Poetry Brought Out the Performer in Me

I overcome my fears by getting on stage.

by Shaniqua Gray Sockwell

When I was younger, I had no real creative outlets. I couldn’t dance to save my life, I could sing okay, but not well enough, and any sports that required physical contact were out of the question.

But I always loved reading and writing. When I was little and got lonely, books were always there when I needed them. They were always willing to share their knowledge. The first book I read was “Little Women.” And if I wanted to share what I felt inside, I would pick up my pen and write my feelings down.

At 10 years old I discovered my love of writing and poetry. I began to write because I wanted to express my feelings. I learned how to write poetry by studying the poetry of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Ntozake Shange.

From there I developed my own style, which is a combination of metaphors and not sugar-coating the subjects I write about. My poems came from my imagination and from things I saw. I would sit and try to come up with little verses. Most of the time they rhymed.

My first poem went like this:

The World Is a Gem

On the smallest island
in an oyster shell
there is a pearl
that grows and grows.

It dwells beneath the emerald sea
as green as grass can ever be.

Up above the flowers grow
as fiery red as rubies glow.

And up above in sapphire skies
diamond stars are drifting by.

I wrote this one at age 11. I like comparing things with nature. I also wrote another poem called “Brown-Eyed Susan,” in which I compare a flower to a girl.

As I matured, I began to write about deeper issues, like love, child abuse, rape, incest, the destruction of nature, Black men and women being neglected in this country, politics, sex, war, and myself. Some of the poems were about personal experiences, but most were fictional. My inspiration came from things I saw in movies, real life, or things I read.

My First Reading

Sometimes when I finished a poem, I would be shocked at how strongly I felt about the issues I addressed. But nothing scared me more than when I decided to read my poems out loud before an audience.

When I was a junior in high school, I discovered a small cafe called the Living Room on Carroll Street in Brooklyn, which holds poetry readings once or twice a month. It was right near my school, so I would pass it on the bus. I was always interested in the poetry readings I heard about in the Village, but I’d often heard the audiences down there were tough, so I didn’t think I was ready for that. I thought maybe this crowd would be easier to handle.

So, I went in one day after school and asked about the readings. I was kinda nervous, but what did I have to lose by asking? They told me to call ahead of time to reserve a place on the list.

When the day came, I called and reserved my spot. I can still remember my number: 12. Being the shy person I am, I couldn’t believe that I was doing this. But there was no turning back now. I wound up going alone because nobody was free to go with me. The reading was at 8 o’clock.

William Pope

Like Someone’s Living Room

I arrived at the poetry reading and sat down. The room was small and narrow, but the place was packed. For some strange reason, I hadn’t become nervous—yet. But I was feeling a little jittery. Maybe it was because I was the only Black person in the room. Or maybe it was because everyone in the room was slightly older than me. But I wasn’t going to let the way everyone was staring and whispering get to me. I was there to enjoy myself, read my poetry, and have a good time.

As I looked around, I was sort of surprised at how the place looked. The cafe felt like someone’s living room, with antique chairs and tables, bookcases with lots of books and magazines, and they served every kind of gourmet coffee you could think of. And even the way they served it was cool. Instead of drinking from cups, you drink from bowls. But I just had a hot chocolate.

I had planned to read three poems, but after seeing how many people had shown up, I thought maybe I should just read two, a love poem and a poem about being lonely.

As the night progressed, I found myself more relaxed and comfortable. The poems that people read were really good. Some were really funny, like one poem a man read that was about looking at your sh-t in the toilet bowl. And some were sad, like the one a lady read about losing her sister to a disease.

Some made you feel sorry for the person, like one about staying with a man who’s cheating on you, and some were just too damn long, like the poem a gay man read about being with his lover, which was four or five pages long!

But all in all, I was enjoying myself and nothing was going wrong. I was anticipating my turn and the crowd was nothing like I thought it was going to be. They were pretty supportive. I didn’t have a care in the world until…

I heard them call my name. Now it was time to get nervous! My palms were feeling sweaty, and I actually started shaking! But I couldn’t back out now. So I walked away from the corner I’d been hiding in all night, and got ready for my big moment.

I walked up to the front of the room and went to the mike. The guy had to adjust it for me since I’m short, and when I pulled the mike from the stand, I hit myself in the mouth with it. So I tried to cover up my clumsiness by cracking a joke. I said, “Don’t you wish these things came in sizes?” It was corny, but the crowd burst out laughing, which relaxed me.

Applause and Complements

I smiled back at everyone and said, “Hi, my name’s Shaniqua, and I’d like to read everyone a couple of poems. Is that cool with you?”

The crowd said yeah, so I began to read. One poem I read was called, “In My Heart You Shall Forever Remain,” about two lovers having to leave each other, and the next was called “A Cry in the Night,” about a young girl being physically abused.

As I read, I felt my nervousness gradually fading. I continued to read with no worries whatsoever.

When I finished, the crowd applauded. I was so happy that I’d done such a good job. People came up to me to compliment me. I felt so good I decided to continue doing the readings.

Eventually I moved on to other places. I now perform at the Brooklyn Moon Cafe on Lafayette St. on Friday nights.

Rap-Style Poetry

The environment there is really nice. The people are open and friendly. A lot of their poems are read out in rap style or they’re very cosmic, and a lot of them deal with having to go back to the African motherland. There are a lot of Black people there, but sometimes there’s a mixed audience. There are paintings and sketches on the walls that you can buy, and instead of clapping when a performer’s done, you snap your fingers. I like it a lot and now that I’ve performed before, I no longer get nervous in front of big crowds. I’m far more relaxed, and I take it all in stride.

A lot of people don’t share their talents with everyone. They keep them bottled up because they feel they aren’t any good. I know how they feel because that’s how I felt about my writing and my poetry. But I finally decided that it was time that I came out of my shell and showed everyone what I was made of. Performing in front of an audience is as important to me as writing poetry because there’s nothing like hearing someone applaud and give you a standing ovation after hearing something you’ve created. It’s a real thrill, and I get a lot of satisfaction from it.

I still haven’t made it to the Village yet, but I will. Writing will always be my first love, and I will continue to write so that I can get even better. I dream of winning a Pulitzer Prize, or becoming a bestselling author, and being able to finally say that I’ve become everything I’ve aspired to be. I haven’t gotten there yet, but ya gotta start somewhere.

But I finally decided that it was time that I came out of my shell and showed everyone what I was made of.
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