Almost twenty years ago, while I was in high school, I hosted a community radio show called The Difference Engine. I played a strange mix of genres and spoken-word tracks that amused me. Weezer’s original blue album was new, back then, and I played it alongside current mega-hits by NIN, local Chicago bands like The Drovers, jazz classics from Louis Armstrong, and the occasional monologue excerpt by Henry Rollins or whoever, hand-bleeped in real time by me to keep us from getting nasty mail.
As a community-radio DJ and a community-theater actor/director/techie, I’d had some light vocal training, which served me well while I was alone in the booth with the mic, producing my own show. All the joys of having a soapbox and a mixtape, an audience and a mic, with none of the eyeballs or lenses staring back. Good stuff.
This past month, when I set out to produce and record the audiobook for my new poetry collection—Pregrets—all those memories, all that training fell away like a floor. I was here and they were over there, across a chasm of time, rusty from the sweat I’d left on them and the care I hadn’t taken to maintain them. As I sat, trying to edit the audio I’d recorded at home of me reading my own poems, I discovered something: I’d forgotten how to pace, how to pause, how to breathe—but not how to spot all those errors and recognize the genuine lousiness of my recordings.
Inside the sound of my own voice, reading my own words, is a terrible dread that rots the pillars of the pier and drops me in the saltwater.
All of it’s exacerbated by the dreaded art of comparison—of weighing my work against others. While recording my poems, I studied readings by Billy Collins, by Mary Robinette Kowal, by Henry Rollins, and discouraged myself right the hell out.
Reading my own work felt like it was sucking the life—the many different possible readings—right out of some poems. Pregrets is all about how the line breaks mislead, revise, question, and doubt. My readings felt like they put the kibosh on all that, saying “This is how this poem’s supposed to be read.” Which is, pardon me, bullshit in this case.
Inside the sound of strangers’ voices, reading my own words, resides a peculiar magic. They imbued those words with so much, enriched them, opening them up for lots of wonderful characterization — and interpretation. Voices and words, like winds and kites. Words can lift up and be lifted, all at once … if you handle them right.
So I’m going to get past it, work through it, finish that audiobook (for the sake of the two people who want it made), not so much in spite of it being difficult … but because it’s difficult. I want to be good at this, better than I was back when, and see what I can make next with what I learn.
(PleasureTown is a transmedia collection of short tales and linked characters set in a sordid town of hedonist-philosophers in the early 20th century. Season 2 of the podcast launches May 6th with 12 new episodes produced by my friends, Keith Ecker and Erin Kahoa. Even now, new minisodes are rolling out, written by fans and podcasters from Reading Out Loud.)