Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Kicking things off

As part of the opening event for the conference, Luis Alberto Urrea read his story, "The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery" (Click here to hear him read the story for Orion magazine.) What an honest and heartbreaking story about living on the US-Mexico border. The storytelling was so captivating (he recited the story from memory, adding some performance to it) that I was right there with the two young Chicano boys. I was in that canoe with them, seeing the lay of the land, the mix of water flows and the discards of human beings (a shopping cart half submerged, covered in algae). By the end of the story, with all the weight of the protagonist's silence and his looking away from what has happened to his friend, we the audience were quiet. Uncertain as to how to transition out of that definitive moment back into "hey, we're at a conference" mode. Someone eventually said, Thanks for coming -- won't you join us for a dessert reception next door.

What an awesome way to kick things off!

So, I got to thinking: what is this place? Bread Loaf Orion is a conference and workshop for environmental writers. What does that mean exactly? I don't consider myself an environmentalist, not in the activist kind of way. The word "environmentalist" alone suggests political activism. I'm an activist, but not when it comes to the environment. More social justice activist. So what does it mean to be an environmental writer?

To be completely honest, the first thing that comes to my mind are a bunch of hippy Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugging white people. I know. Terrible. I'm better than stereotypes, right?

But then I looked around the room where the reading was held (a place called Little Theater) and it was a sea of white faces. Just to be sure, I did another scan of the room during the dessert reception. Yup. I'm not mistaken. Totally white. I think I saw about three other people of color, aside for the two faculty of color (Urrea being one of them). Soooo, there's six of us total in the wooded mountains of Vermont. This should be interesting.

So what does it mean to be an environmental writer? I hope to find out this week. I hope that it's more than what I'm presuming.

How did I get here? Good question. I received an email from Bread Loaf (I'm on their mailing list) that said, "A few poetry spots left!" I hadn't considered applying to BL Orion because I didn't consider myself an environmental poet-writer for the reasons stated above (ie. not white, not a tree hugger --though I do recycle!, no Birkenstocks). But then this email came at a time when I was feeling pretty crappy about where I was as a poet-writer --so crappy that I wanted to give up on writing altogether (which is highly unlikely, but that's how bad I was feeling). I took this as a sign & said to myself: hey, why not? I have nature in my poems -- that's "environmental", right? So I whipped up something for the application and submitted it the next morning. The day after that, I get an acceptance email. Seriously? I thought to myself. I guess this was the universe's way of saying: you're not done with writing. And voila! Here I am.

But the main question still stands: what is an environmental writer? I have no idea. At least with regard to the poets. Sure, the creative nonfiction folks write about various things related to nature & the environment (that's the impression I'm getting), but what about the poets? I read some of the work in my workshop packet and it seems the poets in my group write solely about nature, observations and such. My work? Well, that's where the "interesting" part comes in. My poems, more often than not, address race in some way or another. The work I've submitted for this conference uses the natural world as metaphor to illustrate racial tension. Because of my past experience with workshops outside of VONA (i.e.. the rest of the world), I'm bracing myself for the worst, but really hoping and praying for the best. The worst? Feedback in which readers do not get what I'm trying to do with the poems or offer suggestions so that I can explain the context (racial history) of the poem. The best? Readers who understand my aim and offer critiques that focus on helping to uncover, shape, and polish the poem on it own terms. The good news? My worship facilitator is a man of color and also happens to be an old friend, who, yes indeed, gets it. Thank goodness for that!

Day 2: First workshop. Here we go!

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