Where Daring Meets Bullshit: Teenage Poetry and the Reading Series

I see humiliation as a key component of the writing life. Substitute humiliation for sentimentality in these passages and they remain true. In his essay “Writing Off the Subject” poet Richard Hugo quotes fiction writer Bill Kittredge as saying “if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.” In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” David Foster Wallace says that the next generation of literary rebels might “risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.” In my fake writing and my real writing, if I don’t risk humiliation, I’m not risking enough. And I don’t mean humiliation via unkindness to self via oversharing, but the trying and failing sort. I even hope I publish something I will later regret. In fact, it’s highly likely that I already have.

panda bear dance

Hubert Vigilla

Every month in Crown Heights, I host what I like to call the “least cool reading series in New York.” My co-host plays “Bieber or Believer,” reading lyrics either sung by Bieber or about Jesus for prizes like books he has found on the street or shirts he used to wear. I bake cookies and wear costumes — vintage gowns or party dresses made of tulle. Our focus is on emerging writers, whatever “emerging” means (anywhere from no pubs to one book?), as perhaps we are emerging our entire lives. Our readers are in large part still developing their voices, still wondering whether they can call themselves writers, aren’t sure whether they’ll stick with it or why. My co-host and I consider ourselves emerging writers too. We are not preaching from a throne — we are standing on fake green grass covering the floor of the window display in a vintage clothing store. I nod to the courage it takes to share their unfinished work by sharing my most unfinished work.

Perhaps if we hadn’t relaunched during the week of Valentine’s, I wouldn’t have reached for my very *first* journal, a hardcover with a Matisse goldfish bowl on the cover. Perhaps I wouldn’t have read an entry “Is it or is it not?” on the topic of lurve, sweet lurve, or told everyone how on the night before Valentine’s Day in eighth grade, I broke into my boyfriend’s locker and wrote “I love you” in red electrical type, but the next morning I ran to school, broke in again and tore it out.

Sharing my middle and high school “poetry” at the series has become a tradition of sorts. I always try to make it through without laughing, but I never do. Like most of my “poems,” this one is untitled.

“What tender lips
And beauteous face
Sparkling eyes
Full of grace

But for me they are no more
Cut and dry (?)
We’ve shut the door

Hold me says body
Kiss me says touch
Tell me says hearing
That you miss me so much.”

Sometimes I wish the audience could see my typography:

“WELL, I DON’T DO DRUGS.
Dang. That’s right.
So how about this: it’s over!
What? Did I stutter?”

A reader once commended me on my bravery. “I don’t even share my poetry from three years ago,” he said into the microphone. Now I try to make it clear that this is not literature. I call it humiliation as comedy.

But in the here and now, in the world of my reading series on the Wednesday nights when I stand too close or too far away from the microphone because I have no fucking idea what I’m doing, I delight in sharing these words from a former self, a self that never ever thought she would reach an audience of twentysomethings in Brooklyn. I also hate myself, muttering “I can’t believe I’m sober,” before I read what 14-year-old me had to say about heartache, back when everything meant so much, when there was no perspective because there was no horizon. I liken my pre-performance self-hatred to seppuku — Japanese ritual suicide — when Samurai would stab themselves in the stomach to avoid falling into enemy hands. And if that is true, if I can exaggerate and appropriate to offer some semblance of just how uncomfortable the entire operation is, if I can admit that I don’t do this “lightly,” but that I’m “feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” if I can prop myself up on aphorisms and platitudes, I can escape the ego chasing me down the block, the voice threatening to throw my laptop out the window or hold a match to my manuscript. Because as much as everything matters, it also can’t matter that much. I want to live where irony meets kindness, where daring meets bullshit, where everything that failed meets the hope that something might not. I hope my readers do too.

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