Magic and the Intellect: A Remarkable Occurrence at AWP 2014

AWP 2014So for the first time, I’m attending AWP, the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. I wasn’t planning to blog about the experience at all. But something extraordinary went down this morning at a panel called “Magic and the Intellect.” What follows isn’t an objective “report” of what happened. A lot of other people were there, and each would have a different telling. This one’s mine.

The four writers on the panel were Lucy Corin, Kate Bernheimer, Anna Joy Springer, and Rikki Ducornet. I went because, while I’m fairly confident about the intellect part of my life and work, I’m not always sure about the magic. I’ve always loved Hamlet’s rejoinder to Horatio about there being more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy, but ever since largely abandoning the religious faith of my upbringing, I’ve rarely felt I had access to those things, those “more” things.

This will be good for me, I thought.

Plus, I wanted to see Lucy Corin, who’s a friend and mentor.

The room was really crowded. A lot of people were standing. A lot of people were sitting on the floor, even behind the panelists. It was really hot. I grow faint very easily, even when I’m seated in a chair (which I was, thank God). I joked with the friend I was sitting next to that if I thought I was going to pass out, I’d just topple over onto her shoulder.

Lucy began by reading some opening remarks about magic. She talked about how magic can “shore up against pain via rhythm.” I wrote this down although I didn’t understand it. She talked about how, when one casts a spell, one uses special words and special objects, and then something happens in the world. She talked about the wisdom of words and the wisdom of objects. She suggested that words might themselves be objects. She talked about the relationship between “coming alive” and “coming out alive.” She told us she’d be reading an excerpt from her work-in-progress, The Swank Hotel. She warned us several times that the words would be terrible—very, very terrible.

I took her at her word. Some people didn’t.

The excerpt features a man sitting next to his daughter in the hospital. The daughter has tried to commit suicide. She hasn’t quite succeeded, but she hasn’t quite failed, either. She dips in and out of consciousness, and it’s not at all clear she’s going to make it.

The father sits with her and tells her a stream—a long, long stream—of dead baby jokes.

The first dead baby joke was simply surprising, but it wasn’t like you’ve never heard one, right? The second one was kind of funny. By the third one, people were openly laughing. But the jokes kept going, one after the other, many of them shocking and violent and disgusting, and people stopped laughing. Lucy’s own voice grew a little shaky as she continued to read.

I’m really, really, really squeamish. Even if the gross thing I’m reacting to is utterly outlandish and obviously not real. I wondered if I’d be feeling so squeamish if I hadn’t given birth to babies of my own. I wondered if the other women in the room who had children were more sensitive to this assaultive stream of dead-baby images than the ones who hadn’t. I wondered about the women in the room who’d had abortions or miscarriages. Would this be even harder for them?

And yeah, I actually started to feel faint. I spared my friend and didn’t topple over onto her shoulder. But I did lean back in my seat so I didn’t have to bear the weight of my own head so much—which is such an utterly apt metaphor for everything that is wrong with me that—well, I digress.

As the litany of dead babies continued, I wondered, What the hell kind of father does this—sits next to his possibly dying daughter telling such jokes? But one could, of course, ask this question of any number of fathers—real fathers who inflict real pain in real life to real daughters. And I suddenly remembered, years ago, going to a reading where a man with cystic fibrosis read about his experiences with sadomasochism—how a life spent enduring physical suffering had led to an embrace of sexuality with pain. And then I recalled that line I didn’t understand during Lucy’s opening remarks, the one I wrote down about shoring oneself up against pain via rhythm, and the whole thing started making sense.

After a while I stopped minding so much. I was able to sit up. The air-conditioning had kicked in in the overcrowded room, which helped. But really, I think the relentlessness of the jokes had numbed me to the horrors being spoken aloud. The way one gets used to an unpleasant odor. The way, perhaps, torturers become inured to the suffering of their captives. The way we grow numb to news of real dead children—in Syria, in the Central African Republic, in the epidemic of gun violence in our own country.

And then the remarkable thing happened.

“Hey! Hey!” a woman shouted from the back. “What are you doing? Why are you traumatizing your audience like this? What does this have to do with magic or the intellect?”

Lucy stopped, and a bunch of people started talking: Someone shouted to let Lucy finish. A man jumped in to agree with the heckler. They were loudly invited to leave. The first heckler said, “I am leaving. But I just had to say something first. I came here to hear Rikki Ducornet. I’ve been waiting twenty years to hear her.”

Lucy’s fellow panelists came eloquently to her defense. They acknowledged the discomfort everyone was feeling. Anna Joy Springer described it as a “durational” piece. They said Lucy was brave for writing and reading it, and we for listening.

Lucy stood at the podium, in tears. So of course I started crying too.

After the hecklers left, it got real quiet, and Lucy asked if she should finish. “There’s not much left,” she said quietly.

“Yes!” people shouted.

“Start over!” someone said.

She didn’t, but she did read the rest, still crying, and we all clapped loud and long when she was done.

The rest of the panel proceeded, and honestly, each of their talks deserves a short essay too, but not from me.

Lucy was surrounded by well wishers at the end.

My friend turned to me and said, “That’s the only thing I need to see at AWP today.”

And here’s what I’m still thinking about, several hours later:

1. Lucy said casting a spell required special words and special objects and then something would happen in the world, and something did. It was unexpected and terrible to behold. But it was also magic. Dark magic, perhaps, but magic all the same. The woman’s awful, self-centered outburst (“I’ve waited 20 years to hear Rikki Ducornet!”), the way the whole room rallied around Lucy, the palpable sense of goodwill afterward. It was a bit like watching an exorcism—the malign spirits called forth, then cast out.

2. Even more shocking and dismaying than that litany of dead babies in a work of fiction was witnessing in real life a writer—and a woman at that—try to silence another writer. But with a few hours’ distance, I’m actually feeling some compassion for the heckler. What she did was awful. But she can’t be having a very good time at the conference, right? I hope the hugeness of the conference confers her some anonymity so she can—I don’t know—pull herself together? put this behind her? But seriously, lady—next time, just leave.

3. I’ve thought this before, but today I saw it up close and personal: Courage is not about doing something risky when you’re prepared to face down the fallout. It’s about doing something risky even when you’re undone by the fallout. One of my greatest fears is of losing my composure in public. A terrible fear to have when you cry very, very easily. I cannot tell you how many things I’ve not done or not said because I was afraid it would make me cry in front of someone I don’t know very well. Today I watched a talented, generous, important writer cry in front of hundreds of people after being heckled, and it was—well, it wasn’t okay, it was heartbreaking, and during the Q&A Lucy said she wasn’t sure now if the piece had a future—so really, really not okay. But we all came alive. And we came out alive.

Lucy Corin, please keep casting your spells. They make the world a richer place and all of us better for it.

8/7/14 update: Writer Suzanne Warren has published an intelligent, thoughtful reflection on this event in her piece, “On Dead Baby Jokes and Art,” at The Prague Review. Well worth reading.

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