Magdalena Gomez is a poet, playwright, librettist, activist speaker, podcast producer and host, educator, and performance artist whose latest work is Mi’ja: A Memoir Noir published by Heliotrope Books. Magdalena was named Poet Laureate of Springfield in 2019 and will hold the title until September 2022. She is a Poet Laureate Fellow of the American Academy of Poets/ Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2021-2022, and received a New England Public Media Arts and Humanities Award in 2018. In fulfilling her artistic vision to “build unity” by creating “intimacy through empathy” she hosts workshops, creates stage performances, gives addresses and coaches groups on public speaking skills. Dancing in My Cockroach Killers, a musical based on her poems, has been performed in LA, DC, Massachusetts, and Off-Broadway in New York City. She is a former consultant to the Brown University Arts Literacy Project, and was the inaugural Master Teaching Artist of SmART Schools Network (an off-shoot of Harvard’s Project Zero) working in professional and arts integration curriculum development for educators from 1999 until the program’s conclusion in 2018. Magdalena is also a co-founder and Artistic Director of Teatro V!da in Springfield. Magdalena will be the featured reader for the June 2022 edition of Writers’ Night Out on Tuesday the 7th from 7-9pm. at the Michelson Gallery in Northampton.
SDWG: You wear many, many artistic hats, but it seems that poetry is the foundation for you as an artist, activist, and educator. How does your practice as a poet help you in your other roles?
MG: Poetry is one the most accessible art forms that can be created and shared in oral or written forms. It can easily be transmitted in collaboration with other arts forms, and is a globally recognized tool for human connection and expression beyond economic or class boundaries, race or ethnicity, identities and orientations. Just as I believe that the only person who has the right to define us is ourselves, I see poetry as having that inherent right as well. The right belongs to the listener, the creator, and the responder. For a long while poetry had gotten a bad rap, especially here in the U.S. among youth. When institutions and educational systems allow it to be co-opted by the ruling elite, held in esteem only when adhering to white supremacist rules of writing – the policing of poetry in this way, can still do harm to its reputation and subvert the imaginations of fledging poets – particulary those whose cadences and lived experiences of language do not conform to those rules. Poetry is the moule à chapeau of every “hat” I wear, as it provides the opportunity for intimate and authentic human expression and connection – the core reason for all of my work. Embracing the “I Am Thou” is an arrow that pierces that heart for light to enter; the light that allows us to think critically about the influences that have formed us, and what needs to change for our individual and collective liberation.
SDWG: Of course many writers work in more than one form, but I wonder if you could describe how this works for you. If I can presume a little, the so-called boundaries between poetry and other kinds of writing: drama, lyric, public address etc. hold little resistance for you. Just for example, how does writing for say, a poem pollinate your writing of a speech for a college audience?
MG: Poetry is the distillery of the heart/mind/soul; of cellular memory. Like all good Spirits, there is one for every occasion. Poetry is the glass I raise to honor those who have invited me to share in their gatherings, for all of the reasons I mentioned before, and because it is always a direct point of entry for me to create an interactive experience, especially with keynotes or public events. I began as a performance poet at age 17 and have toured nationally as a jazz poet. The late composer, scholar, and baritone saxophonist, Fred Ho, was my Jazz Poetry collaborator for nearly a decade. Fred always referred to me as a musician, and deeply understood poetry’s relationship to music and performance.
SDWG: Sometimes memoir as a genre can be misconstrued as the territory of the “Great Man”: a famous figure who recounts his achievements and conquests as he rests on his laurels; sometimes justifying or reframing them in defense of a critical posterity. It’s clear that your approach to and purpose with memoir is nothing like this. Both Mi’ja and your 2014 memoir in poetry Shameless Woman (Red Sugarcane Press) seem like explorations or searches in the experiences of your life as opposed to “expositions” of them. If I’m near the mark in this, what is your creative relationship with memoir as a genre?
MG: As you have surely gathered by now, I am an iconoclast with little regard for the rules of the dominating class or patriarchal narcissism in literature or otherwise. Memoir to me is an opportunity for the public exposition of personal experiences; I believe the more deeply personal a text, the more universal and relatable it becomes. I use humor as a featherbed to catch the weighty lumps of trauma. I use poetic language as a work-around, exposing the pain without the need to show the wound. Being unabashedly vulnerable is one of my super-powers. Truth-telling is my flashlight inside the dank basement of brutal abuses and captivity. Memoir for me conjures revelation for liberation; not only for myself, but for readers with long-held secrets, to find a space within themselves where they might finally say “I don’t give a damn what others will think of me…here it comes…let’s dance!” Dance is metaphorical here, since not all bodies can do it, but every soul has its opportunity. As Emeron wrote: “The soul is not an organ, but it animates all organs; although not a faculty, it uses all of them; it is not the intellect or the will, but the master of them.”
