why do we burn so easily, why do the
empests blow me down? with clenched organs,
i whisk myself out of the vacuum but am still sucked hard.
only to hear, hear behind me, the dim and miserable
gloomy fade of 2 alternating rooster-crowings. so feeble
and strained that my heart quakes. But then–
i challenge the night, turn on the light, and begin to write.
–Tammy Gomez, excerpt from "I Think (if i took a drink)"
Tammy Gomez is one of the many artists today working out of a strong grassroots tradition of poetic reporting and subtextual organizing.
In 1961, a young bohemian poet named Leroi Jones, finding his black nationalist bearings, traveled to Cuba to investigate the socialist-humanist revolution taking place under Fidel Castro. The reports, published in the Evergreen Review, conveyed the spirited exuberance and collective hope that he experienced, a nuance missing in the mainstream coverage of the day. This reportage, in turn, informed the growing black liberation movement in the United States, whose cultural wing was the black arts movement, spearheaded by Amiri Baraka (ne Leroi Jones).
In 1987, a black Vietnam veteran and queer-identified poet from Philadelphia named Lamont Steptoe traveled with poet Sonia Sanchez and folk singer Pete Seeger to Nicaragua to express solidarity with the Sandinista cause of democratic socialism while the Reagan administration mined Managua harbor and funded the right-wing Contra rebels. Steptoe, Sanchez, and Seeger met with Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal. When Steptoe returned to the United States through Miami International Airport, his suitcase had been slashed open.
Poets’ fine-tuned sensitivities have often clued them in to a greater truth. They have also served as ambassadors across cultural divides, representing those excluded from the political process.
Now there is a new generation of young vocalizers speaking up and extending their organizing energies. They are community organizers, opinion leaders, educators, and advocates involved in issues like sweatshop labor, prison justice, self-determination, and support for political prisoners.
Tammy Gomez bills herself as "the Tejana Tongue," having broadcast a community radio show about prison issues in Austin, Texas–capital of the killingest state in the nation. She has a personal website with links to the INS and the Heritage Foundation, the better to maintain vigilance (www.hyperweb.com/tammyg/tammy.html). In her multifaceted poetic activities, she functions as a community organizer, facilitating the collectivity of many poets finding the nerve to express the truth of their surroundings, an educator via radio and website, and a galvanizing performance artist.
Stephen Colman from New York City is storming the college campus circuit across the United States and raising awareness about political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier. Colman honed his political voice in the brutal but democratizing forum of the weekly poetry slam competitions at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Lower East Side Manhattan. Colman, along with Roger Bonair-Agard, Alix Olson, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, and Lynn Procope represented the Nuyorican and won the American National Poetry Slam championship two years ago in Austin.
In San Francisco, James Kass is busy organizing Youth Speaks, a nonprofit creative group that brings the voices of inner-city teenagers, juveniles in detention, and young mothers–predominantly young people of color–into the cultural dialogue. On the heels of an all-out war on youth in California, typified by the recent juvenile crime measure, Prop. 21, Youth Speaks marks a critical resistance effort. Kass says that Youth Speaks "is about adults putting themselves on the line to back up youth in expressing themselves freely, uncensored and unadulterated."
One-Woman Wire Service
Gomez, active for the past 15 years in the Southwest, has made a concerted effort to link her expressive work with grassroots organizing around specific issues. Using the media of film, performance art, and music, she’s tackled some wide-ranging topics: the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Glen Rose, Texas, the mass media’s glamorizing of cigarette-smoking by women, domestic violence, peace, and sexual assault.
In 1998, Gomez started developing programming for her radio show, KO.OP’s "Mandatory Prison Talk." Already instrumental in starting the station’s Women’s Collective with shows like the irreverently titled "Notes from A Broad," she became interested in prison issues when her 17-year-old brother was arrested and incarcerated. "The show," Gomez explained, "is about moving past the silence of shame and horror and humiliation and guilt; silence that prisoners might feel, silence that family members of incarcerated folks might experience. This is an attempt to bring this information above ground in a way that is not easily found." Gomez also encourages young lyricists on the outside with her weekly "Blast Your Own Breath" open reading series in Fort Worth.
