In light of Valentine’s Day, poet Mayda del Valle told the large audience gathered in Reynolds Industries Theater Monday evening that although she thinks love is great, it is also the most gut-wrenching thing on earth.
“I think being in love could be described as a mental illness sometimes,” she said.
Relationships were a central theme in the Def Jam poet’s performance—along with family, bad pick-up lines, spirituality, food and her Puerto Rican heritage.
Del Valle, who was invited to perform at the White House in 2009, assumed the stage with an air of informality that fostered engagement with her audience.
“I’m just gonna tell you guys some stories tonight,” she said.
And indeed she did. Her first poem—about an impassioned conversation in which someone told her the way Puerto Ricans and Dominicans speak sounds uneducated—began with no introduction, as a part of the story she had already been telling.
“[My] mouth opens wide with retorts in defense of the inflections in my accents, in defense of the articulations of my cultural enunciations,” she recited.
Del Valle also kept her audience laughing, recounting an instance in which she “almost picked up a stalker” in a piece entitled “Seduce Me.”
She also addressed some of the more serious moments in her life, saying that writing about the stuff that is “off limits” is often what “really grabs people and moves people.”
She read an excerpt from her poem “Salida” about three generations of women in her family, immigration, language and abuse, recalling her memory of losing her virginity and the consequent “huge, blowup argument” with her mother.
“I always wished me and my mom could have one of those mother-daughter relationships,” she said. “You know, the special, sweet, close, communicative type where I could talk to her about anything.”
Del Valle’s ability to share the most personal—as well as empowering—stories is part of the reason campus organizations chose to bring del Valle to Duke, said sophomore Shirley Lope, vice president of Omega Phi Beta Sorority, Inc, a co-sponsor of the event.
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“She is a very successful and powerful woman that we greatly admire and respect,” Lope wrote in an e-mail.
Del Valle also had advice for aspiring writers, saying that the idea that living as an artist is not practical is “just bull.”
One important key to success, she said, is surrounding yourself with people you respect.
“It’s really important to have a mentor in your field that you can just talk to,” she noted.
The event—co-sponsored by the Baldwin Scholars program, Mi Gente, Omega Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., the Women’s Center and the Women’s Study Program—received a warm reception from its audience.
“You can really just tell that she believes deeply in what she does, which is what I think made her work so powerful and so good,” senior Anamika Goyal said.
Junior Felicia Arriaga said that as a Mexican American, she is interested in how del Valle’s work draws on her cultural background.
“She spoke a lot about Spanglish and really just fused both [cultures],” Arriaga said. “It is really interesting to see how Puerto Ricans or any Latino group within the United States kind of navigates both worlds.”