I’ll Never Forget Her Name: On Private Selves in Public Spaces

Rosebud Ben-Oni
February 16, 2017
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Let me begin by stating this is not a post-AWP-reflections essay. Or maybe it is exactly that.

I was talking to a poet who did not think herself a poet, and she was explaining the reasons why she felt she was not a poet. Because she was still an undergrad. Because her workshop experience had so far been hostile and cliquey. Because she had no publications and no connections. Because whenever she approached the booth of a journal she loved, she felt no one was interested in talking to her. Perhaps not every time, but often enough to have a cumulative effect that took its toll, and she did not want to return to the bookfair for the remainder of her trip.

Suddenly she thanked me. Taken back, I replied that I didn’t do anything—that, after all, I didn’t have any answers for her on how to navigate large conferences, how to speak to those who were probably just as overwhelmed manning the tables— I’d had my own experiences helping with the VIDA table— that I would’ve never dreamed of attending any conference, let alone AWP, as an undergrad. That I myself still feel very new to such an environment that seemed like its own municipality within a city, albeit a temporary and itinerant one.

She replied I misunderstood her. She was thanking me because I’d given her my attention the entire time we talked. That I said her name when I was talking to her. That I told her she was indeed a poet. Because she is.

Because she is.

This conversation stayed with me for the rest of the conference because I then saw variations of her concerns. I saw those who were talking to someone while looking at the door— not a physical door, but very real a door nonetheless— waiting to see who was to come in next, and I saw the faces of those who then felt slighted, ignored.

But this isn’t just about AWP.

This is about how one has meaningful conversations in public spaces.

This is about connecting our various private selves to other private selves in fast-moving, fortissimo public spaces.

This extends to social media and what it should and should not demand of us. This extends to teaching— say, whether it’s a master class at a retreat or a workshop in an academic institution— and the time we volunteer to our communities. How available is one willing to be? How and who do we inspire?

To be quite honest, I still don’t have answers. I too am wondering how to connect in such open space in such a short amount of time. In a very defined space that— despite its organization of talks, panels, readings, off-site events and caucuses— is actually not at all defined. This is not a passing critique of AWP. This is rather a question of how do you arrive at the kind of conversations where an entire room of twelve-thousand conferences-goers fades away, and it’s just you and one other person. Such a question is deeply problematic as it is personal in the scope of its retractable reach, in its leave-taking of you as an artist and person.

It’s moments like these, as I’d written on social media during the conference, that I was so grateful for the presence of CantoMundo, the Latinx Caucus and fellow Latinx peeps at the conference. There is a common language in just seeing each other. Language I wouldn’t feel elsewhere. And there is a special language in running into each other. Like when I ran into Celeste Guzman Mendoza who asked me off the bat where M4 was, having that easy familiarity with each other. Or being in the midst of a protest and suddenly there is Darrel Alejandro Holnes linking my arm with his. Or, after missing each other several times, finally finding Ruben Quesada just before he moderated the Latinx Caucus and witnessing those panelists Dan Vera, Suzi F. Garcia, Fred Arroyo and Alexandra Regalado, with honesty and humor and intense passion, bind everyone one step closer via the common goals of representation, activism and beyond. Or meeting Roy Guzman at the Latinx Caucus booth. Or attending a dinner with all the CantoMundo poets who kept rolling in, like Malcom Friend, like Lupe and Jasminne Mendez— and how we kept adding chairs to the table, creating space at the table where there didn’t seem at first to be any left. And finally meeting and sharing a drink with the wonderful Gabby Bellot for the first time in person. And I also missed people I wanted to see, people who were there, but I just didn’t get a chance to meet or reunite with. But I knew they were there.

Of course these connections did not happen overnight; they took time to develop. There were years too I felt very alone in my graduate program in Jerusalem, and would have had a hard time at an event like AWP. I know what it’s like to feel anonymous. And to feel anonymous and female. And after this particular one, I’m rethinking about what it means to share time with people in all the ways one actually can.

And then there’s this: after a year and a half of writing weekly here at The Kenyon Review blog, I finally met my editor Kirsten Reach in person. Or rather, we decided to meet at a specific time, which means we missed each other first. I’d run into someone I knew while I was waiting for her at Kenyon’s booth, and then started walking around, further and further away, until she came and found me. There was something magical about not meeting at the booth at our designated time, that she’d managed to see me in such a crowded, ever-moving space, that her face immediately read openness and genuine happiness, and I knew the trust I’d put in her from afar was safe, secure. We managed to squeeze in a lot of news and concerns, our lives and our sentiments, in the short amount of time we had to share. Of course it was not long enough. This is someone, after all, who’s read over my work, seen it in its rawer states, for a good while.

Later that day, I heard Kirsten call my name before I attended the Latinx Caucus. I was going up an escalator and she was going down the other. She smiled and waved, and then shouted across the narrow but palpable distance: Like two ships passing the night.

Like that was one of the truest things I’d ever hear at any large gathering of artists.

Like to call someone’s name in such open yet crowded space is empirical grace.

Like a young poet who is most certainly a poet, and whom I hope knows I’ll never forget the day we met.

That I’ll never forget her name.

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