Sunday, July 03, 2016

Wanna VONA?

Guest Blog by Jose Enrique Medina (Quique)

In 2015 I applied to Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices), the nation’s only multi-genre writing workshops for people of color. They rejected me, and I felt like shit for two weeks. But two good things came out of that short-winded depression: 1) I used it to guilt trip a cute guy into dating me and 2) it motivated me to improve as a writer.

In 2016 I applied again—and you guessed it—I won the writer’s lottery. They accepted me to the poetry workshop with my first-choice instructor, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist poet Willie Perdomo.

On Sunday, June 19, I jumped on a plane and six hours later landed in muggy, sticky Miami. My flight was memorable because—lo and behold—the woman seated besides me was a lesbian writer heading to VONA. She was taking the LGBT narrative workshop. While flying, I wrote on my laptop and asked my new talented friend for help with a troublesome image, so even before the plane’s tires skidded on ‘gator-state soil, I was already building comunidad.

I live in a luxuriously decorated large home. So I found my prison-like dorm accommodations at the University of Miami adorable. Here is a picture of my room:


Do you think I should do pull ups from these ceiling pipes? Probably a bad idea.

After checking into my dorm room, I went to orientation at 6 pm. I had only attended one other writers conference before this. In January, I went to Writers in Paradise (WIP), a white-dominated conference hosted at Eckerd College in St. Petersberg, Florida. VONA and WIP differed from each other like night and day. Whereas WIP relentlessly sought to expand my mind, VONA called dibs on my heart. WIP gave us a Pulitzer-Prize winning author who delivered an enlightening, didactic, slightly boring speech; VONA served our hearts on a platter. VONA made it clear that we were going to be operating on our own souls. At orientation, each VONA student had a voice (something unheard of—no pun intended—at the white conference). Each writer introduced herself and gave a six-word memoir about herself. This experience opened my eyes and heart; the diversity of lives, skins, cultures, languages, countries and experiences was almost overwhelming. (At WIP for example, there was not even one black student—the irony being that the Pulitzer-Prize author gave a speech to an audience of white faces about how racial segregation is no longer an issue in the modern United States.) I think VONA did this to signal that we were here not only to study art—we were the art.

After the general meeting, we broke into our perspective workshops. In the dorm room lobby, twelve poet-students gathered around Willie Perdomo and his talented TA, poet Sevé Torres. Willie hit us with a bat—figuratively speaking, of course. He asked us two hard-hitting questions:
    1. What pains you into your poetry?
    2. What argument are you having with yourself?
After much soul-searching at VONA, I discovered that my terror of being unlovable was hurting me into poetry. Regarding the second question, I immediately knew that I always had an argument going on in my head: Am I an imposter? Am I a real writer or a phony? Am I Latino or am I white washed? When I pass as straight, am I being an imposter? I had to dig through so many layers of “imposters” in my head to get to my authentic self.

If Willie slammed us with these two questions within the first 10 seconds of meeting him, you can imagine what it was like working with him closely for an entire week. Homeboy brought his crowbar to open hearts.

Willie is a spooky genius. One day we sat in a circle with our laptops, and it was my turn to workshop a poem. I emailed my new poem. Once the group opened the poem, I read the first line, and Willie said, “Stop.” Then he instructed me to move one line to the beginning, delete two sections, and rearrange a third. Then he asked me to read the poem with his edits. I was confused as fuck. In the time I read four words, he had completely re-engineered my poem. And the spookiest part: he made the poem much better. My voice took on a thunder that it did not have before. He made me proud of my voice. He let me know that I could be a good writer. He taught me how to work my poems for maximum impact.

Other spooky stuff happened around me. The other students’ writing improved dramatically from one day to another. It was strange to see such fast acceleration in craft. VONA is like steroids for the heart. Day after day working with Willie and watching him working with the other students, I stripped away the layers of shit that blinded and suffocated my heart.

By Day 2, we poets sat in the cafeteria, rueing that we had to leave this place at the end of the week. We anticipated that fear was going to return like a poltergeist covering us in darkness. What other place on earth celebrates you for being a person of color? Like plants, we turned leaves of hope towards that incandescent light. It’s beautiful to walk in a place where the prevailing aroma is love. Love with a deliberate purpose: to hone our craft and to build communities of support and understanding. We entered VONA to become better writers, and we emerged as better people and friends.

Willie asked other heavy questions: Who do we have to become before we write the poem we want to write? As a poet? As a man? Before this, I separated my writing life from my personal life. But he made it clear that the two were inextricably tangled together, and that I could not advance in one area without advancing in the other. White culture teaches us to fragment ourselves, especially if we are of color and if we speak other languages. For example, they shame us into hiding our Spanish. VONA helped me to integrate the shards of my various personalities back together.

But it wasn’t fun and success all the time. I also had to confront my demons and fears. For example, on the third night Willie gave us a writing assignment. But that night I kept writing crap. My attempts at poetry looked like eggs shattered on the sidewalk from five stories up. Horrible messes. The next day I submitted a tiny 15-syllable poem because everything else I had written was even worse caca. When Willie saw the little fart of my poem, he laughed, saying, “Come on, man. What is this?”

OMG, did the famous Willie Perdomo think I was lazy? My writing career was over! I got tears in my eyes. I defended myself, saying that I wasn’t lazy, that I had worked the whole night and only poopoo (not ink) came out of my pen. Willie said he knew I wasn’t lazy and that I worked hard. He said he was glad that this had happened to me so that the whole class could learn from it. Then he said something that made a sprig of hope sprout from the fertilizer I had written: “You forgot to be playful. You have to have fun when you write.”

His words were a breath of fresh air, but I still did not know how to write my poem.

Then a small miracle happened. The youngest student in the class, a woman recited her poem in which she was brave enough to say her truth. Her courage automatically liberated me, and I knew EXACTLY what I was going to write. This experience reminded me of the famous Nelson Mandela speech “Our Deepest Fear,” which says: “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” I was the oldest student in the class, so it seems only appropriate that the youngest student should show me how to cast off the chains of my fear. Thanks to that beautiful young woman I wrote an honest poem, and more important I walk a little lighter today.

I could write all day about how wonderful Willie is, about the deep giving nature of our TA Sevé, and about the other 11 talented poet-students in my class, about the exercises Willie made us do to peer into the abyss inside of us—I could write books about the caring, intelligent writers I met from the other workshops, about the gifted, generous instructors, about the amazing, down VONA staff members, about the corny but funny jokes that the VONA Executive Director Diem Jones makes, and about the hundreds of emotional and intellectual connections and epiphanies I had while walking along the placid lake at the university—but that is not the purpose of this blog.

The purpose of this blog is to tell you that, if you are a person of color, stop a moment and breathe, loosen your heart a little and listen to it beat. It’s dying to tell you stories.

Here’s a picture of the 2016 VONA poets eating together. A family that eats together, stays together:


¿Y tú? Are you going to apply to VONA?

VONA offers weeklong workshops in poetry, fiction, political content, travel writing, speculative writing, LGBTQ narrative, memoir, essay, young adult writing and residency. Visit

Jose Enrique Medina received his BA in English from Cornell University. When he is not writing for fun, he is playing with his chickens, bunnies and piglets on his farm. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories. 


Viva Liz Vega! said...

What a great experience! Keep on writing homes!

Mark Anthony Vigo said...

Quique you summed it up perfectly!!!