A month ago, I stood up in front of my seat at a banquet table, fumbling with two folded pages I’d concealed in my purse, and began to read my aunt a tribute poem at her semi-formal birthday party. She was shocked and so was I.
It was the first time anyone had heard me read an original poem publicly in about six years. It was the first time I’d written a poem for someone, without being asked, in nine years.
Afterward, there was the typical surprised, but positive response:
“I heard you were a writer, but I didn’t know you could write like that!”
“That was beautiful!”
“You really captured her personality!”
I smiled graciously, offering a single, deprecating nod and a sincere, “Thank you.” Then I thought to myself, “I won’t be doing this again for a while….”
It isn’t that I mind reading poetry aloud, now that I’ve decided to resume writing it. It’s the writing on commission or in tribute that presents a bit of a problem. I’ve always found writing poetry for hire (or by special request) to be a bit schmaltzy. When someone asks me to write for a wedding, a funeral, a baby christening, a family reunion, or a birthday party, spontaneity is sapped from the experience and all that’s left is obligation and a list of mannerisms and personality traits to describe in eight or fewer stanzas.
This isn’t always a bad thing. Having a creative skill that other people admire is an honor, and being able to write something sentimentally resonant for friends, family, or strangers is nothing to sneeze at.
But seeing my work printed in an event program or hearing it read by a member of a wedding party or listening to myself read it semi-impassively for a paycheck just makes me feel like a mascot. And I always wonder if the people listening think the free verse I’ve written is any different than poetry made entirely of rhyming couplets or those acrostics we used to write in elementary school.
A is for awkward.
There’s also something a little artificial about writing for people you don’t know well. You wonder if you’ve worked in all the information their loved ones wanted to you to mention. You worry that you haven’t captured their essence accurately or thoroughly enough. It can be stressful and disheartening. It’s never fun.
Fortunately, writing for my aunt’s party was another story. It came as a complete surprise to her and no one knew I’d worked on it. So there was no pressure, no expectation. No one hoping it would rhyme and no one wishing it sounded more like the poem I wrote for their relative two years ago.
Are you the go-to poet in your social world? Have you experienced my angst? I’d love to hear about it.
And if you’d like to read Stacia’s poem for her aunt… please do.
Stacia’s Poem for Aunt Melita:
Aunt Melita, you’ve been
our moment in an African homeland,
otherwise only fabled.
You’ve enabled your nieces to feel
beautiful and pixied, your nephews
to believe themselves warriors kings:
our very own urban fairy godmother.
Your house on Hall our sanctuary,
on Elmdale, our moated castle,
we summon you when we feel hassled
like Black Cinderellas or aggrieved like
Afro’d Auroras in Sleeping Beauty,
come expecting you to wield your
glittering wand of wisdom and save us
from our latest little snare.
And you do,
and you do it with flare.
We’ve been known to stare
after your flowing garments,
wind whipping through them like sails,
as you flit from room to room
a whirlwind of amenity.
who taught both rebel yells and respect,
are a phoenix risen from the ashes of
your namesake in Natchez,
the bottomless ear into which
we whisper our secrets.
You’ve quelled fears and kissed knees
and cried the tears we’ve learned to bottle.
We love you because you do not coddle.
We love you because you leap and
you beam and you scream from all our sidelines.
We love you for all the guidelines you gave but never
forced us to follow.
You will genius and beauty into all our darkest hollows.
So this is not just a celebration of your birth
it is an intricate dance of mirth, a sacred act
of thanksgiving to a God gracious enough
to form your bit of bark on our family tree,
a homily in honor of a woman whose
loveliness we’ve all been blessed to see.