Diana Marie Delgado was the 2010 recipient of the Letras Latinas Residency Fellowship, and it would seem she hasn’t put her pen down since. Her manuscript, Late-Night Talks with Men I Think I Trust, was a finalist for the 2012 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize; her play, After the Fire, was finalist for the 2011 La MaMa ETC's Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Award. And yet another play, Desire Road, was given a staged reading at La MaMa Galleria in NYC in 2011 and can be found in a recent issue of PALABRA Magazine. You might be getting the idea by now that Delgado has been at serious play with the play, and she has.
Now, a play is a story and a story can often become a play—except when it’s in the hands of a poet as imaginative as Diana Marie Delgado. Or to put it another way, both the play and the story are forms which progress in a linear fashion: first we get a bit of rising action, then a climax and then, finally, a denouement. But in the case of After the Fire, both forms are being given a more original treatment in which the action and the climaxes are largely those of language and poetic turn, of enjambment and a fresh perspective on an all too-familiar subject.
I say “are being given” because After the Fire has had two staged readings in New York City in the last two years, and Delgado, always poised and articulate during the Q&As that have followed both performances, acknowledges that the play is still very much in development. She and her creative partner, director Charlotte Brathwaite, have reduced the number of characters, for instance, from five to three. What thankfully hasn’t changed is the playwright’s approach to her subject matter. More about subject matter in a bit; right now I’d like to address Delgado’s approach.
While Delgado is certainly not the first poet to venture onto the playwright’s stage, she is the first I know who is doing so now, today, a post-MFA-in-writing-world in which writers often develop their work in “workshops.” Given the often genre-specific nature of such enterprises, Delgado’s workshop partners have probably suggested (or, if not, they’ll soon suggest) that she tell a story with a more traditional beginning, middle and end. Or that she give us more quotidian information about the play’s characters.
Delgado has nonetheless stuck to her literary guns, giving us, for example, this kind of character manifest:
ANGELA: Sand at the bottom of the ocean.
THE OLD WOMAN: Arthur’s dead mother.
ARTHUR: a kite brought down by a gale.
And I think one of Delgado’s reasons for being so admirably steadfast is After the Fire’s subject matter, which centers—centrifuges—around a dysfunctional family and the always-risky territory of sexual abuse.
Subject matter of this nature is, after all, completely reliant upon something we can never completely rely upon, memory. The kind of memories that After the Fire takes on comes back to us with no clear beginning, no clear middle and no definitive end. They come back to us, instead, over time, offering new bits of information and new revelations. And they fracture our sense of time, these memories, they disjoint our sense of what happened first and then what happened after that. It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it, all this uncertainty, all this constant shifting around in time and place, in perspective; and, indeed, Delgado’s working subtitle for After the Fire is Un Sueño, a dream. Delgado, through the character of Arthur sums the phenomenon up this way, “Childhood’s fuck’n trippy. No matter how many people you tell, it’s the one place only you can visit.”
Delgado says she tends to write a lot, to “overwrite, then go back and select for inclusion in the play only those passages which strike her as most strange (dream-like?), the ones, in particular, she herself doesn’t understand. But fear not, you will find a great deal of understanding in After the Fire: understanding of other people, of their complex motives and their dreams. And you’ll get a story, too, just not one that comes at you the way most stories do. Or at least I have left both staged readings feeling relieved that I hadn’t once again been presented with another case of the-good-guys-versus-the-bad or, worse, a night full of easy moral judgments. Instead, I left happy in the knowledge that there is a writer—a heroine—at the center of las llamas, and that I very much look forward to seeing how that heroine stokes this, her own entrancing fire.
Steven Cordova is the 2012 first-place winner of the International Reginald Sheperd Memorial Poetry Prize. His first full-length collection of poems, Long Distance, was published by Bilingual Review Press in 2010. He has a short story in Ambientes: New Queer Latino Writing (University of Wisconsin Press) and an essay in The Other Latino: Writing Against a Singular Identity (University of Arizona Press). He lives in Brooklyn, New York.