“Oh yeah,” Rhea said casually. “I used to read poetry at those open mics at Spider House.”
Rhea and I were eating brunch on the patio at Bouldin Creek Cafe. Between bites of toast, Rhea explained that they used to read and sometimes even win money at the poetry nights up by the UT Austin campus.
“Just lead with your best stuff. Don’t save anything, ’cause then you might not get past the first round.”
Then they asked, “Are you nervous? It’s a big thing to read your own words in front of that many people. Have you ever done it before?”
Not really, I thought.
“Sort of, yeah.” I said.
We kept eating eggs and toast and drinking coffee. I made a mental note to lead with my best, most provocative piece.
“Read the one you think you should do to me,” they said.
“Ok, yeah, that’s a good idea,” I said. I pulled my phone out and opened up my notes.
“You were the cocaine on my car key,” I started. “Something I know is bad for me…”
I had decided to share some of the moody poetry I had been writing the past year at this open mic night. I had attended the open mic as an audience member sporadically over my two years in Austin. Each time, I would promise myself that I would share my own work the next time.
A few months earlier, I had even read a poem in front of a group of 10 people at a small independent bookstore in North Austin.
It was one of the more thrilling moments in my life, reading about being a sex-obsessed, lonely post-teen struggling to figure out adulthood to a room of people in their fifties and sixties.
(They read poems about having PTSD from Desert Storm or poems attacking Henry VIII for his mistreatment of his wives, if you were wondering.)
The open mic at Spider House was different, though. Spider House Cafe and Ballroom was practically on UT Austin’s campus. It houses an approximately 200-seat venue in the “ballroom” side and an enormous patio — complete with found object furniture and a tattoo parlor — on the cafe side.
The place is an institution. The poetry nights are popular.
That meant over a hundred people aged 18–30 would be watching when I read the poem I had selected (it was one about an ex I used to do drugs with).
These were people I might serve at the bar where I worked. These were people I would see at shows on East 6th or Red River. These were people I wanted to like me or sleep with me, and there were hundreds of them.
So when Rhea asked if I was nervous, it was because I had every right to be.
The day of the open mic, I decided to start drinking early.
I met my friend Isaiah, and we had dinner and cocktails and beers and shots. We ended up at the restaurant where Isaiah worked, and his friend Taylor happened to be getting off work.
She offered to drive us over to Spider House.
Neither of them would be able to join me at the venue, and I hadn’t planned on taking anyone with me anyway, but they tried to still be supportive.
“Read it again, you should practice,” Isaiah encouraged from the passenger seat.
I was scrunched in the back of Taylor’s car, getting claustrophobic, but I started in with the gusto of a reasonably drunk man, “You were the cocaine on my car key…”
Taylor and Isaiah said it was a good poem, and they shouted their support to me from the car as I walked up to Spider House Ballroom, drunk, but not drunk enough to stagger — I hoped.
The open mic at Spider House functions like a sort of tournament, with the top 3 poets receiving cash prizes. Before the first round, judges from the audience are selected based solely on their position relative to the stage.
Someone has to have a scorecard in each part of the room. A significant distance from the other judges’ seating appears to be the only criteria one needs to meet. Then they can give strangers’ innermost feelings a score from 1–10.
Before any of the open mic contestants read, one or both of the hosts at the poetry night will recite an original poem.
They call this spilling “sacrificial blood”, and after that blood is spilled, the unluckiest person in the room approaches the stage and spills their own blood.
I was that unlucky person. I had been there for 10 minutes, and I was about to bare my soul to these people and receive instantaneous judgment.
I entered from stage left, a gigantic spotlight bearing down on me. Everything was so quiet.
In the seconds it took me to climb the stairs to the stage, I was able to lose all the confidence I had that my poem contained artistic merit. I became sure that I was about to reveal myself as a shitty, self-absorbed 23-year old whining about an ex in front of 200 college students, shoegaze revival bands, baristas, and junior web developers.
It was too late, though. So I looked at my phone and read:
“You were the cocaine on my car key…”
I don’t remember much applause when I finished. I do remember another poet giving me an affirming nod and snapping her fingers. I remember getting an alright score, but probably not enough to get to the next round.
I walked off the stage and towards the back, towards the bar.
I debated the merits of another beer or shot or cigarette or all three.
Another poet in the back asked how I was feeling after reading, and all the blood rushed to my head. I excused myself saying I thought I might be sick, and I walked outside to have that cigarette.
I walked around the patio in front of Spider House, heading for the alley between the ballroom and a Greek restaurant.
I thought about another girl I’d written melodramatic poems about who used to go to that Greek restaurant with me. Maybe I should’ve read one about her.
I lit the cigarette, took two steps into the alley, and threw up so hard it came out my nose.
I stood hunched over, hands on my knees, cigarette still sending up smoke.
I wiped my mouth with my hand, turned around, and immediately threw up again.
Hunched over a second time, I tried to slow my breathing down and stop heaving.
Have I been I coward my entire life? I wondered.
I couldn’t remember ever feeling this nervous, this absolutely terrified. That must mean something.
I had so many friends who were musicians, writers, or comedians, and I had never given them credit for how mortifying it is to climb onstage and spiritually undress yourself in front of a crowded room.
Maybe this was the first time I had ever lived. Maybe this was me finding myself.
“Oh god,” I said out loud and spit. I looked around to see if someone was watching. When I didn’t see anyone, l started walking back towards the venue and the bar to get a beer to wash the taste of vomit out of my mouth.
I took a drag from my cigarette.
Then I threw up one more time.