The Other night I went to see Juan Felipe Herrera, the US Poet Laureate, read at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. The smorgasbord from the day’s Chicano/a studies event, which included the local public schools, smouldered in the corner of the hall. Chili roja y verde, tostadas, sopapillas, carne adovada, posole, calabacitas and of course, cinnamon rolls, Doritos and donuts—fill the eager full-house, which feels more like a homecoming to abuelita’s, than a public poetry event.
Senor Herrera enters to a standing ovation. He’s wearing a straw hat with a cheerful band. He roots around in his mochilla retrieving notebooks while the audience counts backwards from ten. He thanks everyone and thing under the sun, todo la gente, los ninos, la familia, la Universidad, even his driver—the man is a ray of gratitude. He commands the stage like a side-show barker, weaving seamlessly from “Inglesol” to “Espanales.” He riffs and improvises. He sings consonants and dances vowels. His love of sound is contagious. Lines spoken from his hearts:
“Even the gun does not want to be a gun”
“We must sing for all those that have been killed this year and be kind”
“Make poems like our mothers cooked”
“When there is a fight in the house, fry green onions.”
Querida Gente, ese hombre sabe hablar! Senor Herrera has the audience repeat a refrain, “En Novo Mexico, nosotros vivimos poesia” And just when you think, this is just entertainment, he brings home the tragedy, naming the victims on the Charleston Baptist Church shootings. The audience is standing again. Clapping to stop their eyes from tearing. We are not sure if we have just attended a funeral or a wedding, but we know we have communed with family.
It takes barrels of experience and an open glorious heart to warm a crowd into a poetic group hug. Preachers do it. Actors do it. Politicians and salesmen try, but the underlying message always wears thin. Writers, especially fiction writers, often do it on the page, but rarely live. I’ve seen some great fiction writers read: Paul Auster, Dave Eggers and Geoff Dwyer. They were good, but not Juan Felipe Herrera or Gregory Corso or Paul Muldoon. Is poetry better than fiction live? Perhaps it’s pointless to compare but, hell yeah. Verse is howling from the mountain tops. Whispering in lovers’ ears. Recite with drum and trumpet!
Prose is that voice in your head rising from the fire-lit page.
On the first Friday of every month, The Blue Mesa Review, our MFA-run literary Magazine, organizes a reading at a local gallery. Three students and one faculty member read works in progress, an informal affair. This month was my turn to host. I collected the bios, added a few personal comments, did my due diligence. I dawned my only suit jacket and drove to the gallery. I sat in my car outside the gallery and drank a can of Tecate while scribbling opening and closing remarks. I googled “How to present speakers” and scrolled through some tips on my phone: Wait for the speaker to get to the podium. Shake their hand. Be warm and welcoming. Joke, but at your own expense. Brevity is good.
Entering the gallery, I greeted my new friends and colleagues, and was surprised by my nervousness. I was almost shaking. After many years a professional actor, I am no stranger to performing live. But my nerves were bouncing, on the verge of out-of-control. I had no character to hide behind, no text to deliver, no story to tell. I yearned narrative. Jittery and sober, I wanted the night over.
By the third introduction, I was cucumber calm and actually enjoying the reading, but I missed the first half due to my own anxiety and self-doubt. Am I slurring? Do they understand me? Am I offending anyone? Using the wrong words? Are these shoes appropriate? I should have shaved. I need a hair cut. Are my jokes funny? Typical scrutiny, faced alone daily while writing at my desk, not vis-a-vis an audience.
Hosting a reading takes as much or more preparation as reading. Like a good girl scout, preparation is everything, yet simply following your cue cards and not engaging in the moment, the crowd, the night—will leave you cursing the missed opportunities. At one point during my closing address, I improvised and tried to evoke a spirit of gratitude. I stumbling through something like, “In these crazy times, full of war and insensitivity and injustice, lets take a minute and thank our readers and whatever powers that be, that we believe in, let’s thank them for bringing us together into this safe warm space to commune and focus on the words and stories we love so much, thank-you so much for coming, thank-you all.” Or something like that.
Then, I see the US poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera at the podium and realize the road is long and arduous and full of failure and heartbreak and eventually success. When you reach that maestro-status, readings become gifts and not tasks. Senor Herrera addressed our hearts with his, in Spanish and English, as a warm welcome wind on a cold desert night. Gracias. We were clay in his hands, and his sculpting enlightened.
The grading is done. My first-term complete. I am full of gratitude and hope and ready for the holidays and some silence to read and write and commune with the gracious.