Poets Laureate Across Massachusetts
A note from the interviewer, Alice Kociemba
Poetry has a natural kinship with music, story telling, and theater, as Magdalena Gómez, Poet Laureate of Springfield keenly appreciates. In this second spotlight on the Commonwealth’s local poets laureate’s initiatives, Magdalena describes some of her innovative programming, even during a pandemic, which creates strong ties between generations and between expressive arts. Each local poet laureate has a unique take on being an ambassador for poetry, all the while using the universal language of poetry to foster community.
Here is Magdalena Gómez’s take on the challenges and pleasures she experiences as Springfield’s Poet Laureate.
Meet Magdalena Gómez, Springfield’s Poet Laureate
When did your city or town decide to establish a poet laureate position? Is there a length of time the poet laureate serves?
The first Poet Laureate of Springfield (2014-2016) was the brilliant poet, educator and polyglot, María Luisa Arroyo, who has shown a consistent commitment to the sharing, teaching and performance of poetry throughout our city, region, and nationally long before she was nominated.
Following María Luisa’s two-year tenure, there was a lapse in selection of a new Poet Laureate. As city officials became more aware of the importance of the Poet Laureate’s role as an ambassador of poetry for our the city, some of our elected officials and community leaders took steps in supporting a Poet Laureate Ordinance.
I was appointed and will serve a two-year term (2019 – 2021). In addition, Springfield will establish a Youth Poet Laureate to serve beside the next Poet Laureate. For me, poetry exemplifies the democratization of arts across class and all identities because of its inherent accessibility as a written, spoken and performed art form. Poetry is aligned with storytelling and is as universal as the drum. These beliefs are evident in programs I developed that benefit the City. In 2007, I began Teatro V!da the first Latinx identified theater in the history of the City, and our intergenerational poetry program, Ign!te the M!c.
What was the selection process like? (Who was involved, who made the decision?)
Currently, the City Council receives nominations from the poetry and arts community, and then recommends a candidate to the Mayor. My vision is to expand the process to include different and diverse intergenerational panelists who are not only knowledgeable about poetry, but will reflect on how the Poet Laureate will best represent our city within and beyond the region.
Did the city/town have requirements and goals for the position? If so, how do they reflect your own priorities and initiatives?
The requirements include, but are not limited to, providing public poetry readings; encouraging poetry appreciation within the City and composing and publishing poems.
What events have you organized, physically or virtually?
My love of performing poetry and producing live poetry performances has been put on pause by the pandemic. On March 18th, 2020, I made a decision to begin a poetry podcast for the City, Jazz Ready: 15 Minutes (more or less) of Unexpected Pleasure. I refused to stop sharing my love of poetry and found a new way to do so. To date, there are 167 episodes, with listeners from 51 countries and 42 States. 34% of our U.S. listeners are from Springfield, MA; we also have numerous listeners throughout the State. Jazz Ready highlights poetry from diverse writers; I also feature artists who inspire poetry and whose work is inherently poetic, such as musicians; singer songwriters; and theater artists. There is poetry to be found in all of the arts; aural and oral literacies are as important as reading. Jazz Ready artists span the spectrum from Academy Award winning composer, Derek Bermel, to hip-hop poet Nejma Nefertiti, and poet Jacquelyn Grant Brown. One of our episodes features Marian Woodstock, an Alpaca farmer from the English countryside sharing story and poetic folksongs. I feature local, national and international artists of diverse backgrounds, ages at all different points of their creative paths.
Encouraging the appreciation, writing and performing of poetry has been a constant and activated priority in my life since I was a high school student. As a community elder of Springfield, I have trained a collective of young people to work inter-generationally. Since 2009, and continuing until the pandemic, the young people I have trained have hosted, produced, directed and performed at our open mics. We began with an initiative at the Springfield City Library. After we moved the monthly event to the Bing Arts Center, Teatro V!da became their Theater-in-Residence.
The training progressed to the point where youth learned all aspects of production; planning; organizing; hosting; budgeting; stage management; sound; and audience building. Every detail was attended to, from the sweeping of the sidewalk to post-performance debrief and preparing the venue for those who would be using it next. Sustainability had begun to show itself. They are all eager to return once it is possible and safe.
Poetry for public performance has been at the foundation of all my work in the community since I moved here in 1999. As a regular writer for the Springfield based news magazine, An African American Point of View for well over a decade, I have published youth poets, for many of whom it was their first publishing credit as well as interviews with legendary poets and other artists, which most recently includes, Pulitzer Prize nominee, Cornelius Eady.
Have you written occasional poems for your city or town?
I’ve had the opportunity to create new poems for Springfield and present them virtually for the 30th Puerto Rican Parade in Springfield viewed online and on our local NBC/CW television network, channel 22, and for the Roots/Raíces Latinx Art Exhibit, at the Art for the Soul Gallery. I shared the poetry of under-recognized poets on the New England Public Radio (now Media) show, Tertulia. Just prior to the pandemic pause, I was a recurring guest on the Springfield-based bilingual radio program, Ecos del Ritmo on WTCC 90.7 FM radio hosted by Marco Dermith, where I shared the work of Latinx poets as well as my original work.
