I set off twenty minutes early, giving in to my anxiety – though I knew perfectly well it was displacement – about whether I would get to the bookstore in time. Went around the block, and parked on a quiet street, switched off the engine, and sat shamatha for five minutes, feeling the extraordinarily high pitch of my body, my heart pounding, my breath shallow, my mind balky and inclined to bolt. It's valuable to watch, at these times when I'm least inclined to watch. I don't know if it calmed me or heightened my nerves. It's easy to confuse awareness of nervousness with nervousness. And it's not merely a confusion, either: realizing I'm nervous can make me more nervous. If the goal was simply to become less nervous in the short term, I don't know that meditation would be such a good choice. But the deeper goal of course is to see what's there, to see how it works. What is actually going on?
It's a fear of exposure, of course – there isn't a much more exposed situation than reading your poetry aloud, especially if your poetry is on the confessional and emo side – as mine is: full of declarations of devotion and emotional extravagance of all sorts. My mind uneasily tried to recall Wodehouse's description of someone reading his verse aloud, in – what was it? “a sort of gasping bleat”? Oy. One of those characters with long sidewhiskers and no gumption. But you see where my mind is going, and why I'm so anxious. The question isn't: “will they like my poetry?” or “is my poetry any good?” It's, “am I actually a pathetic Gawd-help-us?”
M and Steve are old hands at running poetry readings, and they've structured it beautifully. There are two featured readers, Joyce Ellen Davis and I. But there's an open mike as well. If you want to read, you write your name on a ticket and toss it in the bowl. Steve pulls a few names out in the intervals before, between, and after the featured readers, and the open mike people trot up and read of their verse, or someone else's. Everyone gets to read, and everyone's paying attention because they might be up next. There's no dead air, everything is lively and good-natured, and no one tries to hog the mike. It's not easy to make events like this work.
Then there's the other source of anxiety: feeling responsible for members of tribes that may or may not be on good terms. There are folks from my sangha there – will my lines about the Buddha being dead and the Dharma rattling like zinc pennies offend them? There's Joyce's people, presumably Mormon, with little kids in tow: I wince a bit at a stridently anti-religious poem, and at a few sexually explicit lines in another. And a rather austere poet has come, whom I admire greatly, but who practices in the high modernist tradition of Eliot and Pound. Around her I feel terribly soppy, slipshod, and self-indulgent. I'm not an artist, I think: I just knock a few poems together on weekends. And there's even someone from my massage universe, with her daughter, and there my fears run the other way: if you're not an initiate into the hothouse world of poetry, is all this too rarified and labored to make any sense at all?
It's not my job, I suppose, to make sure all these people like each other. But I love them all and I want them to like each other. It's a bit like taking your new girlfriend home to meet your family, except that it's several girlfriends and several families.
It's all lovely. I can even see that I make a hit with couple people. The audience laughs at the right parts of my poems, and for the first time (that I know of) I sell a couple of my books cold, to complete strangers. The resolution I made a couple hours ago, not to do any more readings, because getting this het up is simply not worth it, strikes me as absurd, and I dismiss it. Of course I'll do more readings, I think. I should even get out and start drumming some up.