Real Rhymes: An Interview with Carlos Andrés Gómez

Carlos Andrés Gómez started out as a social worker in Harlem and the Bronx. Wanting to connect with people and express the complexity of his work, he began performing spoken word. His talent for writing real, intense, and unmincing prose and his passionate performances earned him a spot on the celebrated Def Poetry Jam, and a role in the Spike Lee movie Inside Man. Since then Carlos has been travelling and sharing his work with others, opening up the minds and hearts of people from all walks of life.

S|M: Carlos, you’ve worked as a social worker and you’ve seen a lot of really difficult situations. Yet you’ve continued to do this community building and outreach work over all these years. How do you stay focused and in touch with what’s going on, while not becoming completely disillusioned or losing your energy? Any advice you can give here?

C: I’ve been a social worker in Central Harlem and the Bronx and worked in public schools in Philly and New York, and I still volunteer at Riker’s Island with young people, and the number one thing for me is staying in the moment. I know it sounds really simple, but I think really being in the moment – the way I’m here right now, and not anywhere else but here being interviewed.   And I try to capture that in all areas of my life.

S|M: Pretty hard to do sometimes!

C: Sure, and you know what it is though? It’s just practice – I’m living my life like I’m just here. That may seem really silly, but it’s as simple as that. I know that there will always be more work to be done. And the work that you’re talking about will never finish, and it will never be finished, and that’s understood. You never hit a point where you say, “Phew, we’re finished with that! I guess that’s taken care of!”. You know what I mean? You can finish a project, but not this. I think just really being where you are and being in the moment and appreciating every moment for what it is, is advocating for your health and for your sanity. Making happiness key was important to doing that, and setting really good boundaries, and that was tough for me. When I was in college, forget about it, I set the worst boundaries. I think I was not an advocate for my sanity and my health for a lot of my life, and it’s just one of those things where you have to say, “You know what?” I’m going to give all of this to whatever project, or community work that I’m doing from this time to that time, and when I’m off the clock I’m going to sit, and then my girlfriend and I are going to cook a meal from scratch and then we’re going to listen to music, and then have a glass of wine and breathe the spring air and listen to the rain and remember that we’re happy to be alive and just be human beings”. That’s very simple, and maybe sort of new-agey, but that to me was a huge key. That as well as keeping things in perspective and being very aware of the big picture.

I do shows all the time and the flights will be cancelled and the flights will get delayed and that shows me that these things are out of my control. I can get stressed about it or I can just say, “you know what, there’s a greater plan in the universe and I’m at peace with it”. I think doing a lot of work for advocating for my health and sanity by being present and being happy – it sounds very simple, but I think even making that a priority – to be happy, is a huge huge key for me to not feel disillusioned. There were points where I was so burnt out by that work and disillusioned and down, and that was the key to stop that. Another key is that I’m able to be creative in my life, staying creative and having your mind always be pondering and working through, grappling with things through the creative process, for me that’s a very healing process too.

S|M: That creative energy can be really healing.

C: Right, and connecting to people too. To me, art that matters is about breaking through, and I mean breaking through towards a connection. Tearing through whatever is keeping us aloof, keeping us apart, keeping us divided, keeping us fragmented or whatever it might be and I think there’s nothing that’s more thrilling to me than that. Partly what’s so thrilling about performing in a room full of people is that you can’t predict what’s going to happen. To me there’s such magic in that, because you pull on this energy and all the life experiences in the room, and you just never know what might happen. That’s a really beautiful thing. Through those connections that I made as an artist, I think that’s what reaffirms why I love people. There’s the same human impulses that underlie the guy I’m reading a poem to at Riker’s Island at seventeen, who’s going to spend the next ten years behind bars, and reading to a twenty two year old college student.

S|M: So for you it comes down to the human connection.

C: I was working as a social worker and going to crack houses with prostitutes and drug-dealers and really contentious situations and really heartbreaking situations in a lot of cases, and the stakes were literally people’s lives. Issues of medication and housing or food, their status with the parole board were all factors determining their lives. Three weeks later I became a full-time artist, and I sort of stumbled into that when I got cast into the Spike Lee movie “Inside Man”. In three weeks I went from handing condoms out in a crack house to doing a read through with Denzel Washington, which sounds cool, but it was also a very scary, drastic shift, that’s kind of hard to prepare for.

That was my license or my free pass to make that transition I had a bit of a buffer because I got to go from being a social worker to making a film over the summer.

S|M: Was it  a weird reality check too – going from keeping people alive to acting with Denzel Washington?

C: I think I was trying to keep people present and give them hope, and it was just scary to see how drastic different reality can be for people. One thing I always say is that my greatest teacher, in terms of being a performer, is that while I’m performing I never forget that there are people in the direst circumstances, including the clients that I had who were addicted to heroin and were sexually exploited. For acting and performing and everything else it helps me to think of those people, because I think of their courage. And I realize that all I’m doing is going out there in front of an audience, so I better be brave (laughs).

