Poets in the audience

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Though I am reading from it, the book is nowhere to be seen.

As well as normal people, some poets are in the audience. Poets I admire, poets I love, poets I have worked with.

I catch the eye of one of them. He smiles at me with kindness, then shakes his head gently. I am certain I am the only person in the room to see it. Another poet, famous for his taciturn grumpiness, quietly gets up to leave, right in the middle of my second poem. I look around for help, but there is no one.

Half way through the introduction to my next poem, I find myself telling the audience the most flagrant lie, all in the service of looking for a laugh. The lie goes down well, I notice. I will use this again, I think.

A poet I love deeply walks into the room half way through my next poem. This is not just any poet. It is my mentor. A poet I have trusted with my life, opened my heart to. She also leaves after half a poem.

Little pools of sweat are making their presence felt in crevices behind my knees, and in full view on my top lip. The next poem I read takes twice as long as it usually does, not because of the jokes I tell leading up to it, but because it is now twice as long.

The poem after that has been cut in half. The poem after that is now a blank space.

Voices are now competing for space in my head. Actual voices: schoolteachers, my grandmother, even Prince Philip. One of them has pulled out a sheaf of paper and is making large ‘X’ marks across each page in thick red marker pen, at which they toss it onto the floor in front of me as I continue to read. It is my CV, the lines of which slowly disappear up the page, as though chased by an invisible delete button, leaving only the red ‘X’ behind.

I am on my last poem. I grip the lectern, take a sip of water, and breathe. ‘This will be my last poem,’ I say. I choose not to invent specious lies to introduce it with. I merely say the title and begin reading. Two thirds of the way into the poem I discover a word I do not remember having used before. I press on regardless, suddenly aware that the poem means much more to me than I had first imagined. It was about one thing, I had thought, but is about another thing entirely. Even though I have made the mistake of finding my own poem interesting, I am confident I have read it perfectly.

‘Thank you,’ I hear myself say to the empty chairs in front of me.

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