Talking with Tammy Gomez
If you ask, Tammy Gomez will tell you she works with words. Others have called her an activist and multimedia artist, and to that I'll add punk rocker. Many of her poems center around distaff struggle (A woman who survives is a walking journal of her woes), love (do you trip on inhaling my lips? am I your alice in wonderfuland), and injustice (I read how Burt made her hurt/multiple blows on multiple nights). And if you hear Tammy Gomez read, once, you can't help but to hear her voice deliver the sentences as you read them later, alone.
Gomez, who grew up in Fort Worth, graduated in 1985 from Goucher College, a women's liberal arts college outside Baltimore, Maryland, where she received a B.A. in psychology and pre-legal studies, and began her poetic journey. That path would include a summer spent at the Naropa Institute (otherwise known as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) in Boulder, Colorado, where she produced a six-month film/video series, The Other Screen, profiling artists, and as writer for the Nokoa: The Observer, covering social issues that included the Women's Action Coalition. By 1994, Gomez was established enough back in Texas to earn the Chronicle's "Best of Austin" poll's "Best In-Your-Face Poet (in Two Languages, No Less)."
Tammy Gomez is currently recording with her band La Palabra, and hopes to join the Honor the Earth tour with them next summer -- a tour that was designed to raise awareness about what is occurring on the reservations, the standard of life, environmental issues, and spirituality. ("It's my heretofore undisclosed fantasy," she charmingly confesses.) Gomez is also actively trying to get more of her work into the classroom at all levels of education. When she's not working on the team that produces the women's magazine show Notes From a Broad on the locally funded station KOOP 91.7 FM, Gomez can be found performing -- solo and with her band -- at such wildly varied venues around Austin as art galleries, the Victory Grill, Resistenca Bookstore, and the recent Texas Observer benefit.
As we talked one night at Kerbey Lane Cafe, Tammy Gomez said more than a few things that stayed with me long after she departed. One of those thoughts was the idea of poets and respect, about which she said that she wanted for herself and other poets "to be listened to more and not to be regarded as pop artists with mile-a-minute, pop culture rhetoric, but with wise thoughts, with impressions from what life is really like for us." In the arena of spoken word, where Sandra Bernhard is mirrored more than Sandra Cisneros, Tammy Gomez, at 34 years old, has stood out and found a place to speak, and many are listening.
The following is but a portion of our conversation, because if you have seen Gomez read or heard her perform with her band, La Palabara, you will know she always has more to say. As a friend of Gomez's once described one of her poems, she is like coffee without the cup.
Austin Chronicle: Do you think all of your poems are meant to be read aloud?
Tammy Gomez: The poetry I perform certainly I feel it gets sent off better to do its work, if it's performed, than if I put it in a book. I'm kind of a dotty, overprotective mother. I just want to make sure that my kid gets respected. There's a quality of using your voice that cannot be captured on paper. AC: When did you first say, `I'm a poet'? TG: When I was full past the age of 25.
AC: Why 25?
TG: I had to be silent for a long time. I had to learn how to use my voice in a way that I would not be ignored or interrupted or have my words be undermined. The way to earn that stature, that place, is to know what the fuck you really mean and what you believe, and put that down and put only that down. Don't put trash down. Don't put `maybe I feel this' or `yeah, I noticed this, I perceived this, and it kinda looked like this.' Don't hem and haw. Don't beat around the bush. Be precise and very exact, so that there is no denying that you hit the nail on the head. It took many years for me to come to that.
AC: Did you start writing poetry in college?
TG: Not until after college. [During college] I was reading voraciously and listening to a lot of punk -- a lot of loud-mouthed people like Jello Biafra, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Ian MacKaye. I knew something was shaping and forming inside of me. As an adult, being humble and knowing that just because I experienced one thing, one time, didn't mean I was an expert on it. I had to be sure about the impressions I thought.
AC: What about local poets that really influence you?
TG: I have to think about that because I wouldn't want to leave out anyone who has made a deep impression on me. I would say that there is a handful, and not all are slam poets, and not all are academic poets, necessarily. It may be one or two pieces that strike me about one poet or maybe the way one uses her body that strikes me about another poet.
AC: What about images or lines that stick in your mind?
TG: I was really impressed when Alfred Huffstickler did this poem about a woman who had chemical poisoning, and I forgot how she got it. I think there is a scene, he describes, where she's lying in the bathtub and she's really resentful and angry. I thought he captured the woman's perspective very, very well. It's a very short piece and I want that poem. I need to have that poem. I don't feel that very often and I'm happy, elated when I do. David Jewell makes me laugh out right, out loud. He seems so unassuming in his manner. He's not pretentious. He also enjoys his work. I can tell. He enjoys reading his work a lot. There are people that give me chills when I hear them read, like Josie Mata and Ana Sisnett. When Genevieve Van Cleve does her abortion poem, tears well up in my eyes.
AC: Does success make you lose touch as a poet?
TG: Allen Ginsberg did it [maintained intimacy] when I saw him. He would walk with us. We walked from the Naropa Institute campus to the CU campus to watch some films. And he walked like we walked. And when you walk, and there are 30 people walking, you start talking to whomever is alongside of you. He was doing that. He wasn't separate, he was with us. He would sit in meditation with us. If he had seen you before, he would regard you. This guy is not behind gates or separated from us because of security guards. It's not like that in the poetry scene.
AC: You always seem to be involved in different mediums, like dance in the past, and now with a website and a multimedia project in the works, is that a conscious choice?
TG: Even though it's being done and being done well, I can't help but remember that I am a woman and a Latina. I can't name a lot of well-known and accomplished Latina dancers that are doing experimental or modern dance. I can't think of many others. Well, now I can because I'm learning about them, but Latina writers who will use expletives in their work... and say them a lot, loud, and not be shy or ashamed of it. I guess it's the punk in me still surfacing. In that, I want to bust down any doors. I don't want to be restrained or categorized to be any one kind of thing. On the Internet, I want to establish minority presence.
AC: How do you write a poem?
TG: There's a rhythm that surfaces. I walk a lot. I listen to a lot of music. So, things will come up as I'm walking around. Then, a phrase will somehow appear and I'll work on that and build from a phrase....
AC: Is it like a song where you get a melody first and then the words?
TG: Yeah... or sometimes they will be intertwined. The words and the melody will come at the same time. I will be struck by something --really annoying. I read a lot about prisoner rights. I feed myself constantly with information. I get pissed off and riled and frustrated and elated about all kinds of things. Later, after getting away, logging off and walking, I'll have a recurring phrase in my mind. It will be a complete phrase and melody and I build from that. I use my voice mail a lot to record things that I just thought up because the intonation and the phrasing is all part of the package. I have to hear my voice saying it.
AC: What are you working on now?
TG: A multimedia project called YoniVerse. I am going to be the artistic director/editor of this project. It will be an audio cassette compilation and a book. An anthology of work, by women that I pick from Austin -- between eight and 12 women. I am trying to get funding through the city.
AC: How would you describe the way you work with words?
TG: Outspoken, unrepentant attempts at showing truth.
Tammy Gomez, who received funding for YoniVerse from the city, will be featured poet of the Austin Poetry Ensemble reading Friday 27, 8:30pm at the Electric Lounge. Her website is at