Social Justice Theories In Performance Poetry: Tammy Gómez, Literary Artist With an Attitude

By Kamala Platt
December 1994; Volume 1, Issue #4

Chicana performance poet, Tammy Gómez, acknowledges, respects, records and reports the weight of words. In an improvisation on a developing poem, which she and her band refer to as "The Latino Groove," she sends false words--"all those textbooks that misinformed"--back to the lands where the scribes of those textbook falsehoods originated. The implications of this are many and multifaceted. Her words reverse the journeys of Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadors, reroute the journey of the slave ships, and rewrite the European immigrant journey in order to historicize the relationship of the contemporary United States to its "multi-culturality." The performance of "The Latino Groove" extends its figurative language into the more immediate and contemporary zone of Conceptual Art. Gómez's words are more than an observation - "words weigh down the lives of the misinformed"; rather, they offer a proposal - "take the ships built for a rather dubious 'celebration'--the 1992 Quincentenary-- and use them to reject and turn around the lies that have been built up over the last 500 years." Gómez carefully weighs her words and then she speaks, shouts, sings them in the name of justicia.

In a recent interview at the Cactus Cafe, Gómez said that she finds herself in a unique position because she has been able to juggle performances in several different venues. Sometimes she is invited to read poetry because what she does is "literary". Sometimes she performs in "loud smoke-filled bars" where she is "a literary artist with an attitude that is entertaining, raucous and doesn't respect boundaries." At Emo's, for example, the crowd responds to "the language I use, the attitude I flaunt when I'm on stage." The third outlet for her work is political since she is seen as a grassroots organizer, a social critic, and a community activist. "When I am asked to perform on that level I am more of an educator and journalist--a street journalist, not so much of an entertainer, not so much in your face because it's fun and cool--like MTV; so I'm straddling different areas and my material reflects that I feel like I have many roles and it sometimes gets complicated and I don't feel as free as someone who writes only one type of thing--not that that's mundane." Speaking about her development as a performance poet here in Austin over the last two years, Gómez said, "I started at Resistencia with Raúl Salinas; he embraced me and supported my performance at his bookstore." As she remembers her performance at Resistencia bookstore, "I didn't know anyone or anything. I just went down and read what I'd written. That's still the place where I'm truly myself."

At each of the venues there is a continuity to Tammy's readings. "I'm always pushing the boundaries, but I'm always very sensitive to the audience," she said. Perhaps, her many selves demand the astuteness with which she attends to her audience. Her performance encourages audience engagement in several ways. I observed this at a performance with her band Piso on Earth at La Peña's October 14 reception for the exhibit entitled, Artistas en América: Immigrantes, Residentes, Ciudadanos, Viajeros, Indígenas,... at the Dougherty Art Center. As one member of the audience observed afterward, the music of her band provided a means to hear the politics in the poetry "on a different level than listening to a lecture." Tammy's interaction with the band punctuates her poetry. The tunes and words mingle and stay with one afterward. When the music stops, its absence effectively underscores the mood of the poetry. The presentation of her poetry leaves room for a diverse audience to participate emotionally and respond with their own political critique. Thus, Gómez is not only a social critic but through her art she also provokes her audience into making a social analysis of its own. For instance, at the beginning of the poem "Black Hole" she relates a common experience that establishes the audience's relationship to the poet: "lost keys to house." The following line, "lost roommate to justice system" is a jarring juxtaposition. Some of the audience may wonder "could it happen to people in my life?;" for others, the experience of the poet parallels their own. Those more directly affected by the justice system may become engaged in a reverse manner-- the poem starts out mundanely enough--"Lost my keys..." The next line though, underscores the symbolism of the key as a means to maintaining basic civil rights and puts the poet on the front lines of support behind those who have been "lost to the justice system." Regardless of their response, each member of the audience may think of discriminations that the justice system has perpetrated. A coalition of those inside and outside imprisonment who fight for justice in the "real," not the legal, sense of the word is formed in Tammy's word play between "Justice" and "Just us."

As social poet/educator, Gómez makes her audience accountable for the information and emotions they receive; she demands that people examine their own feelings and relationships; she guides them in exposing positions of weakness against dysfunctional systems of government, corporations, family, and the self; and she doesn't stop at identifying victimization. For example, when she was asked to perform at The Breast Cancer Epidemic and Nuclear Radiation: Action for the Environment Conference, Tammy decided to create a performance art piece that juxtaposed falsies--the falsies that women wear to meet a fashion "ideal"-- and the lies that deny the relationships between industrial toxins and breast cancer. Thus, she embodies a pedagogical acuity for which the writers and teachers of the infamous textbooks can never hope. She names struggles and engages them by condemning structural violence and confronting its personal ramifications as it is played out in dysfunctional or abusive relationships.

Her poetry addresses a broad range of personal relationship issues; often the poems voice regrets about breaks in communication. However, in narrating the remorse, Gómez carries herself and her audience beyond feeling bad; regret is brought into focus by juxtaposing it with the part of the relationship that the poet celebrates with affection, admiration, or intimate anger. In her love poems Tammy articulates a rare combination of voices that is both predominately heterosexual and radical. Her love poems are political in that they assert a female voice that actively defines her sex life; she denies stereotypes against women and, in particular, the stereotypes against Latinas. In poems such as "Lap the lap," and "Toothpaste" Gómez is defiantly pushing the boundaries of convention (read patriarchy). These poems disengage unconscious as well as blatant male dominance.

Women's gender issues are often at the heart of Tammy's concerns; her portrayal of such issues often involves a hidden but complex analysis, as in "Period Piece" which compares menstruation to art. When Tammy mentioned this poem I replied that I'd recently been infuriated to find that there were no working tampon machines in any of the public restrooms in the Perry Castañeda Library. Tammy told me that my discovery had historical precedence: in 1986, she noticed that the preponderance of broken "Sanitary Products" machines on campus not only created inconvenience but it also indicated the same lack of respect, albeit on a different level, that is implicit in covering up the link between breast cancer and nuclear radiation.

Tammy takes risks when she pushes the boundaries of social taboos; she takes risks when she disengages euphemisms and chooses to name disease, dishonor and disrespect. She related experiences of being criticized for "the profanity" in her poetry, criticism that focussed concern over individual words. On one occasion when Tammy read the word "bitch" in a poem that addressed domestic violence there were objections. Such a situation can perhaps be constructively read as a case of misplaced aggression on the part of the audience, who in being angered by the situation portrayed, turns instead on the poet. When the poet evokes such a situation, she confronts us with its existence. In such a situation the responsibility of response has been passed from poet to audience. That bond of trust needs to be respected.

Tammy Gómez gives generously through her performance poetry. Her work deserves our thoughtful response. Whether Tammy is speaking about women, about Latino/as or other people of color, about youth, about the economically or otherwise socially disenfranchised, she is speaking out. She weighs her words, balances their many meanings, shifts their weight to fit her message, and then, gauging her audience, throws their weight around. As she described it to me, "At Resistencia or the Grassroots Peace Building the poem continues to live, the message continues to live, the people have been inspired and they want copies to take back to their group or local publication; it continues to have a life. It goes on. Not because I'm a poet or really hip or really dynamic but because the message draws accord and that message is going to go out."

Kamala Platt is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Texas at Austin.