By Ali Banach
The question of firsts has reverberated among authors this weekend. The importance of firsts comes up often in stories about sexual desire: first kiss, loss of virginity, coming out, sexual awakening. During her conversation with Jami Attenberg, Judy Blume brought up a question she had previously been asked: “Who was your first lover?” To which she recalls responding, “Me.”
This question was adopted by Eileen Myles in their dialogue with Jericho Brown. Brown responded with the name of a boy he met in college. “I would literally break out in hives,” he said of this first love. Myles responded, firmly, that their own first lover was the fictional character Peter Pan.
As a first-time attendee, I have been thinking a lot about firsts over the past couple of days. This is my first time visiting Key West, my first time at the Key West Literary Seminar. As a young person—a college undergrad—at the Seminar, I understand that I am witnessing a gathering with a storied tradition.
An attendee sitting behind me remarks to the person in the next seat, “I’m assuming you’ve been here before.” Yes, ten times. “I think this will be my 28th.” I turned 23 two weeks ago.
To be in college is to be surrounded by young people at all times. There is a language that forms between youth, derived from intense Internet use and shared references and spaces. However for most of the seminar, I turned off my phone and listened to people older than I am speak precisely about sex, desire, longing, firsts, and God.
For a seminar on Desire, I was surprised at the frequency and intensity of religious discussion. Maybe this indicates a generational division; I first understood sexual desire through the Internet rather than the Church. When I think about desire, my mind does not jump to God, but each author, in their own way, spoke to the inextricability of spiritual and erotic desire. These modes of wanting are sometimes in tension, sometimes aligned, but always rubbing up against each other.
In conversation with Jami Attenberg, Deesha Philyaw said, “The Church is obsessed with sex.” Obsession is, of course, the most intense form of Desire. Philyaw expands the definition of the desired here to things prohibited, feared, obstructed.
In a similar vein, Lauren Groff discusses her obsession with religion as a child of parents from Amish and Mennonite backgrounds. Fervency became translated, she explains, into literature. This translation makes sense to me, as we all convene to think about language and stories, to listen in for what might pique our own fervency. I begin to understand the tents of the Seminar as a type of church where we gather, young and old, to ritualize the celebration of reading and writing toward, away from, and around our own desires.
Ali Banach is a writer from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.