The sixth annual National Latino Writers Conference that convened May 21, 2008, at Alburquerque's National Hispanic Cultural Center was an envy-producing experience for a writer out of Los Angeles.
El Lay lacks anything like the NHCC. Not at UCLA, nor USC, not in outlying places like UCSB nor CSUN does a person find a facility dedicated to Chicana Chicano Latina Latino arts. The NHCC's art gallery and museo, theatre, exquisite lecture halls, the uniquely fashioned Torreón, full-service restaurant, gift shop, administrative offices, library, and upcoming classroom wing, in a single location, define what a cultural center should be while reflecting what public-private commitment looks like. And self-respect. And love.
Corporate sponsor names dot the landscape. Disney. Bank of America. Wells Fargo. Intel. Obviously, it's a well-financed centro, yet it's operated under the aegis of the State of New Mexico. Seeing the place offers a persistent reminder of what California could do, if it shared the same kind of conscientious honor to recognize its roots in the face of cultural homogenization pressures from those same corporate influences whom New Mexico's hard-working development gente have convinced to put money into this venture of such cultural importance.
Among the notable services the center provides the nation is its annual National Latino Writers Conference. 2008 marked its sixth iteration. Limited to 50 participants, the conference features workshop tracks for writing fiction, poetry, drama / television, and journalism. Led by professionals of notable accomplishment, the conference works its participants to the bone. Vans leave the hotel at 7:30--no CPT. The hour-and-a-half workshops continue until 4:30, with post-session engagements lasting into the evening.
Lunch and days-end assemblies feature open microphone readings by selected volunteers. The sign-up is heavy enough that organizers draw lots to select who gets to read a timed 5 minutes. "Ding!" goes the waterglass, and the reader must stop, mid-sentence, almost mid-word. It put me in mind of the Coleman Chamber Competition at Caltech. The jury assigns the ensemble to attack a movement of a quartet or trio, the musicians are fully engaged in the performance when the judge calls, "Time, OK, that's it." The stunned musicians look up from the music in awful realization they've said all there is for now. The writers express a bit more resignation--after all this isn't Beethoven's stuff, it's their own--some stubbornly continuing through the end of a sentence or paragraph. Ding! ding! ding!
This year's faculty assembled several literary giants, including Helena María Viramontes, Benjamin Alire Saénz, and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith. Also conducting workshops are such luminaries as journalist Alfredo Corchado, playwright Carlos Murillo, novelist Kathleen de Azevedo, screenwriters Frank Zúñiga and Javier Grillo-Marxuach.
Workshops take similar forms. Viramontes' exercises begin asking participants to describe a mundane space. Writers write intensely, then several take the stage or read from their seats, the author commenting and welcoming audience feedback. Now the novelist asks the writers to revise the piece, this time adding the point of view of an outside character. This exercise, too, wraps with readers again sharing their work. The third exercise requires the piece to begin with the phrase "the first time I heard (songtitle) by (performer)..." Following the writing exercises, Viramontes' Q&A engages the writers to reflect on the writing process. Many of the workshoppers have submitted work for the author's evaluation. They will hold one-on-one meetings later in the conference, and the workshop concludes with folks attending to the details of submission and appointment schedules.
Kathleen de Azevedo's format emphasizes the writing process itself, limiting participation to Q&A. Many of Azevedo's workshoppers are also from Viramontes' and the questions seek elaboration and confirmation of ideas gleaned from Viramontes' advice.
Taking a more professorial, yet hard-edge approach--"writing is a business"--is Rolando Hinojosa-Smith's. His workshop concentrates on diction, a seminar on language, grammar, good verbs ("I got a car." "Did you buy it?"), crummy adverbs ("basically"), and effectiveness ("kinda"). Among Hinojosa's words of advice, turn off your spell checker. He illustrates the point by citing the inadvertent hilarity produced from homophones. He emphasizes professionalism, reminding his listeners that none of them are present because they want to be writers; they already are. He leaves them with the sobering thought that he, they, everyone is equal. Writers are only as good as their last novel, and if they aren't yet published, they are only as good as their next book.
The early Saturday session I attend features television writer, and world's fastest talker, Javier Grillo-Marxuach. The scriptwriter speaks at more than double time, yet every word and sentence comes out with exactitude and clarity. His speech habit must reflect the intensity of "the writer's room" that Grillo-Marxuach describes as the heart of a pressure-packed industry. Every three weeks the process repeats itself for the next episode of series television. Someone comes up with an idea for a script and recounts the highlights in mile-a-minute précis. The show's writers now toss around the ideas, develop plot and character features. Then a writer goes off to create a working script. Back to the writer's room for additional refinement and so on until the final script. Complicating the writer's skill is the requirement to fit the characterization, the language, the style, to that of the series creator, not the individual writer's own creative directions. Grillo-Marxuach illustrated the process sharing backstage anecdotes and reading treatment and script excerpts, zeroing in on one scene from an episode of the series "Lost." He concludes the workshop by showing the finished scene. The kidnaper, the hanged victim, slippery mud, the hokey CPR scene, the point of view, all as described in words now appearing off a DVD on the television screen. Workshoppers come away with a clear understanding of the contrast between the solitary work of the individual novelist to the enforced, repeititive teamwork required in the visual medium.
Every day of the three day conference brings something exciting, involving, reinforcing, or new. Above all, the National Latino Writers Conference manifests a labor of love; for writing, for writers, for cultura. For their efforts in mentoring continuing generations of writers, Carlos Vasquez and the entire staff of the NHCC merit thanks from readers of Chicana Chicano Latina Latino writing. Although the conference is filled with so much, three distinct highllights emerge, and only a few slight improvements.
