Gomez reflects on life through poetry

Date: 10/10/2014

SPRINGFIELD – Springfield resident Magdalena Gomez is a person who is a teacher, a poet, an entertainer, a social activist and a provocateur. And all of these sides of her come out in a conversation about her new memoir told through poetry, “Shameless Woman.”

José Angel Figueroa, professor of Latin-American & Caribbean Literature at Boricua College in New York described her new book as “a provocative and deliciously scandalous, hip and feisty celebration of love, redemption and defiance; the victorious revolution of a poet who has lived every poem she has written.”

The book is a reflection through her poems of her journey from growing up in the south Bronx in New York City to becoming a poet performing on stage at age 17. She told Reminder Publications she went through more than 700 poems to select the ones for her book.

The new book is available from www.RedSugarcanePress.com.

Just looking over the tour she is doing reflects her range as an artist. In October, she is scheduled to deliver a keynote address at the national Association of Latino Arts and Culture in Rhode Island, perform in a theater in New York City, and travel to Los Angeles, Calif., for more performances and  speaking about activism at Hampshire College.

Recent blog postings (www.magdalenagomez.com/blog) range from a poem written about this summer’s crisis in placing children who are illegal aliens to a discussion on how performers are required to “pay their dues” and want that actually means.

She said she grew up in a culture of violence both in and out of her home.

Books became a refuge for her as a young girl and recalled how her introduction to literature was a “little supernatural,” she said with a smile. She said she closed her eyes and extended her hands walking through a public library and “felt the heat from the books.” She picked up a volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry and her life was changed.

She started writing poetry and in 1971 performed it for the first time publicly. The venue was an open mic night at a male burlesque theater.

“I snuck out of my parent’s house,” she said. “I was fearless, so comfortable [on stage.] It didn’t even faze me.”

She said at the time in New York City open mic events were not just for singers or musicians but poets as well and she performed at various bars and taverns. She remembered sharing the stage with singers Steve Forbert and Suzanne Vega.

As a young woman she was discovered by a “big time agent” who wanted her to model, but there was a requirement.

“I have to pass [as white]. I have to change my name,” she said.

Gomez elected not to go that route and “dropped out of the mainstream.”

She would rent lofts and work with other artists to stage shows.

“I had a underground following,” she said. “I created my work, my venues and audience.”

She moved to Western Massachusetts when she was 30 years old and has performed and taught in various spaces ranging from the Springfield YMCA to Amherst and Hampshire colleges.

Gomez wants to pass along the spark she has felt with her introduction of the arts and has taught for years.

She is also known for founding Teatro V!da, the first Latina theater group in the area. The company of young women regularly perform and conduct an open mic night at the Bing Arts Center, 716 Sumner Ave., The next event will be Oct. 29, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.?which will include Spanish and English poetry and music performances.

The microphone will be open for ages 12 to 25. Performers may sign-up beginning at 6:45 p.m. There will be a $5 suggested donation.

She enjoys working with Bing’s Executive Director Brian Hale and said of trying to establish the Bing, “We are all in this together.”

While she said Teatro V!da may not have much money – “we’re in-kind rich, but money poor” – she is eager to collaborate and work with others. She also exhibits little ego about the company.   

“I want it to run without me,” she explained. “The true nature of leadership is that you’re not needed.”

As a teacher, Gomez admits having high standards. She said too many young people are given low expectations. She challenges the students with whom she works.

“You expect the best. Give them the tools to excel. It isn’t easy. There is no instant fix,” she said.

She recently wrote, “Mediocrity is the new black. We feel it, we think it, we know it, we say it, venting over coffee with our trusted companions. We walk out of theaters feeling desolate and unsatisfied wishing we’d spent the ticket price on groceries instead. Sometimes we lie to ourselves and focus on the moments that worked, decoding in our heads because it never made it into our souls. We are especially susceptible when people whose opinion matters to us are bamboozled and sing praises of work that is derivative, classist, racist or simply a little too familiar. When audiences don’t see themselves represented very often, they will be happy with a platano or a collard green, no matter how vacuous the storyline, how bleached the tale. That dread fear of retaliation, of being labeled ‘difficult,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘angry’ keeps too many artists from doing the work that truly lives in their souls and speaking out, becoming bystanders, or worse, accomplices to bigotry by exclusion, dumbing down and artistic cowardice.”

No one could ever accuse of Gomez of taking her art through a safe path and she has been praised for that.

Muriel Fox, co-founder of the National Organization for Women (N.O.W), has said of Gomez, “Magdalena Gómez offers us miraculous combinations: social protest with endearing humor; authentic human insights of both U.S. and Puerto Rican society, and feminist inspiration with universal truths.  We are fortunate to have this great poet creating new works on our behalf.”