My most vivid memory of Pennsylvania is a bit of a downer. It’s the reason that I quit my MFA in poetry writing and is related to some of my darker moments of the soul. I can recall the 15-minutes-or-so that most rocked my world, but I fear it would take too long—too much backstory. Ask me about it sometime if you'd like. I can give the unabridged version.
So, for this one-page synopsis, I’ll focus on a positive memory…my first poetry reading in December of 1994. Hemingway's, a restaurant on Forbes Street, hosted readings by MFA students—one poet and one fiction writer for each reading. When I heard about it at the start of the year, I signed up for the last date possible (if memory serves, it was Monday, December 5, 1994, but memory may not serve). The goal was to give myself a chance to write as much cool stuff as I could that semester.
A good buddy came down from State College, and I expected a small crowd--just him and a gathering of my friends in the program. Much to my astonishment, the joint was PACKED. Not a seat was empty…and most of the people were strangers. I later learned why: the TAs of intro-to-poetry-writing and intro-to-fiction-writing courses required their students to attend and review one reading during the semester. Since mine was the last reading of the semester, I had every procrastinating creative writing undergraduate at the university watching me at Hemingway’s that night.
In the weeks leading up to my reading, I decided the best route for me to go was to read all of my funny stuff and all of my sex stuff. It was a cheap out, but it was my first reading and I DESPERATELY wanted to be liked. My work paid off. They laughed when they needed to laugh, focused when they needed to focus. If I have any talent, it’s the ability to own a room. My little anecdotes between poems went over nicely. The last poem, “How to Dance,” was an especially big hit, as was one called “Overheard at Harvard.” Some of the poetry was good, some not-so-good, but the fact is, I took a room full of mostly-strangers and had them in the palm of my hand for a half hour. My friends gave me many handshakes and back-slaps. The TAs of the intro-to-poetry classes told me that their students universally liked my reading. I know I liked it too, and I loved—LOVED—the feeling of being in the spotlight with just my poetry to hold attention. I liked it even more than I like singing, acting, or teaching—and that is saying something.