Humor column: What I learned at a student poetry reading

Poetry walk

Remnants of a Poetry Walk on campus.

Being a Health Information Technology student, I seem an unlikely poet. I’m not all broody in a not-so-little-black dress, hanging out in non-corporate coffee shops, and my lipstick more resembles the color of blood than death.

My writing took off when I ended up placing in a college writing contest, with a piece on chimerism (when one person has two sets of DNA). That led me to taking Jamey Jones’ poetry class.

I have found that people who are going to school for healthcare tend to just want to get their degree and get the hell out, while people who are going for an arts degree tend to immerse themselves in the college experience. I started out the first and became the latter.

When I signed up for poetry, I was expecting a bunch of hipsters, but the students ranged from a red-hatted redneck who liked to talk about guns, liberals and communism, to a girl who told me I shouldn’t give evil corporations credit in my poem.

I’d never thought about doing a poetry reading until Poetry Night, when I performed “Hanging from the Family Tree”—a narrative about my family, who I like to say is the gift that keeps on giving (and, in their case, regifting).

So I was all poetry-esque in my white snood (a retro-style knit hat held in place with bobby pins), trying to keep cool so I wouldn’t break out in hives; I’d worn thigh high stockings (which were starting to roll down, so I had to take them off discreetly lest I be like Romy in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, where Lisa Kudrow tells her classmates that she lost her top).

During those minutes leading up to my turn, I was thinking I should’ve had a “sodaburb” (my pet name for bourbon, tempered with Stevia Coca-Cola), but I was stepping outside my comfort zone, barelegged and sober.

One of the guys in my poetry class had suggested we open with a joke; I’m no stand-up comic, but I’d overhead a good one while work-studying in the English Department (as I am a shameless eavesdropper): “What does the Secret Service say when they see a bullet coming toward the President?” “Donald! Duck!”

That cracked the ice, and the more I shared about my family, the more comfortable I became. I’m fairly certain I saw my ENC1102 professor wiping tears of laughter, and I was like, “I’d rather make them happy cry than sad cry any day.”

So I told the world (okay, about 50 people) about my mom who left her bras hanging on floor lamps, and confessed the sins of my father who used the dogs to pre-rinse the dishes. I flash-roasted my grandmother, who thought Obama was a Muslim because he had purple lips and her common-law husband (my grandfather, as far as I know) who helped dig up their dead dogs and put them in storage because they didn’t want to leave their candy-assed carcasses behind.

After that night, I felt more comfortable sharing my work; I’d always believed in it, but I learned also to believe in myself. I wasn’t just the message, but the messenger. I hadn’t gotten shot (and I’d done it without a shot).

I wasn’t being filmed (as the camera adds 50 pounds), so I didn’t have to worry about being tagged by a Facebook frenemy.

An encore performance was requested in the English Department the next day, and I felt, for the first time, I could shine without having to sing or act.

Performing among other poets that night in the library rotunda, I realized that poetry was a communal activity—almost spiritual in nature—bringing people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs together.

That night, I overcame my fear of public speaking, because I knew even if I was nervous before future readings, I would read anyway.

I learned about medical technology through my major, but through poetry, I learned about myself.

Originally published as “Majoring in my Minor: Poetry Night Stage Fright” in the September 2017 issue of The Corsair, Pensacola State College’s student newspaper; second place winner in the humor category at the FCSPA State Publications.

Little Memories

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It was last night
that I read the last work
that would be published
in my alma mater’s literary journal.
Brian and Hannah had joined me—
along with my dad and grandmother
who we call Bernadean
because she’s not all “grammy-like.”
My English and Communications friends were there,
my old college newspaper friends—
except for the ones who’d graduated and moved on—
were there to cover the event
in the room where my daughter saw
trapezoids and triangles in the ceiling.
I’d worn my new little black dress—
well, let’s be real,
not little—
but it showed the shoulders
I had been expected to cover
in my past life as a Mormon.
My daughter was showing off or rather,
I was showing off my daughter in her new bob
that makes her look like Scout Finch
and white dress with the red ribbon straps
that kept slipping down.
Still better her have a wardrobe malfunction than me.
My dad and grandmother were late
but just in time to see one of the artists’ photographs
of his topless girlfriend projected on the screen
and for Dad to hear one of the poets use the f-word,
which I knew he would complain about later.
I break out in hives all over my chest when I read,
but I chose to ignore them,
for that was better than sweating profusely.
Hives don’t give you B.O.
There were “decadent desserts”
with all different toppings;
I wasn’t fooled,
for they were all brownie bites
but “elevated” as the TV chefs would say.
I was asked for a quote by the kid
who only wanted to write reviews
because he just enjoys writing his opinions.
Yes, I tell him, I really am obsessed with Mother Goose
(and, off the record, ablaut reduplication).
Hannah got to watch and listen to one of the artists play his guitar.
Everyone was so kind.
The event was held in a room off the art gallery on campus,
and we saw a man’s bust made of pennies,
which made me think that Mike Brady’s head
wouldn’t have shattered had it been made of change.
I still had to make cornbread
(hoecakes were too much work—
I couldn’t just shove them in the oven
and forget about them for a half hour)
for a “Cooking on a Dime” event at work tomorrow—
the college where I work because I loved it so much,
I didn’t want to leave.
We got our Easter ham,
and then Dad wanted to take us out
for half-priced milkshakes after 8 at Sonic.
Tons of kids were there for the same reason.
I had to lend Hannah my white sweater wrap
and make her look like an old lady in a shawl.
I got chocolate
but without malt,
what good is it?
I gave Hannah my cherry,
and Dad gave me his.
We joked about how Mom
who doesn’t live on Earth anymore
would embarrass my brother
by asking for “thick shakes” and “hot fries”
because damn it,
she was paying good money for this crap.
It’s nice to be able to talk about her without crying.
And then we go to our homes,
me to mine,
where I read Green Eggs and Ham,
and I told this little girl with the big blue eyes
that until I met her dad,
mushrooms had been my Green Eggs and Ham
when he fried them like we do everything here.
Right then and wherever there was,
I fell in love with fungi candy.
And I write all this now
while it’s still fresh
because new memories are constantly being made,
and I don’t want to lose this one.

