Reading for a Poet

By Ania Szado

There’s a good crowd gathering in the Brigantine Room as the event’s featured writers and I convene in the green room. I’m here to host, with an added twist: I’ve been asked to read an English translation on behalf of one of the featured writers.

I agreed enthusiastically. I love doing readings. But now, receiving my instructions backstage, I hear, “He’ll read the first poem in his own language…” and two things hit me: reality, and nerves.

I’m a novelist, not a poet. It’s been years since I’ve written poetry, never mind read it to a discerning audience. And who could be more discerning than the poems’ creator? The last time I read an internationally renowned poet’s work to a packed house while he stood beside me listening was…

I can’t do this.

The poet comes into the green room. The book he holds is layered with numbered sticky tags. He has a friendly face and handshake. He walks me through the order of the poems he has chosen. His English is heavily accented, but excellent—he’ll definitely know if I mess up. Six poems. He’ll read the first one, then I’ll read them all. Maybe he’ll take the mic back at the end for a few lines. He looks concerned. I am concerned.

“It will be fine,” I say. He hands me his book.

When his turn comes, I introduce him, and step aside while he reads. Standing two feet from the spotlight, I’m far enough from the poet to be audience, yet close enough to feel the gathering power of the aura that seems to coalesce around him as he introduces his collection. I feel the energy that connects him to the listeners below us. I share their sense of anticipation, their focus, as the poet begins reading. I don’t understand his words, but I understand his commitment to them. A lump starts to form in my throat.

By the time he finishes that first poem, I don’t feel nervous; I feel privileged to help him present his work here.

I step into the light. I sense rather than see him beside me. I want him not to worry. This is his first English translation. I want to not disappoint him. I do my best. I take my time with the words, and they take me through. My best is not perfect, but it’s fine; I can feel it. The poet’s words and presence have made me a better reader.

When I finish, he extends his hand, but I gesture toward the podium, asking if he will read a few more lines in his language. He does so, adds a warm tribute to his translator, and exits the stage.

When the final author has read and the event is over, I approach the poet. I say, “I’m sorry—I didn’t take your hand.” He looks perplexed. I explain, “Onstage, after your reading. You offered your hand, and I didn’t take it.” It has been gnawing at me, this disrespectful thing.

But he says, “You didn’t? I don’t remember.”

I’m relieved. More than this, I realize that we were in all of this together—the pull of the written words, the audience’s attention, the slight logistical confusion.

He thanks me for my contribution, and I tell him it was an honour. I put my hand on my heart. It truly felt like an honour.

He tells me that he likes when his poems are read in a straightforward way. I suffer one last pang of anxiety. Had I been I too dramatic, swept up as I had been in the emotion of connection? He smiles. “So I appreciate how you read them.”

In 2014, CBC called Ania Szado one of “Ten Canadian Women You Need to Read.” Her short fiction has been nominated for the Journey Prize and National Magazine Awards, and her bestselling novel Studio Saint-Ex has received international acclaim. Szado’s debut novel, Beginning of Was, was regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.