Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Colombian American poet, author, actor, and speaker. He is the recipient the 2018 Broken River Prize, selected by Eduardo C. Corral, for his new collection of poems, Hijito (Platypus Press 2019). Winner of the Atlanta Review Poetry Prize, Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, the Fischer National Poetry Prize, and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, among others, Gomez’s writing has been published widely, in the New England Review, The Yale Review, Beloit Journal, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Gomez holds a BA in history from the University of Pennsylvania an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in New York City.
One of P&L’s editors, Jenny Lara, conducted this interview.
Jenny Lara: Growing up, your family traveled all over the world; as a child you lived in several different countries. The poems in this collection turn such an unflinching gaze upon identity and the social indoctrinations of identity—who we are, and who we are taught we must be—and the reverberations of these ingrained beliefs. How did this early exposure to different ways of being—in different societies, cultures, communities—influence your work as a poet writing about justice, vulnerability, and identity?
Carlos Andrés Gómez: Moving a lot as a kid had a profound impact on how I process and move through the world. Beyond all else, it taught me to listen and observe, whole-heartedly and to suspend my judgment as much as possible. Because I was always the new kid (having attended 12 schools before I graduated high school and living in four countries), I know intimately the feeling of being on the outside, socially and culturally. I think that alienation demanded that I complicate my notions of everyone around me, having experienced so many folks that would misinterpret my own methods of coping with isolation as something other than just trying to fit in or feel okay. In other words, my childhood was a string of intensely vulnerable encounters, often because of being left out and then confronting reductive and inaccurate assumptions about who I was. It’s impossible to internalize those experiences in your body and not think deeply about what is right and what is just; to not look around and notice who else is being left out or ignored and think about justice and equity on a larger scale.
JL: How did poetry first appear in your life?
CAG: Martín Espada came to my high school and read from his book Imagine the Angels of Bread, and that experience probably had the most transformative impact on my poetic journey. I’d been writing poems clandestinely on my own for months, since seeing the independent film Slam (with Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn), but it was Espada who brought to life the possibilities of what a poet could do standing in front of a room of people.
JL: I’m curious about the spiritual, religious, or philosophical background of your childhood. Can you describe a little of what this environment was like for you, growing up?
CAG: My dad was raised Roman Catholic and my mom Protestant, but we didn’t really go to church when I was growing up (I think we stopped when I was about eight years old). That being said, living abroad and attending international schools, I had close friends with very diverse and devout faith practices, and both of my parents I would characterize as quite spiritual and mindful people (even if they don’t claim a particular religious faith). Navigating a considerable amount of death, of friends and family members, in combination with my parents’ deeply spiritual sensibilities of the world, had a profound impact on how I thought about myself in relation to the world around me. I’ve always thought intensely about the greater connection points between us all and the ways in which each of us is serving something much larger than ourselves, whether we call ourselves Catholic or spiritual or whatever.
JL: You are a performer and a writer. How does one feed the other? Do you ever feel they are at odds? Do you see your work as poet and as performer always intertwined?
CAG: I operate in a lot of different artistic mediums, and, I’d say, each nurtures and informs the other, often in ways I don’t expect. For example, my acting work in film, and greater cinematic aesthetic impulses, certainly inform how I draw out many of the narratives in my poems. Much of my poetry is narrative in some way, and I’ve often been told that the stories feel “cinematic,” which makes sense considering my experiences with filmmaking.
JL: There is a sense of searching in this collection; of grief but also fierceness; a reckoning with violence and hope. An example, from “Father”: “I fumbled/ for any prayer/ I could remember, hoping/ that I had all along been/ mistaken/ about the hollow blackness/ of the infinite sky.” How do you write about reconciling the pain of lived experience with hope for what comes next?
CAG: I’m not sure I really think too much about trying to reconcile the pain of what I’ve survived or seen with a gesture towards hope in my writing. I don’t mean that to sound pessimistic but I’m more focused, in my creative process, in trying to reckon within the complex wreckage of a particular scene or concept, and invite the reader or audience member in to join me in that searching. To contrive a poem (or book for that matter) towards “hope” feels false to me. If it emerges organically in the midst of the reckoning, then so be it, but I’m weary of forcing that kind of formula into my creative process. I want to unflinchingly face whatever I’m interrogating, and be as precise and nuanced as I must, even if that means leading the reader towards an endpoint they might not expect or want.
JL: Tell us a little about your writing process. How does a future poem begin for you?
CAG: So many of my poems begin as obsessive reflections that refuse to be ignored or detours I stumble into while thinking I’m trying to write about something else. I find that when I give myself permission to surprise myself, and not worry too much about if a poem is “good” or not, that’s often when the most magical and resonant work emerges. I’m trying to be more methodical and disciplined in my writing process, while letting go of a lot of my own desires to manufacture that writing ritual in a particular way. There’s something really paradoxical about that, right? It’s like I need the structure and rigidity of keeping my pen moving, but once it begins populating that page with words, I need to release my desire for control and allow anything to be possible.