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The Mark of a Day

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It was last spring that I wrote “Hanging from the Family Tree” for poetry class, and a year ago that I read it to a group of students, professors, and faculty at a student poetry reading.

Not even two months ago, I’d already had two pieces picked out to read this evening–one serious, the other silly.

That changed a week ago.

*

Last year, I remember it being dark and cold, but this year, it was mild and sunny.  The weather seemed almost profane, in light of all that had transpired.

A part of me had wondered if it was too soon to read a poem about my mom, but I read it anyway, and I’m so very glad I did.

I’d struggled with the piece until after my mother’s funeral yesterday morning, and then, with that small measure of closure, the memories came tumbling out like the contents of a cornucopia.  I realized then that when someone is with us, we don’t go around thinking about them, but when they’re gone, we think about them to keep them near, for we fear forgetting even one of the thousand little details that made them, them.

*

So I asked God if He would grant Mom special permission to listen in tonight.  I sort of think that’s how it should work, because I don’t want my loved ones up there watching me to go to the bathroom, among other things.  (That might be quite embarrassing.)

I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get through it without weeping, but I think when Q–the first poet of the night–opened with his piece about losing his mother, his story startingly parallel to my own, I shed the tears that were in store.

And what a blessing it was to be among friends that night–to share with them something of myself.

Student Poetry Night was a catharsis for me, for I believe every time we share a story of a loved one, it’s like they are right there with us, and that wherever they are in the heavens, they hear their name and know that they are missed.

A Time to Share: Reflections on one stop of my writing journey

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Being a guest blogger for https://getconnectdad.com/ has been a wonderful experience.  I was intrigued by the “52 Traits” we want to instill in our children; writing about them in poetic form has helped me explore such abstracts on a deeper level:  https://sarahleastories.com/get-connected-dad-my-contributions/

I’m a natural born storyteller, and I’ve found that my poems tend to be narratives with strategically-placed line breaks.  With the exception of children’s nursery rhymes, I find myself veering away from rhyme.  I like to say “metaphor is the new rhyme.”

I’ve finally become comfortable sharing my poetry in front of an audience.  My life motto has become “Aw, what the hell?”  I’ve always regretted the times I could’ve read and didn’t, but never the times I did, even if it didn’t go as well as I would’ve liked.

For example, one of my English professors told our class that my short story, “The Punch Drunk Potluck” (about what happens when a prospective member of the Church spikes the punch and brings pot brownies) was supposed to be humorous.  I was thinking, Oh, my god, don’t tell them that.  If they don’t laugh, I’ll be so embarrassed.

Even though “Punch” won first place in the college’s annual literary contest, they didn’t laugh.  That said, I was a bit uncomfortable (I’m sure I was breaking out in hives) during the reading (it was, after all, a super silly story), but I did it, and afterwards, a few people came up to me and told me how great it was.  (People may not always laugh, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t think it was funny; I don’t laugh at every joke I hear on “Cheers”).  One even asked for a copy.

The girl who asked for a copy used to be a member of the FLDS Church (her father had four wives), and so she understood all the nuances of my piece.  I’ve found that of all the different kinds of writing I do, I enjoy writing my humor pieces the most.  Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a funny gal (more just witty), I keep in mind that Lucille Ball was very serious in real life.

Out of the nine readers at the poetry reading at my college, I was the only one who read anything humorous  (“Hanging from the Family Tree”).  I like to say “a little subtlety and a little levity goes a long way.”  When offered the chance to read again, I read a serious poem (one I would describe as “hauntingly beautiful”), but everyone loved the first.  My inspiration for that one?  My family:  The gift that keeps on regifting.  (I was even asked to perform an encore the next day at the office.)

I’d worn my white snood; I decided that would be my schtick.  (When I used to color my hair red, I thought “The Lady in Red” had a nice ring to it; I would wear all red, down to my shoes.)  Since I had to stop coloring my hair when I was expecting (only to find I had gray hairs), I had to ditch that notion, at least during my child-bearing years.  (And have you ever tried finding red shoes?  Especially in a size 10?)

That night of the reading (taking a piece of advice one of the other students in my poetry class gave), I opened with a joke I’d overheard in the English department:

Q:  What does the Secret Service shout when they see a bullet coming towards the President?

A:  Donald!  Duck!

That icebreaker helped dispel almost all my self-consciousness.

My advice:  Don’t overthink it.  Just go for it.