The Grinder Reading Series at Telegraph Cafe – Nov 8th

The Grinder Reading SeriesTelegraph Café Presents
A Monthly East Bay Reading Series & Open Mic
THE GRINDER ~ Thursday, Nov 8th, 2012 630-9 PM

Featuring –

Laura Jew is an Oakland native, a tough mudder, baking lover, and a student in her final year at Mills College. She is a proud fellow of Kundiman, a program for Asian American poets, and a recipient of CSU Chico’s annual creative writing award. Her poems have appeared in Watershed and, more frequently, on the desks of her professors.

Lauren Peck is a Southern transplant in pursuit of adventure and has one of those MFA degrees in Creative Writing. She’s primarily a poet, but is also currently writing a work of short stories about the misperceptions of monsters. She collects old love letters and lives in Oakland.

Born in Ecuador and raised in the Bronx, Oscar Bermeo is the author of four poetry chapbooks, most recently, To the Break of Dawn. He has taught creative writing workshops to inmates in Rikers Island Penitentiary, at-risk youth in the Bronx, foster teens in San Jose, bilingual elementary students in East Oakland, and to adults through the Oakland Public Library’s Oakland Word program. He is a Bronx Recognizes Its Own, CantoMundo, SF Intergenerational Writers Lab and VONA: Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation poetry fellow.

Thurs, Nov 8th at 6:30pm
FREE Event
Telegraph Café
2318 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94612
Full Menu of delicious sausages, baked goods, and beverages. Plus $2 PBRs.

CantoMundo Day 1: Serious Reflection

Five years ago I was in Albuquerque, NM, for the National Poetry Slam. I didn’t participate as a member of a poetry slam team but I did MC one bout, picked judges and handled scoring for another bout, and was on the Rules Committee which means I had a 360° view of what happens at poetry slam on the highest level. Stuff folks don’t normally see when attending a slam and shenanigans that surprised even some slam veterans and enough to confirm that I was ready to move away from slam. Not because I was sour on slam but because I saw what happened when writers decided to invest all of their creative energies towards the purpose of winning a slam (over and over again in some cases).

The good news is that despite the slam drama, I left Albuquerque in total love with poetry. I was surrounded by friends who came for poetic camaraderie and viewed the poetic competition as nothing more than diversion (which is what it really is). We saw some bouts, talked real talk, and shared on every open mic we could find. So that’s the picture you see here. Me going all out on the Latino Poets Showcase open mic, reciting poems from memory, and sending the signals out to the ether.

And here I am, back in ‘burque five years later gathering up those signals not for nostalgia’s sake but to take an honest inventory and see what I can keep from five years ago. It also means discarding the poetic baggage from five years ago: how I talked so much smack about getting published but had only sent out a few submissions; how I kept talking big about getting a book but not really working on a manuscript; how I thought poetry should bring all these things to my door solely because I wanted them. Yeah, to the curb with that.

On the good foot, I do remember a poet who thought a poem could make a change, who looked to gather like minded folks, who was real happy penning a successful line, a poet deeply in love with poetry itself. Five years later, I am still that same poet. Not perfect, still got a lot of work to do (notice the book thing still hasn’t jumped off) but more than anything, I’m more honest with myself about my process. I can identify my faults and am trying every day to be a better person and let the poetry follow.

It feels like I’m in some good company to do that with kind of reflection. CantoMundo, even in the few short hours we’ve been together, feels like it wants to keep an eye on Latin@ poetry’s past by honoring our pioneers and their work, celebrate our present accomplishments, and fuse both visions to create a better future for Latin@ poetics. I like it and feel incredibly blessed to be here at the forefront of necessary conversations with a focus on strong work.

Still, I can’t help but think of Oakland, the city that has taken care of me these last five years, and hope for the best. Right now, anarchists and vandals are tearing apart the Downtown region and moving steady north. Taking a justified anger and misdirecting it towards local merchants and residents. This is not Oakland. Those are not the residents. Not the Oakland I know. Not the one I live in everyday.

And can poetry do anything to stop this? I think not.

