My hands don’t sweat my nerves; they shake them out through my fingers. I sat in the front row with five other poets, ones I consider more accomplished than myself. Only last year was my poem, “Dignified Opposition,” nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Dime Show Review. I’m still working on a poetry manuscript, one I’ve put together, torn apart, and started over with completely different poems and themes.
Have you ever had that moment when you’re struck dumb? That happened to me when an email from Lucinda Marshall landed in my inbox. She was organizing a poetry reading with local poets and wanted to know if I was interested. Was I interested? Of course! But I was equally terrified that I would be a blubbering mess. I was reminded by my lovely first reader that I needed to send her samples of my work first, which I presumed would be rejected.
I haven’t read my own work in public for about 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve shown anyone else my work, except my trusted first reader. The pressure not to disappoint seemed insurmountable.
I remember that eagerness, picking out poems I loved and wanted to share in our small literary community at Suffolk University. I rarely had a second thought about reading my poems. The dark basement lounge with its small furniture in bright rainbow colors, musty but inviting in a bohemian way. It was a delight to share the shadowed space with so many young, vibrant poets. We were all searching for our own voices, and we were doing it together.
Life changed after graduation, and the reality of student loans and needing a job to live off of soon crept into my worldview. College seemed like a carefree place where I could spend my afternoons writing and creating — learning — but the workforce is much more rigid. For 20 years, I’ve been writing off and on when I found the time between work, getting married, and having a daughter. Writing came in spurts or not at all for many years. Publications in journals trickled in, and with each fleeting moment of delight came the dreary feeling of failure.
Literary work is hard, even harder than working in a rigid job. It’s full of rejection and very few moments of praise and encouragement. Not reading for those years allowed my anxieties to loom larger, and I allowed those rejections to feed that anxiety. It’s crazy how things can accumulate over time without you realizing it.
After speaking with my first reader about what poems to send Lucinda, my heart began racing once they went to her inbox from mine. I worried that they weren’t good enough, even though many had been published previously. I realized through all my worrying that I didn’t want to inadvertently blow a chance to share my work again. Yes, work I had been holding onto, but proud of, even as my editorial brain told me they were not polished.
When Lucinda told me that I was added to the lineup with Katherine E. Young, Gregory Luce, Leeya Mehta, and Donald Illich at The Gallery at Chesapeake Framing in North Potomac, Md., in June, my brain froze. I flailed for a while after her email, despite my answers to her queries for a headshot and bio. It was coming down to the wire, and while the fear whirred, I struggled to pin down what poems I’d read.
I admit I was beginning to allow anxiety to take over. I didn’t select or practice my poems beforehand. In fact, I did just two dry runs the day of the reading. Even as I listened to the poets before me in the lineup, my hands were shaking uncontrollably. I still struggled with the poems I had in the folder; I wanted it to be perfect, knowing that it wouldn’t be. In the end, I pushed the fears aside, reordered my poems, and stepped to the podium.
As I read each poem, I traveled back in time to when I wrote them and why, and it was trip I will remember for a long time because I felt closer to my daughter when I wrote how she would save the world in “A Poem to Save Us,” to my nana who filled my life with music in “Piano,” and to both my grandmothers and my own mother in “Just Mom” and “Dear Vovó.” I feel freer for having shared these poems that are so close to my heart, and I wouldn’t hesitate to struggle with my anxieties to do it again.
About the Author: Serena M. Agusto-Cox
Serena M. Agusto-Cox, a Suffolk University graduate, writes more vigorously than she did in her college poetry seminars. Her day job continues to feed the starving artist, and her poems can be read in Beginnings Magazine, LYNX, Muse Apprentice Guild, The Harrow, Poems Niederngasse, Avocet, Pedestal Magazine, and other journals. An essay also appears in H.L. Hix’s Made Priceless, as does a Q&A on book marketing through blogs in Midge Raymond’s Everyday Book Marketing. She also runs the book review blog, Savvy Verse & Wit , and is the founder of Poetic Book Tours.