Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Colombian American poet and the author of Hijito (Platypus Press, 2019), selected by Eduardo C. Corral as the winner of the 2018 Broken River Prize. Winner of the Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize, Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, Gómez’s writing has been published in the New England Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, BuzzFeed Reader, CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and elsewhere. Carlos is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. For more, please visit: www.CarlosLive.com.
Levi Todd: To get things rolling, what’s it like, your book finally in the world? How is tour treating you?
Carlos Andrés Gómez: I’ve been performing at colleges and high schools non-stop for the past eighteen and a half years, so I’m used to the tour grind (travel, show, Q and A, etc.), but this book tour has been something so different for me. Reading poems from this particular book that cuts so close to the bone is terrifying and vulnerable in ways I hadn’t anticipated (but probably should have). I’m not yet sure how to understand fully the impact of this book on my artistic and personal evolution, but I can feel things shifting and moving.
LT: That makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot that the book covers, responding to events both nationally and internationally following police violence, genocide, and other experiences of trauma. Do you feel like your experience or the audience’s experience of these poems changes based on the location of your tour stop?
CAG: That’s a great question. Absolutely. The demographics of the people in front of me at any event changes the way the work is received, how it lives in the room. For example, I was just in Toronto at A Different Booklist, this incredible independent bookstore that was founded by Itah Sadu—virtuosic writer, changemaker, community icon—and her bookshop is this proud, vibrant, pan-Africanist cultural hub. I mean, I was reading excerpts from my book next to a life-size painting of Marcus Garvey. The poems in my book lived differently in that room than any of the other launches thus far. The poems lived differently in my body—I felt overrun with emotion.
LT: I think that’s the necessity of in-person readings, to deliver and receive the work in a very specific time and setting. It honors the poems and the audience in the sense that no one else will have exactly the same experience.
LT: On a similar note, Hijito portrays and connects several violent events and reflects on the experience of raising children of color in their wake. What do you think the role of the poet is in writing about violence? What responsibilities do they hold?
CAG: I’m not sure I can speak to what other poets role or responsibility is, but I know for me the creative work is, inherently, rooted in the obsessions and anxieties I face in my personal life. I wrote this book right now because it’s the book I had to write. Put differently, I spend every day terrified that our society’s systems and institutions are trying to take control of and harm my wife, my kids, and an extended network of people I both know and love and know nothing directly about. Inextricable from that terror is my own complicity with what drives that structural-perpetuated trauma: white supremacy, toxic masculinity, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other dehumanizing, entrenched paradigms of thinking. So, for me, the reckonings of my artistic practice are inevitably an extension of my personal reckonings, which is both me holding up things to the light that I think others should confront, but also, as a means, always, of me putting a mirror to myself.
LT: I think that really captures this collection’s complexity in how it both lays clearly the need for accountability on behalf of violent systems and institutions, while also being honest about the varying levels of complicity we all have in those systems. It reminds me of the poem “Edge of the Dance Floor,” where you reflect on the way boys and men are indoctrinated into sexism and aggression, as well as your fear of hearing your newborn child would be a boy. You note, “We were told nothing / was off-limits. A shy kid / in oversized jeans un- // snapped the bra of the fresh- / man just within reach. None of us survived / that night.” What was writing this poem like for you? Where did it begin?
CAG: Wow, yes. This poem was inspired by these “all ages” dance nights I used to go to in Providence, Rhode Island, at a nightclub called Bootleggers when I was 15 years old. Reflecting back on those experiences now, I think of that dance floor as a metaphor for that indoctrination, perhaps a kind of fault line: between boyhood and the one dimensional “manhood” I’d be trained to be beholden to.
Of course, there was more complexity there than just horror and violence, but there was so much about the prescribed roles of inhabiting that space (in a male-identified body) that demanded a participation in violence, to some degree. I think about those moments often. My friends that night all made fun of me because I would walk up to girls and put my hand out and ask if they wanted to dance. The poem begins with a kind of instruction or turning point with this older girl (she was 17 to my 15) in which she instructed me on how to approach a girl, without asking or seeking permission. There’s a lot to unpack there.
LT: Definitely. It’s a poem that makes no effort to make decisive claims or statements—it presents this complicated night and uses it to reflect on our public and inherently flawed understanding of masculinity.
Speaking of which, for the last two years in October you’ve collaborated with rapper KYLE and singer John Legend for National Bullying Prevention Month, presenting at high schools across the country. How do you engage young people in conversations about toxic masculinity, and what have you learned from those conversations?
CAG: Much like my poems, I use stories from my life as a catalyst to engage young people about toxic or restrictive ideas of masculinity. As I often say, it’s easy for someone to disagree with an opinion, but when you tell a story it disarms and pulls in an audience like nothing else.
I’ve found that young men, in particular, are desperate to have these conversations (but, too often, don’t know where or who to have them with), so it’s frequently like the dam being broken when I stand in a room in front of them and talk about being sensitive and pressured to be a person I’m not.
LT: I hear that. I work for a domestic violence agency, and when we have conversations with freshman health classes, they’re separated on the gender binary. There’s a lot of resistance when we talk to the classes with all young men, but I think after that resistance is a hunger to talk about this often neglected topic.
You have experience in many different types of media—from poetry to non-fiction to playwrighting to acting—but it seems like your central focus on inclusive masculinity remains the same. How do these different mediums change the way you interact with these themes?
