I self-published a book of poems when I was 19. Print-on-demand websites like Lulu were just beginning to gain popularity. I’m one of those people who has been a writer her whole life. By 19 I had plenty of work to create a book and I figured, why not? I talked a few of my friends into being my editors, then lucked into the opportunity to audit a class on book-making with the legendary Alan Brilliant, founder of Unicorn Press. Over the course of about a year, I assembled, edited, designed, and released Something of a Mess.
At 19, I had a paralyzing fear of public speaking but I knew I had to read in front of people if I wanted to sell my book. I started reading at open mics and competing in slams. I always brought a friend along so I could ask about the audience reaction. Whenever I stepped onstage, I was suddenly extremely nearsighted. I blocked out the audience to cope with the anxiety of standing in front of them. I had no idea if people clapped or stared blankly or checked their watches. My friends assured me my readings were fine, people totally applauded. I figured that was true, since I was moving copies of the book, but in those early days of performing my poems, fear stood between me and experiencing the power of my own words.
I knew the power of poetry as a reader and listener, certainly. I think growing up is a lonely experience for everyone, and for me, spending time with words provided sustenance, relief, a sense of hope. I memorized my favorite poems and in that way, I was never alone. Shortly after I released Mess, I attended a Sandra Cisneros reading. It was the first time I heard a writer I admired read her own work right in front of me. I was tremendously moved by the warm music of her words coupled with her gracious, lovely presence. For days after, I felt like I was brimming over. I was deeply grateful for the experience, but it never crossed my mind that my own work could have such an impact.
Around that time, a friend of mine was planning an art festival at the community college that fed into my university. She asked me to come read my poems. This was the first time anyone actually asked me to read. There were two other readers lined up, but I was the only poet. The others had written speeches. The stage was by itself in the center of the festival, booths for artists and musicians lined up around the quad. My friend said she was pleased with the turn-out as we watched students mill around, checking out paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and chatting up the guitarists scheduled to perform later.
I watched both of the other readers deliver their work to an empty space. For whatever reason, no one migrated away from the other booths to listen. Both speeches started strong then petered out as the speakers realized no one was interested. My compliments to them were met with weak, defeated smiles. As I stepped onstage and faced that empty space, I was at once disappointed and relieved. Sad as it would be to read to no one, at least I wouldn’t have to block out the audience.
I started off strong, as the others had, determined to make the best of it. Then a couple of people wandered up to the stage. Then a couple more. Not enough to make me nervous, but enough to feel encouraged. As I kept reading, the majority of the other booths emptied and the audience grew. By the time I was finished, I was met with thunderous applause from most of the students in attendance that day. No one had to tell me it went well. I saw every second of it. More importantly, I felt every second of it.
The power of poetry lies in its unique ability to empower people. We all need a voice. We all need to be heard. We all need proof that we are not alone. There are other ways make these connections, but I can’t tell you any better way to fight loneliness than poetry. That day, with that audience, poetry set me free from my fear. It proved to me that my words could mean just as much as the words that sustained me. I can’t deconstruct that magic for you, but I can tell you what I know. My voice is a gift. So is yours.
Logen Cure is a poet and teacher. She is the author of three chapbooks: Still (Finishing Line Press 2015), Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press 2015), and In Keeping (Unicorn Press 2008). Her work also appears in Word Riot, Radar Poetry, IndieFeed: Performance Poetry, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Texas with her wife. Learn more at www.logencure.com.
My chapbook, Still, can be purchased here.