August 9, 2012

LLF DAY 5: Rewrites and Rewards

LLF Fellows reading (L-R) Miguel M. Morales, Rachel L. Pepper, AJ Reyes, Nina Packebush, Christina Clover, Bridget Birdsall. Photo courtesy of Rachel L. Pepper

For the past few days the YA group sat for three hours each day for intense manuscript critiques and very little writing. The critique sessions starting to get tiresome. Maybe it was just me. I got feedback on my work earlier in the week. But everyone deserved to get proper feedback and for that feedback to be as fresh as it was on the first day. That’s what I tried to offer. I also took notes on the other critique sessions. Some of it made sense for my manuscript or for my writing in general.

After the usual round of feedback, we worked on a handout from our faculty mentor. It felt good to do some writing and to focus on exercises that allowed me to learn more about the characters I’ve created and the world they inhabit.

After lunch part of the YA group had decided to visit the Getty Museum which was just a few miles away. I really wanted to go but I decided to stay and work on my revisions for the LLF fellows reading that evening. The first part of the week, LLF faculty mentors read their work in a stunning display. Well, it was our turn. This was the first of two days where LLF fellows would read. A few of the YA fellows signed up for the first day taking various spaces in the top 10 slots. I signed up with them just to get it over with and to have the comfort of reading in the company of my cohort. We learned about the reading a few weeks before the retreat so I made sure to bring some of my poems. I’d never read from my manuscript in public and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

At lunch, I sat at a table with the incredible Jewelle Gomez and she asked me what I planned to read. I know. Let me stop there because you’re probably like, “Wait, wait, wait. Jewelle Gomez talked to you and she asked what you were going to read?”

Uh, yeah. She did. And I think I know why:

The previous day Jewelle and I had a fun conversation over lunch or dinner (I can’t remember which) about being poets of color poets and about our activism. I don’t know how the conversation started because there’s no way I would have kicked it off. I think maybe she mentioned something about Latinos and I just jumped into the conversation. Anyway, everyone at the table was just quietly listening to us. Someone would chime in every so often but mainly it was just the two of us talking. I tried be cool about it but in the middle of the conversation I thought, “Ommagod! I’m having a conversation about activism with Jewelle Gomez and I am totally bringing it!!” Looking back, maybe I was just making a fool of myself and that’s why everyone at the table was quiet.

OK so back to Jewelle asking me what I planned to read. I told her I brought a few poems from home but I felt like a different writer than I was a few days ago. I thought I might read a section of my manuscript I’d expanded and rewritten at the suggestion of my YA cohort. I told her time was running out and it’d probably be safer for me to read my previous work. Jewelle looked into me, not at me but into me, and said, “I know I don’t have a say and it’s your decision but I’d like to vote that you read your rewrite. It doesn’t have to be perfect or even finished. I would like to hear it.”

Well, if Jewelle Gomez asks you to read a particular piece, you do it out of respect. I excused myself from the table and rushed back to my room. I spent the next five hours writing a four-minute scene (four minutes was the time allotted to each reader). Before I knew it, it was time to shower, shave, and get dressed for the reading. I still didn’t have an ending for the scene but I needed to get my ass to the LLF office to print my work.

As each reader took the podium, I tried to pay attention but my pen kept making changes to my document. I came up with an ending. But my paper looked like a tattooed prison bitch. It had arrows, circles, stars, scratched through lines, underlined words. It was a mess. Finally, I just had to surrender to the document and put the pen away. I knew if I continued editing, I’d ruin it.

Dorothy Allison sat a few seats from me with a bag of M&Ms. I thought of her reading, well, it was more like a performance, a few nights ago at the faculty mentor reading. I wanted to read as she did. She transported the audience with her words and body. I couldn’t just stand at the podium like a pendejo trying to read my work. I needed to read from my soul. I closed my eyes and remembered back to the boy I was working in the fields. I remembered it being so hot that it was difficult to breathe. I remembered the sweat that continually flowed down my back or into my eyes. I remember the sweat bees that would come buzzing around my face and would sting my lips. My friend, Nina, finished her reading and introduced me.

I walked to the podium and I remember looking out at the audience but not really seeing anyone’s face. I opened my mouth and that boy inside me, the boy working the fields, told his story. When he was done, I looked out at the audience with a relief and they applauded. Normally, at readings I shake off applause because it feels awkward for me. But this time, I stood in it. I took the applause because, well, I worked hard on that piece. I also stood in that moment for all the migrant farmworker youth and child laborers who remain unacknowledged and whose stories never earn applause. It felt good. 

I returned to my seat and took a deep breath. That’s when Dorothy Allison leaned over and said, “Hey! Hey, you.” Oh, I should go back and explain that from the first day of the retreat I’d been scared as hell of Dorothy Allison. I mean, seriously, I was scared of her. When we did the introduction/sharing circle thing on the first day (you know the one where I cried), she said very clearly that she was here to kick some ass. I just knew she was talking to me. I also knew it was simply a matter of time before she’d be walking around campus with me holding her white outturned pocket. Either that or I’d wake up to a knock on my door in the middle of the night to learn she’d traded my brown ass for a pack of cigarettes. As the days went by, I felt a little more comfortable around her but I still didn’t want to challenge her by looking directly into her eyes.

So, yeah, I great after my reading and that’s when Dorothy leaned toward me and said, “Hey! Hey, you.” Oh jeez, this was it. How could things have changed so quickly? I was so happy from everyone’s response to my reading but now Dorothy Allison was about to give me a beat down. I didn’t want to look over at her. I knew she was probably dragging her finger across her throat in a cutting motion letting me know that I’m dead meat. I didn’t turn my head. Instead, I looked out of the right corner of my eye and there she was, Dorothy Allison, stretching out her hand to offer me some of her peanut M&Ms. And best of all, she was smiling at me. I immediately knew I’d been an idiot for being afraid of her all that time. I smiled back at her and my body visibly relaxed. I reached into her bag of M&Ms for my reward and enjoyed the rest of the evening.

LLF recorded the faculty mentor readings and the two nights of LLF fellow readings. As soon as they go live, I'll repost. In the meantime enjoys these:

Jewelle Gomez reading James Baldwin

Dorothy Allison: Albert Gallatin Lecture

Miguel M. Morales: JCCC All-Staff Meeting