I've heard a lot of things said from Hugo House's cabaret stage that could be considered offensive. I've said a lot of things, too. And I've worried. Friday before last, in front of a room full of reasonable people at the final presentations of Artist Trust's EDGE Professional Development Program for Writers (held at Jack Straw), I read a piece that quoted Cosmopolitan magazine's pleasure tips. The selection seemed like a good idea when I was practicing in my apartment. For this special reading, I wanted to present something I'd never before read to an audience, which is difficult, since I'm not generating new work, just mulling over the same old stuff in my memoir. The opening to the Cosmo chapter was suitable: self-contained, five minutes long, could get a few laughs.
And, maybe, kind of "offensive," to some. I'm not really sure what that word means, but I know it's been nagging at me as long as I've been performing work from this book. The thought of offending members of my audience gives me no pleasure. It makes me uneasy. So uneasy that when the room began to fill at Jack Straw last week, and I saw all the normal, reasonable people taking their seats, I began to feel nauseous. When the event began, I was shaking.
When I took my turn behind the mic, I recited my usual warning, which goes something like this: "This piece contains adult language and sexual situations. If you feel uncomfortable with that, I invite you to step out—I really won't mind. [Long pause.] Everyone's comfortable? Okay." This warning became attached to many of my readings after I expressed concern to Katinka Kraft during her "Step Up to the Mic" class last spring. She proposed a disclaimer to pacify my nerves and shaking: if I tell them what's coming, and that they're free to leave, it's their own fault if they don't. No one ever has.
The offensiveness issue comes up at Works in Progress from time to time. Someone gets offended by something and asks me what, as the open mic organizer, I'm going to do about it. That's easy: nothing. I don't feel comfortable deciding what's offensive and needs to be censored, I wouldn't want anyone to decide the same about my work, and I think it's okay—healthy, even—for people to be offended on a regular basis. A recent SLOG post quoted atheist author Philip Pullman, speaking about his new novel, as saying, "No one has the right to spend their life without being offended."
After my reading at Jack Straw, I continued to shake through the remaining readings, expecting at least a few disapproving looks. I got none. Everyone was relaxed, and I was the one all worked up—over nothing. Everyone in the audience had heard worse before—likely said worse, too. On my way out of the building, a girl my age or a little younger, looked up from her cell phone and said, "I loved your reading!" and I knew that, whoever might have preferred cleaner language or more tasteful subject matter, I had reached my audience.