CREATIVE EXPRESSION: SPOKEN WORD POET
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARYL GETMAN
EDITORIAL CONTRIBUTION BY LUCINDA DENNEY
Some say that what makes architecture special is that it is one of a few forms of art that you can literally inhabit. Well, interviewing an expert spoken word poet is similarly immersive. “I’m constantly thrown in these situations where, you know, I just say to myself, ‘If I wasn’t supposed to be alive right now, would I be this nervous?’” That is how Carlos Andres Gomez begins to respond to a question about where he draws his confidence from. “I don’t know if the word is confidence…there is a certain abandon that I live with…My aunt died by suicide, my uncle died in a car accident, another uncle was murdered…Throughout my adolescence, I thought, ‘I’m probably not going to live to 30, so everything I do; I have to do with this absolute abandon,’” he adds. Carlos is intense. And joyful. And eloquent. And present.
We meet by a bench in Brooklyn’s scenic Promenade. It’s a cloudy day but our initial mood is chirpy. We settle down on a bench and immediately launch into Carlos’ role in Spike Lee’s Inside Man (the heist movie starring Denzel, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster). “The genesis of that entire experience was basically I had a date and my date stood me up,” Carlos starts. After being stood up, he accepted an invitation to fill in at a show at the iconic Nuyorican Poets Café. As he was about to begin his spoken word set, Carlos noticed someone getting up to leave, “I called her out and I was like ‘You’re leaving already?’ and then she crouched down while I performed,” he says. As it turned out, the woman that Carlos singled out was the acclaimed casting director, Kim Coleman. “I finished my performance and she was like, ‘Let’s call that guy in.’”
“She called me in for a one-line part. It was basically like, ‘Do you have tickets to the game tonight?’ Just a one-line part,” Carlos says. Kim was impressed enough with his reading of that line that she asked him to read for a longer role in the film. “She gave me a few pages and was like, ‘Take a half hour, you know, work on it, come back in.’ I was late for an appointment…so I scanned over it for about 3 or 4 minutes and knocked on the door,” he adds. After this second reading, Kim asked him if he had ever acted before. “I said, ‘No,’” Carlos says smiling. A few weeks later, he would be auditioning in front of Spike Lee. We know how that turned out.
Carlos relishes serendipity and prefers that his artistry not be boxed-in, “I have always been open to the organic currents of life,” he says. “I’ve been an artist for a long time and I’ve always been an artist that doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed…I don’t want to be, sort of, limited to one genre or one medium… We live in a world where people really want to… What do we call you? How do we name you? You know, what umbrella label can we put you under? I just want to live a life that is driven by…my most urgent passions and convictions. And whatever medium can most, I guess, express those most genuinely, and most authentically, and most vulnerably,” he says.
He describes an itinerant childhood that was characterized by frequent relocation due to his dad’s job with the United Nations. “I was constantly an outsider…growing up. I went to 12 schools. …I lived in 4 different countries, I was constantly juggling a lot of different languages,” Carlos says. “Being the kid that had no friends to play with…I was constantly watching; I was always sort of observing. And I think that observing prepared me well for what I meant to be as an artist because I think an artist has to be such a ruthlessly attentive listener and watcher… so much of art is about sort of casting a light on the things that are forgotten, and the things that are silenced, and the things that are minimized, or overlooked, or brushed aside,” he adds.
Mistakes happen. And as a live performer, Carlos has developed a perspective on them over the years. “I think we live life so often where we want to not make mistakes, and not fail, and not mess up, and I think I’m a cluster of mistakes. Constantly,” he says. “I had this great director for my solo play, Tamilla Woodard, one of the great gurus of my life… One thing that Tamilla would say to me, she would say that with any show you can save the show until the last word you utter. She was like, ‘You could have been not present. You could have been struggling to find your place in the room, but if you have one authentic moment on the last breath, …that’s the moment they’ll leave with, and the rest will not matter. And I constantly think about that,’” he adds.
The solo play that Carlos worked on shows a deep commitment to his craft. “It was a really, really demanding play. It was 75 minutes. It was really emotionally exhausting and intense. Really vulnerable… I did it 35 consecutive nights in Scotland and for 12 of those I had the flu… One show they actually marked that they weren’t having the show…so not one person came, and I did half of the show for the sound guy, and then he left, and then I did it for no one,” Carlos says. Hold on. He did an entire show to an empty auditorium? “On principle. Because I said I was going to do it every night, so I did it that night,” he adds.
Where are you from? is Carlos’ spoken word poem that went viral with millions of viewers around the world. It is a moving piece about identity, belonging, and the way in which society attempts to label us with general tags. “I thought it was a pretty good performance,” Carlos says, as he recalls the piece. “There’s a huge flaw in that performance. A huge one that unfortunately…a bunch of press picked…up when it went viral. They actually quoted that line and it makes absolutely no sense the way they quoted it…” His eyes begin to shift as he gets more animated, “It goes…‘The question, where are you from, in our current America, is a slur disguised as a question mark.’ …I say ‘as a question mark,’ and it’s supposed to be ‘with a question mark,’ of course, because ‘as a question mark’ makes no sense!” he adds laughing.
