One of the hallmarks of PALABRA PURA is its pre-reading dinner. In addition to inviting a visiting poet to perform for a Chicago audience, we host a meal at a local restaurant—usually at Lula—with invited guests, starting with the Chicago poet our out-of-town artist will be sharing the stage with. Those present at the dinner usually include Guild Executive Director (and fiction writer) Ellen Wadey, Guild board member and poet Mike Puican, and poet Mary Hawley. The four of us form the PALABRA PURA steering committee. Attendance at these dinners fluctuates from as few as the steering committee and the out-town-poet to the steering committee, both featured poets and two or three additional guests. When María Meléndez and Carlos Cumpian read for PALABRA PURA during its first season, for example, special guest included poet Carl Marcum, who lives in Chicago and teaches at DePaul. When Victor Hernández Cruz read last month, special guests included Achy Obejas, the Cuban-born writer, Stephen Young of the Poetry Foundation, and Lisa Alvarado, Chicago writer and performer.
The idea is this: we want poets who read for PALABRA PURA to have as pleasant an experience as possible. Because we are not in a position to offer large honoraria, we try and make up for it in other ways. And one of those ways is to create opportunities for meaningful connection and dialogue. Last night was no exception. In some ways, the steering committee was spoiled in that we had Lisa to ourselves. Among the things she shared was her experience at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, where she performed her work (to where I was flying the next day). We also learned more about the circumstances that led her to become a regular contributor to La Bloga. She hopes to increase Latino GLBT visibility in that space, for example.
After dinner we head to the California Clipper, the bar that graciously hosts PALABRA PURA. The inside décor reminds one—with its throwback red booths and dimmed lights—of a speakeasy from another era. Our readings take place in the backroom, which is presided over by a painting of a reclining nude that reminds one of Goya’s famous La maja desnuda. Last night Gregorio Gomez was already present at the bar of the Clipper with who I took to be a modest entourage of his enthusiasts. Like my experience with ACENTOS in the Bronx, the evening sort of eases into itself. When we’re ready to begin, our MC, the poet Johanny Vasquez Paz (author of the recently released Streetwise Poems with Mayapple Press), gets things started by introducing the open mic readers, who include this time a public school teacher who recites two poems from memory, including one where he deploys with success the repetition of the word: “Chicago.” Johanny later gives a more-personal-than-usual introduction of Gregorio Gomez, who is originally from Veracruz and has been part of the Chicago open mic poetry scene for some twenty years and runs one of the longest-running series called Weeds. The highlight of his reading, in my view, is the encore his fans demand: he recites from memory his poem “The City” which he half chants, as if praying aloud. I notice that there are people in the audience who seem to know the poem by heart and are almost reciting parts of it with him. In short, it was one of the evening’s highlights.
Lisa Alvarado, for her part, has that rare knack, where poetry readings are concerned, of being able to connect with an audience in an indelible way. It’s a combination of humility, humor and knowing just the right dose of pre-poem commentary. She had given me The Housekeeper’s Diary back in March, but I had not really had the opportunity to engage with it until last night. I brought it and read along while she performed. She’s a wonderful reader and, I would say, had the audience in the palm of her hand. She then read from a mixed genre piece about her mother who, it seems, had been a model in her youth. A moving, heartfelt piece. All in all, it was one of PALABRA PURA’s best installments.
I finish up these comments in Albuquerque, where I’ve just returned from a memorable group dinner following the opening reception of Poetas y Pintores at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. More tomorrow.
I’m looking forward to hearing José Montoya read his poetry.