Sunday, May 27, 2007

Guest Columnist: Report from the National Latino Writers’ Conference

Report from the National Latino Writers’ Conference

Guest Post by Andrea Sáenz

I saw the ad in Poets and Writers’ several months ago. “There’s a writers’ conference for Latinos?” I thought. I ripped out the page and forgot about it until last month. Squeezed by my student budget, I mentioned to my tia Rita that there was a writers’ conference that sounded neat, but that it cost a lot to get to Albuquerque and register. “We’ll pay the registration,” my tia said. I was on my way!

The days before the conference I became very anxious. I had never been to a conference before. I thought of myself as a young, inexperienced writer – several stories published in journals, but no novel or chapbook. Would everyone be friends except me? Would they be more accomplished? On Thursday morning, I walked into the National Hispanic Cultural Center to find out.

Within sixty seconds, I saw that I had been wrong about the participants. I met several women at the same place in their writing as me, and felt relieved. We were welcomed by the energetic Carlos Vasquez, NHCC Director of Research and Literary Arts, the intelligent Eduardo Diaz, the NHCC’s Director, and NHCC Board of Directors Member Juan José Peña, who was a constant fixture at workshops with his shorts and pocket chain.

I went off to a great workshop on publishing and marketing by Yolanda Nava, journalist and author of It’s All In the Frijoles. I was still having a little trouble getting used to so many Latino faces connected with writing. My writing endeavors have all happened since I moved to the East Coast for law school, so seeing this all-Latino writing community was absolutely amazing.

We had lunch and wandered around the beautiful campus of the NHCC. They let us into the Torreón, a small tower marking the entrance to the center, where artist Federico Vigil is painting a breathtaking fresco on the walls and ceiling depicting centuries of Latino history and culture. The fresco was partly done and phenomenal to behold – the ceiling finished, the walls sketched out, and papers and art books everywhere.

I finished gawking just in time to run back for an after-lunch session with author Oscar Hijuelos on autobiography and creative writing. The Pulitzer Prize winner turned out to be an unassuming man in a dirty baseball cap who was deeply interested in the projects we were working on, and invited people to read from the first pages of autobiographical projects. I was thrilled to get my copy of Mambo Kings signed, and also to get the advice to not overthink a possible novel idea I was struggling with. I stayed around for a Q&A with Hijuelos and his wife, writer and editor Lori Marie Carlson, a thoughtful woman with a cascade of blond hair, although many took off for a panel on children’s literature featuring Pat Mora and YA writer Malín Alegría Ramirez.

Dinner hors d’oeuvres followed, and the opening of the NHCC’s art exhibit Poetas y Pintores, in which visual artists created a response to a Latino poet’s work, with the pieces displayed together. Members of the public came and wandered around the exhibit while a guitar-harp duo played. I introduced myself to poet and novelist Benjamin Alire Saenz, and wondered if we were related (our families are both from southern New Mexico), but he didn’t seem to think so.

We were soon called to a performance by writer and performer Beva Sanchez-Padilla, who did small bits from her theater pieces, An Altar for Emma and La Guadalupe que Camina. The day was ended by the first of two open mics – highlights included an over-the-top reading by Malín Alegría Ramirez from her book, Esperanza’s Quinceñeara, and the strange and funny Harry Houdini poems from writer Hope Maxwell-Snyder.

I was completely wiped out from the day – writing, conversation, food, music, art – but as I left, I heard someone announcing a “pirate reading” back at one of the hotels. Some people just can’t get enough!

Friday: It was clear that I couldn’t go to everything I wanted – a short story workshop by Kathleen Azevedo, a session with journalist Alfredo Corchado, and one by Saenz on poetry as a public art were all being offered, but I chose professor and writer Braulio Muñoz’s take on writing with a multicultural voice. He went into wonderful detail about his writing process, creating characters to fit his message, and the challenges of writing for an audience that may or may not be of your culture.

At lunch artist Armando Cepeda displayed his wares, and we had the second open mic. I was first up, read from the short story I have in the current issue of Blue Mesa Review, and got plenty of laughs. Other highlights included the return of proudly Mexican-American poet Juan Perez and the very funny monologue of a woman named Melanie from New Mexico State. Tip for future years: More of the agents and editors were at this open mic than the night ones, and that turned out to be pretty neat when it was time to meet them and they’d already heard me! The incredibly generous Pat Mora complemented my writers’ voice, and I drifted off to the next panel with a big silly grin on my face.

After lunch we had a fantastic panel featuring two literary agents and editors from Arte Publico Press, University of New Mexico Press, and University of Arizona Press. They addressed submissions, publishing, marketing, and anything in between. After that, a discussion on online resources helped authors think about setting up a website and promoting themselves online. La Bloga was mentioned frequently, and was missed!

The evening ended with a lovely banquet, musical performance, and speech from the great poet and activist José Montoya, who had everyone laughing – and thinking. Eduardo Diaz took the podium again and asked us to recommend the conference. “Say good things about us,” he said. I didn’t think it would be very hard to fulfill his request.

Saturday: Some people went home, but most stayed for scheduled interviews on Saturday morning with authors, agents, and writers. It was great of the conference to give everyone opportunities like that before heading out. I met with the incredibly positive Stefanie Sanchez Van Borstel of Full Circle Literary Agency and Gabriela Baeza Ventura of Arte Publico Press, and those brief meetings alone made the conference worth it.

People hugged and exchanged business cards – I really need to get some! – and drifted off into the sunny weekend. I drove off onto the Albuquerque freeways, which are edged with pink and blue to remind you you’re not just anywhere, and headed for the botanical gardens to think about my writing. The National Latino Writers’ Conference is an impeccably executed show of expertise and support, and for this young writer, just the right introduction to the community I never knew I had. I’ll be back.

Blogmeister's note: La Bloga welcomes back guest columnist Andrea Saenz. We're encouraged to learn gente talked about La Bloga. Tan cool.


Lisa Alvarado said...

Andrea -

Thank you from all of the La Boga gente for this wonderfully detailed description of the conference and what you're taking away.


Nopalera said...

Great write-up! I had a wonderful time at the conference contigo. I hope this review will inspire other authors to take the trek out to Nueva Mejico. We really need to support Carlos and all the wonderful people at the HCC. Cuidate and I look forward to working with you in the future.
Big hug!
Malin Alegria

Georgina Baeza said...

I went to the conference a couple years ago and you've described it wonderfully. There is no other conference like this. You did a great job with this post!

I'm also very happy that you mentioned Dr. Ventura and Stephnie Van Borstel. They are amazing.