I finish the poem, my exhalation fading to silence over the microphone, and the people gathered in the eighth floor restaurant of the Walker Art Center break into an applause that carries me back to the table where my mother is sitting, beaming at me. A candle flickers on the table between us. She has a pen in her hand, and there are marks all over the program in front of her. I sit, blood thumping, heart rocking. They keep clapping and whistling, they’re looking at me; a hundred or so people clustered at tables around the white-walled restaurant. I glance over at the three judges who are scribbling on scraps of paper at a table in the center of the room. They are from the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe in New York City, and are by far the most fascinating-looking people in the place; a Latino man with wild, unkempt hair and black thick-framed glasses, a tall ebony-skinned woman with supermodel cheekbones and sleek hair pulled back into ponytail, a lighter-skinned woman with short dreads and a no-bullshit frown, silver bracelets around her wrists catching the dim light in the room and flashing it across the restaurant. I want so fiercely for them to like me.
Bob Holman, the Nuyorican’s director, stands at the microphone in his shabby brown suit with a fedora crumpled over his head. The applause fades. “Judges, scores, please?”
The woman in dreads holds up a card: 9.5.
The other woman does the same: 9.9.
A long moment as the man with the glasses drops his card, reaches to the floor, picks it up and turns it towards the restaurant. 10.
Wild applause. I smile in spite of myself. I feel my mother patting my back…a rapid staccato on my shoulder. My heart won’t stop thundering.
“It looks like there’s a tie,” Bob Homan says.
The restaurant collectively exhales “oooooooooohh,” followed by a wave of laughter.
“Which means a sudden death match with our top two poets; Michael McAllister and Black Q”.
Fuck, I think. Black Q is a young African-American boy who sits alone at a table in the corner. He smiles at no one. His poetry is sharp and quick like a bullet. Compared to him I am white trash.
“So guys, get your next poem ready.”
Next poem? I was told to bring just one. I grab my folder and flip through the few pages inside, panic chilling my blood. Fuck it, that was the only one I liked.
“Black Q, c’mon up.”
The boy walks to the microphone, chin thrust forward. As he begins I shuffle the five or so poems that I have in my hand, as if a good one will just appear. I can hear the boy’s words; and my heart falls a little. He’s too fucking good. Everyone will think I suck.
I don’t have any time. I scan each poem, over and over. Suddenly I see something in two poems that might work. A few stanzas here, another there. I will piece them together.
Black Q finishes, turns away from the microphone and stalks back to his table in the corner. Wild applause, whistles, whoops.
The judges are quick: 9.7, 10, 9.4.
I clutch the two poems in my hand, glance back at my mother, the woman who has come to every play, every reading I’ve ever done.
“Go,” she says.
I exhale, stand up. I watch the floor as I wind my way between the tables, up to the microphone.
My nerves are polka-dancing. I breathe in, picture the face and the body of the man I’ve written the poems about. It steadies me a bit.
I read. And the two poems, each cut in half, flow together. I look up when I finish, a moment hangs there, and I step back from the microphone. The applause comes, like a wave, like a storm. I walk through it, around the tables, to where my mother waits, her hands coming together again and again, her smile the only thing I can see. When I sit beside her she reaches up and does something she’s never done. She pats my head, her eyes squeezed tight above her smile. I laugh a little, and stare at the candle on our table. I savor the applause, squeeze every second out of it.
The judges are staring down at their cards. They take forever.
Then they come. 9.8. 9.9. 10.
I glance down at the program my mother is scribbling on. Columns of numbers, additions, averages. She looks up, grabs my shoulder. “You won,” she says.