“Writing a poem is an attention-getting act, so it might be worth asking whose attention are you getting and why?” says Billy Collins in an interview in The Paris Review, Fall 2001. Billy Collins, a rock star among American poets, knows something about attention.
I’ve gotten almost more attention than I can stand this past week. There was the book launch for 99 Girdles on the Wall at the Secret Garden Book Shop in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. An hour before it began I realized I had never even been to a book launch. I had a vague idea that I would be signing books and people would stand around talking and eating what my witty, not to say wise-ass, friend Susan calls “fiddlies on crackers.” I called the Secret Garden to ask what exactly was I expected to do.
“Well, of course you’ll want to read. And to say some things about the book. We’ll have a book signing table for you”
Book signing is a whole new skill set for me. Jenni, who single-handedly improved my sight-reading ability by learning new music at an alarming rate, handed me her copy of my book and said, “Write something clever.” I froze. The above-mentioned Susan gave me an even more clever-quelling assignment when weeks ago she e-mailed me to say she was buying a copy for her sister and one for herself and I could now start working on an inscription.
So I started a list of pithy things to write of which I will share none.
My memory of the book launch is of faces beaming at me. Like those camera angles where you see all the cooing adults from the point of view of the infant in the crib. The faces in the book store advanced upon me in groups of three or four, not saying much, just beaming.
I haven’t discussed this with everyone who has ever lived but I think I am on solid ground when I say everyone needs attention. And I believe that although the preferred form varies, everyone likes attention; and there’s a common tendency amongst our species to not be able to admit it.
Attention is a form of love. This is what I felt at the book launch to the point that it was almost unbearably intense. I felt loved. All those people did not come to the launch because I had written a book. They came because they loved me. The vulnerability I felt after an hour and half made me ask the event planner if I could go home now.
Fast forward to the end of last week when I did something hadn’t done in 14 years, something that none of my current friends have ever heard me do: I sang a classical vocal solo in a Christmas recital. I sang Norman Dello Joio’s “A Christmas Carol.” It climaxes on a luscious high G, a soprano’s most beloved note, although B-flat and high C are great fun, too.
I judge my vocal solos by how much I enjoy myself; this is directly related to how present I am when I sing. While I was a real neurotic all day long, when it came time to sing, I enjoyed myself; and the performance presented me with a metaphor for life. When I got to that G which sings for 8 counts, I started with an easy onset, a small portal in which the sound could seed itself. Then I fed it. I poured breath into it until it filled up the sanctuary, a hall so alive it almost sings itself.
This is a different form of attention. I attend to my note, starting small, paying attention, and loving what I am doing. This is my job from start to finish. What happens after that is out of my control. People listening, people attending to me, hear what they hear and have the experience they have. Some people hate classical singing. Some people are just impressed that a singer can sing so loud without a microphone. Others feel thrilled or blissful. Others are in the smile and nod category.
One answer to Billy Collin’s question is that I am getting attention for the purpose of both enjoying and sharing myself. Narcissism, the new bogey word that has replaced dysfunctional, shame, and trauma as a collective diagnosis for the human condition, is not a preoccupation with ourselves. It’s a preoccupation with an image we have of ourselves coupled with a desire to control how others perceive us.
In this week that I have gotten so much attention, I am happy to remind myself to just start the note and send breath into it. Then let it go.