Following a successful reading with EC Poetry & Prose at the Write Women’s Book Fest this past weekend, I feel like sharing my past year’s poetry journey with you all. It’s kinda long, so here’s your warning to bail!
Last August, I was preparing for a September Literature Night and open mic; the second annual that our Frederick chapter of Maryland Writers’ Association was hosting at Sky Stage in Frederick. The year prior, I had read two children’s book manuscripts. Although the public could (and did) wander into the venue, it was primarily members of our chapter in attendance.
I had mixed feelings while preparing to read at that first event, in 2019, the first time I would be reading my writing in public. On the one hand, it was a safe space with fellow writers; on the other hand, that meant I would have to see them again. What if I stank??!!
It went fine—I was nervous, but I read two children’s manuscripts; nothing amazing, nothing embarrassing. I was planning to do the same for the 2020 event: read a children’s manuscript. But then I wondered if I had it in me to write a poem.
I tried to write a poem, but at first I wasn’t inspired—by topics, or by attempts to follow traditional forms or adhere to traditional structured rhyme.
Then I started a poem about something I’d been blogging and posting about for years: Racism.
And I went with wordplay and linguistic elements outside of just rhyme—alliteration, assonance, etc. I gave myself more freedom with rhythm and just trusted my linguistic intuition.
The words flowed pretty easily because I had already been writing them for a decade+. But now I was merging my social justice blogging and advocacy with my Linguistics background (this might be the most worthy thing I do with that Master’s degree), then adding a little Philly attitude, to produce my brand of spoken word poetry.
And so Suburban Lies came to be.
I was soooooo nervous to read it in front of an audience—even our close-knit, supportive writing group. While my “performance” was timid, the material was well-received and I received encouraging words and affirmation following the readings. The most encouraging voice came from Rod Deacey, a local beat poet who is embedded in the Frederick Arts community and very active in our chapter.
After that night, I decided that I would follow my friends’ nudges to attend the First Fridays virtual mic that my friend Patti Ross, aka Little Pi, had founded and was hosting monthly, for Maryland Writers’ Association.
I revised and revised Suburban Lies and read it at open mic. Again, it was well-received, in the gallery and the chat window. At the end, Little Pi said, “We have birthed a poet.”
Those words are glued to my soul, and they have really motivated me to push forward with poetry. (I cannot stress to experienced poets, how encouraging your words are to fledgling poets.)
Soon after, I submitted Suburban Lies to Pen-in-Hand, the literary journal of Maryland Writers’ Association, and it was accepted and published in January of this year. That was incredibly exciting!
I continued to write, be it a full poem, a stanza, a line, or simply a word that I knew could turn into a poem someday. I played with former blog posts, crafting spoken word poetry from them.
Then came the Insurrection.
Again, the topic was something I had been writing about for for years: Trump. So those words also flowed freely, producing Capitol Offense. I read the draft at the next virtual open mic. It, too, was well-received.
I read it to my husband. His reaction? “It sounds like someone else wrote it.”
I was like DUDE WTF DOES THAT MEAN?
But really, I got it: up until this point, it was only lyrical children’s manuscripts that I would read aloud to him. He wasn’t used to harder-hitting poetry coming out of my mouth (though it’s not like he’s never heard me rant—it’s not a stretch!).
I revised Capitol Offense and eventually submitted it to several literary journals. It was rejected by a few. One journal, however, recently wrote to say it is still under consideration.
Meanwhile, I had scheduled Little Pi to present to the Frederick Chapter of MWA about slam poetry. She did two sessions. I loved the variety of video clips she had chosen for her presentations! I soaked it all in and later googled more slam poetry to get a feel for the rhythms.
Maryland Writers’ Association was sponsoring poets to submit one-minute video clips to the Berks County, PA Bardfest 2021, being held (by Berks Bards) virtually this year
The clips would be aired on Berks County Television. I didn’t have anything as short as one minute, so I had to create a new poem. I turned to an essay I’d written back in 1994, with basically a #metoo theme. And so The Sauerkraut Song came to be. It was accepted for submission to Bardfest and aired along with poems by Little Pi and Rod–what great company to be in!
This spring, I wrote a poem about my grandfather (it felt a lot like a eulogy, so it was unnervingly weird to write since he’s going strong). I read it at the next virtual open mic and got a really nice note in the chat from another poet I respect, about what a beautiful portrait piece it was.
On a whim, I submitted the poem to Pen-in-Hand, which was right at its deadline for the summer issue. I did not expect it would be accepted. I didn’t think anyone would be in the least bit interested in a poem about my grandfather.
I got an immediate reply that it would be accepted with revisions. (I will note here that there was no guidance, just “revisions”…Ack!) The next day, the editor emailed again, nudging me for the revisions, saying it was very good. I was like omg I’m working on it!! (while also being like omg I can’t believe he likes this???).
I submitted the revision and he again said what a great piece it was. I think he liked it even more than I did lol. I’m still learning how much people identify with the underlying themes of someone else’s personal experience. The poem, Ninety-Six, was published as Poppop in the July issue of Pen-in-Hand.
It turned out that spoken word poetry is my bailiwick. To be honest, I don’t love seeing it in print. It doesn’t read on paper the way it sounds coming from my mouth. When my husband read the poem about Poppop to himself, he wasn’t hearing it, but when I read it aloud at his request, he was able to feel the flow and appreciate it. I’m still trying to learn how to best express free form on paper.