In April 1999, Gomez visited Kathmandu, Nepal, linking up with Nepalese activists and poets engaged in struggles over language, a passionate issue for the Chicana. "People in Nepal were very fascinated that I was Chicana," relates Gomez. "They wanted me to speak about the English-only or English-plus campaigns. They wanted me to speak about the place of Spanish in the U.S. and the ghettoizing of languages."
In turn, Gomez came back to Texas bearing recorded interviews with Nepalese feminist leader Bandana Rana and Nepalese poet Susmita, which aired on Radio KO.OP on International Women’s Day.
Tammy Gomez is the modern counterpart of the West African griot, a radical poet carrying the drumbeat of resistance across the territory–in other words a one-woman wire service. And she is adamant that it takes a poet to convey it, "because between the pundits, preachers, politicians, and so-called professional experts, there is no voice for emotion."
She speaks about 19-year old Jonathan Burton, who was pummeled to death by a mob of enraged passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight. "I don’t even know the boy, but I get emotional when I hear about things like that. It takes more than cold reporting to tell a story like that."
Since returning from Nepal, Gomez has edited an anthology of Austin women writers (collectively known as Yoniverse) entitled In A Loud Kitchen, released in Austin in 1999.
"I’m an activist because I’m angry at injustice and I’m an artist because I’m empowered to make change." She laughs lightly, "And it helps temper the anger to be artistic."
I met Gomez in August 1998 when she hosted Louisville, Kentucky hip-hop poet Stiles and me at her Austin "Blast Your Own Breath" series, one stop on our trek across the U.S. in a makeshift tour of slams, open mics, and poetry festivals. Referred to Tammy by our last host in Dallas, we showed up unannounced and she graciously gave us a turn at the mic and a floor to sleep on. The next morning we recorded an interview for Radio KO.OP.
Poetry on the Ground
slam dance, corrida, waltz across Texas
is the balance of human energies,
grace unleashed in this cutthroat mercenary world
Stiles and I were like two ’50s doo-wop singers, I felt–he black and urban, I white and rural, both of us thrust together by the unpredictable gyrations of cultural momentum. Both of us from working-class, single-parent families, we were developing our own muse and performance aesthetic with an eye towards being human and acting in concert with community against the onslaught of corporate interests. As we traveled across the country performing our words, it became clear to me that we were part of a sustaining national network of renegade artists seeking to define our own cultural space in defiance of corporate-controlled norms and to build a progressive political consensus.
At an earlier stop, we met with poets from the Memphis slam community who had organized a vociferous contingent to disrupt an infuriating Ku Klux Klan rally on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Austin, a collective of local poets raised $1,000 in an eight-hour poetry marathon at Ruta Maya Coffeehouse to send to a Palestinian children’s art center, which continues to be strafed by Israeli gunships.
And in New York City, the same spirit of poetry in action can be found on a Wednesday night at the Nuyorican Poets Café, where the confidence and affirmation of some 25 amateur poetry slam contestants is on full display. The poets are anything but starry-eyed. They float across the stage to wrest their longings and passions out into an expressed, public art. The poems range across the spectrum: hip-hop fury containing messages of Christian uplift and self-reliance, youthful anguish and self-discovery, nine-to-five workday survival, true love, white liberal guilt, romantic separation, a lecture on the development of African American music, and a spirited polemic against the gentrification of Harlem by a poet named Ebony. Another poet named Reed by fortunate coincidence has a stack of fliers in hand to publicize a march against gentrification and for localized investment policy in Harlem.
For most, the act of making poetry comes on top of a grinding, monotonous day job and all the messiness of life pressed into compliance with the corporate system, with the education system, and with the punitive system. Before the session is over, one of the more articulate and graceful poets, Whitney, glides out of the room. When asked why he must go so soon, he replies, "Got to go out and get my bread and butter."
Certainly Tammy Gomez knows about getting her bread and butter. Gomez is in the process of shopping her voice-bringing talents to nonprofit social services in Texas. But her work speaks most poignantly to a radical tendency to bear witness, participate, vocalize, and act in solidarity. This is the poetry community on the ground. It doesn’t always take on the big fights, but it dares to raise its voice against the silence of individual atomization. It educates itself and builds consensus.
In the words of the Tejana Tongue …
A woman who survives is a walking journal of her strength.
We walk among each other
he hurting and the healing
we are never alone.