Afterwords, Commentary

Afterwords // Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell; Conversations About the Weather, Bulimia, Popsicles and Acronyms

By Kristen Steenbeeke, Contributing Writer

Last Friday night’s installment of the Hugo House Literary Series mixed a self-described fat, bulimic, black boy, a singing/viola-and-violin-playing musician, a blond swimmer/memoirist from Oregon, and a self-proclaimed “fag hag” (who also happens to be, as everyone pointed out that night, a MacArthur Genius).

Performance artist and writer Chad Goller-Sojourner, violinist/violist Alex Guy of the band Led to Sea, memoirist and fiction writer Lidia Yuknavitch, and the famed poet Heather McHugh all read original pieces on the theme “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — both the secretive aspect of it as well as the literal, political side.

Goller-Sojourner — first joking that he asked his friends what they were doing over the weekend just so he could tell them he was “sharing the stage with a MacArthur Genius” — read three brief, humorous essays on topics ranging from his adoption to failing P.E. to the moment he was forced to confront and end his bulimia. Especially relatable was his description of those giant, scratchy ropes attached to gym ceilings pinned up “with a tack,” which are often the bane of the less-than-athletic.

Guy, who was playing her viola with a cello accompanist, filled up the room with a clear and perfect voice and ethereal pluckings, singing about a family’s way of avoiding the “deeper” topics of conversation by instead resorting to the weather. Guy commented at one point that she spent more time on the writing of the lyrics than usual, as the crowd of Hugonauts was more attuned to listening to the words of songs.

Yuknavitch presented a powerful and sobering piece about an Eastern European girl coming toPortlandas a sort of prostitute — the most powerful imagery of the piece being the popsicle truck the character was taken around in at night, along with the other “popsicle girls.” Though quite serious, the piece made use of lighthearted words, like “Starbucky.”

McHugh, the final reader, came on with her usual scattered, composed demeanor (the oxymoron makes sense if you’ve heard her read), and began with a commentary about her intense hatred of themes, rapidly listing off the various themed anthologies she’d been asked to write a piece for (“women of Virginia,” etc.). Within 10 minutes, she’d said “fuck” about five times, causing the high-school students in the red chairs to my right to collapse into fits of thrilled giggles. McHugh then read a list of quotes she’d procured from friends in the military — the only writer to take the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prompt literally. After, she spent some time poking fun at acronyms like LGBT, etc., creating a new acronym from all the letters used (PUBIC GLOAT being one of the best).

At this point, expectation of a poem was moot: McHugh’s essay/lecture hybrid — and even her method of speaking — are essentially poems in the rough, anyway. But she did eventually read a poem, and what a poem it was. Most of it outlined sections of the Bible that are no longer relevant — such as the “don’t wear mixed fabrics” rule — clearing juxtaposing them with Bible passages that decry homosexuality and thus illuminating the hypocrisy of those who point to the Bible as a reason to be anti-gay. Swallowing felt like a yell; everyone was so quiet. Just as the words of the poem settled over the room, McHugh immediately launched into an auction of her enlarged-at-Kinko’s notes for the benefit of Hugo House — then said they could keep her check for the night, as well.