The door was just too far away.
I slowly put on my coat, hoping maybe the room would empty and then I could sneak out, but no. Friends, the brothers and sisters, lingered while my anxiety rose. My coat half on, I dodged through people and rushed out before anyone could say anything, not that they would.
They all hated me.
Poetry is one of the things on my list, my running list – half jotted down in the journal that goes everywhere with me, the other half in my mind – of things that I’ve always wanted to try that I am going to try, even just once, this year. So far, I’ve already accomplished storytelling, oil painting, owning plants, signing up for an intramural league and vegan cooking. Poetry seem doable.
In the evenings, as I shut down my phone and close my computer, emotions pop up and I write them down in lame poetry. It’s not good poetry, but I am not sure I even know what good poetry is. I know Maya Angelou, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson are good poets because the world told me, but the kid escaping his beat up life with words, yeah, I have no idea.
The best thing about living in a city like Chicago is that you can find pockets for all of these activities. They aren’t just people amusing themselves during off work hours, but dedicated souls to their chosen hobby, lifestyle, creative art form. Someone told me about an event Thursday night and I was eager to dip myself into the real world of poetry in Chicago.
While most of the day I was excited for the event – I may not be a poet but I am a deep enthusiast for words strung together in a pleasing way – but as it got nearer the nerves in my stomach started to bounce. I was going alone and I was afraid that I may not fit in. I may not have the right clothes. Or I would show up too late. Maybe too early. I would look dumb. Sound dumb. I would fail before I wrote or spoke a word. I would fail in just imperfectly showing up.
The event began with a series of open mics, which I actually enjoyed (some, of course, more than others). Then a few featured performers, but not just poets – a comedian and musician as well. Everyone in the room seemed to be friends who have known each other’s work for years and years. They were encouraging, joyful. I, of course, was the loner. Well me and the girl with the short blonde hair who walked in at the same time that I did.
My out of placement, along with the other girl’s, was noticed and both of us were asked to be judges for the third part of the evening – the slam. It was our first time at the event and we did not know anyone, making us perfectly poised to judge the work of people who put so much time and effort into not just their poem but its meaning, the word choice and its delivery.
At first, I thought it was going to be fun but soon panic sank. I had no idea how to judge poetry. What if I liked the wrong poems? Or hated the good ones? It didn’t occur to me that people were hoping to win and that the audience would be cruel and cold hearted to anyone who disagreed with how they felt about the poems. This anxiety impaired me.
Slam poetry, if you are new to it, like I was, is when people tell 3-minute poems for points. Five poets the first round and three advanced to the second. I and two other judges had to decide who won and who did not.
I tried to be objective, my journalist side never dying no matter how long it’s been since I’ve stepped in a newsroom, but the audience and the poets were not into that. I low balled everyone, thinking it would give room for the really great poems, but this isn’t a welcomed strategy. The audience didn’t want even keeled scores, they wanted lots of love and support. They wanted all poems to be great, with some slightly better than the others. I missed this completely. I was so caught up in doing this job that I missed the beauty of it, a mistake I know see but I was new and alone. Nearly every single time my scores were the lowest, even though I thought most of the poetry was really good, and the crowd did not like me. They booed me. They yelled things like, “listen to the poem!” At the end, someone said something to me that I couldn’t hear through the sound of my face turning red.
This is not an unloving crowd. They love poems. They love peace. They love each other. But they didn’t love me. This free spirit group with bongos and statues of Buddha did not like me.
As soon as I could, I left. I did not even say hello to the person who invited me. I just needed to get out of there. I couldn’t face being the person that screwed up the vibes.
They all hate me.
Three flights of stairs.
Why don’t I know anything about poetry?
Two flights of stairs.
They probably think I am the worst of all judges ever, in the history of slam poetry.
One flight of stairs.
Why am an idiot?
On the way home, I worked to calm my breath and my pounding heart. If I didn’t, I knew I would be up all night wondering why I am a such a screwup. I do not do well when people don’t like me, especially when it is an entire room. The ugly voice in my head started to list all the reason why I suck and I had to stop it.
Tomorrow, when I wake up, my mother will still love me. When I tell this story to my coworker in the morning, he will laugh sympathetically. My friends will still want to hang out this weekend and there will still be people in this world that think I am pretty amazing.
I’ve spent so much of my life living so that people like me, but I’ve noticed lately when I try really hard to get people to like me people don’t like me. I was trying so hard tonight that my true self didn’t come out. But that’s OK. We are allowed not to be liked, even if that idea may be made up in our heads. Maybe in a few months someone will say, “Remember that awful judge we had one time?” but I am OK with being a story for later on. In the end, no one was hurt. No one died. No one suffered greatly because of me. Truthfully, most people will forget tomorrow.
And so should I. It may be awhile before I go to another slam poetry (I am still convinced no one in that world wants to see my face again) but I know that I can be in a room full of people booing me and, yet, I still live.