I'd been seeing ads for this conference in Poets&Writers and other publications over the years. The things I'd heard about it were mixed--that it wasn't really worth going if you were a poet; that it was for writers who were interested in becoming the "Latina version of Terry McMillan" (author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back). Part of this view, I suspect, is fueled by the fact that agents, the presence of them, is something the conference publicity really underscores. In other words, the conference seems to be about promoting commercial success and, only by accident, good writing and literature. This may be the reason why this conference was not on the poet Raina Leon's radar, according a her post on May 22nd, a few days ago.
One of the reasons I went was because I wanted to meet Pat Mora. And I wanted to hear Jose Montoya. Which brings me to something of a paradox. How does a conference that has the reputation of being mostly about commercial success in fiction invite a classic Chicano poet as its keynote speaker? I don't know the answer to that question, but for me it made the conference worth the trip. That, and meeting some good people---some I mentioned several days ago. I intend to write to Carlos Vasquez, the conference organizer, and suggest ways of introducing a small press element to the conference as an additional option to what is typically presented. It seems to me that if the conference has the vision to invite someone like Jose Montoya, it could also bring to light the rich tradition of small press publishing that exists in Chicano/Latino literature (think Lorna Dee Cervantes' Mango Press, Gary Soto's Chicano Chapbook Series, Carlos Cumpian's MARCH/Abrazo Press, Chusma House, who keeps Jose Montoya's work in print, etc). Part of what I like to convey whenever I'm asked to give an informal presentation on Momotombo Press and small press publishing is that starting modestly and local is a viable option, especially for poets, but also for fiction writers. The feedback has always been positive. This last semester I gave a presentation to Cornelius Eady's class and his students, as a result of my talk, produced some really cool chapbooks of their own work! It's an ethos I learned from a number of people, including Sandra McPherson who started Swan Scythe Press (publishers of Emmy Perez and John Olivares Espinoza) and the two Garys: Gary Soto and his defunct Chicano Chapbook Series, and Gary Snyder at UC Davis, who shared extensively his experience with small press publishing when he was starting out.
Back to the conference: I did, in the end, witness that a community of writers WAS forged over the course of the time spent at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. I had the opportunity to interact at length with Aaron Morales, who has been teaching Momotombo Press titles at Indiana State University and invited Paul Martinez Pompa to visit his class. Aaron is a talented fiction writer who has gotten support from the likes of Dagoberto Gilb and Luis Alberto Urrea. This was his second time at the conference and he has gotten something positive out of it both times. We'd been corresponding by e-mail for the last year and I didn't know he was going to be there. He introduced himself and we hit it off and Momotombo Press is going to publish him, at some point. On my last night there, I had a nice conversation with agent Stefanie Von Borstel, who lives in San Diego and is going to be at Macondo later this summer. And I met Malin Alegria, whose two-book deal for her YA books was forged at this conference. La Bloga recently reviewed her latest book, which she wrote while living near the border in Baja California. She is also from San Francisco's Mission District, as am I.
And lastly, the poet Ben Saenz, who I didn't know, introduced himself to me and we had a very nice talk which, I think, may produce some fruitful collaboration. In the end, though, doesn't any conference of this nature---whether you consider it worth your time or not---depend on what your aims are, and how much effort you put into making meaningful human connections?
I went with little expectations. I wasn't disappointed. I may very well return.