This week, I travel to Amherst, MA, to read from my new book in the town where it was published. On my walk this overcast morning with Bella, my border collie, I plan what to read, how to introduce things. A fox darts across a long driveway. A droplight still burns inside a carved giant pumpkin. Overnight, the leaves have fallen so everything underfoot is orange and gold beneath a gray sky. The flea market enjoys its final weekend. Bella and I detour through it, the dog sniffing at every post, me on the lookout for some cast-off I had no idea I needed.
I decide to read a couple poems, a section from a story I feel particularly indebted to. My husband has asked me before if I get nervous to read (Anticipating an acceptance speech he had to give at his high school’s athletic hall of fame dinner, he once lost his voice. Once the speech was over, his voice returned full force.). But I don’t get nervous. Instead, I’m excited to make the trip, especially excited to meet the people who brought my book to life.
Maybe I was nervous the first time I read. I try to remember when that was. Meanwhile, Bella greets a lab puppy beside a collection of empty frames and chairs that need re-caning. I think for a moment that it might have been with a lovely group of poets I worked with for a few years when my girls were babies.
But then, I remember: I was nervous all right. The first time I read my work in public was at Boston University. No excitement there: just mind-numbing anxiety and a healthy dose of dread.
Our graduate student reading took place in some dark academic room. We had been given a time limit that I knew would be impossible for me to fill, unless I wanted (once again in front of this not-so-forgiving crowd) to read crap. Let’s summarize by saying: It had not been a good year. But my mother was excited to hear me, and she would’ve been proud if I’d stood up and read recipes for chicken pot pie. Also, this requirement was nowhere near as terrifying as some of the other things we’d had to do to fulfill Derek Walcott’s assignments. So, despite a throat nearly closed shut with terror, I read two poems, then sat down and clasped my trembling hands in my lap.
When the reading was over and we stood in a narrow hallway for the obligatory social hour with juice and store bought cookies, George Starbuck told me I’d won the award for the briefest presentation. This was the kind of feedback I was used to receiving from George. Non-committal and not particularly helpful. Derek Walcott praised a revision I’d made (Yes, I said praised.). This opened up my breathing passages a little.
However, I had no choice but to introduce him to my mother. He told her she had a very conscientious daughter. My mother said she already knew that. Then she added, “So you’re Derek. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Um. Okay, so I thought the reading would have been the most awkward part of the evening, but you never know when my mom is around.
Somehow, I escorted her safely away from the gathering and we left shortly afterward, me relieved to be leaving the literary scene in the rearview, my mother insisting I’d exaggerated my accounts of Derek Walcott. “He didn’t seem very scary at all,” she said.
I didn’t think about reading again in public. Instead, I was relieved to escort my mother onto the Green Line and think I’d never again venture into that mythical room 222 where I had certainly not done service to Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and its other illustrious occupants.
Is it just a coincidence that the memory has stayed buried for three decades, only to return on Halloween? But it’s good to be haunted by certain reminders. I’d like to say I’m not that person anymore. I can fill the time allotted to me. I don’t cringe with mortification at what I am forced to utter aloud. But there’s no such thing as a completely shed skin for this particular individual of the species. A scale or two of the old stuff always hangs around.
I write, in part, to keep those insecurities at bay.
As for my mother, she won’t be making the trip to Amherst. But her lessons always accompany me: when you have the opportunity to meet people who also love what you love — stories, poems, the power of language — embrace it. And if the most intimidating person you’ve ever met in your life, star of your anxiety dreams, happens to be in the audience, smoking like a fiend? Just wave the smoke away and introduce yourself.