Here at Hiram College this past Tuesday, the Lindsay-Crane Center held its annual “Evening of Hiram Writers” event. It’s a lovely time when everyone who received recognition in a contest (either by placing or getting an honorable mention) throughout the year has the opportunity to present their work in front of a live audience. We even invite the high schoolers who entered the Emerging Writers contest (which is geared specifically toward them) so they also get a taste of what it’s like to present a piece in front of friends, family, and colleagues.
This year, I got the email telling me I had placed third in the Vachel Lindsay Poetry Contest, earning me a spot at the reading. Fantastic! I got one hundred bucks and I get to show off my stuff! Maybe my folks’ll come along! And how neat that I get to be an example for those high school kiddos, standing proud and poised at the podium as I start to read about—
I could practically hear the vinyl scratch sound effect as I made the unsavory realization. The poem that had earned me third place was explicit, lewd, bitter, and included the Urban Dictionary’s definition of a blow job. It’s called “Superiority Phallus” for God’s sake! How was I supposed to read this poem in front of the people I worked and lived with? What if my grandparents decided to come?
These questions rattled around in my brain during the couple of weeks leading up to the reading. A big part of what freaked me out was while I knew the poem placed because it stood out from the others I submitted, I didn’t feel that it represented who I was. Most of my poems, and my writing in general, focus more on life events, or nature, or nice, calm imagery. “Superiority Phallus” was none of that, and it scared me to think that this poem was going to be many people’s first impression of not only who I was as a writer, but who I was as a person. Would I really be okay with people remembering me as “the chick with the penis poem?”
I suddenly found myself at the dining hall for the complimentary dinner before the reading. I ate my sandwich and ice cream while looking around at the high school students and their parents and the alumni who were on the Lindsay-Crane Center’s Resource council. I kept thinking about how I was going to have to read, in front of all of them, a poem derived from a memory of a kid yelling penis at me from a passing car. My friends who would also be reading that night kept assuring me that it was going to be okay. My professors told me the same thing.
Still, when it was my turn to present at the reading I came the closest I’d ever come to vomiting out of anxiety. But I kept it together, recalling all of the other times I’d read this poem in private to my friends, remembering to enunciate words and pace myself, reassuring myself that this piece won for a good reason and that everyone would see why.
I moved from stanza to stanza and the crowd laughed and gasped at all the right places. And it felt great. I even had to pause for a moment near the end to let their laughter die down. They applauded me as I shook hands with my professor; then I walked back to my seat and collapsed like a limp noodle next to my boyfriend, who gave me water and a congratulatory squeeze. It took a little bit for me to realize that I’d really done it.
After the reading, people stuck around for cookies and conversation. I had several people, a mixture of professors and peers and high schoolers and other members of the Hiram family, approach me to shake my hand and express their amazement at how well I had read the poem and how much they had enjoyed it. I was legitimately jumping up and down, and it felt good to be able to talk more about my work with them. I was pink-cheeked and beaming for the rest of the night.
It’s only been a few days since the reading, so everything’s still setting in. But, for starters, I’ve discovered the incredible power that comes from reading a poem like that and having an audience laugh with you; laughter is fuel for me, and I’d never felt more in command of a room before that night. I’ve also come to accept that, while “Superiority Phallus” came from an angry, feisty part of myself that I don’t put on display for just anyone, it’s not something I should be ashamed of. After all, it created something that resonated with a lot of people, so it’s probably a place I should be tapping into more often! Overall, the night was a fantastic opportunity for me and, I’m sure, for all of the other writers that read as well. I already can’t wait for next year, when I’ll hopefully be up at that podium again (and hopefully reading something I can invite my family to).