Friday, November 10, 2006

Words & Music -- Four Bits

Manuel Ramos

I flew into New Orleans with a small chip on my shoulder. My free plane ticket meant that I had to use Delta, an airline without any direct flights from Denver to New Orleans, and thus I had to make a connection in Atlanta. That made for a long day but that was only the beginning of my issues with Delta (the return trip took me twelve hours because of delays and a missed connection – I could have traveled to Europe in that time). I know -- ingrato.

And then there was the uncertainty of making the trip in the first place. The invitation to the Words and Music literary conference sounded like a great idea when New Orleans’ writer Mary Helen Lagasse first broached the subject with me, and I accepted the official invite from Rosemary James, the event’s tireless and over-worked director (not sure that is her title – she is la patrona of all things literary in New Orleans). But the nearer the event got, the more apprehensive I became. Was this the right thing to do? Katrina and all that – was the city safe? I had heard the disturbing story of the recent death of jazz icon Hilton Ruiz in New Orleans and the need for the National Guard to patrol the streets. Did I really need that? Water? Electricity? And, more troubling, was it okay to enjoy a big book party while most of the city was still devastated and the people were still suffering?

I learned that Luis Rodriguez, Jr., Ana Castillo, Sergio Troncoso, the Iguanas and Dr. José Cuellar (Dr. Loco) had agreed to participate. All good gente, writers and artists I respect and trust to understand the implications of the conference. Plus, Rosemary let me know that this event was part of the rebuilding of New Orleans. It had been canceled last year and now it was back, just like the city. The people and city of New Orleans needed events like this literary soiree – good for the spirit and the city’s pocketbook.

So I found myself in the Hotel Monteleone, itself a New Orleans symbol of a storied and very literary past, for Words and Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans, November 1 - 6, 2006. Turned out, good thing I went. (Photos at bottom of this post).

Here are some of the sessions and events at the conference that might be of interest to readers of La Bloga.

A New Key to Success: The Art of Blogging With The Masters. This panel featured Luis Rodriguez, Ron Hogan of and Galleycat, and yours truly. I thought of this session as an appetizer for the feast. Just enough to get the juices flowing and keep the customers in their seats. We talked about blogs - talked them to death. The panelists all thought that blogs are a good idea and everyone should click on our links to be in the know. We also agreed that blogs take a hell of a lot of time.

The Wild Life of the Border and Its Inspiration for Fine Fiction. Now we get to some meat. This was so cool: Luis Rodriguez, Sergio Troncoso, Dr. Loco, and Mary Helen Lagasse dissecting the notion of “the border” and what border violence really means, and Hollywood heavy Anthony Zerbe reading from a violent Cormac McCarthy chapter (is there any other kind?) All the panelists were at the top of their analytical and perceptive game – I hope Sergio’s introduction is preserved somewhere because he spelled it out precisely and directly. In fact, he pointed out one piece of subtle violence in the McCarthy passage: the author named and identified his Anglo protagonist but could only refer to the Mexican antagonist as el cuchillero. Not sure everyone in the audience picked up on Sergio's point but the Chicanos certainly understood the quiet but deadly violence of lost identity and nameless stereotypes.

We Shall Overcome With Poetry: Creating Community in Violent Times. Ana Castillo, Luis Rodriguez (busy guy) and New Orleans performance artist José Torres Tama rapped about their respective responsibilities as poets with social consciences. Of course, it was difficult to avoid the issues whirling right outside the hotel: Katrina and its aftermath was not so much a natural disaster as a man-made one, and its effects reverberated in the words and poetry of Torres Tama. This high energy performance poet has lived in New Orleans for more than twenty years. He observed how New Orleans is not so much a Chocolate City as an Enchilada Village now that construction and rebuilding has begun. I heard estimates for new Spanish-speaking immigrants in New Orleans range from 50,000 to more than 200,000. The city is not ready for such a massive and quick influx of people, more so because so many long-term residents of New Orleans still have not returned. Torres Tama sadly told me that he probably would have to leave New Orleans. Artists cannot afford to live where they have been living. Rents and other costs associated with living in the city have skyrocketed out of control. Meanwhile, tent cities, migra raids, rip-offs of workers, neglect and fear dot the landscape.