SDWG: The phrase “intimacy through empathy” is central to your Artist Statement. Both of those nouns have many connotations. Could you define them a little for your purposes, and perhaps describe how those terms inform the craft and shape of your writing?
MG: Intimacy – a fearless connection between humans as well as with the Natural World. The ability to transcend self-consciousness into the sharing of co-consciousness. Empathy – allowing ourselves to feel the suffering of others and their joy. To dare to look behind the presented persona, drop our own disguises and preconceptions, and bypass presumptions informed by prejudices, to actually feel what another being may be feeling.
SDWG: How do the acts of writing and subsequently speaking a poem before an audience serve to liberate both the poet and the audience?
MG: Every audience, every listener is different. My responsibility as a public poet is to prepare well, be ready, and equally ready to change that plan, improvise, or do whatever my intuition demands in response to those who are before me. Liberation comes when we go on stage to love, not be loved. To model liberation is to be who we believe we truly are. I say believe, because to seek and find our essence of being, free of outer influences, is an ongoing journey with no promise that we can complete it. We simply do our best to be as fully present to the moment as possible. Presence, even in absence, is my definition of liberation, when it comes to human connections and interactions. The politics of Liberation are another conversation and one that intersects this one.
SDWG: As a multilingual writer, you have a broad and deep “toolbox” of expression, and again the boundaries between languages seem to be very permeable for you. Can you explain and describe how the languages you work with; their dialects, colloquialisms, figures of speech, overlap and influence each other? By this I mean, for example, both how a Boricua phrase might find its way into a poem written in English, and how thinking in one language informs writing in another. Or, further, how thinking in a culture can inform writing in, or for, others. I’m suggesting that this is different from what we might conventionally consider translation.
MG: Yes, Mark, translation and unapologetic code-switching are very different in content and energy. Unapologetic code-switching, as I do in my book, Mi’ja demands more from readers who prefer to be comfortable in their own expectations of language. English is a language that has been globally informed. When I hear the term “broken English” I am reminded that English is the child of many languages. For example, words like tobacco, hammock, hurricane, barbeque, have their roots in Arawak and Taíno, ancient indigenous languages that arrived in the Caribbean by way of the basin of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Our languages were co-opted by the invaders, passed onto the next round of colonists and imperialists and so on. English broke into our languages, we didn’t break it. I code-switch and have done so for decades, because my ways of being, communicating, and feeling have been formed by many languages and dialects. They are not compartmentalized and are always in a dance that cannot evolve on only one beat.
SDWG: Perhaps because I read it just after the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, your poem “Diary From an AIDS Ward, 1984” (Poets.org) immediately made me think of Walt Whitman’s writing during and after his time as a hospital orderly during the Civil War. In your view how does poetry serve as connective tissue between different moments in history and the present or near-present?
MG: Poetry can serve as a form of historical and ancestral journalistic archival resistance. Remembrance in solitude can become an exercise in nostalgia and sentimentality, and in our times of grief and desire to heal, those moments can be a comfort food for the soul. We are vulnerable beings and those moments serve their purpose. When remembrance is documented publicly, as with a poem or an orchestral work, for example, it transcends time and space, and descends and lives within the present moment. When I read “Diary From an AIDS Ward, 1984”, aloud, in front of witnesses, I am resisting the passivity of forgetting. I want remembrances of history, of ancestors to live beside me, not as burdens, but as companions to make me a better person, to teach me, to remind me to honor them in the ways I choose to live. I want to welcome others into those experiences with me, so they might embrace the histories and ancestors of their lives and from their perspective. It all comes down to the poem as an event and manifestation of the humanity and vulnerabilities that unite us.
SDWG: Whitman notwithstanding, I gather that you have a deep cache of artistic models and influences. Would you introduce us to a few whose work or mentorship you most value, and perhaps describe how they have helped your work grow?
