Solo in Public

Just got back from AWP. Some of my colleagues have been asking me how it went, etc. etc. My stock answer? “Awesome.” When pressed, I elaborate: I was on a panel at the last minute at AWP, and it happened in the most round-about and amazing way.

Three years ago, my good friend Amalia Ortiz dated famous writer Dagoberto Gilb. They broke up. I went with her to pick up some stuff. No big deal. People date. People break up. It happens.

While at AWP this year, I decided to go a specific panel, US Latino Writers Speak Out, featuring (you guessed it) Dagoberto Gilb. I walked into the room, put down my stuff near the front, and then went on with my business (namely getting some water and going to the bathroom before the thing started). On my way to the bathroom, I saw Gilb chatting with someone and locked eyes with him. Trying to be friendly, I waved. He seemed to recognize me, in fact he waved back, and we walked towards each other. He knew he knew me but didn’t know how. So I filled him in. Ah, he said, that’s right, you are one of Amalia’s friends, a poet, right? I nodded. Seemed simple enough. I went to the bathroom. Came back. Chatted with my friend Carolyn.

As I made my way towards my seat, I noticed that Gilb was already sitting up on the stage, next to Ruben Martinez. None of the other panelists had arrived. Gilb started waving at me. I walked over, asked him what was up, and he asked if I wanted to be on the panel. You know, read a poem, talk about immigration, sit with him and Ruben Martinez and some other random kid from UC Irvine on a panel at AWP. A panel at AWP. With established US Latino Writers. With Ruben Martinez. And Dagoberto Gilb. Whose house I stood outside awkwardly. Talking about immigration. I said yes.

The kid from Irvine sitting next to me went first. He read from his chapbook of poetry. I’m always intrigued at the selections people make when they know they are reading for the public. I wonder how one chooses material. His poems were fine, although I think the last one he read worked better on the page than it did the stage.

Ruben Martinez went after. He was fantastic, as was expected. His prose sharp, his wit on target. By this point, I was shaking. What was I going to say? I couldn’t do any of the poems I have memorized. While a lot of them deal with being Latina and with my family’s history, none address immigration.

Adri AWPI started writing down things that I associate with immigration and borderlands––family stories, geography, demographics, personal histories, playing hopscotch on the bridge. I started thinking about the paper I have outlined for CEA. I started shaking even more. I texted Carolyn from the stage.

I was nervous.

Then it was my turn.

The first two lines I fumbled. I repeated myself. I said “uh” about five times. Then I stopped, took a deep breath, and plunged. I just kept thinking that if I managed to get from one bulleted fragment to the next, it would all make sense. I found myself stumbling for transitions. Then I just stopped transitioning and I apologized to the audience: “I speak in metaphors sometimes, they don’t always make sense.” Some guy nodded in the audience. He thought I was making a deep point.

I ended with an improvised rendition of “Chiles Rellenos” with a new last line that I delivered in Spanish. It was good. It felt right. People chuckled and nodded and “hmph’d” through the whole thing. When I stopped, I downed two glasses of water and the audience clapped. It was over.

Gilb, the final speaker, before he began his reading, spoke into the microphone. “That was amazing. We may need to pause, I don’t know if I can follow that. And I think she riffed it. Did you riff that, Adriana?” “I have notes,” was all I could offer. And then he read.

It was, of course, beautiful, True. My favorite line? “All food is Mexican food.” Or usually prepared by Mexicans. But even as Gilb read, I couldn’t help shifting in my seat with jitters. I just felt like a rock star, I wanted to bend one of my knees and draw my elbow in rapidly while going “yes.” I was Courtney Cox dancing with Springsteen. I hadn’t fallen on my face. I hadn’t sucked. I’d done a good, if not great job. Holy shit!

Afterwards, people came up and talked to me. I gave away business cards. Someone asked if I had a book for sale. No, I said, but I have a website. Email me. Remember me.

When I told my father about it on the phone, I explained that it was like the being asked to play bass for the rock band at the concert when you’re just a lowly peon in the audience. Not only do you know how to play bass, but you solo in public and you nail every note. After stumbling a little at the beginning.

Dagoberto Gilb emailed me the next day. He emailed me, after the afternoon I spent cursing myself for not getting his or Ruben Martinez’s card. I floated. His words were more than kind.

Adriana, you were fucking amazing today–seriously! […] ¡¡Que impresionate!!

Plus, he gave me a copy of his book. I’m trying to get all my work done (despite my throat acting up all nasty-like), so I can read it. Everything’s coming up Milhouse.

[picture stolen recklessly from Carolyn Kellogg]