Thursday, June 20, 2013
agdalena Gómez is a triple threat. She’s a poet, playwright and performer but she’s also a threat of another kind; as a strong, insightful and funny Puerto Rican woman she scares the hell out of mainstream America (and I’m talking about all of America which stretches to the very tip of Latin America, too). And, as if that wasn't enough, Magdalena is very good, brilliant even, at everything she does.
Since 1970, Magdalena has been presenting her poetry and theater work all across the United States as well as internationally, in venues ranging from prestigious universities like Smith College to church basements to prisons, hospitals, community centers, bars and coffee houses. She has won numerous awards and grants, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award, throughout her long and productive career and she has served as an inspiration for thousands of young-and not so young-writers. Along with her hundreds of performances Magdalena has also fired up the imaginations of students as an artist in residence where she has taught countless writers workshops. But ultimately it’s her powerful insights and depictions of the lives of stateside Boricuas and people of all backgrounds which puts her in the top echelon of writing and acting talents in this country.
That said, like other progressive writers her name is rarely included on lists of important contemporary writers and sadly, even lists of Nuyorican writers.
In the last decade, Magdalena has been working on several successful collaborations, including noted musicians like baritone saxophonist Fred Ho, poet/activist Raul Salinas, musician/composer Abraham Gómez-Delgado and others. One of her most recent projects, “Touch,” is being put together by Magdalena, Gomez-Delgado, videographer James Lescault, and famed Director Daniel Jaquez.
The following interview took place by phone, e-mail and a 2-hour feast at a Korean restaurant in midtown Manhattan.
Cheo on East 116th
dreams of herbs
in his abuela's garden
smells the flamboyán
un colibri loses himself
flying backwards into
the promise of a better day
el Grito de Lares
fades into Cheo's bones
Lolita y Don Pedro
hold him inside their
“Dogs and Monkeys”
RICK KEARNS-MORALES: What project are you working on now?
MAGDALENA GÓMEZ: It’s called “Touch,” which addresses how an escalating dehumanization, the loss of intimacy or true community give foothold to fascism. How can we organize against oppression with our neighbors if we don't know who they are? To touch another human being is to share power and increase alertness; we as a nation are asleep as our resources and rights are pillaged. If we slow down long enough to reflect on our lives and truly see how we live and relate, we will have a clearer lens with which to see the bigger picture. To regain our humanity is to regain power. Abe, Daniel, Jim and I also want to explore the consequences of increased isolation; what happens when we don't "touch."
RKM: In “A Celebration of Knowing” I’m seeing some themes and perspectives that appear in many of your poems, and I’m thinking particularly of a subversion; subverting the meanings of what started out as insults and turning them around and using them as weapons. As I was thinking of that the next poem [of yours] that I picked up was “Asi Mismo, Coño” (Laughter)
MG: Actually that’s an abbreviated version. It’s part of a section that is called “Why I Became a Loud Puerto Rican (and other impolite stories).” The last lines of the poem are: “Gracias Estados Unidos por todos tus insultos/they will become my poems.”
RKM: Well, did you think about doing that or did you just do it? Was that a strategy?
MG: Yes, it was. The intention of “A Celebration of Knowing” from the moment that I started writing it was to take that which has been ugly and make it beautiful, to take that which had been used as a weapon [against women] to be used as a source of power. Not only for myself, but for any woman who has been offended or who has been harmed in that way or violated in that way. The casualness with which words are used against women; the casual manner in which they are used this way, as with girlfriends calling each other slut as a term of endearment, or bitch or bee-otch -- ‘It’s not bee-otch honey, it’s still bitch, don’t try to make it sound French.’
RKM: Yeah, it’s sort of a Jordache marketing of the word.
MG: Oh, I like that. That’s a poem!
RKM: But back to the subversion, and turning the tables, there’s sort of a martial arts component to that idea that somehow when I was reading “Celebration,” that you were subverting those words and turning them around like that form of martial arts where you utilize the other persons momentum against them. What is that called?
RKM: That’s it. Have you ever studied martial arts?
MG: It’s interesting that you say that because I was at the Harvey Theater with other artists a few months ago. Fred [Ho] and I were performing, for high school students and the youth were divided up by schools. There were 850 kids in the audience, and when the one speaker said, “Is so-and-so in the house?” some of the kids started boo-ing. I waited until they were quiet. I told them, if you want to boo someone, boo the ones who oppress you. They went from booing to ‘Yayyy!’ Anyway, Baba Israel sent me an e-mail that day and said, “I loved the way you handled that moment. It was mental martial arts.” It’s interesting to me because that’s been said to me a few other times. But I believe in doing no harm whenever possible, but I’m also like Malcolm before Mecca, “By any means necessary.” Would I turn the other cheek if someone were harming a child in my presence? Absolutely not.