The conference celebrated Día de los Muertos with a special exhibit at the Cabildo, the scene of a lively and informative discussion among Dr. Loco, Ana Castillo, Mary Helen Lagasse, and Luis Rodriguez about such things as whether Anglos should be afraid that their culture will be swallowed by cultural imports such as Day of the Dead happenings (hey, I didn’t write the agenda – this is what the panelists had to answer.) The panel eventually morphed into poetry readings and performances: Castillo, Rodriguez and Torres Tama were joined by Liliana Valenzuela (noted translator of several writers) and Andrea Young, small press publisher and professor. We finished the night with Margaritas, chips and dip, and then music in front of the Cabildo. The Iguanas and Dr. Loco rocked. The music was hot but the night was cold. I made my way back to the hotel through the dark and unsettling quiet of a not deserted but not business-as-usual French Quarter.

I spent another day and a bit of a morning at the conference. I talked on a panel about crime fiction and listened to several amusing southern writers and theatrical types go on about Don Quixote. I thoroughly enjoyed a panel on the Role of the Memoir in Contemporary Life: Personal Mirrors of Reality. Again, Luis Rodriguez enlightened. He gave us the nitty-gritty about how writing Always Running changed his life and the lives of his family, and what it meant when he eventually was confronted by some of the people he had included in his descriptions of life on the streets when he was in the gang scene. Marie Arana also was on this panel. Her memoir, American Chica, sounds like something we should check out here on La Bloga.

The other intriguing thing I did in New Orleans was take a taxi over to Tulane, with a driver who did not know where he was going and who eventually told us that he would not charge us for the trip. Tulane was the scene of a Town Hall Meeting sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. They had brought together various media types to talk about the role of the media in relation to the influx of new immigrants. That’s where I became convinced that the city is not ready but at least some of the people who can fix problems were in one room, talking.

I flew out on Saturday with a list of new books to read, a few new friends in my address book, and a renewed appreciation for people who carry on in the face of tragedy. A book event may not be the most urgent task for a city deserted by its own government and a people left for dead by their leaders, but I think it was worth it. Rosemary James and the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society: muchisimas gracias for the chance to observe and participate.


By coincidence I got an announcement about the 21st Annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, set for March 29 - April 1, 2007. Looks like our friend Gregg Barrios is set to do a staged reading of his play Rancho Pancho. More details later, as we get them.

We need to note the passing of Rafael Ramirez Heredia on October 24 in Mexico City. Heredia was one of the founders of the International Crime Writers Association and was serving as the South American Vice-President of that organization when he died. He was a winner of several literary awards including the Hammett, awarded to him during Semana Negra 2005. His novel La Mara is about Mexican immigrants and the criminals who prey on them.

Rolando Hinojosa reports that he has been selected to the seven-member Comite Consultivo for the Alfonso Reyes Chair at El Tecnologico de Monterrey. He also finished a short piece for an upcoming anthology by Texas Christian University Press entitled A Variform Education: '50s Austin, and he’s in the process of writing another piece for TCU Press on Why I Write. Way to go, Rolando.

New First Mystery Prize Honors Tony Hillerman
Wordharvest Writers workshops and Thomas Dunne Books will present a new annual award for mystery fiction, The Tony Hillerman Prize, in 2007.

The first winner will be announced in November, 2007 at the fourth annual Tony Hillerman Writers Conference: Focus on Mystery in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The award will go to a first mystery novel set in the Southwest written by a previously unpublished mystery author. The winning novel will be published by Thomas Dunne Books. For more information and complete contest guidelines, please visit here.

Some photos from Words & Music

Mary Helen Lagasse, Ron Hogan and Teresa Márquez (University of New Mexico)

Rosemary James leads the panel:

Dr. Jose Cuellar, Anthony Zerbe, Luis Rodriguez, Mary Helen Lagasse

Sergio Troncoso, Dr. Loco, Luis Rodriguez

The poets: Andrea Young, José Torres Tama, Ana Castillo, Luis Rodriguez

Día de los Muertos at the Cabildo: altar by Cynthia Ramirez

The Iguanas call it a night


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a great post, Ramos; especially considering the New Orleans tragedy.