What followed was not simply literature about medicine. How, though, can literature be medicinal? Mr. Ryan admitted that the editors themselves often don’t know what their theme means until they have chosen the work, with Mr. Lasdun adding that themes “suggests a way of reading.” And indeed, the three pieces read built a conversation about medicine and the nature of “theme,” one both implicit in the works themselves and explicit in the discussion that followed.
Mr. Lasdun’s pieces sat at different ends of a spectrum. In “The Incalculable Life Gesture”, the short story’s protagonist has a swelling under the chin his doctor identifies as lymphoma. Medicine is a reminder of mortality, inseparable from the anxiety of being sick, and the story infuses the reader with this fear. But his poem “Blueberries” is a very different beast. Written on the occasion of planting blueberries, which require years of care before harvest, it is a missive to Mr. Lasdun’s future self. The poem includes semi-scientific language (gotta love those antioxidants), but its conception of age as healing is where its true medicinal qualities lie. “You will know better what I mean,” Mr. Lasdun tells himself, twenty years later. This trust in the future is a palliative and a source of calm.
Mr. Lerner’s poem, “Dilation,” arose from grappling with the fiction of corporate personhood, as in “business-as-person,” against the possibility of corporate personhood as “collectivity across time.” Mr. Lerner read with an oratorical intensity that hearkens back to Walt Whitman, whom he cited as one of his influences. “Dilation” is medicinal as an event: as a place (a poem) where the body and self can be reconceived as part of something greater and more lasting than just themselves.
After the readings, the two authors engaged Mr. Ryan in a Q&A. They discussed their experiences writing under the arch of a determined theme; Mr. Lasdun prefers to begin writing with two or three things vividly imagined, Mr. Lerner with a general “territory of concern.” They agreed prose and poetry writing each come from a different mental space. Mr. Lasdun noted that his mood dictates his work. Mr. Lerner said his writing often starts in one direction, then “falls apart into a different thing.” Both concurred that prose, especially novels, requires a loosened, less perfectionist grip on language than poetry does.
When asked for book recommendations, Mr. Lasdun suggested Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, Mr. Lerner, How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. Audience members built their questions off one another’s, jumping in to ask follow-up questions as Mr. Lasdun and Mr. Lerner finished. The magazine puts disparate pieces in conversation with one another, and so it seemed highly appropriate for the evening to culminate in a sense of true conversation. Appropriate, and in its own way, medicinal, perhaps. It certainly made us, however briefly, a community.