RKM: Have you been writing on those themes from the beginning?
MG: My first poem as a child, the first published poem I read was on television. I was 12 and it was anti-racist poem but I think when I was younger I was more on the attack. I didn’t have adequate weaponry. I was also less schooled in power dynamics, and a victim. To cease being a victim is not an overnight thing, to cease being a victim was one lifetime. Now I’m entering another. There is no victim in me. I killed her. (laughter)
RKM: Jumping around a little bit, what inspires you to write?
MG: There’s an order in which it happens. The first thing, my healthiest muse, the one I love most, is the one that comes from intimacy with people. Sharing a meal, telling each other a story. Something I may catch visually, an image I may see, if I catch a glance. I wrote an entire play because I saw an elder who looked Boricua to me, pushing a cart full of recyclable cans and he had a Puerto Rican flag and an American flag on it. I wrote a 3-act play inspired by him and I had just caught him out of the corner of my eye. So it could be one image. Poetry inspires me, plays inspire me, conflict, chaos inspire me, jazz inspires me.
RKM: From what I’ve heard and seen of your plays, they seem very lyrical to me. You have a very strong connection to music. But back to the craft, do you have a writing ritual?
MG: Yes, I write every day and when I don’t I don’t feel right. Even if it means that all I have are a few words I write it down. And on those days when I can’t physically write, I write with my body. I capture images and I do things. I have pneumonic devices to help me remember them. They're in my bones so when I go to the pen or the computer, they’re there.
RKM: Back to the play based on the elder, what was that called?
MG: I’ve changed the title, but it’s now called “The Language of Stars.” It used to be called “Don Emilio’s Boots.” It went from the micro to the macro. It deals with a society that has become so oppressive and so rooted in hatred and bigotry that it’s become illegal to speak Spanish, to speak anything but English and you could be arrested for it. So Latinos start to develop extrasensory powers of communication, where they can communicate telepathically in Spanish and that’s the language of stars. And so they learn to speak the language of stars because their own language is no longer safe to speak.
RKM: Did you grow up speaking both, Spanish and English?
MG: Yes. I grew up having an opinion. But I grew up voiceless. Not only voiceless but punished for having a voice, having an opinion. I was not allowed to choose my own clothes. I was not allowed to be with friends. I was held hostage. I had no social life. I was the school geek and I had to learn to physically defend myself because of that. I knew the importance of the voice, that’s where the body comes in, because my interior world was the only place where I could live. So I made sure that I stayed sane. My mother was a physical abuser, my father was a verbal abuser and he was withholding of love. So I needed to create a place where I felt loved, where I felt important, where I wasn’t alone anymore.
RKM: So when you were growing up and finding your artistic voice in terms of writing and performance and after your early success on the TV show, did that get you going?
MG: I didn’t need an outside force to get me going. I started writing at 8 years old in the South Bronx when it was burning. It started with Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have multiple learning disabilities and when I was a kid I couldn’t figure out the Dewey Decimal System, no matter how hard the librarian tried I couldn’t find a book on the shelf. It intimidated and scared me; my brain would shut down. So
what I would do is I would go to a section, close my eyes and walk down the aisle. I would just stay a little ways away from the books, and I would feel for the heat, the psychic heat of the book. If the book wanted me, if the book connected to me, the book told me to read it. So that’s how I would do it. I was about 8 years old, and the first book I found that way was Emerson. And I opened it up and the line I remember was, “I have no use for the man who would needlessly step on a worm,” and that became my moral code. I started to read Emerson. I had a very, very high comprehension level as a reader but I read very slowly, probably because I couldn’t quite remember what I had read. While I was reading I comprehended the material but if I had to take a test on it, well, my grades were always just below the honors level because of that. I knew how to compensate but not quite enough. There were all these reading problems, probably some from the abuse. My mother was dysfunctional and intellectually arrested from the abuse that was done to her. So I wasn’t sure about my own brain, how it worked or if it worked. Neither of my parents could help me with my school work; my father because he was working too hard. He spoke and wrote in three languages, Spanish, Italian and English. He was very smart but he was never around. My mother was completely illiterate. I taught her how to write my name. I remember coming home from first grade and I taught her.
RKM: Who were your influences, then, now?
MG: So much to tell you on this; but my first literary influences, that I remember from my early childhood, were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Kenneth Rexroth's 100 poems from the Japanese which came out in the 50's. I was smart enough to despise condescending kiddie books even as early as first grade. These were works I didn't completely understand intellectually, but I could feel them. To this day, I write plays and poems I want the audience to feel deeply, whether they "get it" or not. What I want them to "get" is moved, inspired, challenged -- hot or cold, spare me from the in between.
RKM: Have you been to Puerto Rico?
