Never Give Up an
Opportunity to Eat for Free
I kept the poems in a Pee-Chee folder. Three poems written oncollege rule paper 'cause that way they looked longer. One of themI wrote in math lab, the other in the quad during my lunch hourand the third one I wrote when Paul R. broke up with me and Ihad nothing else to do that Friday night. Okay, so I wasn't noJewel and my parents worked too hard to keep me from living inany ol' van, but I was pretty proud of the poems. I read themduring open mike at every little bookstore and in any little coffeehousearound town and Marl and Angela were always in theaudience and they said they were good poems. But I often wondered,did anyone else get anything out of them?
So naturally, I was excited when I got the phone call. Thewoman on the other end was from my college and said she gotmy number from a classmate. She said she was organizing a writers'conference, a Chicana writers' conference. She emphasizedChicana.
"We're having writers," she told me. "Chicana writers fly infrom all over the Southwest, it'll be two days of readings, workshops,and lectures, here on campus. Can I count on your participation?"
Did she even have to ask?
Mari and Angela were happy for me, but surprised.
"How is it she called you?" Mari questioned. "I mean, don'ttake it wrong or anything and I like your poems and everything,but how did this organizer of this big ol' writers' conference connectwith your work?"
"It's a Chicana writers' conference," I gloated. "And I guessgood word gets around."
The conference was over a month away but already I was practicing.I read my poems in front of the hallway mirror. I typedthem up on flat white paper and put them in a new Pee-Cheefolder, one that had no scribble on it. I found a cute tank top atClothesTime to match my lime-green skirt. I thought about shavingmy legs above my knees.
A week before the event I get a call from the woman.
"I know this is last minute," she said. "But it looks like we'dlike you both days. Are you available?"
"Oh, of course," I assured her. Dang, three little poems andalready I was in demand!
"Great," I heard her exhale, and shuffle papers. "So ..." Shespoke slowly as if she was writing while she talked. "We haveMichele ... available ... both Saturday and Sunday ... to servebrunch."
What? Did I hear right? Brunch? To serve food? My heartdropped.
"Oh ..." I started. "I thought, I thought you wanted me toread, to share my poems."
"Oh, no." The woman chuckled uncomfortably, "We've hadour writers, our Chicana writers, selected for months." Then hertone suddenly changed. "I'm sorry about any confusion. I thoughtI was clear when I first called you. I guess, I guess I'm so overwhelmedby the conference and all. Wait, let me see ..." I couldhear her shuffle more papers. "You know on Sunday, we're havingan open mike. Are you familiar with those? You're more thanwelcome to share your poems then."
When people say, "You're more than welcome to ..." whatthey really mean is "Look, not only was your name not on ouroriginal list, but we never even really thought of you. But toalleviate this feeling of guilt, the guilt for not thinking of you inthe first place, we'll throw this last-minute invite your way."There's nothing more offensive than being told, "You're morethan welcome to ..." The whole gesture is really a slap in theface. So I'm sure the woman was surprised by my response.
"Sure," I told her. "I'll be there. Both days. Oh, one last question.Do I have to bring my own hair net?"
That night I complained to Angela.
"Quit being such a big baby," she said as she put up a newcleaning schedule on the fridge. "At least you'll get to eat for freeand then later you can read your poems. I mean, there'll be morepeople at this conference than at any of those ol' fake coffeehousereadings you do. Sowhat kind of food you think they'll have?"
On Saturday morning a week later I found myself at the conference,donning a regulation name badge, meeting and greetingdozens of Chicana writers, essayists, and poets from all over theSouthwest, and posing the imperative question.
"Scone or croissant?"
"What, you don't have any pan duke?" A woman in a shoulderscarf looked over the pastry platter.
"No, all the kitchen help polished them off this morning withtheir champurrado," I answered. "I'm afraid you're stuck witheither a scone or a croissant."
"Well ... I'll take a croissant."
The woman behind her then asked me something in Spanish.
I answered her back and continued to scoop fruit salad ontoher paper plate. She didn't move forward but instead looked ather friend in the shoulder scarf, rolled her eyes, and remarked inSpanish, "I thought this was a Chicana writers' conference and thisone here can't even speak Spanish!"
I looked up at her. What was that about? What had I saidwrong? Did I use "muy" instead of "mucho"? Rs not rolled outlong enough? Oooh, I can get so sloppy with those. Should I haveasked her? A Chicana help another Chicana with her Spanish? Idon't think so.
I scooped more fruit salad onto her friend's plate and my facejust burned. First I was this so-called writer trying to push mypoems on supposedly other fellow writers and now I was thiswannabe Chicana trying to horn in on a conference, their conference.I wasn't even worthy of serving Cinnamon Crispas.
I complained to Angela again. We were in my room watchingTV that same evening.
"I'm not going back," I told her. "I ain't gonna spend mySunday morning dishing out mango crepes to uppity Mexicans."
"I thought they were Chicana."
"So you're not gonna go," she said as a statement rather thana question. "And now you're not gonna read your poems at openmike? Man, you're sure giving this woman who dissed your Spanisha lot of power."
"I ain't giving her no power." I changed the channel. "Whatdo you mean, power?"
