Friday Story: The Empty Table
I got there very early and loved the place, Word Up is a beautiful volunteer-run bookstore in the heart of Washington Heights.
That day eight of the writers in the literary anthology Breaking Ground were to read, and I was honored to be among them.
It was a joyful reunion with my peers, some of whom I had not seen in quite some time. The events around the anthology, edited by Myrna Nieves, give us happy occasions to meet.
Including Myrna, the writers presenting were Sandra Maria Esteves, Ana Lopez Betancourt, Nancy Mercado, Sandra A. Garcia Betancourt, Madeline Millan, Corazon Tierra and me.
We were happily talking like Latinas do, with gales of laughter, shared memories and warm hugs, and I was having a ball… but something kept calling me, interrupting my conversations.
…the empty table at the back of the room.
The audience area was divided into two parts. I was seated in the shorter section, and behind the seats of this section, the volunteers had placed a table.
My first thought was that the table was there so that we could place our books and flyers.
Myrna had told us several times that we could bring our other books and flyers or any other announcement we had.
So I guessed that this table was for us.
The crowd was pouring in. New chairs had to be found.
I was seeing people I had not seen in a long time. Hugs. Memories. Laughter. This was a poetry audience. An attentive audience. Things were going so well.
But the empty table pulled my skirt.
I kept looking at it. Kept wondering when would it be full. The audience was here and in a little while we would start. But there was nothing on the table.
The poetry reading started, and writer after writer came on stage to deliver a masterful reading. We are all women engaged with our communities, so there were fascinating stories, relevant topics, tears and laughter.
But the empty table remained, solemn and silent, like a monolith.
I came up and distributed a hand-out that I had brought for the audience, a give away. I had decided to distribute it at the beginning of my presentation.
Why didn’t I put it on the table?
Perhaps because it was so empty…
And why was it so empty?
Myrna introduced each writer, masters of their trade, with years of writing and teaching poetry under their belts. Most of them had poetry books. Many of them also had works of art and CDs because this was a crowd of creative geniuses, neo-renaissance women with a versatility of talents.
But the table remained empty.
The readings came to an end and the discussion started.
Even the conversation was great! People asked excellent questions and there were excellent answers, anecdotes, resources shared, reflections and insights summoned by the excellent questions from the audience.
But the table called me to its empty surface, a silent reproach.
Finally, as we were wrapping up and the audience went for the wine, I responded.
“Okay, I give up. I’m listening. Tell me why you keep calling me. What is your reproach? Why do you keep distracting me from this magnificent event?” I told the Empty Table.
“Why am I empty?”
The Empty Table spoke.
The question was obvious. Yet I did not really want to go there.
“Well, my books right now are all digital, and my novel has not been printed yet” I apologized to the neglected table.
“You are not the only writer here,” she responded, and I swear that I could see a skeptical moue in that empty surface.
“Well, I don’t know…” I stuttered. “Why don’t you ask the others?”
“I’m asking you,” the Empty Table whispered, almost accusingly.
“Why was I singled-out to speak on behalf of my peers? We were all there!” I thought it was so unfair.
But the Empty Table was relentless.
“Well, I know Sandy has lots of books, but perhaps she ran out,” I explained. “And didn’t you hear that Madeleine is in the process of producing her next book? And…”
I could feel the silence of the Empty table growing, one of those LOUD silences that speaks volumes. It grew and filled my mind, my heart, my mouth, so that I had to stop apologizing, explaining and guessing.
I had to start listening instead.
There was a large crowd in the room because these writers have been around. They have a platform. They bring an audience.
But there was nothing there that the audience could take home.
I mean, there were five copies of the Breaking Ground anthology laid on the bookstore counter. But there were no other books, no announcements, flyers or any other offer from any of the eight writers present.
I had brought my give-away as a way of not only giving something to the audience (as I did not have print books) but sharing my information so that they would keep in touch.
But Myrna had asked us to bring our books, our flyers, our announcements…
“Even postcards would have done it,” the Empty Table softly reproached.
Instead the table was empty.
And at that moment I understood the message of the Empty Table.
I did not speak to my peers, so I don’t know their specific situation.
But I know the general state of poetry among ourselves, the Latina writers. And I especially had to own my personal choices.
“What you are showing me,” I began, courageously naming the truth called forth by the Empty Table, “is that we are not taking care of the business of our craft. We are not bringing our stuff to the table.
“How much are you leaving on the table” the Empty Table challenged, “by not bringing your poetry to the table?”
The truth is that many of us like to complain, but in an era in which we can publish our own books easily and inexpensively, our complaints speak more of our own beliefs and limitations than true obstacles.
And yes, I have a line up, and my stories are in digital format because it’s easier and cheaper, and my novel is coming out soon (though it has been postponed several times), but my poetry…
My poetry takes a back seat.
I write poetry constantly. I love poetry. I live poetry.
My audience loves poetry. My “Life is Poetry” newsletter has more subscription than my other newsletters.
So why did I not bring anything to the table?
Why have I not yet published my poetry in print?
Why was the table empty?
Poetry, out of all the literary forms, seems to me to be the most feminine, spiritual and soulful of all forms.
Could it be that we have polarized these values ~values of the Sacred Feminine~ and business, money and marketing?
Could it be that in neglecting the business aspect of poetry we are actually depriving our audiences of a beautiful book to take home during our events?
Are we ourselves trapped in the “poetry does not sell” belief that plagues mainstream publishers?
Are we so overwhelmed by all the things we need to do, the people we serve, the job that pays the rent, that we do not have time, resources or priority to “put our poetry on the table?
I don’t know that it’s only one thing. Perhaps it’s one thing for one of us and another for another. Or a mixture of all of these things.
What I know is that I don’t want to leave the table empty anymore.
And I ask you ~whatever your life purpose, gifts or talents are~ are you leaving the table empty?
I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
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