In the entirety of my literary career, I have been heckled three times. When I say “heckled,” I am referring to incidents where, while on stage, I was yelled at by someone I didn’t know, in a manner that both spoke to and interrupted my performance. I’ve also had a sum total of one water bottle thrown at my head during a performance, but in defense of the thrower, it was 1am, hardly time for poetry. My act had also cut into a rousing dance party set to the B-52s’ “Love Shack.” So while I certainly didn’t appreciate the gesture, I understood, at least, the message.
Get the F off the stage, honey.
The most recent episode of heckling took place at the Proud Voices stage at this year’s Toronto Pride, where I was co-hosting with Susan G Cole. The incident in question occurred after, what I thought was, a pretty moving reading by Toronto writer Elizabeth Ruth, who had just shared an open letter she had written to her (then unborn) daughter, Violet. (The complete letter, for the rest of you who caught the performance and want more, is available in the anthology “Who’s Your Daddy? And Other Writings on Queer Parenting,” edited by Rachel Epstein.) This reading was part of a section of stage readings by lesbian mothers, and, after Ruth left the stage, all in the audience were, I think, feeling pretty happy and fuzzy about the whole thing. The next reader was on deck ready to go and it was my turn to get the show on the road. So I got up in front of the mic and gently attempted to persuade the chatting moms and mom supporters at the front of the stage to move on and make room for the next reader. I think I said a few subtler things to the crowd before I came out with this:
“Okay guys, let’s go. We all loved the last readings but there’s more to life than mothers and it’s time to move on.”
I’m not sure exactly why I put it that particular way. Although, you know, I do agree with that statement, as I think most people would; mothers are, truly, awesome, but there is life beyond and after them. I’m not suggesting we do away with them. I’m just saying, you know, let’s get on with the show and show some love for the next performer.
Unfortunately, there was at least one person present who did not get this underlying message to my statement.
“Hey!” He yelled, putting one foot up on the stage stairs and leaning toward me, “What’s your problem? Why you gonna talk that way about someone’s mother! You got problems?”
“Hey man,” I said, “I got no problems with anyone’s mom, okay? We’re just trying to move the show along.”
“Okay,” he said, “you watch it though.”
For a while this incident stuck in my brain. I don’t see this as a textbook heckling, because the person in question was loaded and because I wasn’t really reading, just MC-ing, but it made me think of the spirit of this practice, what it means and what it means to me.
In terms of the reason for heckling, my own personal experience has been that heckles are a kind of weird litmus of how offensive whatever I’m saying is — it’s not an accurate account of whether or not something I’m saying is offensive, it’s just a funky meter of whether or not something I’ve said could be offensive to anyone. The other times I’ve been heckled were when I was reading a piece on drug abuse and once when I was reading a piece about Jesus (not directly about him, mind you). The thing is, I know there are pieces other people find very offensive that I have read that have never garnered heckling so, like I said, the heckle is more a curiosity than an accurate reading of the populous at large. It’s not helpful in that way is what I’m saying.
Possibly because it doesn’t happen very often, I know a lot of writers who consider it incredibly rude when hecklers — or any kind of talkers — interrupt a performance. There are many writers out there who just ignore hecklers, which makes sense because, as a writer, heckles aren’t really part of your act. As a writer you’re pretty much on book, you know? It’s not like you can just improvise a response when you’re in the middle of a story. Plus, writers, generally, aren’t comedians, in a way that makes them both less funny and less behooven to turn a heckle into a joke. I know many writers whose response to hecklers is much like my grandmother’s response to screaming kids, a quick eyebrow raise and not much else. Responding to hecklers, some say, is encouraging them. Best to ignore them.
Even if I don’t find them helpful, I’m not of a sour disposition when it comes to the heckler. In fact, I kind of like them. For me, hecklers are like a mini experience with censorship that, if you’re prepared, allows the writer the rare opportunity to be the champion. It is, in other words, a rare form of censorship that is easily defeated. You, the writer, for once, are the one on the stage with the mic and you, the writer, can easily shoot down, can respond to, the voice of anger railing against your art. All you have to do is say something, say anything, say, as I am prone to, “Oh shut up.” My friend Mr Billeh Nickerson passed on to me another line, “That’s funny, the last person who had something to say about this had a small penis too!” Works with men or women, he said.
The next time someone yells at you on stage, I suggest you give this one a whirl.
Or, you know, if you’re shy, just throw the book at them.