Reading to strangers: part II

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did was participate in a public poetry reading.

This post continues the telling of how I came to read to strangers in public. This is what it was like to grow up in the 1960’s and lose the natural desire to share. It happens in every generation. We all pass from innocence to experience. When young we all try so disparately to fit. Often we distort our internal shape doing so. This then is part two of four or what looks like five parts now.



There was sharing I did when I was a boy in church. For many years my grandmother took my brother and my cousin and me to church. Our parents did not go to church but grandmother did every Saturday. She was not Jewish she was Seventh-Day Adventist like the original Christians she said. That is why we did church on Saturday which her church called the Sabbath. She said the Bible never said to stop worshipping on the Sabbath only man said that and we don’t obey any man only God. She was very much like a Jewish grandmother. She loved us fiercely and knew what was right for everyone. She did not spare her opinions on us children. She also made us wash ourselves before bed and in the morning. After washing before bed we would say our prayers kneeling at the bedside. Grandma who we called Mum kneeled beside us and helped us to remember all the people who needed our prayers. We said our prayers without complaint because we could stay up that much longer and liked listening to Grandma pray because she whispered and spoke quickly and never seemed to forget anyone who needed praying for. We resisted being washed but resistance was futile.

It was futile to resist learning our scripture verses too. Mum always asked if we learned our verses. Sometimes she would scold our parents outside when they dropped us off before they drove away if we hadn’t learned our weekly verses. She would have us recite them before bedtime prayers and in the morning before breakfast and on the way to church. Then we would read them before all the other children in Sabbath School. Each quarter we would recite not just read a good chunk of an entire chapter usually from the Old Testament. My favorite story was Balaam and the Donkey. A talking donkey was bound to be my favorite story. I liked that the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord first. Intuitively I knew animals saw deeply into things. More deeply than the adults I knew. And this it still true.

This sharing of verses was a kind of sharing and I am glad all those verses are wandering around inside of me now. This sharing was a little scary as all sharing is but as yet my father did not leave so it was possible to do it even though I was somewhat afraid because I had as yet no fear of abandonment and still lived with the hope of things not going inevitably sour. Reading them from a raised platform with a podium in front of everyone I was nervous and had that normal bit of fear of not remembering though our kind teachers never scolded us when we stumbled over a word or got them backwards or forgot some of the words altogether. When we stumbled our Sabbath School teacher who sat behind us would whisper a word to help us along. This was so much like the way we learned that the Lord always at our side to help us.

This was sharing too but it felt different than what sharing poems feels like now. There is little freedom in sharing what you are told you must share rather than sharing what you discovered in the freedom of yourself. If you are told to share and even if you are offered money it is not sharing not really sharing it is having to share and the life has gone well out of it.


Reading to strangers in public: part one of four

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did was participate in a public poetry reading. This is the first of four parts of that story.


This is the beginning of the telling of how I came to read poetry to strangers. It is a telling of how I came one day to sit and another day to stand in front of strangers and for the first time read my own poetry. It was a long journey. This is the short version of that journey.

child painter

I suppose and can only guess that it began when I was a child. Children are naturally show boats. They create a drawing or write a poem and they want to share it. To this day whenever my daughter writes a song she has me read it or sings it to me. No delay. My son used to share his drawings too but now he only shares by talking. He loves to talk. This is now mostly how he shares. I am sure I did this too. I began sharing the things I made and eventually shared only talking and sometimes only a little talking at that.

My mother was a talker too. Whenever I visited her back in Michigan she would give me something I created that she hung on to all through the years. A blue plaster of Paris ashtray. A charcoal drawing of a house set in mountains with red windows and black windblown smoke from the chimney. A paper mache elephant. Even cards I wrote to her that meant the love she gave came back like a cute boomerang. This was important to her as it is important to all mothers. So it is natural to express ourselves in all kinds of ways. The question is why do we stop?

For a long time almost a lifetime I did not know at any time why I stopped. Now I see a little more into this. I did not cease to share entirely but essentially. Oh I gave Christmas gifts and birthday cards and these are fine things to do and a kind of sharing but not sharing of the vulnerable part inside us. This is why it was difficult to share with others . There was stage fright of course though not enough to stop me or most anyone. This is the natural fear of rejection anyone might have and get over. Yet the big freeze came because I also have a larger and looming and quite irrational fear of abandonment. This larger fear was constant and with me so long it seemed natural. Anything lived with long enough seems natural. Even something looming and not luminous. My father left my life when I was eleven. Just like that he was gone. He was not dead but gone just the same. As all boys at any age a boy of eleven is in great need of his father. I did not know at that time why my father left and my mother would not say. So there was not a lot of talking about that. I think this abandonment planted a rather large fear in me and may account for most of my unwillingness to share created things. It made all hope hard. If everything you admire and love can be taken away not just taken away but taken away for no reason then hope is hard to have and to do. Sharing then becomes too daring for someone like this.

It took decades before I could again share. I knew it is natural not seemingly natural and that sharing is caring and makes everyone who can share feel together and good. The feeling of this sharing stays with you a long time after too. Maybe always. Whenever you remember this sharing it is like running fingers over a scar long after a cut and smiling. You know the scar is still there but the pain whatever is left of it can no longer hurt or keep you from hope. Even though there is still some pain and some fear even today speaking in public I can speak to the fear and cause it to shrink away. This way I don’t stay forever locked up inside myself. Poems, mine and others, helped me see this. This is why poetry is so valuable to me and anyone if they discover it. Poems cut through pain with the clever living that transforms experience. Poems are scars that speak. People who love each other share the story of their scars. There is comfort and closeness in reading or singing poems together. Illumination too. And hope. All this and even more are present when people read poetry together. Even when they are strangers.


William Stafford’s poem “Scars” confirms the inevitability of wounds in life, and some ‘sorrows’ may be unreachable even by very fine church choirs. Find it here.