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Sweaty Hands and a Thumping Chest

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 Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” – Robert Frost.* 

In my opinion, poetry is an expression of what someone feels; it is a way that they are able to uniquely describe the way they see the world around them. Poetry is also a medium through which one can communicate who they are to others. 

I wasn’t always good at expressing who I am. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I became enthralled by poetry. The story of how this occurred begins one boring Sunday afternoon during which I decided to browse my mom’s bookshelves. 

Amidst books on hip, new, vegan diets; Pilates machines; and numerous coffee-table hipster art books, I found a book that didn’t seem like it would throw me into an even lower ring of boredom. The name of this book was Good Poems by Garrison Keillor. Awesome, I thought upon discovering it, the last thing I want to read is a collection of bad poems. 

I then proceeded to spend the rest of the day immersed in poems written by the following outstanding authors: Emily Dickinson, who was confusing––but in a mysterious kind of way; and Shakespeare, who for some reason on this slow Sunday didn’t seem as much of a pain as he had been in freshmen English. 

After being exposed to this fine poetry, it was rare for me to be found without my nose in a poetry book. New ideas and perspectives were at my fingertips, and I couldn’t help but desperately soak them up like a sponge. My mind became open to the fact that you see the world differently when your thoughts are in verse. The leaves of a tree no longer just fall; they glide to the ground like a helicopter being landed by an experienced pilot. A person’s eyes are no longer just blue; they are blue like the ocean on an overcast, California day. Poetry was gradually becoming my hobby.

It was after spring break that the English department at my school started putting up signs for the 19th annual Santa Cruz County High School Poetry Competition. Immediately, my interest was piqued. While I was unengaged in class, I had taken to scribbling verses and lines on the side of my paper; it became my personal version of doodling. My English teacher heavily promoted the competition and told the class that if we wanted to participate, we were to submit three poems to her, and she would send them to the organization responsible for the competition: Poetry Santa Cruz. Not only was there the chance to have a poem selected and printed in an anthology, but we would also receive extra credit, which made the offer irresistible!

Over the next five weeks I began to really start paying attention to my day-to-day life. Some things I took note of were the following: what did I spend my time doing, how did it make me feel, and most importantly, what was there that I could say about it? I had a light blue notebook that I readily filled up with lines as they came to me. Not all of what I wrote was up to par with my expectations. In fact, most of it wasn’t that “good,” but it was raw, real, and with each line I was getting better.Waiting for the reply letter was extremely nerve-racking, but I was hopeful. One day I checked our mailbox, and there it was: a letter addressed to me from the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. Immediately, I tore the envelope apart. After conducting a quick scan of the semi-personalized letter, I saw it: my poem, “The Art Table,” had been selected! Filled with happiness, I jumped around my mailbox. Luckily, no cars drove by because I looked positively insane. The smile on my face was a mile wide. Until I reread the letter.

I would have to read the poem in front of people.

All of the poets who had their works chosen were invited to an open reading on May 17. The requirements for poets were that they go up front and read their poems to the audience, which would consist of the student poets, their teachers, and a “plus one” (a guest you want to bring with you).

Suddenly, nervousness and anxiety flew back into my body due to the fact that I had never mastered speaking up front. My pastor father had asked me to read Scripture for church once, and I had barely gotten through that. I stuttered when I spoke, and my sweat glands would open like floodgates. Shy and reserved were my two defining characteristics. To make matters worse, my poem was about a girl I had a crush on. She wouldn’t be at the reading, but still, confessing my infatuation for a girl in front of 100-plus people would be torture!

Immediately, ways to get out of going started running through my head: I could fake sick; I could just say I didn’t want to go; I could run away and join the circus. But none of these options seemed very good. I may have been shy, but I sure wasn’t going to chicken out of going, no matter how much I wanted to.

Eventually, the dreaded day came. In preparation, I had memorized my poem to the point that I could recite it almost without thinking, and I wore a black shirt to hide the sweat spots that were sure to build under my armpits. The entire drive over, I read and reread my poem just to make sure I hadn’t forgotten a line or missed a word. The van got to the building where the reading was to be held, and I walked in with my teacher and my friend who had come along for moral support.

I was handed the anthology on my way in, and there it was: my poem, printed! Despite the anxiety, despite the nervousness, despite the introvert inside me freaking out, it was amazing to see something I had made in print. Something I had written that someone else thought was important or meaningful enough to have copies made of it. That thought took away at least half of my worries. Maybe I really could do this.

I was to read about halfway through the program, and the wait was pure agony. It seemed as if every person reading was so confident and sure of themselves. I was in awe of how they could read their poems with so much passion. About 45 minutes into the program, it was almost my turn to go up. My armpits were already drenched, and my face was redder than a tomato. Three poems to go. Two poems to go. I prayed for a long one to be read. One poem to go. A haiku, of course it would be a haiku! And then it was my turn.

My legs moved of their own accord. I felt like I was out of my body, watching myself walk up there, open my mouth, and say my name and the title of my poem. The bright lights shined on my face, and I wondered if everyone could see me sweating. Cameras clicked and flashes went off. Why random strangers were taking pictures was beyond me. Somehow, I remembered to smile. I cleared my throat, and without even looking at the page, recited my poem. I finished, people clapped, and with sweaty hands and thumping chest, I returned to my seat. Adrenaline pumped through my system for the next six or so poems and didn’t wear off till later that night. Surprisingly, though, neither did the smile.

That was my first experience up front showing people my talents, but it wasn’t my last. From there, I was hooked. My shell had been broken from the inside. I joined a Sabbath School band, became a peer counselor, and ran for Associated Student Body president. There was a certain thrill that came not just being in front of tons of people, but of showing people who I am, of expressing how I saw the world. More than that, I gained confidence in myself.

One doesn’t need to write poetry, or play music, or make speeches in front of people to be confident. To be confident, one has to be OK with showing who they truly are. Almost everyone knows the golden rule: Love others as you love yourself. I didn’t really begin to understand this until after reading my poem out loud. For me to be the best I could be, I had to love who I was. I had to love my shyness, my stutter, my sweat, so that I could better love other people.

I have to love the beautiful creation that God created me to be, because only then will I truly love everyone else for the beautiful creations that they are. 


* “Robert Frost Quotes,” BrainyQuote, accessed August 20, 2015,

Tanner Deming loves writing poetry. He writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.

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