.
I paused and looked away from the screen. I thought about why I chose each word in this poem even though they are only getting the first line. They know nothing about the poem’s full meaning. They have no idea it is a love letter to my child who has struggled with gender identity, anxiety, and depression. They do not know it is a poem about my failure as a parent or how sometimes there are moments when I feel like I didn’t ruin them. They get one line out of context.
I read the line, slow and with each word serving its purpose, and got it right.
I haven’t been able to think about much else since that class. I looked up Tongo after it was over because I couldn’t sleep. My blood pumping and my mind flying circles around the room. Whoa. He’s pretty accomplished and acclaimed. I’m sort of glad I didn’t know anything about him, because then I wouldn’t have gone first, or at all. I would’ve lost a beautiful moment I now get to keep forever. I received a lesson in trust. A lesson in voice. A piece of truth.