So I was at the CLAS conference this past weekend and one of the speakers kept mentioning names of various writers she had met, their little quirks, maybe a nugget about their approach to writing. It wasn't name-dropping to impress her listeners, necessarily, and by the end of the presentation you realized how incredibly rich of an experience, in sum, she had meeting these writers. So it got me to thinking...who are the writers I have met and what is the sum impact of those encounters?
The first two writers I met were at the same event in Denver in 1977. I first met Yusef Komunyakaa when he was a student at CSU and was attending a poetry reading by Adrienne Rich. I went to the event with Victoria McCabe, a poetry instructor at UCCS. We met other folks from CSU, too, including Bill Tremblay, an English professor. The encounter with Rich was brief and uneventful. A quick introduction and she was gone. After the reading, though, Victoria and I went to somebody's apartment and talked about Rich, poetry, and, no doubt, the state of the world. I was 20, working in a factory in Colorado Springs, and taking a class or two at UCCS. Later, when I had returned to CSU, Komunyakaa wrote in his chapbook, Dedications & Other Dark Horses, "To Vince -- Hopefully this book gives you a glimpse into the eyes that I see through. Hopefully I am where the heart takes root, where the blues begins in all of us. Yusef K."
Although it is not a "meet" the author encounter, this is a pretty cool story. In 1981, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I read with interest the announcement about a poetry reading in Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley -- a bit of a drive from Palo Alto, but worth it. The poet reading: Adrienne Rich. I made the drive over and listened to her read -- this rather small, Jewish woman, who moves me with her poetry. She signed her book A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. In 1986, when I was in the Stanford Teacher Education Program, Adrienne Rich was a guest professor. I went to one of her lectures, sat way in the back, and at the end of her class session, went down to her podium. Reintroduced myself to her and explained I had seen her in 1977, 1981, and now. She laughed, held my outstretched hand for a beat or two after the shake had finished, and we went our separate ways.
Two years later, in March of 1988, I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read in San Francisco. He was, by then, a professor at Indiana University. He was on his way to winning the Pulitzer Prize. In my copy of Dedications he wrote "For Vince -- Here in California where the light brings out the hidden images. Peace & Magic, Yusef"
I had a long drought of book signings in the 1990's. It wasn't until the summer of 1999 that my inscriptions took on a new momentum. At that time, I was teaching English at Palmer High School and had the opportunity to go to San Antonio as one of 26 teachers selected for the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. The focus was Mexican-American Literature and Culture in the Classroom. It was a seminal summer for my teaching / education career.
At that Institute, I was honored to meet Rudolfo Anaya who inscribed my copy of Bless Me, Ultima -- one of my favorite novels to teach. He wrote "Vince - A Great Future! Rudolfo Anaya" I met other Latino and Latina authors as well: Pat Mora who wrote Aunt Carmen's Book of Practical Saints and inscribed my copy with 'For Vince, Joy! Pat Mora July 1999." Cristina Garcia, in her lovely novel about three generations of Cuban women called Dreaming in Cuban, inscribed "To Vince, Good luck with your writing. Cristina Garcia." A young writer named Sergio Troncoso wrote "To Vince: I hope you enjoy these stories about the moral character of my community in El Paso. Sergio" Elva Trevino Hart, in Barefoot Heart / Stories of a Migrant Child, wrote "For Vince -- from my heart & hands to yours-- with Love, Elva 7/17/99."
One of my favorite inscriptions is in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street. I told her the copy was for my daughter, Jessica, and she wrote "Para La Jessica. Felicidades! Many happinesses to you today -- always. Sandra Cisneros. July 9. 99." A few weeks later I was honored to have dinner with Ms. Cisneros. I was encouraged by the professor who proposed the NEH Summer Institute to contact Cisneros. I emailed her and waited. She replied. We could go to dinner Saturday night. Well, the conference was over Friday night and I was driving back to Colorado Springs the next day. She replied we could go Friday, but it would have to be after her dance class. We agreed to meet at a local smokehouse. I was a bit surprised at her choice. When I showed up at the restaurant, I was only mildly surprised that she had a chaperone. It was her house painter who, she explained, was there because she did not like to meet people alone. I could understand. Our conversation ranged from Mango Street, to the act of writing, to the fact that it is difficult to be a teacher AND a writer at the same time because the creative energy is aimed at creating engaging lesson plans not on the writing a writer may choose to do.
When I talked briefly with her about Mango Street she said "it seems so long ago that I wrote it" and that echoed the sentiments expressed by Anaya when I spoke with him about Bless Me, Ultima. For novelists, those works are old news. At this point, Mango Street was 15 years old (published in 1984) and Ultima was 27 years old (1972). Talking about these works, they both showed the pride similar to that of a parent for a child with the recognition, too, that lives move on. Cisneros was just working on Caramelo. Anaya was working on mysteries. What they did talk about was commitment, to routine, to dedicating time to writing every day.
The poets, on the other hand, were a bit more ... immediate ... in their response. Poets see the world through image, or insight, or impulse, or maybe an intuitive moment. In two lines, the poet expresses an image, an inspiration.
So the impact of those encounters...these encounters with writers let me know that craft is the result of work. Writers write.