Yesterday, I left off with my AWP recap. Today, I want to tell you about what happened the next day, on Saturday, April 11th, which was probably one of the most memorable of my life so far.
I was awarded the 2014 Helen C. Smith Prize for the Best Book of Poetry by the Texas Institute of Letters for my latest collection, Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots.
Yes, you read that correctly! I had received word about a month ago, but was told not to say anything until it was officially announced at the awards banquet and annual meeting. So, I had to sit on this bit of wonderful news.
Anyway, that's why I had to leave AWP a day earlier than expected. I needed to be in Houston to receive my award. Unfortunately, the reception for the award happened a day early this year, on Friday, so though I missed that, I was at least able to attend the banquet.
So, Friday morning, I wake up at the ungodly hour of 3am to catch a shuttle to the airport. I think, in the past three days, I'd gotten a total of maybe 3 hours of sleep. I running on adrenaline, pure and simple. That and a ridiculous amount of coffee.
By some miracle, mom and I make it to the shuttle and off we go to the airport. I'm half asleep, full of nerves and all that good stuff as the shuttle goes from hotel to hotel, picking up weary writers around downtown Minneapolis to take them to the airport. Two women sit behind me, chatting, when I hear, "Texas Institute of Letters..." I turn around.
"That's where I'm going!" I say, surprised and a little embarrassed.
The woman looks familiar, but it's too early in the day for me to place names to faces. I learn that she's being inducted into the institute. I tell her about my award (ok, maybe I'm not so good at keeping secrets). As we finish our conversation, delighted in the strange coincidence, she tells me her name is Nan. "Nan Cuba???" I ask, suddenly getting my geek on.
She laughs. "Yeah, that's me."
I had seen Nan read a few years ago at TCU as part of the Texas Association of Creative Writing Conference. She was the keynote speaker. I'm a little starstruck. "Oh. My. Goodness! You're like, famous!"
Anyway, Nan is gracious and wonderful and doesn't take my weird behavior the wrong way. I think she's a little flattered. Off we go to the airport! It would be too much of a coincidence that we'd be on the same flight, right? Right. It was. I tell Nan I'll see her in Houston in a few hours and we say our goodbyes at the airport.
Yay, a new friend!
The flight to Houston is... well it's not so bad, really, but my body is about ready to give up. My back is achy. I'm beyond tired. And the worst thing? I get overcome with this terrible nausea. Ugh. But I put on a happy face and try to just focus on the evening ahead. Scratch that. The evening ahead makes me even more nervous. I close my eyes on the plane and try to meditate. It works, kinda.
Did I mention I did yoga at the AWP book fair? And on the plane, too? And that it wasn't the weirdest of things going on?
Ok, I survive the flight, and in Houston, I say goodbye to my mom who's catching another flight home to McAllen. B, my love, is waiting to pick me up at the Houston airport. Yay! I missed him so!
B and I get some lunch at a delicious local pizza place. Only, by this point, my nerves and nausea get the best of me and I end up tossing my cookies. Oh well. Better now than at the banquet, I figure.
We check in to our hotel and I take a much needed nap. Afterwards, it's time to get fancied up for the banquet, so I do, and yay, by some miracle, I look halfway decent! I put on a happy face and head to the cocktail hour.
Once I enter the room, it's filled with people that look vaguely familiar, but I don't really recognize anyone. I scan the room, and then, standing there with a huge smile on her face is none other than Jan Seale! She gives me the biggest hug ever, and all of the sudden, I'm not so nervous anymore. She takes me around the room, introducing me to all of her friends, which is pretty much everyone who's anyone in Texas letters. Professors. Novelists. Publishers. Journalists. Poets Laureate. I'm a little starstruck. And the amazing part was that they were all wanting to meet me. Little old me!
Jan is amazingly gracious. We sit together at the banquet. When they announce my award, I'm all blushy and dorky. Maybe it was a good thing that the official reception was the previous night, because the other award winners had to give acceptance speeches, and I probably would have just sounded like a giddy, tongue-tied little girl. At the end of the ceremony, I mingle some more. One particularly special person I got to talk to was Norma Cantu. She was the contest judge who selected my book, and it's actually a little special, and here's why:
Back in 2010, I went to a conference El Mundo Zurdo at the University of Texas San Antonio. Among the Mariposas had just been published, my very first chapbook publication. I was really just cutting my teeth as a poet, so to speak. Anyway, after the conference itself, I decided to go to a reading at a art gallery and coffee shop, Gallista Gallery. There were a lot of attendees from the conference at the reading, including Norma Cantu, a leading scholar on Gloria Anzaldua and a badass poet
Anyway, I read a poem at the open mic. I remember it was "The Common Denominator," a little poem about my mom and I feeling uncomfortable but at the same time at home in a culturally diverse nail salon. After my poem, Norma approached me and bought one of my chapbooks. She gave me a hug and told me to keep writing, to keep going, keep striving, that one day, I was going to go far. I'd never forgotten that moment. She was so gracious and kind to me. I know my work was rough around the edges, but she took the time to encourage me.