CAG: I love the distinct opportunities made possible by each artistic medium, which is why I’m forever resistant to being pigeon-holed to one creative genre. For example, there are opportunities for connection in a solo theatrical piece in front of a live audience that are impossible when all you have is the page. I would argue that both enable a kind of dramatic staging but one demands choreography, an emotional timeline, and presentness in the body, while the other offers lineation and the way the words are laid out on the page as the venue.
LT: One poem that sticks out to me from this collection is “There Are Two Unanswered Voice Mails from You,” which opens with this really sweet image of “a white sparrow, trapped inside the heated chamber / of Terminal 3 in O’Hare, zipped past ceiling vents no one / usually sees.” I think this sparrow is a great example of how you’re able to still locate tenderness when writing about painful topics and stories. What moments or memories of tenderness have you been holding on to lately?
CAG: My kids prevent me from ever disconnecting from tenderness. Each day I spend with them brings an abundance of tender moments: rubbing my daughter’s back as she falls asleep, reading my son his favorite book, braiding my daughter’s hair before school, getting my son dressed.
LT: I’m glad you get to have those moments with your children, especially because so many moments in the collection have to do with your anticipation of their birth. You have poems like “Black Hair,” where you’re practicing how you’ll braid your daughter’s hair, and now you find moments of solace in the actual doing of it. In your interview with PoetKind Podcast, you mentioned that most of the poems in this collection were written while you and your partner were trying to conceive. Now that your children are older, has it changed the way that you view any of these poems?
CAG: Both of my books were written on the precipice of a big life shift: with my memoir, it was getting married, and with Hijito, it was becoming a father. I would say that the relentless and otherworldly demands of parenthood make it harder for me think outward and globally (as many of these poems do) in the same way because the pragmatics of each day as a parent are just so all-consuming.
This is not to say I’m not thinking about extrajudicial police violence or overlooked horrors being done in my name in some far-off place every day, it’s just that I might have a dirty diaper in one hand, while my daughter tries to swing and somersault off my other hand. There’s just a lot happening, moment-to-moment, these days, which would/will make for a very different kind of next book. I appreciate what this book is doing, but the perspective of the speaker, in many of the poems, now feels foreign.
LT: That’s really interesting to me that your children have been the reason for you looking outwardly and grappling with these societal issues, and they’ve also been the reason for you keeping you focused on the more immediate moment with all the demanding aspects of parenthood. It seems as though they’ve been a catalyst in offering you both telescopic and microscopic perspectives.
CAG: That’s a profound and brilliant synthesis. Spot on.
LT: Following that idea of perspective, your poem “Father” reflects on the difficulty of maintaining faith in the face of widespread suffering. You note, “I asked her about drought and famine and endless / civil wars–what lessons does His book / refuse?” Do you see your poetic practice and spiritual practice connected in any way?
CAG: I definitely see the two connected. My dear friend, and brilliant sage/writer, Angel Nafis, said it best (and I’m paraphrasing badly here, but the essence is hopefully there—forgive me, folks!), in which she connects the precision of naming/language to the divine. Much of my writing is trying to precisely render in language that which has either been buried in silence, misnamed, or has remained unnamed. The kind of catharsis and affirmation I know I feel when a writer is able to construct language toward something that seemed impossible to capture feels to me like a kind of manifestation of God.
LT: I love that. To engage in creation—the creation of new language, new ideas, new images—is a spiritual act, and also one that’s politically resistant in the face of so much destruction elsewhere.
CAG: I believe that.
LT: The poem “What Happened” to me feels like the emotional anchor of the book, and it does the difficult work of portraying a traumatic event while also reflecting on what small details could have changed its course. There’s a line that says, “We remember the story / we commit to. Then, we tell / ourselves it happened.” Towards the end of the poem, you also use erasure to withhold specific details. In poems where you’re intentionally playing with truth and memory, how do you decide what details are malleable and which ones are essential to the story you’re sharing?
CAG: The question for me with “What Happened” was: how do you process a traumatic experience for which your only reference is incomplete fragments? Of course, the way the poem unfolds is trying to get to the greater truths of that horrific incident (which is about so much beyond the factual details), but, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t give a unified, sequential chronology of the events from that night (which is a common phenomenon with memory associated with trauma).
I’m always thinking about the greater truths at play. A writer could seemingly dictate the factual unfolding of a series of events and completely evade the truth. Conversely, I’ve seen writers tell more truth through fantasy or fiction than journalistic or other non-fiction writing. One honors the sacred responsibilities of the writer toward a greater, more uncompromising and complex truth (the latter), while the other hides behind “the facts” (the former).
LT: I love your distinction there between the truth and the facts, and the idea that we sometimes neglect the emotional, real, lived experience of the truth for the sake of appealing to the facts, which is implied when someone asks (of anything) “What happened?”
Carlos, thank you so much for taking the time to talk more about your new book, Hijito. On a lighter note to close our interview: what are you curious about lately? What’s feeding your imagination?
CAG: I’m really curious right now about ways to trouble and blur the line between genres. I have so many cherished homies and amigxs who are already doing this and refusing to be contained within a particular creative medium, and it’s something I’m so energized about the possibilities of. In what ways can I continue to make it hard for people to describe what I do? And then for them to relay what that experience was like as the audience member of my work?
Note: the title of this conversation was taken from the poem “What Happened.”