“But here’s the thing, the emotional authenticity, and the kinetic energy of that room were more important than that flaw, so that’s a metaphor right there. The fact that there was a part of me that was so invested in the moment that I didn’t realize I’d made that mistake,” Carlos says. “Another thing that Tamilla used to say is that, ‘It’s about apprehension: what you understand in your body. Not comprehension: what you understand with your intellect and with your mind.’ And to me, with art, the apprehension is a lot more important than the comprehension. So…the fact that…there was integrity to the emotional exchange that happened there…the actual technical dimensions of what I said became somewhat of a moot point,” he adds.
So, what is Carlos’ approach to resonating with his audience? Does he have a specific objective going in? “I have very simple goals now when I walk into a room. And the poems are a rough roadmap. I want to create an experience, is the whole idea, right? So I think the thing for me, my goals are to be as genuine as possible, have as much fun as possible, be as spontaneous as possible, and be as truthful as possible. And I had this belief that I’ve seen…bear out in a lot of different rooms. Where I think that if you’re super candid, and genuine, and really spontaneous, I think it’s hard for a room not to want to come along for the ride,” he says. “I mean, people are people…when you tell a scathing truth, people start to scoff, they’re like ‘What!?’, people smile, people get uncomfortable, people want to get up to leave but then they can’t leave,” Carlos adds.
“I want to destabilize the room…and so I never ask myself, ‘What does the room want?’, because I’ve done enough rooms where I can usually figure out what the room wants. But it’s, ‘What does the room need?’ And a lot of times what they need might be something that might cause half the room to stand up and leave. What the room needs might be something that makes them get completely silent and really uncomfortable. What they need might make them hate you, and curse you out,” he says. Carlos recalls a time when what the room needed didn’t quite match with what the room wanted. “I was in the Bible Belt and I started talking about same sex marriage and the whole audience got up and walked out of the show. Like 200 people got up and left,” he says. “There were like 3 people left so I kept going.”
Carlos Andres Gomez is on a mission to raise our collective consciousness and speaks about it like it is a calling. “You want to create an experience. You want people to think and feel deeply. You want people to reconsider their place in the world, and everything they thought they knew,” he says. “If I can do that, that’s kind of the whole point…even in rooms that I know are very antagonistic to a lot of my beliefs on the world and a lot of my values. I can find a way to be subversive, and sort of charming, and sort of surprising enough that they’ll stay for the whole show. And so a lot of times I use a lot of different techniques to keep them in the room, a lot of times my shows are a constant game of pushing someone over the edge, and then pulling them a little bit back. I’ve found…that when someone likes you, or when someone is like, ‘Oh I love this guy,’ it’s really hard to abandon that stance. And so I use that,” Carlos says.
“I think when I’m in a room doing a live performance and I’m watching these moments happen I have no doubt that I’m fulfilling the reason that I was meant to be here. …As much as I love writing, and I do adore writing, and I think writing is part of my purpose, but I think my most divine purpose is what I’m able to do in a room,” he says. “…To get in front of a room of people I’ve never met before, I may never see again, and create, you know, a space that enables intimacy, and vulnerability, and authenticity, and catharsis. …When I think of the artist that moved me the most…whether it’s like Otis Redding or Richard Pryor…it was an insult to call what they were doing by the medium… Like you can’t call what Richard Pryor did comedy! You know what I’m saying? You can’t say Otis Redding was just singing. …People will literally come to me and ask, ‘What is it that you did?’ and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s called. Just like, be here.’”
By spending countless hours refining his craft, Carlos believes that he is now able to access a deeper level of artistry that allows him to be more fully present. “You’re not trying anymore… So now, all the miraculous gifts of the moment that you’re in can actually be invited into the room. Whereas, before, you were so staunchly trying to manufacture something that you were ignoring, like this beautiful grandmother just walked by, and she was so cute, you know, like reminds me of my grandmother. She’s like 110, and look how well she’s doing!”
“Or, I was reading a poem, about my grandmother, speaking of my grandmother, and I had this line where I was like ‘My grandmother is the ripest hallelujah,’ and it was 40 minutes into the show. There was this 8 or 9 month old baby in the back. Had not said a word for 40 minutes, and I said ‘My grandmother is the ripest hallelujah,’ and the baby goes like ‘ahhhhhhhhh’ and starts squealing, and tears start streaming down my face… Forget religious or spiritual beliefs, that was my grandmother. You know what I’m saying!! I blew a kiss to her, and then I ended the poem right there. That’s being open to the moment.”
Carlos concludes with what being an artist means to him. “If you want to be an artist…You’re signing up for thousands of rooms where there’s not one person there. Where it’s raining, or you have the flu, and you don’t feel well. Or you’re in a totally stiff room in Corpus Christi, Texas, with a woman standing up and saying gender inequity is a myth, and telling you to shut the fuck up in front of 400 people. This is what you sign up for. This is the deal,” he says. He describes some successes such as performing in the White House while his mother was present, but then goes back to the art. “You have to care about this so deeply that you would do this if it made no money. That’s the whole thing, right? If you earned all the money in the world or no money in the world, you would still be committed to this – and that’s one thing I know. I would always want to perform and write, be a writer or a performer, no matter what happens in this world I would want to do that.”
“I feel a tremendous sense of fulfilment in my life. But I just remain open to whatever might happen. So, my…rules are: live without limitation, live in awe of the world that you live in, overwhelmed with gratitude, and let’s see what comes next.”
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