I wonder if I'll ever get over being embarrassed when people try to talk to me about my poems. This is an awkward, ungracious response and one that, by now, you'd think I'd have overcome. I post poems here in large part because I'm trying to make myself more comfortable with raw exposure; but when a poem appears in a book or a magazine, I usually assume that no one's reading it so I don't have to worry. My attitude is self-defeating because, of course, I long for readers and book reviews and interviews. And I really do like to read my work in public: when I'm performing, the anxiety slips away, and I can let myself be vulnerable and love the sound of my own words. Yet I have to fight a feeling of faintness when someone starts talking to me about one of my poems, I cringe at book reviews, and I have never--not once--listened to a recorded interview of myself.
At moments I do squinch my eyes shut and do what needs to be done: that Beloit Poetry Journal forum on the long poem, for instance. But I tremble at every word I share, and I dread looking at the responses--even good ones. All of this is stupid and self-defeating, a written version of stage fright. And it's unkind to the miracle of readers. For instance, a member of my band asked me if he could have a copy of How the Crimes Happened. Horrified, I quelled my urge to insist, "Oh, you don't have to read that!" and gave him a copy. He wasn't the poetry-reading type, I assured myself. He worked long days as a contractor and wasn't going to spend his evenings toiling over my poems. Surely the book would disappear under a stack of magazines beside his recliner.
But during next week's practice, he told me that he had been slowly and carefully reading the poems. Then he told me which ones he liked and how they made him feel. The other two guys in the band sat listening thoughtfully and then suggested that they should borrow it from him and read it when he was done.
I was stunned and confused and disturbed and embarrassed and flattered. Toss in every other clumsy adolescent adjective you can think of and I was probably that too. I wish I could say forthrightly that I was overjoyed, but the pleasure was overshadowed by the sense that I was making people's lives too difficult, that they thought I was demanding praise, that they were only being polite, that they suspected I was stuck up, that they were just trying to make me feel better, and so on and so on. Toss in every other clumsy adolescent explanation you can think of and I was probably that too. But since I am pushing fifty, it's about time for this callow behavior to go away.