Allie Rigby is a San Francisco Bay Area poet with roots in the chaparral of southern California. She received a Literary Arts Residency through Shuffle in 2020 and is now pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Allie’s most recent project is The Herd, a seasonal arts & literary newsletter.
I did not write much in 2020. Words did not come to me as they used to. Historically, in my blip of a human life thus far, words might enter my mind, a phrase perhaps that I chewed for days before realizing that it was the opening line of a poem waiting for me to write it down. Those words stopped flowing in 2020. There are many reasons why I might have had trouble generating new poetry last year, and that’s another reflection in itself. In any case, I felt that my writing wheels were stuck in mud. The axel was broken.
One day I was writing and the next day, I was not. That said, I was very lucky to be in conversation with some wonderful and inspired circles of artists via Shuffle, a Literary Arts Residency that has now evolved into an open platform for artists. During the racial violence and pandemic inequities of 2020, this group of artists held space for each other, as we shared work and also held space for the processing of the onslaught of injustices we were witnessing — and, in many cases, experiencing. It was an honor to be a part of that residency, and we also had our own Open Mic of sorts for a Weekend of Words. During our biweekly check-ins, we also had open conversations about imposter syndrome, our practice, and our 2020 goals. And yet… I still felt stuck with my own writing. Where had it gone? Was I overthinking its retreat?
I attended a few virtual Open Mics in 2020, but I still could not shed the imposter syndrome lurking deep in my conscious. Why are you even reading at this event? That poem was no good. My inner critic can be so harsh. Plus, even with supportive online readings I had attended, it was hard to read to a quiet computer screen. So much of sharing one’s poetry live is to hear the “mmhmms” from the crowd — that magic moment when the poet on stage creates a connection with someone, or perhaps creates a new and glittering image, or an important reminder. That is the magic of poetry, or at least part of it.
On top of the pros and cons for the Zoom world and the arts, I had writer’s block for most of last year. I still wonder if and how writer’s block actually exists: how does it affect the brain and the flow of words? Is there a chemical difference in the “writer’s flow” brain versus the blocked brain? A bit of dabbling in that arenas suggests that there is, but that’s another article in itself. I do know that for me, it was increasingly difficult to write anything that felt of value. My writing practice felt scattered, at best.
So, this January 2021, when my good friend and fellow poet Brett Benson asked if I wanted to be the feature for an Open Mic, I froze.
“How long is the set?” I asked, holding down my excitement coupled with nerves.
Fifteen minutes. What. Fifteen whole minutes. Ah!
I struggle to fill five minutes on stage. Three minutes is ideal. Plus, there was the added concern that I did not have fifteen minutes of poems to read aloud — that writer’s block or whatever it was, had not been offering much of anything. I scanned my journal entries for poetic bubbles floating out of the text and potential poems I could wring out, but the soap duds had all popped, leaving no rainbow shine on the page. Fifteen whole minutes…
“Yes!” I said to Brett. Why are you saying yes?? My imposter syndrome begged for answers. I tried to ignore it, in the days leading up to the reading.
This might not seem like a big deal for many folks, especially those who know and love the stage. But I’m a shy poet. And I’m a quiet poet. I’d rather someone read any of my poems in a different room — or preferably a different state or country — from where I am. Ideally, sometime within the next couple years, if they feel so inclined, the reader could write me a little letter saying, “I truly did like your poem,” with a little smiley face and we can both feel seen and call it a day. Even when my partner reads a poem, I have to leave the room — and sometimes, the apartment too.
I surprised myself when I said yes to Brett’s proposal. By the time the Open Mic rolled around, I could not cancel on my friend — though imposter syndrome almost convinced me that I should. It was a Monday night poetry reading and I stood in front of my laptop, which was stacked on a pile of books. Poets trickled into the virtual space like magicians, arriving amid high winds and power outages in San Francisco. While I was grateful for this chance to read my work — even though I was sweating in front of my computer from nerves — I felt undeserving. There was a faithful group of poets here who always attended this biweekly Open Mic, and I did not. I would understand if anyone felt resentment for me having the featured set that night. Was this humility or imposter syndrome or both? Either way, imposter syndrome taunted me like a character from Tina Fey’s Mean Girls… “She doesn’t even go here!”
I was the first poet that night, of the two main features. I read for fifteen minutes and almost ten poems. Maybe I read them really fast. Probably. But I read them. I reminded myself to breathe and let the words carry themselves through the air.
There were some comments in the chat, catching snapshots of certain lines that resonated with people — the online version of the “mmhmms” and snaps that I missed from in-person Open Mics. This is not to say that validation from other people is something to strive for, to assure that your poems are “good.” Only you can know if your poem delivers. But poetry is meant to be vocalized, and there is something unique about a poet reading their own work, in the tone and with the delivery that they intend. If a poem read aloud is a message, an echolocation of sorts into the air waves, then it is special to receive a clap back, so to speak. I hear you, those claps might mean. I feel that. You’re not alone there.
After reading these poems aloud, I got to relax and hear the second feature — who I believe was performing an entirely memorized poem — my jaw dropped several times at the performance. I am in such awe of people who memorize their work. It’s possible he was reading from a notebook that I couldn’t quite see, but in any case, I was mesmerized by his stream-of-conscious delivery. I missed this aspect of Open Mics: the listening.
After both features read, we received claps from those who had their cameras on, and the little thumbs-up emoji from the corners of people’s Zoom box. It was humbling to think that someone had listened to fifteen minutes of my work. It made me feel something like drive again, writer’s drive — which is perhaps the opposite of writer’s block. In that moment, I wanted to write more, and write stronger, more meaningful pieces. I wanted to deliver and crack into vulnerable and empowered spaces of the heart chamber, as those after me would in their reading. But for now, I felt relief that I had read anything aloud; it had been months and would have continued to be months, maybe even years, if Brett had not asked me to consider reading at this Open Mic. Plus, I got to sip my warm tea and listen to the incredible work of the eight or so poets who read after us, many of whom have been features before and have several books of poetry out in the world.
It was an evening that reminded me to not stick to rigid lines of thought, such as “I have writer’s block.” We can bend the mind, change the lines, and tell ourselves, “I might be writing less right now, but I love attending Open Mics — I’ll try to attend one each month.”
I’d like to write how all of my imposter syndrome dissipated after this reading, but it did not. I’d like to write how the words started flowing again and that every ounce of writer’s block disappeared, but it also did not. What did happen was a wave of gratitude and emotion that poured over me, for each human who was kind enough to share this virtual space with me, to give me to the floor for fifteen minutes, and to welcome me with their warm presence. This Open Mic, if anything, was a reminder for me of the special communities that can form between people who believe in the power and the exchange of words. It was humbling to read in front of a close-knit group of poets. I longed for a group and in-person space to toss ideas around, to let artists and activists collaborate, and to keep the pens moving on paper. But for now, this was a plentiful reminder of why artist communities need spaces — virtual or not — to share ideas.
I had been avoiding Open Mics for all the wrong reasons — so I’ll I offer you the same advice that I’m giving myself. Read your work aloud and sign up for Open Mics if you can. There are so many of them, especially these days with our Virtual world. If you don’t know where to start looking, Poets & Writers has a great listserv of reading venues. Here are a handful of Open Mics in the San Francisco Bay Area, as a start. Maybe I’ll see you at one, and we’ll both feel shy and nervous to deliver our work. Maybe it’s a good poem. Maybe it’s a “meh” poem. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. I’m not going to promise that reading your work aloud will shatter the glass cage of writer’s block or imposter syndrome, but it may remind you — as it reminded me — of the greater purpose of writing, and of the communities of people who each have something to say.