The first highlight of the conference is Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada's two readings. Espada, whom novelist Sandra Cisneros has dubbed the United States' own Neruda, reads at the opening assembly, then again after receiving the NHCC's Literary Achievement Award. One of the joys of Espada's work is watching him work the audience. A masterful reader of his own work, his introductions and transitions smoothly blend surrounding experiences with the poem. For example, the NHCC mounted a beautiful exhibit of Puerto Rican poster art. Espada observe the irony that he has to come all the way to Alburquerque to see his first exemplars of such art. Then he cites one poster calling for freeing a host of political prisoners. "I grew up with him," Espada remarks, on one of the names. Another poster featuring Santeros evokes the inspiration of another poem. Yet another poster celebrates la Calle de San Sebastian, a joyous place of music and conviviality that has inspired a poem of the same name. Adding to the double pleasure of having the poet read on Wednesday then again on Friday evening are the two interpretations he crafts for "Calle de San Sebastian," the only piece he repeats both nights. The first night he reads with deliberate pacing, clearly delineating space between stanzas, gradually building to the music of the street, ending with a flourish. The second reading begins rapidly, featuring enjambment from stanza to stanza that adds a sense of the bustling activity of night life on such a calle. The poet reinforces the ambiente by the thoroughgoing musicality of this night's rendition.
A second highlight of this conference--and a vitally important feature of the NLWC--is the opportunity for writers to hear publishers and literary agents, then an interview. Following the panel presentation, writers sign up for ten minute meetings. Now the business of writing that Hinojosa-Smith alludes to hits the writer right between the eyes. Tension spreads across nervous faces, desultory conversations echo through the hallway with near metallic timbre. Dejected spirits trudge away to share the bad news with friends. Others float away with the agent's or publisher's words echoing magically, "send me a proposal", "send me the first 50 pages."
A third highlight of the National Latino Writers Conference comes from comradeship. The opportunity to share stories, experiences, meet people of similar interests and sentiment gives concreteness to the definition of culture, "the way of life of a people, the sum total of experience." Such abstractness takes on names and faces, the connectedness of the conference creating a pervasive energy that writers will take home with them, reinforced with awareness of their mutuality with counterparts living from coast to coast, making up our culture.
Looking forward to what can be done, I see infinite media possibilities. If the conference suffers from anything, it is absence of technology. True, the essence of writing is putting fingers to keyboard and churning out words sentences paragraphs pages chapters novels. And that is the process mirrored in the workshop experience. Professional writer talks, workshoppers listen, take notes, conduct exercises, read. There is no substitute for writing, reading, listening. However, one result of listening is performance. In addition to Espada's reading there are few who perform their work with oral ability. Perhaps a future conference will offer a workshop in aural art and interpretive performance. This could be a useful adjunct to the first day activities. One skill readers at any level must master is the lectern. Few experiences frustrate a photographer more than a speaker hiding behind a lectern. It's my own fault. I'd planned to attend with my camera, but failed to bring a long lens and tripod. Shooting in dimly lighted auditorium or assembly room--without intrusive flash--makes for some punishing editing and lots of missed shots. This is more than a selfish recommendation, however. At the least, award presentation ambience needs more elegance, perhaps an easy chair for the awardee to occupy while the award encomium elaborates the winner's virtues.
The organizers need to document the conference more fully. Sadly, Verónica Gonzales' El Premio Aztlán award was not photographed; hopefully someone took a ritual shot with the silver platter. The open mic sessions deserved permanence. For certain, Espada's reading after receiving the NHCC Literary Award should have been videotaped. The reading would make a worthwhile program for use as a fundraiser for the center, and a great blurb for the weekend's televised news. And, if Ken Burns doesn't object, something worthwhile for PBS.
I am joyous at the potential for this conference to use media that brings it into the 21st century. Grillo-Marxauch's "Lost" episode would have enjoyed far more dramatic impact projected onto the 20 foot screen in his theatre, rather than the 28" monitor with its small speaker. One workshop classroom has a major league videoconference set-up. With the NLWC limited to 50 participants, in person, there's no barrier to allowing participants in remote, even international locations, through videoconference, or the increasingly popular webinar.
A host of minor technological improvements are easily performed. These are not issues of acquisition. The NHCC's facilities already have the technology; it's a matter only of implementation. Perhaps next year's conference, when it moves into the then-completed schoolhouse wing, will provide Wi-Fi and the intimacy of small groups in small spaces. Even a small space would benefit from a document camera or a computer projector to display workshop prompts and forego handouts. Sessions convened in spacious lecture halls deserve the portability of a wireless lavalliere microphone to allow artists and workshop leaders freedom of movement, plus save tall and short speakers from contorting their bodies to accommodate recalcitrant mic stands.
While the foregoing offer truly minor suggestions, making these changes would enhance the entire experience. Had they been provided this year, the 6th Annual Latino Writers Conference would have achieved near perfection. Ni modo; what we had this year was pretty darned good. Next year's conference will undoubtedly achieve ever greater heights.
Images shot on a Canon digital SLR at ISO800, then processed in Photoshop with drastic alteration of levels and contrast, warmed hue and enhanced saturation. Most photos are f5.6 at 1/25. At such slow shutter speeds, if I move--and I tend to shake--or the subject moves, the image blurs. Sometimes blurs add dynamism to a shot, other times ruination. Lástima. Generally, i reduce images for La Bloga to 400 pixels to allow fast download and not exceed the margins of La Bloga's template. You can view and download the 800 pixel images here at Read! Raza, or click here to view a thumbnail gallery, select, then email your request for a TIF souvenir file.