Being a writer isn’t often just about writing, and neither is Front Street Writers. It’s also about performance. If you are a person who, like me, has been (or still is) terrified of having to speak in front of people, please read on!
Our Front Street Writers class has been talking about Poetry Out Loud since the beginning of the year. It’s a national contest involving memorizing and reciting poetry and begins at the school level, meaning just the Front Street Writers from the morning and afternoon classes in this case. The finalist goes on to the State competition in Lansing, and the winner there goes to the national competition in Washington D.C.
On the Poetry Out Loud website, there are over 900 poems to choose from, and I would know because I was indecisive enough to look through 54 pages of them.
This contest comes in early January, when we have practiced speaking in front of people several times. We have done two coffeehouses so far this year, which are events during which we read things we’ve written to the rest of the class. After practicing for and reading at these, reciting poetry is just another step to learning those always-important public speaking skills.
At this point in my life, I am going through a very strange mental transition, it seems. I have noticed that I am no longer always nervous about things that I expect to be extremely nervous about. I am no longer so nervous to interview people and don’t become worried about reading in front of others. I am thrilled with this development. Previously, my method of dealing with nerves was yelling at myself to stop being nervous while becoming progressively more nervous and upset with myself. It was not the most effective or emotionally healthy technique.
This year, I chose my poem, “The Obligation to be Happy” by Linda Pastan, because I really understood it. It was one of the poems whose meaning seemed quite obvious, at least to me, and I related to this poem.
In the weeks before the competition, we practiced reading our poems in class several times. I started whispering my poem to my friend who sits next to me at the end of class each day, just to make sure I had it all memorized and wouldn’t forget it. In class, we practiced our poems in pairs and then in small groups, getting feedback from each other and our teachers about how we might want to recite our poems differently or things to try when it came to using gestures.
It was while practicing in front of my classmates that I discovered my paralyzing fear of lifting my hands above my waistline. I was not nervous to recite. I had my poem memorized, but for some reason, once my hands were clasped in front of me, the thought of moving them seemed unexpectedly horrific. They were glued there, while I wondered what had possessed me to feel as though I could not move them. It is the dramatics and gesturing involved in public speaking that is most difficult for me.
Ms. Berry, one of our teachers whose group I was in, helped me with this by talking about my poem with me. I knew that the author had given up her dream of writing to focus on her marriage, and the poem seems to be directed at her husband, telling him how he can’t take her happiness for granted because she’s not happy all the time, especially considering that she gave up her dream. What followed this discussion was an attempt to deliver a more dramatic reading directed at a friend in my group, as if she were the “husband.” I could not stop laughing at this but moved my arms more and resolved to practice when I got home. I practiced my poem in various mirrors and, once I knew what my gestures looked like and had a few memorized, the prospect of moving my hands was not so terrifying.
When I walked into class last Thursday, the tables had been folded and moved to the side of the room. Everyone was walking around, talking with that quiet, early-morning-slightly-nervous excitement. The chairs were organized in three rows, all facing one side of the room, where a space was cleared for us to read.
The students from the morning class recited their poems first, and then we went through the afternoon class in alphabetical order. Having the last name Evans, I didn’t have to wait long.
The thing is, nothing has ever gone wrong when I have spoken in front of people, despite what my nervousness wants me to believe, and my brain must finally have realized that. Coffeehouse was scary the first time, but looking up to see people’s genuine interest in your writing, which often led to conversations with classmates about it (unlike the friends you had to force to read it, getting an “it’s good” if you were lucky) makes it exciting. Also, I am convinced that applause sounds louder when it is for you, and when you hear those twenty-some people clapping for you, you feel ready to conquer the world.
The downside to my lack of nervousness is that I don’t yet trust it. This uncertainty about whether I will suddenly be overcome with all of the panic I’m not experiencing keeps me from completely relaxing. Basically, I am nervous about the fact that I am no longer so nervous about things.
I was fully prepared to feel a jolt of panic shock me as soon as they called my name, but it never came. I didn’t fall on the way to the podium, didn’t forget any words, and didn’t have anyone laughing at my gestures. I figured I might as well put some emotion into it since this was the only chance I had and I couldn’t exactly ruin it for myself by showing I cared.
After the first round, we had lunch. A friend and I also went into the hall, where we got the occasional audience of a student or teacher walking past our dramatic readings, to practice reading our second poems in case we were semifinalists, who read a second poem. The semifinalists were then announced, and I was one of them!
Afterward, we talked to the judges. One told us that, when making gestures, to act as if we were talking normally, not making our gestures too small. Another judge told us not to underestimate what we can do with our voices alone.
For the last hour or so of the day, the morning and afternoon students interviewed each other, finding out how adults would describe us as children, who would play us in a movie, how we would want to be prepared if eaten by cannibals, and a Mario Kart-related question which I don’t remember because I never play Mario Kart, among other things. We introduced each other to the class, which ended up being a lot of fun. Many quotes were added to the quote board during these introductions. At the end of the day, someone made a petition on one of the whiteboards to combine the two classes into one “mega class.”
I’m hoping that, having practiced not only reading but reciting work in front of people, I will continue to get less nervous about this. I hope the idea of performance hasn’t scared you too much. I was scared of it too, don’t think otherwise. I’m not some sort of superhuman who is immune to stage fright. I will write more about speaking in front of people in another post, because I truly have come to love it.
Have a wonderful day and thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed hearing from me.