I remember wiping the sweat off of my palms and moving seats twice to ensure we had a good view, but not front-row-and-awkward view. It was so weird that he was in London, so weird that I was in London, and weirder still that we were both in London at the same time and in the same room. I was so nervous.
There is this very naked feeling when you’re meeting someone you’ve admired for a long time. It’s like the cyber screen or pages that kept you connected yet separate up until now suddenly felt like clothes, and now that they were gone, well, you were naked. Suddenly very aware of everything about your appearance and worrying about what it looked like. It’s not a very nice feeling, to be honest. Which is why at the same time I knew I needed to be here, I equally wanted to run out as fast as I possibly could.
But we stayed and moved seats a couple times and I wiped my hands on my pants. I remember how normal he looked as he listened to people introduce him. Like a friend with a baseball cap about to do his thing in front of a group of strangers, and then go out afterwards for a drink to laugh about something completely unrelated to it. While watching his slam poetry online was like watching a loop, seeing him in person made me realize he was actually on a story line just like me, that today our story lines crossed, and afterwards they’d continue off in their own directions. I didn’t know what that meant.
He was introduced and we were sitting there and he started talking to us into the microphone. My mind was trying to rearrange the information I had about his poetry and his performances and his books and now his baseball cap and balding head and casual smile and jokes. Then he introduced the first poem he’d perform, and he began.
The first line was a line I had heard dozens of times, performed in the exact same way each time. It became immediately clear on a conscious and unconscious level that this time was different, because this time was now. Everything in my brain that had been moving stopped and listened. As he performed, I saw him, but I also saw the next lines he would say, and also flashes from dark places and memories and hopeful moments and feelings of being understood from moments a long time ago. It felt like a portal, like a door that opened between this now and the now 12 years ago, like it had existed then but I never could see it—this portal between sitting in my chair watching him on a screen and crying from lots of mixed up emotions and this moment sitting in this chair in this building in London watching him perform. It was more than about coming full circle, it was about poetry and connection and deep understanding as a time machine, a link between two worlds that always existed but I never could see. Just as sure as I was that I was sitting in that room that day, I was sure that this moment now was so sure to happen 12 years ago that, had I known about it, I could have opened the door and stepped straight into this scene and into this chair. And that gave me this strange hope. Like maybe there were other portals to times in the future, especially during really dark times, and while I may not be able to find them, one day I’d make my way to the other side, even if I had to take the long way.
There was something so profound about that. He was a really good performer, made lots of eye contact with people all over the room by turning his head in time to the words. That made it difficult to feel these things and also hide the emotion from my eyes, which made me question why I wanted to hide the emotion to begin with. I think I wanted to keep it secret because no one would understand the significance of the portal I’d discovered. Besides, feeling emotional and naked is possibly the most vulnerable position you could possibly be.
At the end, he stood off to the side to sell his latest book and sign it for people. Kathryn encouraged me to jump up and be one of the first before the line formed, and so I did, thinking really hard how I could translate even a portion of my thoughts right now to complete stranger.
When it was my turn, I introduced myself, told him I had been a huge fan for over 10 years, and that I had taught his poetry to hundreds of teens. He kind of just smiled back and thanked me, and I stood there and waited, not knowing what I was expecting. Then I asked if I could buy his book. We were awkward about paying with the cash, and then I asked for a picture and Kathryn took one. I really like that picture now, but also still feel the awkwardness of the moment when I look at it.
After that, I said thanks and then we walked away. As Kathryn and I used the bathroom before leaving the library, I told her about how weird I felt. Like how weird was that that I just met this poet I had admired for so many years, and now I was just peeing and washing my hands with library soap.
But we agreed that these situations are always weird—because how can you communicate to a stranger what they mean to you? And what are they supposed to say back? Just thanks, really. So it’s just thanks both ways. I told Kathryn I wanted to thank him more specifically for the impact he’s had on my students’ lives, that maybe I’d message him through Instagram. But I never did. I just took my picture and his book and left.