"I mean, you were so psyched about this conference and eventhough you were just gonna serve food, you were all looking forwardto meeting all these writers, your fellow Chicana writers andyou were gonna read your poems and now, because of this woman,you're not gonna do any of it."
"But, Angela, she totally cut me down, in front of her friend.In front of other people. I don't have to take her shit."
"You know," Angela said, "why don't you write a poem orsomething about how you Mexicans treat other Mexicans whodon't speak Spanish?"
"But I can speak Spanish!" I reminded her. "And I don't makefun of other people's Spanish."
"Yeah right." She changed the channel. "So anyway, how 'boutwrite something about Mexicans who don't speak Spanish well.That's something you can write about. Besides, I'm getting tiredof those three old poems of yours."
"Nah, I don't even care," I told her. "I'm not gonna waste mySaturday night worrying about that woman or this whole Womanof the Corn Nuts Conference. I'm just gonna relax."
I grabbed the remote and changed the channel back. "And whatdo you mean, you're tired of my three old poems?"
After Angela left my room, I worked on a new poem. A poem'bout how Latinos treat other Latinos who don't speak Spanishwell.
My skin is brown,
just like theirs,
but now I'm unworthy of the color
'cause I don't speak Spanish
the way I should.
Great idea huh? The next morning I gathered my three "old"poems and my brand spankin' new one and stuck them in thenew Pee-Chee. I was armed. I was ready.
The open mike was held in the college's multipurpose room. Icould see the woman, in the fourth row, two aisles ahead of me.She was going through her purse and checking her airline tickets.Man, all I could think was that she'd better pay attention whenit was my turn to read.
Thirty minutes later my name was read from the sign-up sheetand I walked to the stage. From the podium I could see her moreclearly. I quickly read my three poems, saving the new one forlast. Then I saw the woman laughing with that friend of hers.Oh, she must've just heard someone speaking Spanish and caughta grammatical error, grammaticas wrongos. I cleared my throat andstarted reading my new poem. I looked up from my paper andsaw that she was going through her day planner with her friend.She was checking off dates and her friend was comparing themagainst her own pocket calendar. They weren't even paying attentionto me! I raised my voice and directed my voice toward her.My fingers clenched the sides of the podium and I was balancingall my weight on the tip of my toes. She still wasn't paying attention.I found myself not taking the time to exhale, not swallowingmy saliva, things I learned in Mr. Bower's speech classthat were very important to do when speaking in public. But allI could think about was getting the words out, reaching this witchof a woman and demanding she learn a lesson from me. But unfortunately,it looked hopeless. I read the last lines of my newpoem and thirty short seconds later, I was done. The woman wasnow offering her friend a mint.
I walked away from the podium feeling so defeated, the lastthing I wanted was idle chitchat from anyone. But then this man,in a tie and glasses, approached me. He looked the boring businesstype, the kind to pull out standard business cards straight out ofKinko's from his wallet.
"Well, that was different." He clapped his hands together."Boy, you sure have a lot of anger in your work!"
"Oh, yeah ... thanks." Was that supposed to be a compliment?Why was I even thanking him? My poems, angry? He obviouslyknew nothing about poetry.
My eyes stayed on the woman as the man yakked on. She wasnow getting up from her seat. I needed an excuse to confront her,something direct. Obviously, my poem hadn't worked. If only Icould've gotten rid of the man, but he just kept talking and talking.Men, they can be so chitchatty.
"You know, a lot of writers don't use Spanish like you do."
Oh great. Here we go again. And now my first critic was gettingaway.
"Are you working on a manuscript?"
"A what?" I wasn't really paying attention. I looked over hisshoulder. The woman was leaving through a side door.
"A manuscript?" he asked again. "Do you have one?"
"No, not at all," I answered curtly. Was he making fun of me?
"Well, I'm a publisher." He pulled a card out from his wallet."I have a press, it's a small one, but if you don't have a manuscript ..."
"Oh." I took his card. It was stiff, beige, and basic with onlyhis name and the word "Publisher" printed underneath in blackblock letters. I thought of my three, I mean, four poems. I thoughtof how I didn't even have a computer and how I used the typewriterat school to type them up. I thought about this man, apublisher, who was interested in publishing poetry. My poetry.Did people still do that anymore? If I had a book, I could sell itafter my readings at the coffeehouses, I could give it to my friendsas a little gift. If I had a book then maybe next year I'd be invitedto read poems, rather than be asked to serve food.
"Actually," I told him, "I do have a manuscript. I mean, Ithought you meant on me. It's actually on floppy, at home."Floppy? That was the right term, right?
He looked over his shoulder to see what I had been looking atbefore. "Do you need to leave? Is someone waiting for you?" heasked.
I looked after the woman. I worried that I'd never be strongenough to question someone's intent or actions, no matter howmuch they hurt me. Would I always think about what I should'vesaid and then write about it later? How could I ever get mymessages across in life?
"No," I told him as I saw the woman leave with her friend. Iopened my Pee-Chee folder. "So, here are a few poems. What doyou think?"
Copyright © 2000 Michele Serros. All rights reserved.