RKM: I remember hearing about another Nuyorican poet going down there to participate on a panel and I was wondering if you had done any work down there?
MG: I have never been invited to do anything creative down there. I just sent some of my work to an institution on the island but I have received no reply, no confirmation of anything.
RKM: Unfortunately that has been the case for many Nuyorican or stateside boricuas [“de afuera,” Ed.] who have tried to connect to the island’s literary scene, mostly the more academic type of person.
MG: I met a young artist who has access to a small performance space on the island and he told me he’d love to help me work something out. I’d like to go down there with Raul Salinas and Fred Ho and I’d want to get money to do that. It's a great honor to work with both of them, and I encourage anyone to check out their websites: www.raulrsalinas.com and www.bigredmediainc.com, respectively.
RKM: Getting back to your work, your poetry and plays are so strong, so up front about the repression of women for instance, have there been repercussions?
MG: I’m censured monetarily. The repercussions have been that I haven’t had a book published. The repercussions have been economic. I might go to a school where the college students obviously love my work (she has performed in literally hundreds of colleges in the last 30 years) and it’s very successful. And I’m told how great I was and then I don’t get invited back. It’s about who holds the purse strings and who holds the power. Some bureaucrats are intimidated by me. However, I’ve never had a bad experience with an audience, never. Producers do not respond to my work, audiences do. When I’m doing a reading of a play, or poetry, afterwards I’ve had artistic directors call me and say, “I love your work, it’s wonderful but it doesn’t fit into our season.” One of the problems that I have in terms getting published or getting produced is that I can’t be categorized. I don’t write just about “poor me, Latina‚ issues.”
RKM: There’s a line from your poem, “Asi Mismo, Coño,” where you write: “honor her with justice, not ay bendito.”
MG: That’s how I feel. My work is strong and it’s not compatible with the current political climate of this country. My work is at odds with this climate. It’s gotten to the point that my ticket gets marked as a "special" at the airport, my luggage is checked and re-checked. The last time they told me “We can do this in private,” and I said, “No, I want everyone to see what you’re doing.” I get patted down now. I get wanded, and the more they do that to me the more radical I become. It’s a price I’m willing to pay.
RKM: But still there are places where you are very welcome, like la manzana grande. What was your most recent New York gig?
MG: The ACENTOS poetry venue at the Bruckner Bar and Grill in the Bronx. Also, I performed as part of a Luscious 2005 benefit for the Ali Forney Center in NYC (www.aliforneycenter.org) with Fred Ho on Baritone Saxophone. Fred and I did a couple of performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: BAMCafe, as part of "XX Women in Music" and at their Harvey Theater, as part of "Expression in the Right Direction" where we joined an impressive roster of artists to perform for 1700 NYC High School students over two days. Fred Ho and I were also part of a benefit for VIP (Violence Intervention Program) in the Bronx; I was also a recent feature at Jake's Saloon in El Barrio (a great place right next door to the Ortiz Funeral Home on 104th Street [off Lexington]). I gig on my own, with Fred Ho, and am planning to collaborate with the Brooklyn Sax Quartet. I also recently toured with Fred and Raul Salinas. Caliente! Circle Around the Sun Tour, which continues in the Fall. We open the season for New World Theater in Amherst, Massachusetts. I will also be doing new poetry at the Augusta Savage Gallery of U. Mass Amherst in October, "Shut Up and Pull the Trigger: Dancing with Kali and Lolita."
RKM: How has the response been to your CD, “AmaXonica: Howls from the Left Side of My Body?”
MG: It’s been great. The response is totally positive. It’s interesting because it’s not just Latinos who are responding. I’m getting a lot of positive reactions from diverse audiences. It’s so interesting to me that I’m getting these great comments from people from all walks of life, from all ethnicities and classes.
RKM: One of the other motifs I’m seeing in your works, say from “Chopping” and “Diary of a Patriotic American” is shopping.
MG: Consumption. Capitalism and how it infiltrates into every aspect of our lives how it takes a form and how it distracts us. I feel that people pay more attention to choosing between sweaters than whom they’re going to elect. They spend more time in the mall than they do writing letters to Congress. We have misplaced our priorities and it’s all because corporations and advertisers are systematically making us feel that we somehow are lacking something and so they can come and fill the need. My hair isn’t straight enough‚ or I should cover the grey hairs; I’m too short or too fat. It’s sort of psychological football. This is how you’re supposed to look in order to be beautiful, to be acceptable and to fit in. Nothing about me is mainstream. I don’t dress the way other women my age do, I don’t wear my hair the way I’m supposed to. It’s an act of subversion to have your own fucking style. Isn’t that crazy?
RKM: It is.
MG: By the way, love the haircut. (Laughter).
The official website of Magdalena Gómez is amaxonica.com. Photos: Susan Moore