The week before the launch of my new book, Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems, I attended two poetry readings during the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.
The first was by Toronto filmmaker and poet Ann Shin. It was, to be honest, terrible. Shin was well dressed and coiffed, but she seemed distracted, possibly bored. She hadn’t decided what to read ahead of time, and she flipped through her book, The Family China, muttering “um” and “ok, how about this one”; she rushed into the beginning of each poem, barrelling toward the end only to start “um”ing again.
It was a cringe-worthy performance, but later the same evening Shin showed a short film, part of the Family China project and I thought it was really fantastic. The film made me want to read her poems.
The second reading was by former-Winnipegger (now-Montrealer) Jon Paul Fiorentino, from his new book, Needs Improvement. It was awkward in its own way, but incredibly endearing. He sat on a stool and wore a hat—his hand may have shaken a bit as he adjusted the hat, which he did several times. He confessed that readings make him nervous. He read for a short time, telling bits of stories as he went and choosing poems that showed his nostalgia for Winnipeg (even the bullies of Winnipeg), and then he took questions and requests. It wasn’t perfect or polished, but somehow it seemed just right.
I went to these readings in part to observe the techniques of other poets; instead, I learned two things, which turned out to be more useful. First, it always helps to be prepared. Second, poets are just normal people—or maybe more socially awkward and introverted versions of normal people. Most poets would rather be at home in their jammies writing or reading than performing their poems in a library, a café, or a bookstore. Of course, some writers are great performers, but I’m not one of those people. Neither were the two poets I saw at the festival, and that made me feel a whole lot better.
With adjusted expectations, I set out to do the best book-launch reading I could. I practised reading my poems every night for a week. I read them out loud to my partner, made annotations in the book, and wrote and rewrote a lineup in neat script.
Sometime shortly before the launch I decided to swap some easier-to-read poems for the tough ones that still choke me up. I knew I would be taking a risk, but I didn’t want to shy away from the hard stuff. The night of the launch, with my courageous lineup in hand, I was ready.
It’s not exaggeration to say it was one of the best days of my life. The restaurant was full of supportive people—friends, family, a handful of strangers. There was chocolate cake. I grinned my face off, and I started reading.
Just a few poems in, the thing I feared the most happened: during one of my “unborn poems” I came undone, choking and blubbering my way through. Incredibly—it may have been all those lovely, familiar, smiling faces—I finished the poem, pulled it together, and kept on going.
Despite that one embarrassing bump, I was so very happy with the way I launched my first book. Reading those poems felt like playing a well-rehearsed piece of music. I knew them—the cadences, stresses, lulls, and rushes—and I could feel the audience moving through them with me.
After the book-signing, hand-shaking, and hugging, I sat at a table with my dearest one and ate my cake. Bump and all, I’ll still call it just right.