In September, Little Pi invited me to the inaugural session of a new open mic she was hosting for the Baltimore County Arts Guild.
During the month prior, I had been re-shaping an essay I’d written back in 2005, about time I’d spent in Iraq as an interpreter. I was trying to funnel it into reasonable-length spoken word without losing the most important elements. I decided I’d try out my rough draft at the open mic.
I was more nervous this time. Up until this point, I had only read in front of people I knew, or other MWA members, in spaces I was comfortable with. This was OTHER PEOPLE. People I didn’t know!
To add to my nervousness, I was carpooling with my friend Elayne, an experienced performance poet whose work about the slaves of Catoctin Furnace I had been awed by.
I didn’t know how I would react to reading my Iraq poem, entitled The List, so I started with Capitol Offense. This reading being live, it was the first time I was hearing the snaps and mmhmms and other audible feedback with my own ears throughout the reading. It was SO encouraging and motivating and humbling. It fills you with energy!
I moved on to The List, my first time reading it in front of anyone at all! I was nervous.as.hell. It didn’t help that the poet Analysis was in the room. Thank God I was preceding him, not following him!
My hands were probably shaking and I was certainly lacking confidence, but the poem was well received, and damnit, I’d gotten through it! (And I’d done so without crying, which was my fear, as that’s a difficult period of my life to think about.)
Later, Little Pi messaged to say she really liked it, how I wove womanhood into it. I felt seen.
I continued revising the poem.
Last month, the Frederick chapter of MWA held our third annual Literature Night and open mic. I read Capitol Offense and The List.
I was definitely improving with the delivery and nerves! I have a long way to go, but each time I read, I get better (which is how it’s supposed to happen, I suppose). I again got great, encouraging feedback from some of my fellow poets.
Moving on to October—this past Saturday.
Little Pi had invited me to join her and other friends of EC Poetry & Prose, including Terri Simon; Julie Winters; Laura Shovan (who recently, along with Saadia Faruqi, released the middle grade novel “A Place at the Table“); Patrice (Trice) Smith; Janet Walenta, Diane Wilbon Parks, and others, at the Write Women Book Fest.
This was EVEN SCARIER because it was the GENERAL PUBLIC! And it wasn’t an open mic–we were scheduled there to read as a group.
While introducing me, Little Pi noted that I have taken a break from children’s books to do protest poetry. I hadn’t heard the term “protest poetry” before. I love it. Patti has been such an influence in how I define my poetry, and for that I am so, so grateful.
I read Suburban Lies, followed by Capitol Offense, and then The Sauerkraut Song. When I finished, a woman ran over to ask for my contact information, as she has written pieces about Trump that she said are along the lines of Capitol Offense. Later, three other women ran me down. One White woman repeatedly thanked me for putting into words what she was feeling about how we were taught incomplete history (ahem, lies). It is such an amazing feeling, to know I have made even one person think and feel with my poetry. I’m not used to that yet. I mean, I’ve made people think with my blog posts, but poems are different–so much more vulnerable. My writing is transforming from journalistic/memoir style writing into a very vulnerable art form. (My 14-year-old and I were talking about this. Apparently, I am an artist and my medium is Rant.)
Moving on: the Future…
I am a spoken word protest poet.
Now I have a responsibility to honor that title.
Tomorrow night, I’ll be attending a Sky Stage event with Rod Deacey & the DC Beats; there might be an open mic after, in which case I’m on the list to read.
Next month, I plan to attend the Baltimore County Arts Guild open mic hosted by Patti Ross.
Also next month, I’ll be doing an ekphrastic event with Baltimore County Arts Guild, where we will have selected a painting by artists being featured in an art show and then written a poem inspired by the art; we will then read the poems at the event. The poems will be displayed alongside the art for the duration of the show.
And here is my serious ongoing plan for becoming a better spoken word protest poet:
-I’m thinking about buying a mic/stand/amp so I can practice in front of a mic. I’m still not used to hearing myself, or to having this thing in front of my face as I speak. I need to build confidence in front of a mic!
-Continue to watch videos of spoken word poets.
-Continue to attend open mics, virtually and in person—comfortable ones where I can read, and uncomfortable venues where I can watch and maybe eventually push myself to get up there.
-Re-record a couple of my pieces that have appeared in my blog so that people see that I’ve gotten better!!!
-Attend other poets’ readings and performances.
-Continue to read all forms of poetry.
-Continue to attend talks like one Patti Ross held in September and an upcoming talk with Terri Simon, so that I can absorb their processes, experiences, words.
-Practice intros and practice thanking people for allowing me the time/space/attention. I’m always so nervous, get me in and get me out, that I don’t properly thank everyone for being there, inviting me, hosting, etc.
-Continue to watch news and social media chatter about injustices so that I can speak out against them.
-Join a poetry critique group. Someone recently invited me to audition to join theirs, which would be intimidating and humbling and amazing. But I know there are some safe spaces where I can join if this group doesn’t pan out.
-Keep working on learning how to properly space, punctuate, etc., to best convey spoken word in writing.
-Submit to literary journals.
-Get new business cards because bookmarks with illustrations of Flash on them don’t represent what I’m up there doing!!! Four people asked me for a card on Saturday and I only had the bookmarks. *sigh*
And finally, here’s a random note about choosing what I wear…