by Jay Squires
Ever since I published my mystery Thriller, RSVP: Invitation to a Chumash Massacre at the end of February, I'd put on my marketing hat and temporarily taken off my writing hat. Tonight I would be heading to Dagny's. My figurative marketing hat tilted to a rakish angle, I'd be armed with 250 sales brochures, holstered inconspicuously in a blue folder.
Any subscriber to my free "Sticky Words" newsletter will remember the article I wrote on my experience at "open-mic at Dagny's" last month. I had some fun writing that piece, where I explained how smitten I'd become at reading my poetry in front of a large audience. I think the better word is unbalanced. I mean, I was ready to be a free spirit, like Bob Dylan in the 60's, my computer case on my back instead of a guitar. I hope everyone reading it saw my tongue was firmly packed-in-cheek, but I hope they were also able to see the reality of how powerful the feeling is to read your own words before an audience and be nourished by their reactions to them.
Tonight, I would read "Godless Fly Upon My Wall." It is a funny poem. I've never read it aloud to anyone before, but having rehearsed it for several hours with all the dramatic pauses, I must say it cracked me up—and I'm a pretty good judge of funny. Attend with me the first few stanzas:
Oh Godless fly upon my wall
If God did make you after all
He made you fatter I recall
Before my frightful swatter's fall
And the chorus sings:
"Fatter, fatter, we recall
before his frightful swatter's fall
before his mighty swatter's fall."
And now it really doesn't matter
that you were fatter before the splatter
you really—really do not matter
I'll swear with God you do not matter.
[ WHAT THE HECK ... JUST ONE MORE STANZA]
And I'm certain God certainly couldn't care lesser
that I snuffed out serenity's skuzzy transgressor
with my swatter—that wondrous irritant redresser
and I'm saintly enrolled here as flyflesh-deflater
So here it was, the first Friday in March, and I arrived at Dagny's at 4:30. Open Mic wouldn't begin until 6:30 so with my table staked out and saved by my coffee cup's presence, and my jacket draped over the back of the folding chair, I surveyed the room. The holsters were emptied, and I packed fully-loaded brochures in either hand as I moved through the coffee shop.
My presence at any given table interrupted conversations, and when they looked up at me, I smiled and handed them my brochures, explaining as I pointed at my own brochure that this would be the best mystery thriller they would read in 2018, that it was not only suspenseful and thrilling, but full of romance. I finished by telling them the mystery and thriller elements came easy to me, but I had to research the romance.
Now, I'm 78 years old, and I thought that would draw a guffaw. But it didn't garner the response I was after. Instead of laughter, most blushed or fell silent. Later, I figured it out that they may have been thinking "physical research" while I meant the Wikipedia sort. When I changed it to "Thank God for imagination and memory," ... Ka-Boom! Success.
Of the thousand sales brochures I had printed, I gave away about ten. Back on the table, I had twenty brochures stapled to copies of the poem I'd be reading … not too many minutes hence. I planned, at the conclusion of my reading, to offer a copy of the poem to the first twenty who requested it. I know! I know! But you must understand I rehearsed the post-poem commercial as much—no, more—than I did the poem. I was determined. I was scared, but I had steeled myself for this moment. I wouldn't fail. To not follow through with my commercial would be tantamount to failing myself. You can turn your back on another person you fail, but you can't turn your back on yourself. You live with yourself, in yourself.
The remaining 970 brochures I would put on windshields in Costco, Walmart, and various mall parking lots over the weekend. The timing was crucial since the brochure clearly indicated the introductory-guaranteed price of $2.99 would end on March 10th. (For interested Fanstory friends, I'm extending that introductory price until the 15th, when it will change.)
So, now I was back at my table with a refill of coffee; the rest of the nesting places in the small room where they have open mic were filled and the remaining audience sat on tall bar stools, stood, squatted, or leaned against the walls. Portia, the woman who spearheaded open mic, closed the door separating our room from the rest of the coffee shop and wove her way around the tables to the stage area and the microphone. She had trouble getting it to work.
With the door closed and the bodies jammed in so close together, the temperature increased by about 10 degrees. I tried to remove my jacket while remaining seated, and elbowed a young lady in the belly who stood behind me. She tried to stifle her "whooof," but I heard it.
Portia announced the first three readers. I would be the third. The Professor of Religious Studies at the local university led off as the guest of honor. He read poems about Jesus and Adam. About fifteen poems, the content of which I don't remember, only the sheer weightiness of them. I was busy rehearsing my pre-poem and post-poem commercials for RSVP: Invitation to a Chumash Massacre. I was going to make the best use of my time.
When the professor finished to thunderous applause, a middle-aged woman approached the mic. She had a timid voice. Portia kept interrupting her reading to urge her to move closer to the mic. She was almost kissing it, but her voice was lovely.
I was having my own problems. My mouth was dry, and I discovered I had no control over the coffee cup I tried to bring to my mouth. I finally guided it with less spillage using both hands.
The woman finished her poem and said, "For my next poem …" at which point Portia sprang from her chair (she had been sitting off to the side, where the curtains would be if it were a real stage), crossed the floor to stand in front of the woman, her back to the audience. She whispered something, but I knew what it was. The timid woman was in violation of the one-poem rule. She wasn't the guest of honor, nor was her poem about Jesus or Adam. Red-faced, the woman apologized and returned to her table.
That was my cue. I recognized my nervousness the moment I got to my feet and found my legs were of no earthly use to me. I stood there at the table for a prolonged moment that I hoped was imperceptible to others, and did what I always have done when I know I have no choice but to act. I fake it strenuously until I make it. I took a deep breath, strode toward the stage, excusing myself in a voice that was louder and an octave deeper than usual, but was conducive to having the man I was addressing push himself and his chair closer into the table so I could pass behind him.
I already knew that Portia was going to tell me to stand close to the mic, because of the problem with the previous reader. She did, and this marked the point at which I started behaving in an unintended way that I can only describe as zany.
In a voice that startled even me, I thundered, "I don't need no stinkin' mic!" There were a few—and only a precious few—isolated chuckles. Now, if I had smiled at that point, I'd have emerged victorious and it would have earned me bolstered self-confidence that would win over my audience.
In an attempt at mock-confusion, Portia, from offstage said, "I don't think it smells so bad." That gave me my second opportunity to smile and say something witty. The opportunity was wasted on me. As a matter of fact, I was so disengaged from the reality of the situation that I remembered wondering at that moment, "what does she mean, 'I don't think it smells so bad.'"? I didn't connect it at all as a response to my remark.
At the risk of being anti-climactic, my poetry reading went quite well. There were no major gaffs, and the audience smiled or laughed at all the right places. When I finished, I took a stabilizing breath and was about to launch into the post poem commercial, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have at my table for the first twenty who request it, a copy of tonight's poem along with a brochure that describes my mystery/thriller novel which I published at the end of February. The introductory price is only guaranteed until March 10th—"
At that moment though, while still holding my stabilizing breath, I imagined Portia standing in front of me and whispering, "Now, Mr. Squires, we have other poets who want to read. We have no time for you to sell your novel."
I let out my breath and with my lips almost touching the mic, I said, "Thank you, folks. You've been very kind."
The fruit of my imagination wouldn't stay back at the mic with Portia's fictive chastisement. It followed me, as I shuffled with bowed head, back to my table. It sat with me there and recorded all the accusatory glances others cast at me while the rest of the poets droned on.
He would play back all the recordings hours later as I lay in bed and listened, unable to sleep.