This is my very first post on my very first proper website (and by ‘proper’ I mean I paid WordPress £15 for the domain name) and so in the spirit of firsts I thought I’d talk about a monumental achievement of mine which happened recently: for the first time, I performed my own poetry in front of a crowd of Real People.
Now, I am aware that not everybody is a natural performer. Those who genuinely enjoy getting up onto a stage under the gaze of hundreds of sets of eyes and unnecessarily bright lighting without wanting to just be sick all over themselves are a rare portion of mankind, or possibly alienkind, because there is a part of me that slightly distrusts anybody with such a masochistic passion. However, most people, I assume, while not eager thespians, generally possess a degree of competency when it comes to speaking a human language and vocalising their thoughts in a concise, organised manner. I am not one of those people.
For a bulk of my life, I have had debilitating anxiety that has me feel like I’m constantly attempting to defuse a bomb with two seconds left on the timer. Anxiety can manifest itself in several ways; in my case, it especially affected my ability to function in social interactions, and it can range from a persistent sense of worry to full-blown panic attacks. It usually has some lovely physical side effects such as sweating, heart palpitations and feeling faint. It’s very much both a mental and physical condition, and in that sense I never had a moment of peace. Even if you couldn’t tell that I was feeling nervous (and you could probably tell, to be honest – you could wring out my clothes like a wet flannel with the amount of sweat I produce when I’m anxious) my mind was constantly racing, as if it were constantly abuzz with thousands of tiny flies screaming YOU ARE A FAILURE, WHY CAN’T YOU TALK TO PEOPLE YOU IDIOT?
After almost a decade of dealing with this, I finally started to improve in my final year of university. There’s no real one decisive route to self-improvement, I’ve discovered (after polluting my Google search history with gems like ‘how to get rid of anxiety’ and ‘stop hating myself’); it’s more like a smattering of tiny victories rolled into a big ball of adequacy. I used to set myself mini challenges, such as ‘make eye contact with more than five people you talk to today’ or ‘compliment a customer at work’ and then feel terrifically proud of myself when I managed them. This sense of achievement kept growing and growing until I felt relatively comfortable engaging in the most basic human interactions – basically, I faked it ’til I made it, if ‘making it’ actually meant ‘functioning at an average level.’
Even though I am staggeringly more well-adjusted than I used to be, I still have moments where the tiniest inconvenience will send me into a blithering, incomprehensible mess. If a customer asks me a question I don’t immediately know the answer to, that split second of being unsure is enough to wipe my entire memory of everything I know about anything, including my understanding of the English language, and I’ll just stand there making vague noises, as if I was trying to construct a sentence using fridge magnets. Sometimes, if people walk past me and they’re laughing, part of me will become convinced that there’s something hilarious about my appearance that I hadn’t noticed, and countless strangers whom my existence really meant nothing to were all congregating and having a giggle over me. WHAT A FOOL!
Regardless of the occasional blip, though, I felt like I’ve come a long way, so the next step seemed to be to push myself a little further. My best friend informed me of a Poetry and Comedy Night at her local pub, which anyone could sign up for, and my brain decided that clearly this would be an excellent activity for somebody who only recently learned how say more than one sentence to a stranger without having hand spasms. Expression of creativity is an excellent venting method, as they say, so maybe I rationalised that it’d be an easier alternative to therapy. I’d actually started a daily writing journal in the new year, partly to practice since I’d love to be a writer some day, but mainly to articulate my feelings over certain unfortunate experiences in a healthy manner, and hence I scoured back on the last five months to find some material for my set.
After enduring a hefty degree of that special kind of embarrassment that comes when you look back on anything your past-self did, I managed to cultivate Old Me’s misery, woe and boy troubles into a few free form pieces that occasionally lapsed into rhyme, which I feared would betray my exploitation of rhymezone.com. As somebody who has never written poetry before, I worried that I’d end up sounding like Jonah Hill’s spoken word performance in 22 Jump Street. Practising them out loud did little to alleviate this concern as I rapidly came to the conclusion that my God, I fucking hate my voice, is this what everybody else has to deal with when I speak? Is there an operation to change my vocal chords?
Still, I practised and practised until I knew everything off by heart. Even on the night itself, as other people before me were performing, I was muttering the words under my breath with the intensity of Snape trying to save Harry from Quirrell’s jinx on his broom. (Note: this is the only time I will ever compare myself to Snape. He’s awful. Email me if you want to fight over this.) Despite this almost religious rehearsal, when I finally got up in front of the microphone the combination of bright lights, the pressure of following some incredibly talented people who did this for their degree, and the sheer anxiety of having a hundred eyeballs fixed upon me meant that I clung onto my book for dear life and stared at it for a majority of my set. Plus, the microphone was just a little too low for me, so I developed a sort of hunch trying to speak into it because I didn’t dare touch it lest it fall over or combust, and instead of projecting my voice it just sort of made me sound like I was speaking slightly above a normal level through a Styrofoam cup.
But these are the only negatives, and they are insignificant compared to the thrill that shot through me hearing everyone clap and cheer after I finished my first piece. For the first time, I understood why people were drawn to the stage. My ego was going into overdrive, as if I’d just delivered a rousing political address instead of some poems about fucking some dudes. In the moment it just felt like one long out of body experience, but it was the only time I’d ever felt relieved to just spout off words without restraint or second thought. There were a few seconds where I felt some inexplicable stirring in the pit of my stomach and my heart that made me pray I wasn’t about to have an uncontrollable bodily function, but then I realised that it was pride. I’m 90% sure, anyway.
Even though everything leading up to it was hell and my consciousness ascended into the void of nothingness during the actual performance, it was one of the best experiences of my life and I’d willingly subject myself to all that torture again. I feel like I can be proud of myself; I used to spend my evenings alone in my bedroom, thinking back on every word I’d said that day and crying because I was a big dumb baby who had no idea how to speak, and now I can stand in front of a bar full of people and perform my own writing! And yes, I’m aware that sounds like a terribly convoluted clickbait headline, but let me have my moment.