S|M: Seems like it would make it easier to put yourself out there completely, and allow yourself to go to that vulnerable place.

C: Absolutely, I try to dig pretty deep when I’m up there.

S|M: Let’s talk a bit about Def Poetry Jam. What was that experience like?

C: Having a TV show allows for different considerations – you have a camera crew, you have a certain time limit to do things, and if you’re out of that time limit, then you’re edited out of the show (laughs). A really cool thing about Def Poetry Jam is that it made spoken word accessible to much a broader audience. You have people in the audience who might not have been that much into poetry, but they’re starting to now explore it because they saw it on HBO, or another channel. I think ultimately, that’s the bigger picture. It’s kind of a weird phenomenon, because there are always different audiences.  Tonight, I’m doing a show at Wilfrid Laurier University. I’ve done a few shows there before and I can feel that it’s going to be this amazing courageous beautiful open vibrant collection of people in the room that are ready to dance. But in that room a lot of times you also kind of have to woo and coax (the audience), and a lot of times you might have people who are not very familiar with your work or who may not be huge poetry fans, but they want to see a show. And that’s a cool challenge too, but it’s a bit of a different process.

S|M: Part of watching Def Poetry Jam is that it’s really raw and it really gets down to it. Is that something you have to prepare yourself for, or do you find yourself preparing for the transition from the possible expectations of one kind of audience to another’s?

C: I think there are subtle cultural differences between different types of audiences. A Canadian audience for example is very thoughtful and full of great listeners. It’s a cultural thing, because when I first came here I thought, “wow, they’re so quiet and pensive” (laughs). It absolutely does not mean that in a big crowd when I perform in the Apollo or when I perform in a big city and they are very vocal, and the audience is clapping and stomping and they’re calling out and everything, that doesn’t mean that the audience that’s more quiet and more reticent is feeling any less strongly or deeply about what’s happening. I think it is fun to have a really ruckus loud crowd, but it’s refreshing to have a pensive thoughtful crowd. Both are joyful in their own way.

S|M: Last question. You have an album coming out – what can you tell us about that?

C: It’s called Vitruvious and it’s a collection of all my new live material, recorded from shows over the last couple of years – all in New York, with twenty new poems on there. People ask me, “What is Vitruvious? What does that mean?” And it’s actually inspired by that really famous sketch by Leonard da Vinci, the vitruivian man sketch? A lot of my work talks about Manhood or addresses issues of Masculinity and I think that image is a really powerful sort of symbol and metaphor about how we as men always try to measure up. That’s a huge thing – manning up, or measuring up to something, there’s always this push to be “man enough” or “macho”, and then looking at how restraining that is and how limiting it can be., and hurtful and damaging to us and to people we care about or people we don’t even know. The whole album is looking through the lens of masculinity and musing on the things that I’ve grappled with throughout my life. In that you can address a wide range of stuff: love, racism, spirituality, relationships, emotionally literacy amongst men. There’s also a lot of hot recording on that, and some really amazing captured moments from shows. A snapshot is always an approximation, but this is really fun exciting stuff from shows that really puts you in the room.  I only made 333 hard copies, and that comes from three being a symbolically masculine number. That’s kind of my reaction as well to everything in the world being so accessible that it’s starting to lose value. I don’t mean monetary value – I mean the value of an old cassette that your sister gave you that you never want to lose, and so out of the 333 copies about only 150 are left and when I run out that will be all.

S|M: There’s a lot of personal experience and thought going into that symbolism, but in the end you’ve created this work that’s meant to connect with others. How do you connect with people on Masculinity?

C: I find it strange, I began all of this work, and this inquiry into myself trying to find out what it means to be a good man, and how do we become good men if we don’t have good role models? The entire analysis and all the thoughts about this came out as a reaction against misogyny, and feeling tired of the ways that men have to relate to each other. It seems like women always have to always be a punch line, and even violence against women – whether it’s sexual, or dominance and objectification have to always be at the core of how men relate to each other. I was feeling tired of all of that, and I felt like I wanted to create a new narrative. I’m not going to wait for someone to create it, I’m going to write it. I feel like for whatever reason I can access a lot of men – and if I was openly gay, if I didn’t look like I do or had the experience that I’ve had I wouldn’t be able to connect with a lot of people. But I’m versatile in these ways. People look at me and think that I’m white, but my name is Carlos. A lot of people find ways to relate to me and connect. And often when I’m on stage, I think of myself at thirteen years old. Who did I want to see on a stage when I was thirteen? I think of that and I try to think about that thirteen year old me and giving him the most powerful, meaningful hour of his life. S|M

Watch Man Up here.


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