I wasn’t nervous, per se… my chest was tight, yes, like grasping hands clenched desperate around my sternum, but I didn’t need to regulate my breathing (in through the nose and out through the mouth, like they always suggest in books and first aid manuals). The drums sang in the crowd and we danced with them, I laughing and bouncing and perching in my seat as I waited for the performance to begin. Anticipation sat lightly on our shoulders, running goosebump hands down our arms and turning rich laughter sharp. Down in the hollow VCU and American University were trading drumbeat rhythms, forming a dance circle of moving bopping jiving bodies, and I wanted to join but I felt silly and insecure so I stayed in my seat, constrained by idiotic propriety and the pressure to perform.
Before the slam began, our advisor, Corbett Upton, changed our performance order; instead of going third I was now second, performing after the other Sarah and finishing off the second round. This was fine by me- “Lifeguard” (the poem I would perform) is the kind of thing that needs space surrounding it; you can’t just follow it up immediately with another poem, slapdash and rollercoaster. It’s too harsh for that.
The sacrificial poet went up and did a piece about racism- or sexism? I don’t really remember. She conjured beautiful lonely buildings, crumbling from corrosion until they collapsed into dusty nothings, and somehow it was the perfect metaphor for her message. I remember being impressed with her vocabulary, and I was pleased when the audience gave her their wild approval, because that meant they’d also like Sarah’s style. She writes in whimsical, verbal acrobatics, clever and quick and unexpectedly funny. The audience loved her, and after that the night was a stuttering swirl of intense reaction and frozen emotion, solitary figures wreathed in weighty recognition and support. We drew from each other such depths of feeling that by the end both audience and performer were exhausted.
I am laughing at myself; in writing this I’ve somehow reawakened the nerves of that night, and even though I know how it all ends I can’t help feeling tense as I write our way towards my performance. I suppose that is a hallmark of the strength of my experience; even in recollection the memory cannot help but touch me deeply.
The poem before mine was one of love and affection and tender hope, laced with humor and fear and lighthearted nostalgia. It was sweet and pure, the perfect bright contrast to my grisly offering. They called my name, and I rose thoughtless and stepped down to the stage. The room was arranged in steep concentric semicircles around a main stage, smallish and concrete and bare but for the microphones, and when I reached it I found myself in the bottom of a well, surrounded on all sides by attentive faces. They say you should establish your right to the stage as soon as you step out onto it, so I took my time adjusting the microphones, making sure that everything was perfectly adjusted to my specifications. I stepped back a few paces to let myself settle, like dust and stones on the bottom of a riverbed, and closed my eyes. I breathed carefully, intentionally, squared my feet under me and stood my ground against the hundreds of eyes cast upon me. I raised my face to the audience, to let them know I was not afraid of them, and delivered my gaze: Clear, calm, level headed. Detached. I walked to the microphone and began to speak.
You’ve never seen me do “Lifeguard,” so it will be difficult for you to imagine my performance. It began quiet and emotionless, cold in a cruel, disinterested way that dropped so sharply after the previous poem that someone said, “Well shit,” after my introduction, surprised by the heartlessness I threw upon them. I continued. From emotionless I moved to proud, then impatient, then desperate and greedy and manic. I seduced the audience with my pain, stole their problems to forget my own. I was angry, and broken, and lost and ruined and fierce, and even though I faltered halfway through, it became vulnerability and added another layer of depth to my performance. The audience followed me the whole way— together we visited the depths of self-destruction, and came to the terrifying place of hope where it is only possible to lose things because you care so deeply about them. I was magnificent, mesmerising, terrible. I wish you could have seen me.
Afterward I stumbled back to my seat in daze, emotionally and physically exhausted. My nerves hummed raw voltage and my fingers twitched, and my legs almost gave way before I reached my chair. I hardly heard the numbers, so focused was I on breathing, separating myself from the performance, learning how to be myself again. I did well, I think; I remember being proud and pleased, happy that I had nothing left to give when I stepped out of the spotlight. Afterward a man said my performance reminded him of a friend who lost himself so utterly in his music that he played until his fingers bled, and only after the song was finished did he realise what he’d done. We finished last but we held our own, and I was ecstatic and electrically satisfied with what we’d done. That night I couldn’t sleep; the audience and the amphitheatre jumped before my eyes every time they closed, and I couldn’t help reliving the experience. Even in bed I was standing, trapped at the bottom of a fishbowl with no way to escape but by speaking, and no way to speak but by living. It was painful, astonishing, heartrendingly exquisite.
I have never been so alive.