In town for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
This year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, taking place from February 4-9, brings an impressive line-up of talent to Dubai. For more info on that, head here.
Among those flying in is Carlos Andrés Gómez, a Colombian-American poet from New York, who you can see live and in person on Friday, February 7. Gómez will be speaking about a range of topics, including masculinity, displacement, race, gender and violence, as covered in his best-selling poetry collection, Hijito, and his memoir, Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood. For details and tickets, go here.
We asked him a few questions to find out more:
Your website actually describes you as a “poet, speaker, actor, author”. Which is the most important to you?
Before anything else, I was a poet. Martín Espada visited my school when I was 17 and had a profound impact on me. He read from his collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread, and that experience completely altered the trajectory of my life. The power of words has never been in doubt for me since that day: a single hour of poems transformed my life.
A recent success for you is Hijito. Why do you think it did so well?
I think any artist hopes their work is received well and by as many people as possible, but the process of putting any project out there is so vulnerable. I spent three years on this poetry collection, and feel very grateful that my graduate school mentors were able to give me the kind of rigorous and thoughtful feedback these poems required. Without that feedback, from people like C Dale Young, Sandra Lim and Rodney Jones, this book would not have been possible. Ultimately, I didn’t expect the book to win awards or be a bestseller, I just wanted as many people as possible to encounter it. Everything in this book is so personal, and I think (I hope) that the readers sense how high the stakes were for me when writing. People right now seem hungry for writing that’s relevant to both their personal and political lives.
What kind of subjects did you cover?
My book is primarily reckoning with what it means to raise black children in America right now. Of course, that demands that I interrogate who I am, the identities I hold, and the ways I was raised to think about the world and my role in it. A lot of the poems are narrative-oriented, so there are a lot of stories from my life. But I find that my lived experiences are often catalysts for what I write, even if the specific work I generate doesn’t explicitly invoke a personal narrative. I’m often driven by that visceral feeling in my gut, as a writer, where I think, “I just have to write something down.”
What would be your advice for writing poetry?
I recommend two things: start with reading poetry that profoundly resonates with you, whether that be to fill you with electricity or deep feeling, and then write what feels most urgent. I remember when I first started writing poems in high school, it was like the flood gates opening – all of these poems seemed to pour out of me. It was important that I allowed myself the permission of following those initial impulses and explorations. The worst thing to do, in my opinion, when starting out, is to have an overly prescribed or structured approach to the work. There’s then the risk of abandoning poetry well before you have the chance to fall in love with it.
You also wrote Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood. What was that about?
Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood is a memoir that I wrote that was published by Penguin Random House in 2012. I would say it’s a coming-of-age memoir in which I track my journey reckoning with restrictive notions of masculinity – from the tender-hearted and sensitive six-year-old version of me, to an emotionally-detached caricature of machismo, to a struggling partner on the verge of marriage. A lot of the messaging I grew up with related to masculinity was very damaging – it prohibited so many vital dimensions of who I am (being nurturing, emotionally literate, sensitive, collaborative) and asked me to be destructive and violent. This book is my invitation for readers to call into question and interrogate what lessons they were told that a guy should be. More than anything else, it’s my manifesto championing each of us to be our most authentic and best selves, wherever on the gender continuum we reside.
You’re also working with John Legend and KYLE on Senior Orientation. Tell us about that.
Senior Orientation is all about encouraging high school seniors to take a leadership role in their school communities, and be positive role models and mentors in promoting inclusive masculinity among their younger peers. The oldest students have the most power in defining and shaping a school’s culture, so we want to challenge them to do it in a way that celebrates individuality and authenticity. That kind of school culture is an antidote to one that condones bullying and exclusion. There’s a lot of research that connects adherence to traditional and restrictive notions of masculinity to negative outcomes related to mental health, violence, economics, and much more. Perhaps the clearest and most concise example of some recent evidence-based research that lays all of this out is Promundo’s The Man Box study.
You seem to challenge preconceived ideas and stereotypes a lot.
A lot of my work is asking the reader or listener to think more deeply and complexly about the world. I think part of healing the intense division in the world begins with each of us really recognising the multi-dimensional humanity of those around us. A vital step in that process is an outright rejection of the preconceptions and stereotypes that so many media outlets either implicitly or blatantly reinforce. I hope my work stirs people deep in their gut and perhaps inspires them to ask a question or interrogate something they hadn’t yet reckoned with.
What will you be bringing to Dubai?
Any festival I attend, I hope I can entertain and inspire the audience in equal measure. I want my work to move people, but I also just want to have as much fun as possible. Ultimately, any festival is a big celebration, right? So let’s celebrate. I hope that anyone who comes to see me feels inspired to think and feel more deeply. I hope I can give them some kind of kinetic charge for their day or week ahead.
Have you been to the city before?
I visited Dubai on my way to a festival in Sri Lanka, the Galle Literary Festival, a couple of years ago. I was blown away by the city and the generosity of the people I met. I’m returning with an open mind and heart, and looking forward to an incredible week.
What’s next for you?
I’m finishing a new poetry collection and heading off on tour.
Are there any more acting jobs on the horizon? You had a role in Spike Lee’s Inside Man…
Spike is an incredible filmmaker and human being. He’s a director who really champions his actors and gives them the space to take risks and try things out. I have a few things in the works, but nothing I can talk about right now.