MG: The journey to mentors beyond those I found in the library, began with two legendary women from NYC’s Greenwich Village poetry scene, Emilie Glen, one of the most widely published, under-appreciated poets in the U.S., and Barbara A. Holland: two iconoclastic outsiders who tirelessly created venues for other poets at all stages of their craft; two singular and brilliant women who are the unsung heroines of countless writers. I am forever grateful to poet, publisher, and editor Brett Rutherford for gathering and publishing their work and that of many others who might otherwise be forgotten. Please learn more about Rutherford and find these poets here: https://www.poetspress.org/About_BR.shtml
As a vanguard member of the Nuyorican Literary movement, I received support and publication and performance opportunities from poets Sandra María Esteves, José Angel Figueroa, the late Pedro Pietri, and Louis Reyes Rivera. They inspired and championed me; believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Other poets who continue to inform and inspire my work include the late Judith Ortiz-Cofer, Julia de Burgos, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Langston Hughes, and Li Qingzhao (a poet from the Song Dynasty: 960-1279). Poets María Luisa Arroyo, Joy Harjo, hip-hop artist Nejma Nefertiti, and the poetry of music by Iranian composer and musician, Rahim Alhaj, are current companions for mindful listening. I am inspired by the feel and artistry of ancient textiles and sounds of instruments throughout the African and Asian continents and the aromas of South Indian temples. I can spend hours in the company of the Japanese Koto. Some of my best early poems were written listening to the Cante Jondo of my father’s people, the Andalusian Roma; Aboriginal music from Australia – the depth of daring in their music: a journey through their veins. I am not interested in poets who are only inspired by poetry, or the poetry of their own ethnicity or race. Imagination hungers for the world and all of her people.
SDWG: Can you tell us a little more about your musical influences and how they work in your writing: particular styles and artists that you’ve found as generative? I’m curious not only about how they have helped you approach the role of lyricist – writing poetry specifically to be applied to music – but also how music itself finds its way into your poetry.
MG: I was a child with undiagnosed alternative learning styles that were seldom, if ever, met in school. I never allowed these to limit me and found my own ways around what society might refer to as “disabilities.” I wrote all of my school notes in rhyme or gave them a rhythm. When it was time for testing, I sang under my breath and stayed in honors classes. I asked my father to buy me a small reel to reel recorder and I turned everything into songs to help me retain the rote lessons that drained all of us – the worthless information that had little connection to real life and desiccated countless imaginations. I kept adding water. I had to take what was dead and sing life into it to make it bearable and remain enlivened myself. There was always music in our little apartment; records of every genre, gifted to us by my father’s friend whom he called “Payola Pat”. I wrote trance poems to Ravel’s Bolero, as a child. I was hooked. Music and poetry were meant for each other and I eventually discovered the music in poetry.
SDWG: Given your many projects and commitments, I’m sure there’s a long list, but can you tell us what you’re working on right now? Will we be seeing new work from you in the coming months – publications, keynotes, performances?
MG: Yes, there is a long list. I am already working on the sequel to my memoir noir, Mi’ja published by Heliotrope Books, NYC. The publisher requested the sequel prior to the book’s release – which is of course, a great encouragement. Excitement for the book is spreading not only on social media, but by word of mouth. Lots of return buyers who want to share copies with others. I am grateful to so many who support, inspire, and champion my work. I’m excited to tell you that I’ll be creating a solo performance work, based on Mi’ja and recently received generous funding that will allow me the time to adapt the book from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, in collaboration with MASS MoCA’s Assets for Artists Program. I am also nearing the completion of a collaborative work with composer and conductor, Kevin Scott, who is finalizing a work for orchestra, two choruses (adults and children), soprano and narrator, based on my texts, Mother to a Stranger’s Child (can I get a witness). The work is intended to inspire individual and collective action on behalf of the abuses perpetrated globally against children, with particular focus on the treatment of migrant and refugee children here in the U.S.
I invite readers to visit the site for Mi’ja, where events and projects will be listed and updated: www.mijamemoir.com. Another site to learn more about my work is www.latinapoet.com. Readers may contact me via those sites – I welcome greetings, inspirations and feedback.
Thank you for interviewing me, Mark, and for the stimulating questions!
Contact and Access:
Interviewer: Mark Luebbers, Straw Dog Writers Guild member
Mark Luebbers is a teacher and writer living in Greenfield, Massachusetts. His work focuses on nature and the environment, the lives of eccentric and creative figures from history, and living in America. Mark has published poems in a number of journals and magazines in recent years, including The American Journal of Poetry, The Journal of Americana, Wayfarer Magazine, Apple Valley Review, Blue Line, and The Hopper. In 2018, Mark was nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. “Flat Light”, his first collection, was published in 2020 by Urban Farmhouse Press. “Citizens of Ordinary Time”, a collection of biographical and ekphrastic poems written in collaboration with Ben Goluboff, is forthcoming, also from UFP.