the roaming diaries: from page to stage

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In high school, Monday afternoons at 3:30 I’d find myself in a classroom with a handful of students who considered themselves poets. We all had journals, mine filled with poems following an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. I had no idea what I was doing, but I so desperately clung to being a writer. I wanted it more than anything. A slam poet would come in and teach us about spoken word poetry. On a whiteboard, he’d write the acronym PIPES (most of which I cannot remember, but it included “Projection” and “Infection”) and have one of us read a poem that followed the acronym. He taught us how to change our voices, make the meanings of words sound different, more powerful. Growing up, my shyness was at times paralyzing, but it was part of what got me “A pleasure to have in class” written on every report card. I was quiet. I stayed out of trouble. I tried not to ruffle any feathers. But when I learned that I could write poetry in a way that wasn’t constricting, my life changed. I got louder. We had a slam poetry competition at school in the spring and I won 3rd place, making it to semifinals, where I read on a stage in Playhouse Square a month later. I kept writing poems, most of them reactionary in nature to unrequited crushes and being misunderstood by my parents and all of that teen angst bullshit. My senior year of high school, shyness be damned, I decided to return to the stage and do a slam poem in the talent show. At the talent show try-outs, my hands were shaking and my voice sometimes wavered as I read the poem I spent a week working on. Some people said “Aww” when I got off the stage. That pissed me off. I didn’t really tell anyone that I was in the talent show; I invited my mom at the last minute, who brought me flowers.

I had my last writing workshop class of my undergrad career this semester. Poetry. When I was compiling my final portfolio, making revisions to the poems I’d written since January, I realized how much I tried to be someone else within those stanzas. Profound, but not pretentious. Moody, but not dramatic.  In the wise words of Lizzo, I just took a DNA test turns out I’m 100% that bitch…whose first poem of the semester was a breakup poem. Not only that, but it was heavily influenced by the style of Alex Dimitrov. I was a walking cliche—what else does a brooding 22-year-old with a new pair of Doc Martens in the dead of winter have to write about besides heartbreak? You know, besides being scared about the future, the lingering impermanence of being a twentysomething, and mental illness. I was really hard on myself this semester—I got in my own way. During workshop the level of insight I witnessed from my classmates was so astounding that I thought I was in a room of Psychology majors rather than English majors. I felt as though one of them would pull out the DSM 5 at any moment and diagnose me as a fraud.

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One of my resolutions this year was to do an open mic. I’m relieved I saw this one through, because other than that I boldly proclaimed I’d stay off dating apps for all of 2019 and only lasted three weeks.

Nonetheless, an opportunity presented itself at the end of April, and I invited my friends Arbela and Sam to come with me. I bought a new jumpsuit. I copied down a couple of poems into the notebook I always carry with me, and mindlessly put on an episode of The Bold Type while getting ready. Something happened in the half hour before Arbela picked me up. I moved my laptop to my desk and started writing a new poem. Something that felt more like me. For months I’d had an idea of writing a Tinder slam poem, and I finally saw it coming to life. I kept writing it on my phone in the passenger seat of Arbela’s car, and finished scrawling it down in my notebook at the Tremont bar I would be reading at.

Being at the open mic lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. Getting to listen to other writers speak their truths and be unafraid of who they are and what they had to say pulled me out of the self-pity I’d been feeling for weeks on end.

I got pulled on the stage and said “Hi, I’m Grace. I’m a senior at Cleveland State, I’m a Scorpio, and I’m happy to be here.” I started reading. I was nervous but surprised at how natural being up there felt, even though it had been four years since I read work aloud outside of a classroom. It felt good to willingly share myself with the world like that, and to have my friends see a side of me they haven’t experienced before.

For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled with the kind of writer I want to be. I know that I identify as an essayist, a blogger, hell, even a poet. But while I want my writing to move people, I also want to make people laugh. I’ve always felt as though I’ve had to choose between the two, and that there isn’t enough room for me to be both. Is it possible for me to be emotional and funny in my writing? In the middle of the semester, my mom called me and told me my writing was missing my “trademark sarcasm,” and prescribed Fran Lebowitz. I’m not sure I’ve been cured yet, but only time will tell, and playing it safe isn’t going to help.