Monday, August 24, 2009

Voices from VONA: E-interview with Vickie Vértiz

Every summer the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) brings renowned writers from around the country to the University of San Francisco to nurture developing writers of color. In the first of a multi-part interview, VONA writing fellows Oscar Bermeo and Vickie Vértiz talk about their experiences at the VONA Voices Writing Workshops.
Oscar Bermeo: It’s the post VONA week, what do you think you’re missing most about the VONA experience?

VONA fellow Vickie Vértiz
Vickie Vértiz: I am missing the room where I take writing risks into really dangerous places, imaginary or real, with trust, developed as a result of our faculty and colleagues creating a safe space. “Safe” meaning affirmative, encouraging, through honest, pointed critique. This is space that exists as a result of a shared experience, through a visceral understanding of what life is like for people of color in this country. At VONA we share an understanding that frequently, our art and writing is not valued and is dismissed in this country, but there we are. At VONA your voice is invaluable, precious, and ready to be primed to be at its most beautiful.

I miss my LGBTQ Narratives course with Thomas Glave. I found it incredibly useful as a multi-genre workshop. It focused on our nuanced understanding of a our various sexual-political cultures within our racial and ethnic cultures. It was very responsive of VONA to listen to its queer community and create a specialzed class. Thomas has an incredible contagious drive; all his students caught it in our time together. Thomas asked us to produce 30 pages of writing in a five-day workshop where we were already work shopping something else. There’s a lot of demand to produce work at VONA, which is always the case.

Thomas offered an additional faculty panel– where he was the only speaker–about publishing LGBTQ narratives. He shared with great candor, the mechanics and the individual steps to take while one is publishing a book; from making extra visits to untapped locations on book tours, through hand writing thank you notes to supportive individuals along the way. He showed us how to be proactive advocates of our writing.

That panel was really grounding for those of us who have stars our eyes about publishing and what it means to us and our communities. Are we the next Cherríe Moraga or Piñero? Only if we’re willing to tear our hearts out and hold it up to stage lights. These writers are our heroes, but as emerging artists, we may not know what it’s going take for us to get in to the world of writing, to stay in, and continue to grow in unanticipated directions.

OB: And you did your second week this year with?

VV: With Ana Castillo in the Artists’ Residency.

OB: And how was that?

VV: I would tell other Chicanas who are familiar with her work and they’d say, “Wow! Really?” I was very honored to be in her workshop, given the breadth of her writing, an evolution from the Chicano Movement into new genres.

I had gone to a reading of hers a year ago and was listening intensely because, again, as an emerging writer, I’m learning constantly about what it takes be that prolific in so many genres. I was star-struck by her commitment to writing, and am finding that to be a strong common trait among my favorite writers. Obios perhaps, but raza, it still needs to be said. I was intimidated at first, but Ana, as much as Ana is a chingona writer, she’s just as playful.
Ana and Thomas were incredibly encouraging and supportive of my work, just the way Cherríe, Ruth, and Willie are as well. I mean forget about publishing questions and all that. These are my writing, my socio-political heroes, telling me: “Your work is good.” And I’m sitting there, my five-year old inner Chicanita from Bell Gardens saying, “Really? My stories are important?” I mean it’s still that valuable and powerful to hear that. I haven’t heard that in my academic life very often.

OB: Where was the first place you heard about VONA? What attracted you to it? And what were your first expectations going into your first VONA classes?

VV: My friend Aida Salazar, who is also a poet and is now working on a memoir, told me about it. She already has an MFA and she was told by other writers that she didn’t have to do VONA because she already knew what she needed.

However, since then, a lot of the students at VONA have MFAs and all of them feel that it offers the opportunity to work with people who get their work, which their MFA programs did not offer. It’s not just for folks who do not have an MFA. It’s an unparalleled opportunity to connect with prestigious faculty who look like you.

My initial expectations were that some people would like my writing and some not, but I was going to work with some of my favorite writers.

On my first VONA experience, my classes included Cherríe Moraga teaching a tree-day playwriting residency. On the first day of our workshop, a fellow student shared really painful writing about his family, and he was really upset and crying because he felt Cherríe did not yield to acknowledge his suffering. To this Cherríe replied, and I paraphrase of course, “This whole room understands your suffering and what you’ve been through. We are here with you. But we don’t have time to stay in that suffering. What we are here to do in these three days it to make your work as striking and urgent as possible.” Who else can say that to a writer of color, but people who have been there, too? To start off with that kind of understanding about my experience as a woman of color in this country is exactly why I’m hooked on coming to VONA.

1 comment:

Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you for sharing these insights, Vickie. I look forward to reading your work, at some point.