I got lost on the way to the reading, wandered the deserted UMass campus, staring at cement walls in sunset light. Finally I found a security guard who walked me to the auditorium door, whistling. I found a seat, said "Is anybody sitting here?" before I realized I was surrounded by teenage boys and wondered what kind of audience they'd be. Anyway. I was there in time for the introductions.
Noy Holland read first: an unpublished story both meandering and hurtling, with beautifully wrought details and horrifying events. It was a quiet story, in which much of the violence happened offstage, or was told with a child's matter-of-factness. I wondered what the teenage boys got out of it. They doodled. I tried to read their scribbles before reminding myself again to pay adult attention to the unassuming figure on stage. Because her particular reading on this particular night would pass my ears just this once, and it was worth following.
Mark Doty read a few new poems, including "Pescadero," which had not wowed me when I read it in The New Yorker, but in the poet's voice, the words came alive with smile-inducing wonder. I was reminded of Mary Oliver's prayerful celebrations.
Then he read an essay from Granta's Spring 2010 Issue. This was the "you must change your life" (as Rilke wrote) portion of the evening. Not that one should live in a particular way but that one should write with such brutal and beautiful honesty. Doty did say that he was able to publish this essay only because its main characters are now dead-- but dead people or no, few could write of romantic misfortune and sexual awakening with more candor, pathos, and gratitude.
The essay's narrative was punctuated with reflective pauses. As good as he is at saying something, Doty is aware that some things cannot be said, and his story made room for that unknowing, admitted its own incompleteness.
The teenage boys were clearly amazed by Doty's frank, anatomically correct sex scenes. What lucky, summer-program-going kids. They'll never read something like that in high school, but now they know what's possible. It was the good kind of shocking.
Both Holland's story and Doty's memoir portrayed affairs. While it was hard to tell the role of the lover in the first, in the second, the lover was clearly a liberator. "His body was one of the doors through which I entered my actual life," were Doty's final words from behind the podium.