On February 15, a day that Hugo House executive director Lyall Bush referred to as "Valentine's Boxing Day," three authors read at an event called Love Is the Drug. The intent, Bush explained in his introduction, was to explore the relationship between love and pharmaceuticals, but instead it was a showcase for three very different writers at varying stages of their careers, and each of the readings inspired its own kind of love.
Monica Drake, whose first novel, Clown Girl, was released last year, read a story that recalled the giddy, unearthly feeling of first love. Ostensibly about a man sitting on a toilet, reading a newspaper article about an old girlfriend who just won elected office, the story quickly became a hilarious fight between a lovelorn schlub and a modern bathroom filled with automatic sensors. The protagonist's humiliation was raw and pungent, and the story was dazzling, and you could feel the audience falling in love with Drake.
Rick Moody, author of Purple America (good), Demonology (great), and The Diviners (nigh-unreadable), presented a more middle-aged kind of love, the kind that suffers from back hair and divorce. "Oh, this is a bad one," Moody said, before he started reading. He was right. His story presented the feminine side of a he-said/she-said, and it was almost intolerable.
The first segment was the woman, on a first date, describing how much she hated the man's badly balding head—describing it as, among other things, a soccer ball with octagonal patches of flaking skin, a bad day at the beach, and medical therapy that involves maggots. The second segment, about the woman and the man now (inexplicably) living together, was somewhere between 15 minutes and three years long and entirely about toothbrushing. It featured the kind of thesaurus-atomizing vocabulary that no human being—save a writer desperately trying to be clever via over-intellectualizing minutia—would use, and its major point seemed to be that women hate football and think men are stupid. It was an embarrassing, shallow, antilove piece of writing completely out of place with the other works, an arduous journey to nowhere.
Hallelujah, then, for the historical perspective provided by Hugo House's writer in residence, poet David Wagoner. Wagoner, who resembles your favorite high-school science teacher in both his appearance and the calm, thoughtful timbre of his voice, simply told stories of the failures that poets had experienced in love. Yeats ("Oh, he made a mess of it," Wagoner groaned) unsuccessfully proposed to an actress over 30 times and then wound up proposing to her daughter, too.
Wagoner read poems by the authors he was discussing, and some of them, by Thomas Hardy and Charles Harper Webb, seemed renewed and refreshed by his commentary. His gentle, intelligent manner created a bond—a deep and abiding love—between the poet and his adoring audience: No boxing necessary.