Just prior to the pandemic, I wrote and performed a poem for the opening of a new library in Springfield’s East Forest Park Neighborhood. Link here to that reading: https://youtu.be/z0zMeOoR0q4
Among the national poets laureate, which initiative have you most admired?
Our current National Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, is someone I have long admired and have brought her poems into classrooms for decades. I recall being disappointed and angry that too few knew of her in the towns, cities and schools where I worked in Massachusetts. This was emblematic of the BIPOC erasure from curriculums, and the tokenism of highlighting poets who had received their imprimatur from the white establishment. When I was asked by poet, professor and scholar, Dr. Elise Young to recommend poets for the 2003 Poets Creating Peace Zones conference I recommended Harjo. Thrilled by Harjo’s acceptance to attend, I invited those I knew would bring her back into their classrooms. We also invited, Nuyorican vanguard poet, Sandra María Esteves. When Dr. Priscilla Page, of U Mass Amherst, met Harjo, they collaborated as co-editors on Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light: A Play and A Circle of Responses with US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Wesleyan Press, 2019).
What do you think poetry can do in the civic sphere?
The power of poetry to heal the deepest of wounds and to activate social change, inspired by human connection is something I have learned throughout my life. I have facilitated the creation and performance of poetry in schools (from pre-school through post-graduate), in prisons, monasteries, church basements, coffee houses, hospitals, bars, in public parks, theaters, in home salons, on radio and television. I have experienced the power of poetry, not only with “the choir,” but also with those who felt they simply didn’t “understand” poetry. Cultivating a love for poetry is deeply connected to creating networks of reciprocity, where engagement with poetry means that everyone is welcomed, valued, respected and fed.
At our open mics, there is always a way to break bread together, even if all we can offer is a bowl of tangerines. It is the act of passing that bowl, of looking into each other’s eyes as we do it; of sharing delight in the fragrance as we break open the skin that feeds our souls.
Throughout my years in Springfield, I have been very intentional in my outreach for events I have produced, making it clear that all people would be welcomed, and as a result saw our audiences reach across class, race, ethnicities, age and sexual identities/orientations. In creating theater works rooted in poetry performed to music, with diverse musicians and performers, our audiences have continued to grow in diversity and trust of sharing public space together.
One of the mentors of my youth, poet, Emilie Glen remains one of the most under-recognized, most widely publish poets in the U.S. I became a poet in her open to the public living room salons, first in NYC’s Lower East Side and then in her fifth floor walk-up at 77 Barrow Street in NYC’s Greenwich Village. She always served lemonade and cookies, or whatever she could afford on that particular day. Her door and her love were open to all, friend and stranger alike.
Poetry is magic when people know it belongs to them. They can create it, appreciate it, share it, perform it, give it as a gift. When we sit together in a room or virtually, in front of a radio or a podcast, the intimacy of poetry read aloud, and all that inspires its creation, makes us more connected to each other, more deeply human, more alive.
An award-winning Boricua-Gitana performance poet, playwright and performer, Magdalena Gómez is Springfield’s Poet Laureate (2019-2021). She is the recipient of the Latina Letters Award in Literature at Fordham University and New England Public Radio’s Arts and Humanities Award. Pregones/PRTT; Washington, D.C.’s Gala Theater; Los Angeles Theater Company; Smith College; and the Latina Letters Conference (TX) have produced her poems, monologues, lyrics and plays Off-Broadway in New York City. In response to the March 2020 pandemic, Ms. Gómez curates Jazz Ready: 15 Minutes (More or Less) of Unexpected Pleasure. In addition to her poetry collection, Shameless Woman (Red Sugarcane Press, NYC), she is co-editor, with María Luisa Arroyo, of the first intergenerational, multi-genre, multicultural anthology on Bullying, Bullying: Replies, Rebuttals, Confessions and Catharsis, (Skyhorse Publishing, NYC).
Magdalena Gómez welcomes submissions of poetry recordings for her global podcast, Jazz Ready: 15 Minutes (more or less) of Unexpected Pleasure. If you would like to be featured, you may reach out to her for submission guidelines at [email protected] with Jazz Ready in subject line. Link to podcast: https://anchor.fm/magdalena-gomez
Learn more about her work: www.magdalenagomez.com and on Instagram @amaxonica
Alice Kociemba is the Founding Director of Calliope Poetry for Community. She is co-editor of From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry, which will be published by Bass River Press (an imprint of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod) in 2021. In 2015 and 2016, Alice guest edited Common Threads, the poetry discussion project of Mass Poetry. She is the author of the poetry collection, Bourne Bridge (Turning Point, 2016).