Can it change the future? Remind us we’ve fought this battle before and came out with not only our dignity but also a positive lasting change? Yes, poetry can do that.

Poetry can be the past, present and future of a beautiful struggle. At least I hope. That’s my reflection.

Junot Díaz at Barnes & Noble (Jack London Square)

The only thing better than a reading/Q&A that effectively teaches about the literature process is a reading/Q&A that informs about how tapping into one’s own humanity aids the literature process (as writer and reader). Junot Díaz’s reading in Oakland covered a lot about novel writing and contemporary American literature, but it also spoke volumes on how being a real person and staying true to your community can help crash the wall between the authoritative narrative and true storytelling.

Junot started the reading with some introductions (Big shout outs went out to Elmaz Abinader and the VONA alumni in the house), friendly banter (More shouts to the Bay Area and its non-suckitude), family histories (How the courage of his sisters helped shaped and define his perceptions of personal courage), and then jumped into the reading of his Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He read from the opening of “Wildwood,” where his narrator, in the second person (“A pain in the ass form,” Díaz described it), discovers a lump in her mother’s breast. This discovery changes the narrator’s life and leads to her running away from her Jersey home which doesn’t last for long as we find out when Díaz hops over to the middle section of this chapter and details how the narrator, Lola, is pulled back home. To make time for more Q&A, Junot selected two brief passages but they both delivered great impact and highlighted his mix of accessible human themes laid out in the distinct backdrop of NYC/NJ with English, Spanish, and Nerd as the lingua franca.

On to the Q&A as Díaz was happy and open to answer a variety of questions, even ones that didn’t have to do with the book. I started off by asking about how writing his novel over an extended time period (Junot’s last work, the acclaimed short story collection Drown, was published in 1996) affected his relationship with the characters in Oscar Wao. Junot credited a strong internal narrator that always maintained a stable fixed position to the characters and their own development for helping keep a lock on where his narrative traveled.

Elmaz then asked if he was starting a footnote trend to which Díaz noted that he picked up the use of footnotes from Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco: A Novel. He also commented on how the footnote typically reinforces the narrator’s authority but he uses it as a kind of literary bonchinche machine that seeks to undermine the narrative.

Another question revolved around his use of Spanglish. “There is no Spanglish in this book,” Díaz answered, “but you will find a lot of code-switching, which is the great American idiom.” Junot also mentioned that he does monitor his use of code-switching to make sure that the language of the novel never dissolves down to the point a reader will zone out.

The topics then bounced from nerd culture (It is some of the most marginalized text out there and the text that speaks the truest to our human condition), to the impact of the Pulitzer (Other than doing more readings, not much of an impact, but it does get the novel in more hands), to getting people to talk about living through a dictatorial regime (My family’s background and position helped. So did my male privilege.), to the different Spanish versions (There is an American Latino version, Iberian version, and Dominican version. The one that best follows the language of the original is the Dominican one. It’s bananas.), his families thoughts on his novel (My family ran out to buy the Dominican language version and then asked, “Who are these people?” That’s because this novel is complete fiction.)

The theme of writing as a human being became a theme throughout the Q&A. Díaz noted that the act of reading requires not just empathy, the reader putting themselves in the character’s shoes, it also requires compassion—the desire to have a character’s fate be better. And if we want the reader to feel compassion, then the author must write with compassion and never use the truth as an act of aggression. Díaz says he threw away whole chapters because he knew he was using the “truth” about his community against them and that even in his highest disdain for parts of his Dominican-American upbringing he still loves the family that raised him. Bringing that love out in his work is a high priority for a writer like Díaz, “People will read your stuff and they will know if you hate your community.”

“I’ve never thought of my life as a line in a book. How little would I understand if I wrote stuff down,” Junot notes when making the division between being a writer and a community member. And that act of putting the pen down and really listening to the stories around you to get to the truth of a community is what made Drown such a powerful read. I haven’t read The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao yet but I am anticipating it to be an even stronger read filled with true nerdiness, rich code-switching, and a narrator that puts people before story.

More Junot Díaz:
The author’s website
Interview at
Podcast interview at