When I was in high school, I did a lot of acting. I liked it. It was fun and I was good at it.
My high school competed in forensics (not the “examining crime scenes” type, the acting competition type) and in my sophomore year, the drama teacher finally managed to convince me to join. “We’ll put you in a comedic duo,” she said. “You’ll do great.”
The weeks passed, and I wondered when she would actually get around to explaining to me what exactly I had to do for this comedic duo. Until finally the first competition was a few days away and I asked her if she’d dropped me from the team without telling me.
“Oh, no, my schmoopie, I just moved you to poetry.”
“Poetry?” Wariness sets in.
“We only had one person sign up for poetry and we need more representation there.” She handed me a few sheets of paper. “It needs to be at least 7 minutes and you need to have it memorized.”
Wariness is full on, starting to look like a triple rainbow.
I took the poem and left the classroom. On the bus ride home, I read it. Complete shit of a poem. Some sort of long narrative that, were it one of my high school writing assignments, would have been handed back with the words “Try again” written in red at the top.
I thought about quitting right then and there. But so many of my friends talked about all the adventures they had in forensics, and dammit, I wanted in on it. Maybe they’d see how good I was and move me to something cooler later.
I spent the next few days trying to memorize the poem. You might not know this about me, but I am kickass at memorization. I will memorize things for the hell of it. For funsies. But if it’s not interesting, my brain can’t hold onto it. It just falls out.
That Saturday, we all get on the bus to drive a hundred miles away to where all the other schools are driving 100 miles for this competition. I try explaining to the drama teacher that I am so not prepared and I will be worse than no representation at all.
“You don’t have to have it memorized,” she said, doing one of her classic I-was-wrong-before-but-I’m-gonna-pretend-I-was-right-all-along moves. “It’s not a big deal. Just go in there and read the poem.” Friends are on the bus, it’s cold outside, Mom already left me at school. Fine. I get on the bus.
I spend the bus ride still trying to memorize that poem. But it’s no use. It will never be in there. There is no space assigned for crappy poetry in that lumpy pinkish-grey mass that is my brain. But whatever. It’s casual. Just read it.
It’s held in a high school, and I am directed to a classroom where 9 other girls sit. Apparently boys hate poetry. These girls have been doing forensics for years and a lot of them know each other. Most of them are talking about how much they hate dating men, so at least there’s one thing we have in common.
There is no set order for who goes when. So a girl pops herself up there. And she recites her poem.
She has it memorized. She has dramatic pauses, wild gestures, and she dressed like her poem’s main character. She recited the whole thing in a New York Italian accent. It was 10 minutes long.
She sat down, and I was feeling pretty sick. But hey, maybe she’s like a poetry prodigy. Maybe she came out of the womb bustin’ mad Keats out of her tiny infant mouth.
But no, 8 other girls got up in front of the class, with their clothes and their voices and their confidence and no crinkled sheets of paper to be seen. 7-10 minutes of poetry about slavery and “angry lesbians breasts”.
I wondered if I could skip out on doing mine. Claim that I was just there to watch, a spectator. But shit, they had passed around a sheet asking for everyone’s names and what poem they were reading at the beginning of the session. And I had stupidly written my name clearly.
I stand in front of the classroom, three sheets of paper in my hand. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to memorize it,” I say, voice wavering as I watch the judge already knocking points off my score.
What followed was five minutes of some of the fastest rhymes outside of an auctioneer’s beat night. When I finished reading a page, I flung it out of my hands as if it was on fire. I was sweating so much that afterward, a friend asked me if my cat had peed on my sweater that morning. (I wish I was joking about that last part.)
When I was finished, I darted into my seat, tried not to cry, and tried harder not to pee my pants. The most valuable lesson I learned that day was to always use the bathroom before doing any public speaking.
There were three rounds of competition that day, and obviously I did not make it into round 2. They invited me to sit in on more of the sessions, to learn things and take notes, but I decided that I had suddenly discovered a strange desire to go pet some lions dressed in a bacon suit. So I declined.
Since that day, I have never been fond of poetry. I have, in my life, written a total of one poem that I actually kind of liked. And I tend not to understand poetry. It seemed to either be a boring narrative or some sort of purposely confusing bullshit that you think is about a cat, but it turns out to be about rape and now you’re in trouble because when you were in charge of laying out the arts magazine for that year, you surrounded the rape poem with black and white photographs of naked ladies. But dammit, maybe they should have been a little bit more clear about what they were talking about.
If you are ever in a poetry reading and you smell cat piss, look around you. It’s probably me.