Upon hearing I was going to the Great Valley Writers Conference, someone asked me, “As in, Valley writers who are great? Or writers who live in the Great Valley?” It was the latter, I explained—but now that I’m back, I can safely say that it’s the former too.
The conference, sponsored by Heyday Books and held at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, boasted a roster of locals who’d made it big (in poetry terms, which means a book published by an indie press and a room at the TraveLodge) and had either come home or never left. People like David Mas Masumoto, who is as sweet as the organic peaches he grows outside of Fresno; Tim Hernandez, who travels with a band and tells a good story about his dad trying to kill a pig in their garage; and Devoya Mayo, my very own co-worker, who—I learned at Saturday’s open mic—is also one fierce poet.
But I think my favorite moment of the conference—not counting the free, nasty drinks served up in celebration of Easter weekend across the street at cowboy/blues bar (yes, cowboy/blues) Rudy’s—came Saturday afternoon. The panel I was on had just let out. Maybe it’s just because I heard myself reciting a lot of the things I say as part of my job every day, but it felt a little dry to me. Plus it was late afternoon, the lights in the auditorium were low and my eyelids were drooping. The next event was to be Juan Felipe Herrera’s keynote speech, and I wasn’t sure how much speechiness I could take.
Juan Felipe must have read my tired mind, because he eschewed the stage and podium entirely and herded all the conference-goers into the lobby, which was decorated with giant black-and-white postcards and a butcher paper cityscape.
He had us shake out and stretch upward, all our flabby writer-bellies revealed. Then he proceeded to conduct us in this amazing, interactive, political, church-worthy, crowd-rousing, call-and-response song-poem thing.
“Great Val-ley,” he called, lifting his arms.
“Great Val-ley,” we echoed.
And a lot of Spanish words I didn’t understand, and a lot of funny riffs on our surroundings, and a lot of references to current events and thank-yous to the conference organizers. A Nice Solid Respectable Keynote Speech would have said something along the lines of, “California’s Great Central Valley is a diverse landscape that is ripe with stories of immigration, struggle and creativity. It is our job to tap into those stories and speak for our community.”
But somehow Juan Felipe said all of those things without saying any of those things. As my boss pointed out when I feebly tried to describe this profound Poetry Moment, “It could have gone horribly, horribly wrong.” She was right, but it didn’t because Juan Felipe is a great Valley writer who knows a room full of great Valley writers when he sees one.