Wait, Now I Have to Read Them?

  • By Amanda Shaw
  • May 27, 2024

The excitement and angst of performing my poems.

Wait, Now I Have to Read Them?

I received my MFA in January 2020. The first week after New Year’s, 75 of us convened in Black Mountain, North Carolina, at a sprawling 19th-century YMCA perched at the summit of a twisty narrow sheet of ice called a “road.” We were housed in creaky flea-market-furnished rooms, WiFi was sporadic, and there were no desks or reliable outlets. The “classrooms” were dingy, unventilated rooms in the basement. In the shabby grand hallway, a portrait of Our Lord of the Cascading Locks occupied pride of place above the fireplace. Robert E. Lee, in full regalia, hung not far to the right. 

Four days into the residency, the plague hit. You could’ve made a killing selling cough drops or Mucinex. Three days before graduation, when a faculty member collapsed a few words into her lecture, we all gasped in unison. Every evening, during faculty and graduate readings, audience members dashed out of the room, failing to suppress fits of hacking. 

And so, graduation night, I took to the podium. I’d been given the “marquee” position, speaking just before the ceremony itself. I’d changed last minute for fear a particularly vigorous cough would burst the fragile zipper of my newly purchased vintage dress (which, to this day, I’ve never worn).

I’d practiced, but my voice was raw. My face was gaunt and grey. I was shivering and burning at once. I had no energy but was quaking and floating at the same time. About 250 guests took turns sneezing and blowing their noses. This was my celebrated debut.

We all then flew back to Rome, to England, to Shanghai, to the rounded corners of the earth. My brother looked for a mask before flying home to San Francisco but found only 50-packs and thought, “I’ll use the remaining 49.” My husband and I finished out January in bed.

In February, I realized that my mother was past the point where her recent bouts of confusion and anxiety could be anything but Alzheimer’s in the making. In March, we were in New Hampshire, and remained there for most of the following three years so we could take care of her. For three years, I never read a poem aloud. 

And now, it’s 2024, here I am with a book (!!!), and it’s…terrifying. Not only do you have to scramble to organize readings, you actually have to give them — seemingly everywhere, and for a year or two to come, which might as well mean no end in sight. 

This is the part of being a published poet I’ve always dreaded. I’m not sure how to put the introverted self — the self that makes you seek out a room of your own — aside. I don’t know how to avoid “poet voice,” that flat, declamatory style that’s impossible to banish from your mind because you’ve heard some version of it at every reading you’ve ever attended. 

Poetry on the page takes time. A book of poetry asks us to move slowly, to live in the extended moment of experience, thought, or deeply felt emotion. Poetry read aloud must find a way to extend that moment, but only for a moment.

How can you do that? 

But people do, and no book of poems should live purely on the page. I’m in love with sound, with how simply placing two words together generates worlds, with the millions of things a period or comma can do. Can I give that to people who’ve cared enough to come out, not knowing who I am?

Still, sharing this love for precision and wonder is as good a purpose as I’ve known. And I’m lucky enough to try it out with all of you here, back in DC, with its warm, vibrant, incredibly welcoming community of writers and readers. If you see me out there, know I’m thanking you with every carefully chosen syllable. 

[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop’s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher. The Inner Loop connects talented local authors to lit lovers in the community through live readings, author interviews, featured book sales at Potter’s House, and through Eat.Drink.Read., a collaboration with restaurant partners Pie Shop, Shaw’s Tavern, and Reveler’s Hour to promote the author through special events and menu and takeout inserts.]

Amanda Shaw is an editor, teacher, and poet whose collection It Will Have Been So Beautiful came out in March. Thanks to alphabetical ordering, you’ll eventually find her on bookshelves right next to Shakespeare.

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