Doesn’t this look like a nice chair to read a book in or listen to a story in? My fondest first memories are of being read to when I was very small. One of my favorite books to be read to from was the Child Craft volume “Poems of Early Childhood.” Through yet another slow miracle, it’s somehow stayed with me through the decades, and I still have it on my shelf. Here is one of my all time favorites:
The Butterbean Tent
All through the garden I went and went
And I walked in under the butterbean tent.
The poles leaned up like a good teepee
And made a nice little house for me.
I had a hard brown clod for a seat,
And all outside was a cool green street.
A little green worm and a butterfly
And a cricket-like thing that could hop went by.
Hidden away there were flocks and flocks
Of bugs that could go like little clocks.
Such a good day it was when I spent
A long, long while in the butterbean tent.
–Elizabeth Madox Roberts
I’ve read a lot of poems since then, both silently and out loud, and the line “And all outside was a cool green street.” is still one of my favorites.
At age 19 or 20 I remember going to a reading by the poet William Everson at the public library in Sacramento. The room was dark but for the spotlight on the poet, and as I felt the attentive hush settle on his listeners, it seemed we were the only ones in the world, and the world was telling a beautiful story just for us. Poetry readings carry that kind of bedtime story magic for me even today.
When Mike came along, I embraced my role as the reader of bedtime stories and poems with gusto. I enjoyed doing voices for Rat and Mole and Toad from Wind in the Willows, and Pooh and Piglet and Eyore from the Winnie the Pooh books. When Mike was 4 years old, one of his favorite poems was “Hungry Mungry” by Shel Silverstein. He knew some of it by heart, and would say it along with me.
Even though I read to Mike as a little boy, he’d never heard me read my own poetry out loud. So you can imagine my absolute joy when Romeo and I walked into BookPeople of Moscow last Saturday night for my slot in Local Author Saturday and saw him sitting in this very chair. I could hardly believe my eyes as they teared up with joy. He had convinced me in e-mails that their car was still mysteriously malfunctioning on long distance trips, when he had actually found a mechanic who could finally figure out how to fix it. He wrote that he was so sorry he would miss the reading. He would be there in Spirit. He hoped I would knock ’em dead. And so forth. He totally and utterly faked me out.
I’ve always enjoyed reading in public, from way back in grammar school,on into teaching, and the opportunities I’ve had to read my poems in public. But it’s been over 17 years since I did that, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. Once I got started, it was like they say about riding a bicycle. And I had a great audience. Many friends from different parts of my Moscow life made the effort to come out, and all the chairs were full. Another wonderful surprise of the evening was that BookPeople of Moscow sold all but one of the 15 copies they so graciously preordered. I was even asked to sign a few in the bargain.
I didn’t think to bring my camera or ask anyone to take pictures, and afterward Mike said his phone had gone dead, so there are no photographs of this momentus occasion. But I will never forget the sight of my son in that chair, waiting for me to see him, or in the audience, listening attentively to me read my work. Or how after, he was clearly and warmly impressed, and even confessed to tearing up at a couple of poems he knew the inside situations of.
Even though there is no visual record, one of my poetry night friends (who is a wonderful poet herself) has a part time radio job here in town. Unbeknownst to me, she was sitting out in the audience, recording the reading and hoping she got a good enough quality recording to air something. A couple of days ago she sent me this little story about the reading that aired on the radio. So if you’d like to, you can click on the hyperlink and hear me begin the reading with the first poem in the book, “In Night.”
I was getting my reading “sea legs” while reading this first poem, and I can hear that in the recording. But all in all, it’s not bad. And after that one, I found my stride. It helped to have a great, attentive audience, just as having a great attentive readership helps me keep writing my blog.
If you are one of the kind readers who preordered If A Sparrow, you can expect it to appear in your mailbox soon. My editor at Finishing Line Press wrote me this past Monday that she expected all the preordered copies to be out in the mail by the end of this week. Thank you for your support and your patience in waiting for it to arrive.
While it may not seem like much of a victory to get up and read a few poems in front of people, for me it is very much a symbol of a return to better health. First of all, it means I could sustain and integrate the mental, physical and emotional focus and stamina needed to hear and write the poems at all. Then I could concentrate more to organize them into a cohesive unit. Then I could persevere further and struggle triumphantly with the technicalities of putting them into acceptable manuscript form. Then I could figure out how to submit them to a contest where I would be lucky enough to win the distinction of being published and to have my own art on the cover. Although I could not do these things quickly, I was able to do them.
It also means my body temperature is stable enough to attempt a public appearance. It means my throat is strong enough to project my voice. It means the nerves in my face are calm enough that I can smile and talk without wincing in pain. It means my left hand can hold the book open, and write something inside when asked without putting it in a special position or wearing a support. Though I needed to sit down for a few minutes after walking to the bookstore in anticipation of the reading, on top of the surprise of seeing Mike, I never once worried if my legs would buckle under me. And I was lucky to have Romeo at my side the whole time.
The last time I read in public 17 years ago, I had just been diagnosed with MS. Although they were kind, my colleagues were not optimistic about my prognosis. One inscribed a book she gave me with the phrase “in gratitude for your life.” In a way it seemed to imply my life was soon going to be over, but instead I took it as encouragement to keep on living because someone was grateful I was here. Another, when I mentioned that people don’t die directly from MS, blurted out, “No, you’ll just wish you were dead,” then gasped and covered her mouth as if she had not meant for such a remark to escape it.
The night of my reading nearly 18 years ago, I had to leave the dinner party given for me beforehand and lie down in order to be able to stand up and read for half an hour. I didn’t know if my legs would buckle under me on the way to the podium. My bladder and gut were both functioning very poorly. The week before the reading, I had to visit an occupational therapist to learn new ways to support my left arm so I could hold the book open to read and sign copies afterward. I had to wear a special hand and wrist support to be able to do that. I had to work to project my voice enough to be heard. I had to be careful not to swallow wrong and choke. And I was utterly weak and exhausted afterward. This time I walked home, warmed up some leftovers, visited and laughed with Mike in front of the fire, and made us each an itsy bitsy fruit cobbler.
While I am “back” to reading in public, I have not returned to the academic life that once ordered my days. But that’s okay. It’s the making of the words into the poems and being able to read them out loud that counts. And after I was finished reading, people asked me questions. Would I talk about my process in writing the poems, working in the sonnet form, what inspired me? So in a way, it was a little tiny “class.” I got to talk about things that matter to me in my creative process, like how being able to walk every day fuels it. And earlier in the reading, when it came time to read “Old Fashioned Oats,” I got to thank the doctors I’ll never meet who made my standing up there to read it possible with their groundbreaking work about how to eat. And much to my surprise, everyone loved that poem.
Among my happiest early childhood memories are those of my mother reading me the poets that taught me to love poetry: A. A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Carl Sandburg, among many others. For me, being read to became synonymous with feeling loved. It was such an honor to be able to stand up in front of so many people I cherish in my community and return the favor by reading my own poems out loud again. Such slow miracles are the poetry of my life.