On Public Speaking and Godin, Poetry and Ventura’s Poseidon Brian Brennan
Yesterday Seth Godin wrote about speaking in public. Godin says that people are afraid to speak in public because they believe they are being actively judged and that the subject of the talk or presentation that they are giving is them.
This is false. The truth, he writes, is
You are not being judged, the value of what you are bringing to the audience is being judged.
Yesterday, when I read this, my students were busy preparing to present about their research projects and then on Dec. 12, they will be reading at the open mic following Paul Willis’s feature at the EP Foster Library on Main in downtown Ventura.
And I was preparing to speak in a very public place: a Ventura City Council meeting that night.
Now, I’ve done this a few times when I’ve had something to say about an issue–usually about development, bicycles, arts, and even on the closing of the Wright Library (and I’ve posted what I’ve written on Art Predator as well).
But last night was a little different. It was City Councilman Brian Brennan’s last day on the Council ; he was elected in 1997. I’d known Brian a long time–since before he was on City Council, and long admired his work with Surfrider and VCCool. After so many years of service, it was time to recognize his work on behalf of the environment and the arts publicly before he stepped down AND, for me strategically, so that the new council members and those in the audience would realize the important voice he had provided for the earth and the arts on council.
So it really helped to keep Godin’s advice in mind as I prepared what I wanted to say and do.
It was a roast and a toast, in Council Chambers, during a Council meeting (following a public comment period where one of my former students spoke eloquently). I didn’t know whether I’d have one minute or three–but I was hoping and preparing for three! I wanted to honor and recognize his role in the arts and the environment when it struck me that
Brian Brennan is our Poseidon.
So I started there and brought a plastic Poseidon action figure (which got a laugh).
I continued by saying, “Brian Brennan’s reputation is about keeping promises, especially to the arts and the environment. In fact, Brian was one of the first people to sign the petition to hold the Town Hall meeting that started VCCool, and he’s served as a VCCool Board Member.
“But there’s one promise Brian hasn’t kept. Yet.” And at this point I waved around a big fat book. “He promised to read Ulysses by James Joyce with me.” People laughed again. “Now he’ll have time and no excuses because here’s a copy from our own ‘Bank of Books’ down the streeet. Thanks for your years of service and best wishes as you paddle off into the future.”
Then I continued, saying I didn’t know how much time I had but that recently I was commissioned by the City of Pasadena to write and record a poem about water and power. Somehow I connected that to Brian, and Poseidon, and launched into the first third of the poem (which is formatted differently here):
“Aqua. Agua. Apa. Awa. Ama.
Vada. Vasser. Wasser. Water.
water is everywhere
water is every thing
in every where
water is all
A/ah is the water vowel.
A/ah is the first letter of the universal poem.
A/ah is the letter that stands for the repose of the soul.
Language is filled with water.
Listen as the liquid syllables of flowing language
carry off lingering moments of memory.
Listen to the stirrings of the stream.
Listen to the stream laugh and the laughter stream.
Listen to the round words roll over stones.
Speak to the river and it will teach you to speak.
Feel whispering onto your face the beauty born of murmuring sound.
Water dissolves all barriers.
Water brings everything together.
Water carries everything everywhere.
Water weeps with everyone.
Water flows in the air between us.
Water flows on the ground beside us.
Water flows deep underneath us.
Water flows within us:
in every breath (breathe) water
in every heart beat (feel) water
from sea to sky
from body to body
from sky to stream
from body to body
from stream to sea
from body to being
from being to body:
the same water
in the first beings
flows in our bodies.
We’re all made of re-cycled water:
water re-cycled since the beginning of time.”
I got the bell that my time was up when I was six lines from the end, so I put my hand up in recognition, and I continued to the end without missing a beat. I then brought Brian over his copy of Ulysses as well as a copy of my book and a card, and he came down off the dais to give me a big hug. I almost handed him Poseidon but took it back!
Back in my seat, next to Rachel Morris of VCCool and my son and family, they reassured me it well. After more tributes, there was a break and many people came up to tell me how much they enjoyed what I shared, and wanted to read it (so here it is!). Later on Facebook, I was touched to read that Deby Tygel posted “You wove beauty into a tumultuous night!!! An integral part of the evening elevating the spirit to a precious, unparalleled stage. Thank you!!!” And Rachel posted, “It sounded just like water burbling and rushing. It was amazing, Gwen!”
So Seth Godin, thanks again for the advice. I’d like to think that I followed it. And for my students that are still reading along, Godin says:
If you realize that you have a chance to be generous in this moment, to teach and to lead, you can leave the self-doubt behind and speak a truth that the audience needs to hear. When you bring that to people who need it, your fear pales in comparison.
Poem acknowledgments and thanks to Batchelard’s essays on water and dreams and to Marilidia Marcotulli for her depth ecopsychological ideas and ground breaking work on water.
PS Lots of my bicycling friends were there for the public comment period that began the meeting. When Rachel spoke (and lots of people gave her their minutes) everyone in support of safer transportation stood–and that was practically EVERYONE in the room! While the timing could have been better (so there would have been more time for Brian), her presentation was brief and direct.