Sunday, February 23, 2014

My life as performing artist

Why do I keep doing this to myself?

I'd been aware of Open Mic Night at High Rock Outfitters for a month or so now, and I thought the concept was yet another good idea by owner Chris Phelps as a way to draw folks to his really neat, one-of-a-kind-for-Lexington establishment. Mostly, I figured, it was the perfect place for relatively unknown musicians to get on a stage and try out their stuff. Especially since HRO is known primarily as a music venue.

Then I read the small print on the HRO Facebook page describing what Open Mic Night was all about: "Calling all Poets, Singers, Songwriters, Comedians, Storytellers, Puppeteers and great listeners for a truly open mic night."

Poets? Not just musicians? Hmm. I'd written some poetry back in college and I knew I had them saved in a manila envelope somewhere, so I rooted through my chest of drawers until I found an aging packet. It smelled musty and looked battered. I opened it up and pulled out some of the type-written pages that probably hadn't seen the light of day in 40 years and glanced at some of the poems I'd written about long-lost loves, forgotten pets and snowy days.

I can't sing. I can't write songs. I'm not particularly funny (at least, not on purpose). But I did have these poems. Why not give it a shot?

No, I am not singing. I am reading one of my poems during open mic at HRO.
 The only real problem to all of this was my unbridled fear of public speaking. I'd recently given a short thank-you speech to about 150 people when I was inducted into the Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame last October, and I also made a presentation in front of city council in favor of making our neighborhood a historic district. I somehow successfully made my way through those moments, but it wasn't a particularly comfortable time for me. Still...

So last week Kim and I went to Open Mic Night. There were about 20-30 people there, most of them other performers. I signed up by putting my name on the chalk board and within minutes, Brittany Wilson, the general manager of HRO and a poet in her own right, introduced me. Brittany had just heard one of her poems put to music and performed by Jennifer Millis, who also serves as Open Mic emcee. It was a great moment.

But now it was my turn. I walked deliberately to the stage and stepped up to the mic. I brought two poems with me: one of them, "Pershing at the Front," is a humorous piece written by Arthur Guiterman during World War I and it's a rhyming poem about the absurdity of the military chain of command. The other poem was an original I had written as a parody to Guiterman's piece, except I used Viet Nam as the backdrop. I'd written it in 1973, you see, at the height of that war.

Anyway, as I started reciting, weird things began to happen. I couldn't see the audience three feet in front of me because of the overhead stage lights. That was a good thing. I was aware that my voice was strong and without nervous fluttering, but the hand that was holding my poem began shaking uncontrollably. Consequently, the poem was flopping about like a trout just pulled from a mountain stream. I kept reading, but at the same time my brain was multi-tasking and I was marveling at my shaky hand. I think I actually looked at my hand at one point. I had no idea that I could read a poem out loud and still try to think of ways to become unnervous at the same time. The ability of the brain to do that must be the 90 percent we don't usually utilize, I guess. Except during public speaking.

I got through Guiterman's poem, which brought a trickle of laughter. Good. That's what I wanted to happen. I just hoped they weren't laughing at me.

Then I started reading the piece I had written. Another strange thing happened. My knees started knocking. And, again, I was aware of this happening all while I was reading, and, believe it or not, I came to a solution in mid-poem. I thought maybe I could lock my knees to stop the knocking, and I actually tried to do so, but to no avail. I later found out that it was probably a good thing that I couldn't, because locking your knees might cut off the flow of blood from here to there and you could faint. Great. Come to HRO and see Bruce topple.

Anyway, I finished my poem. I heard the sound of polite applause. Somebody told me "Good job" as I walked back to my table, but I don't know who. The room was spinning. I sat down and tried to finish drinking my glass of beer with the hand that was still shaking, something even I found to be amusing. Kim smiled at me and held my hand. It's good to know I can still impress her after all these years.

Jennifer went up to introduce the next act, but before she did, she publicly thanked me for getting up on a stage to do what I did, that she has similar fears of her own when performing, and that on the whole, performing isn't easy. Those were kind words to say at just the right time and it helped to calm me.

So now what? Do I still want to keep doing this to myself? Oddly, I was petrified while on stage yet enjoyed it beyond reason.

And I still have 10 or 12 more poems to read.

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