Distilling life to its essence: Poet Magdalena Gómez
by Tinky Weisblat
When Magdalena Gómez arrived in Massachusetts in 1989, fresh out of New York, she remembers her first experience of the area as “culture shock.”
Her first base in Western MA was Hadley and then Northampton. She immediately missed the arts, culture, and easy mobility of her home city.
In New York she had lived at the legendary Pen and Brush Club in Greenwich Village, which offered housing to women writers and artists.
“What a joy and privilege it was to live in that beautiful townhouse with other artists,” she recalls. “I was grandmothered in by the brilliant artist and innovative educator, Linda Rapuano, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity. The caretaker, the late Henry Buttfield, and I spent hours in the house kitchen drinking black coffee and listening to the magic of Muddy Waters and other blues greats spinning on Henry’s old player. Henry, an elder, was the heart of that place, where I thrived.”
But now Western Massachusetts. “There would be no more long talks in all night-diners, no Henry, no rooftop music parties. Nor would I have access to easily available public transportation; the arts; or diverse peoples, languages, cultures, and identities that enriched my life, constantly nurturing my soul and creativity,” she sighs.
She also missed the public gathering spaces that had housed and promoted artists in New York. And she longed to return to “life in a more diverse community.”
But not one to sit around and complain, Gómez decided to find ways to recreate the diverse arts and culture vibe she missed.
Such has been her impact that in 2019 this vibrant former-New Yorker was named Poet Laureate of the city of Springfield, among her many other achievements.
"For me the role of the poet is a very necessary one, particularly in communities that are denied equal access to funding, arts, health care, and educational opportunities that are taken for granted in more affluent communities. Poetry can be accessed and created by all and for all.”
Gómez, who is also a playwright and teacher says, “For me the role of the poet is a very necessary one, particularly in communities that are denied equal access to funding, arts, health care, and educational opportunities that are taken for granted in more affluent communities. Poetry can be accessed and created by all and for all. Poetry distills life to its essence and is a container for all of life’s events and all human emotions.”
During her early years in Massachusetts, she and her partner, Jim Lescault, decided to buy a home in Springfield. There Gómez found herself thriving once more.
“We soon turned our home into an arts salon with now legendary parties with friends and strangers alike,” she explains. “We had book signings, art showings, live music, teach-ins, and once had members of the Holyoke Steel Band performing in our driveway. The music was always so good that neighbors, who usually joined us, only complained when it stopped.”
Gómez grew up in New York City. Her father was Roma Spanish; her mother was Puerto Rican. “In my first 36 years in NYC, I straddled the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn,” she notes. “It’s the Bronx I still call home: first friends, first bicycle, first fist fight, first poems, first menstruation, first job, first love.”
Asked about her education, she demurs. “I am less interested in discussing the one I received than I am the one I continue to give myself,” she asserts. “My auto-didacticism began at a time when Kindergarten wasn’t mandatory; there was no ‘Head-Start’; and the lingering backwash of the Palmer Raids, along with McCarthyism, ensured that public schools, particularly in oppressed communities, were designed to build a compliant workforce, not critical thinkers, nor visionaries.
“What were called school bells were more like raging alarms that propelled us from one class to the next. We leapt from our seats with a simultaneous surge of relief and urgency. No time to think about the content of each class before sinking into the next. Rarely, if ever, did our teachers look or feel like us. We were often admonished for speaking our home language.”
“At the core of it all was the desire to bring people together in a very segregated city,” Gómez adds, “and we succeeded..."
Compliance and conformity are not words anyone would associate with Gómez. Despite the aridity of the early schooling she describes, she embraced words and books in her youth. She became bilingual in Spanish and English thanks to her polyglot father. She learned to love literature at the Hunts Point Library in the South Bronx and became a lifelong champion of libraries.
One of the things I love about Springfield is the libraries,” she enthuses. “Like community-access media stations, libraries are places where we can gather, create, imagine, and produce. They are the last bastions of the First Amendment and demand our support and protection at a time when democracy is under siege.”
In 2007, Gómez co-founded the first Latinx theater in Springfield, Teatro V!da. She describes the theater’s goal as “using arts for literacy and leadership, while nurturing critical thinking and cross-generational artistic collaboration.”
“At the core of it all was the desire to bring people together in a very segregated city,” Gómez adds, “and we succeeded. I’ll never forget seeing packed houses both at City Stage and the theater at the Springfield Museums.”
Teatro V!da eventually moved into the Bing Arts Center and under Gómez’s leadership initiated a monthly open-mic event, Ign!te the M!c, for young people between the ages of 15 and 25.
After spending over three decades creating venues and opportunities for others, here and across the country,” Gómez now says, “I decided to devote more time to my own creative work in poetry, playwriting, prose, and performance art. I still mentor youth and always will, continually finding creative ways to do so with or without funding.”
In addition to writing numerous poems, she has authored the book Shameless Woman (Red Sugarcane Press, 2014) and has co-edited Bullying: Replies, Rebuttals, Confessions, and Catharsis (Skyhorse, 2012) with Springfield’s first Poet Laureate, María Luisa Arroyo. The play Dancing in My Cockroach Killers, based on several of her poems, has been performed in California, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts, as well as off Broadway in New York.
“It is an art form of catharsis, intervention; a vessel to safely hold isolation, to express mental anguish, suffering, celebrations, observations, our relationship to Nature and each other. It can hold joy and despair simultaneously. It is prayer and praise, medicine and eulogy.”
In May, Heliotrope Books will publish Mi’ja, a book about her childhood that the publisher characterizes as a “memoir noir.” The book is part poetry and part prose; Gómez considers it a “lyrical narrative.” In many ways, it offers a frank description of an often difficult childhood. In other ways, the book hides as much as it reveals. Throughout the book, the reader senses a spirit that rebels, creates, and longs for love.
Gómez has received numerous awards. These include the Latina 50-Plus Award in Literature from Fordham University, the Massachusetts State House Latinx Excellence on the Hill Award, New England Public Media’s Arts and Humanities Award, and of course being named Poet Laureate of Springfield.
“Being a Poet Laureate is a great honor,” states Gómez, “but it is the experiences and relationships of my life that made me a poet. I am grateful for each and every one. I have learned and grown as much from insult as from love. The lessons are always there, when we dare to look.”
Magdalena Gómez is a passionate defender of her chosen profession. “Many have been saved by the pen,” she argues. “It is an art form of catharsis, intervention; a vessel to safely hold isolation, to express mental anguish, suffering, celebrations, observations, our relationship to Nature and each other. It can hold joy and despair simultaneously. It is prayer and praise, medicine and eulogy.”
PHOTO CREDITS: James Lescault, Teatro V!da, NEPR, and National Association of Latino Arts & Cultures (NALAC).