The pandemic is certainly casting a pall over the seventh annual South Texas Book Festival, but it’s not an altogether bad pall.
The festival, hosted by the McAllen Public Library, kicked off its four-day series of events Thursday with “Poetry & Wine: An Evening of Literature.”
The hour-long talk featured Poet Laureate of Texas and University of Texas Rio Grande Valley professor Emmy Pérez and Edinburg memoirist and poet José A. Rodríguez.
Thursday’s conversation was held virtually on account of the pandemic, like most of the festival’s events this year.
The audience had to watch the discussion through the somewhat austere lens of a video call broadcast on Facebook Live. They could ask questions through the comments, but there was no applause and no laughter, none of the hallmarks of an in-person event.
The content of the talk, however, compensated for that loss in fellowship.
Though light on wine, the event was heavy on literature — much of it from the authors’ previous publications, but also samples from works in progress Pérez wrote during the pandemic and is continuing to tweak.
Those works in progress are some of the very first works of art to emerge from the Rio Grande Valley, where COVID-19 fatality rates have been particularly high. They afford a sneak peek into how the poets and writers of the area will document the crisis.
“I think that my usual inspirations, especially here in the Valley, are not here anymore,” Pérez said. “Like I usually go outside and see something that inspires images in my work, and so I’ve really had to dig deep inside of myself.”
One of the pandemic poems Pérez read during the talk described her hearing a young pauraque devoured by a cat outside her window one morning.
She mentions never seeing any before coronavirus-related lockdowns in the poem, and describes hearing the bird’s mother call for it after the cat struck.
“You stayed awake
As so many other times,” Pérez recited.
“Reading articles in bed on your phone
Worried for people who can no longer breathe.”
The poem blends together current events like migrant deaths and the vandalism of a George Floyd mural in Brownsville with borderland motifs that are a staple of Pérez’s works, all through the lens of the pandemic.
“You have to, in these times, sort of delve into yourself and use other senses,” she said. “I was using my ears instead of my eyes, which I usually use more of my eyes to write my poetry.”
The Poet Laureate of Texas’ pandemic poetry isn’t necessarily done — she says she’s still tweaking the poems, and she’s already updated one to keep up with casualty numbers — but the festival’s discussion gave attendees a glimpse at a first draft of poetry contextualizing a historic crisis that’s not over yet.
Pérez and Rodríguez’s discussion is available on the McAllen Public Library’s Facebook page. Details about the rest of the festival’s events are available at https://southtexasbookfestival.com.