So, fast forward 5 years later. I have to contain myself not to run up to her and give her a big hug. But actually, it's totally cool, because she's from South Texas and knows that's just the way we are :-) Anyway, I tell Norma the story. She remembers! She says, yes, I remember you, I remember your book, and I remember that reading! It was at Gallista Gallery, no? I turn all red. It's just too much. Too much specialness. I am beyond blessed.
"Just remember to pay it forward," she tells me with a wink.
And that's really the sentiment I left the evening with. I owe my success to so many different people who's supported me, encouraged me, and shown me love through all the steps in this crazy journey as a writer. It's all lead up to this moment, so many people have helped to build me into the poet I am today. It's just, overwhelming how much goodness there is in the world, in the hearts of others. From my first poetry instructor, Emmy Perez, who taught me the foundations, to all the classmates in my MFA workshops like Rodney Gomez, Joe Haske, Lady Mariposa, whose feedback, support, and reactions helped me hone my craft, to Steven Schneider, who helped me take my poetry seriously, one step further to putting together a thesis manuscript, who believed in me early on, to Maria Miranda Maloney, my first publisher who told me, yes, you're worth it and yes, I'm going to take a chance on you, to Christopher Carmona, my editor at Slough who picked up my first full manuscript and made me feel like a "real" poet, to Chuck Taylor, the publisher who gave me the green light to be myself, to Edward Vidaurre, who, buddy, first called it that one day I'll be Texas Poet Laureate (I'm working on that, Edward), to Daniel Garcia Ordaz who ushered me into the Valley poetry community with open arms, to Linda Romero, for being an awesome friend and critique partner, to Jan Seale, who's taken me under her wing and mentored me through wild world, to Jerry Craven for bringing me into the Lamar University Press family, for championing my work in a way no one had before, and of course, to Norma Cantu for encouraging me early on, and then, again, at this stage in my poetry career. There are so many others I've missed. I owe my success to everyone who's ever read my poems, critiqued them, encouraged me in big and small ways. This is just a tiny cross-section of everyone I need to thank. Of course, most of all, my parents, my family, my love, B, without whose support I'd be flailing in the wind.
I love them all. Dearly. Truly.
It's been a wild journey so far. My cup is overflowing with love, with joy, with success, and most of all, with gratitude. I'm the poet I am today because I stand on the shoulders of everyone who's come before me. I'm incredibly, incredibly fortunate, and sometimes, well, all the time, it's just overwhelming.
Now, I need to figure out how to spend that $1200 burning a hole in my pocket B-)
Ok, enough sappiness, here are the poems:
In summer, there is always more. You feast
on everything the season has to offer –
the sun’s embarrassment of riches streaming
down to feed the flowers, large as dinner
plates, already drunk on their own nectar,
tropical rainstorms tumbling ashore
to wet the fertile, sodden soil, the days
that almost seem to never end. You spend
them in your garden, clipping, digging, planting
with an urgency to make the most of plenty.
Your garden drinks you in, the sweat that rivers
down your back, the soft touch of your hands
the dirt beneath your fingernails. For love,
you toil with a smile as bright as June,
dreaming of those cool and humid nights.
Her love in autumn’s just as beautiful –
It enters with a sigh of satisfaction
At the heavy, heaving branches filled with fruit
That you created hand in hand together.
You stop to pluck one, hold the blazing fire
Of an orange in your calloused palm,
A star that’s made of life, of sweat, of love,
Of everything the two of you can offer.
You peel it, let the flesh dissolve atop
Your tongue, and taste the sweetness of tomorrow.
You’ll savor this together underneath
October’s sky that rumbles, warns the world
Of what’s to come. Breathe deep, take in the smell
of fallen leaves returning to the earth.
The few who love in winter know a love
that’s unlike any other. Every petal
fell to the earth months ago. The fruit
has been devoured, savored. Branches hang,
naked, brittle, but you come to listen
to the beauty of them rustling in the wind.
A cup of cocoa in your hand, you wander
through the garden, tend what’s left to tend
with gentle streams of water. Now, you run
your fingers through the soil because you’ve grown
accustomed to the smell of earth on skin.
She’s nothing left to offer but herself.
May your marriage always be of this --
loving simply for the sake of love.