My first poetry slam was at a local arts venue with about 40-60 people. I went with a friend just to watch, but we were urged to put our names in to read our own poetry. I was not a poet, but part of me wanted to be, so I signed up not knowing what I would say. I was very nervous, but by the time we had taken our seats, I knew exactly what poem I would go with. It was short and easy to remember, and I felt it told a lot about me. Once I had committed to it, there was no going back. No matter how nervous I felt.
The lights went out except for the spotlight on the stage. The first poem was bland and the second was light-hearted. Not so intimidating, though at the time I was definitely still not beyond stage fright (I’ve stood on many stages visibly shaking). The next guy played a funny song about how hipster his ex was on his guitar. I hoped I could, some day, be that good. I asked them to push my name a little lower on the list to work up some courage. But then the mood shifted; the poets and entire atmosphere of the room became very dark and heavy. This was a serious problem for me. I asked to be pushed down some more so the air could clear a bit.
The poems and spoken words were horrifying. Depression, suicide, racism, sexism, death, rape, anger and everything awful were now the themes of every single one. What started as passionate poetry intensified with each successive performer until eventually they were so taken by the spirit of it all that they were yelling and crying. Oh my God. How am I going to go up there now? How will my amateur poem be received by a crowd so moved? I couldn’t get a break, the longer I waited, the worse it got. I didn’t want to be that last guy, but it was getting climactically intense. Meanwhile, the organizers were really pressuring me to go. Eventually I was going to have to say my piece, but I was terrified. I didn’t know how they would take what I had to say. I had to face the fact that the mood might not get easier. So after a particularly moving spoken word-I went up.
I tried going slow, but in reality I’m told I didn’t. I got to the mic and took a deep breath in-and then out. But then I had no breath to speak with and breathed in extra deep. It was a dramatic and awkward delay. I held my breath and looked at all the enraptured spectators, waiting for the next powerful piece of emotion and imagery to grab their souls. After a long pause, I went for it, gripping the mic as tightly as I could to stabilize myself.
“Roses are red, violets are red, your garden’s on fire”
The nearly dead silence was barely brought back to life with a couple of chuckles. I ran off the stage.