Emily K. Michael
I AM READING, I AM READ
Every table in the cafe is occupied. Wooden chairs scrape and squeak against the bare floor. Surly employees set down plates of sweet potato fries, Cuban sandwiches, fresh croissants. The espresso machine hums and whirs from the hidden kitchen, and we celebrate its rare functionality with gusto.
I wait against the window as my host arranges the microphone and speakers. The speakers are boxy, incongruous among the blond wood of tables and chairs. I take up my position before the large unshaded window. My guide dog, a black Labrador, lies peaceably at my feet. He enjoys his patch of sun-warmed floor, where the smells of countless breakfasts have been fossilized. He is calm, his leash secured under my foot.
I cherish the small relief that I am not holding the leash; I know it will transfer my anxiety to him. I face the customers, tune my ears to the genial clinks of forks and plates. My dog sighs and his collar jingles. My friend Abigail secures a lapel mic to my collar, asks me to test the sound.
Everything is ready. I have been introduced. I open my big black binder and raise the poems to eye level. The letters are large, printed in bold 24-point font. I am grateful for serifs. Without serifs, the r's are t's, the a's are o's. And even though I have written these words, I know the mind-blanking power of anxiety.
From over my shoulder, sunlight washes the words away. I squint through my sunglasses at dancing marks —faded and illegible. The room is quiet. I have to break the silence: "Well, this position isn't going to work. It's too bright over here."
Instantly my cheering section of mother and friends rises to act. Mom scans the cafe and finds a new place for me to stand. Abigail holds the binder and the microphone. The audience shifts in their chairs, and I hear a few halfhearted murmurs, as if they're not sure whether they should maintain a respectful silence.
I need to talk us through this awkwardness. As my guide dog helps me navigate to a darker corner of the cafe, I tell my listeners, "See? This is the fun of being a blind poet. You never know how the light will treat your vision. You're seeing accommodation in real time."
A ripple of nervous laughs breaks the tension and I settle into my new position. My dog slides to the floor again, resisting his usual need to explore. I lift the poems and try reading from this dim corner. The letters wobble only a little, and after the first poem, I find a rhythm. I learn to lower the binder after each poem, so my listeners can enjoy the illusion of eye contact. I look around the room after every poem. Between works, I hear light applause, shifting bodies, or silence. But overall it's a quiet crowd —not as raucous or enthusiastic as the room of students I practiced on last week.
I knew I would be reading at this literary festival, so I asked my class for help. "It'll be my first time reading my work in public," I said. "Can I read for you to get a sense of how it goes?"
My dozen students, a developmental writing class, were happy to oblige. I ended the class early and read six poems for them. They clapped, sighed, called out, clucked their tongues, and gave me lots of feedback.
"Ms. Michael, I could really see the gardenia, you know? Like what you described – I could see it in my head! I never done that with poetry before."
"When you wrote about your friend dying, I felt it. That was real sad. I think that one is gonna reach people."
"You gonna be great, Ms. Michael. You just go up there and say it. Look at 'em and be proud of what you wrote."
I don't expect this warmth from today's audience —mostly listeners I have never met. My students and I had months to develop our rapport.
At my reading, I decide to address the issue differently: "So, if you're enjoying my work silently, I can't tell. If you're nodding and smiling at my poems, I can't see that. So when you like what you hear, feel free to clap or jingle your keys. Rattle the ice in your glass. And if you don't like it," I pause dramatically, "Just go ahead and stay silent."
Someone raises their water glass and rattles the ice. Everyone laughs. Someone else drums on the wood of their table. I lift my notebook again and begin a poem about cardinals. When I lower my binder, the glasses shake, the forks clink. Someone says "Mmmhmmm," and someone else says, "Yeeesssss." The applause is modest, a thoughtful coming-together of palms.
This positive public reading has many memories to displace. It has to take up enough room in my mind to expel the years of stumbling through small fonts and bright lights, the dozens of classrooms where I didn't have what I needed to read fluently with confidence. It has to overtake the hundreds of times I gazed at sheet music with its far too tiny lyrics: I told every chorus director, "My problem with sightreading isn't the reading. It's the sight."
I never planned to face these fears. But several months ago, Abigail sat me down for some Thai food and tough love. She knew that a mutual friend and fellow poet had encouraged me to read at the upcoming literary festival. She also knew that I had answered, "No, I'm not ready to read aloud" and given a long list of visual challenges. My reservations had cowed that friend into silence. Still, Abigail picked up a cream cheese wonton and looked at me.
"You know you can do this."
I told her about lighting and large print. I rehearsed my middle school humiliations when I, an A student, read aloud with the halting pauses and errors of a novice. She listened, poured green tea, waited.
When it was Abigail's turn to speak, she said, "We will scout out the venue. We will practice in my office. We will get the fonts right. If none of these things work, at least you'll know you've tried it. But you need to read for an audience."
My struggles did not move her, but her faith moved me. So I practiced, asked the festival coordinators for the venue I knew best, tried several different fonts on my poems. As we hashed through every what-if, Abigail never suggested I was exaggerating or making excuses. She honored my concerns.
So here I am, reading in public.
And I will read again. And again.
The issues of lighting and font size and low vision won't go away. They'll still accompany me to every public reading. But I've decided to leave the fear behind.