Last week, in the Queque and online in Curblog, the Current reported on two recent instances, one at the San Pedro Playhouse and one at community literary organization Gemini Ink, in which City arts funding was given as a reason to shut down an audience Q&A and reject a writing workshop because they contained overt political content. You can read why those decisions were at best uninformed and at worst disingenuous, at sacurrent.com, but in this week’s MashUp, poet, teacher, and Native American activist Margo Tamez discusses her proposal for the poetry workshop that Gemini Ink declined to schedule. Tamez, a Lipan Apache who has been active along with her mother in fighting the U.S.-Mexico border wall (read about it at murodelodio.com), calls the wall “a representation of everything good poetry should be against.”
When `Gemini Ink` first invited you to do the class, what did you have in mind?
I hadn’t really given very much thought to what I would do because in the back of my mind I just always assumed that I would do what I usually do. ... And San Antonio is the perfect place to do what I do, which is focus on Native American family issues, self-determination, sovereignty, liberation, emancipation — you know, addressing oppression and that sort of thing — because San Antonio is kind of one of the main hubs of empire against Indian people. And then in the current time, of course, I thought, oh, this is perfect, because all these different actions going down among our people, all of these different resistance movements, resurgences actually, of Apache people in Texas. It’s very exciting right now, and has been for the last five, 10 years, ever since — prior to — the murder of my relative, Esequiel Hernandez, and ever since then Texas has been a huge concentration spot for Apache resurgence movements, cultural movements, spiritual movements, activism to reclaim our territories and to interrogate those systems of power in Texas and the United States, and Mexico even, that have oppressed us for so long.
When I spoke with Rosemary Catacalos from Gemini Ink about it, one of the things she said was, well, the way the course description was worded it was not an invitation to people who don’t think the same way. Did you envision it that way?
Not at all. ... I feel like what my work is about is not to accommodate generalizations. I’m a very specific person, and people who know my work know I’m like that. I’m here to do a certain thing in the world. I’ve been called upon by my ancestors, my people, to do very specific kind of work. I looked at their workshop descriptions and was, frankly, a little bit disappointed because I thought that knowing some of the poets who’ve gone through their halls that they seem to be kind of generalizing a lot of people’s very important work. And I saw a few of them that actually mentioned the word war or poetry of witness, but not anything anchored in anything specific. I think that that’s a disservice to the public because the public wants to know. I mean if I’m gonna shell out $150 or $200 for a workshop, I want to know, well, how does it really pertain to me? ...
Poetry to me that is really significant and meaningful, and making people think and making people move and feel something in their hearts, is automatically most likely political, and it’s true. And we live in a time when every aspect of our social lives is political.
In the emails from Gemini Ink they said, well, we’re concerned because it’s political it could jeopardize our City arts funding. Has that ever come up as an issue before?
Never. It was never even raised from their soliciting of me to come and do a workshop that they had any prior concern or that they were framing all of their workshop experiences around particular guidelines. And if that was a concern, if they knew my work already, which is a question I have for them — there was a point at which I emailed the director of that program and asked her, have you ever read my work?
And did she respond?
She didn’t answer it directly. She kind of went around it and went back to well, we have some issues with our funders, and they have certain kinds of guidelines and criteria, but she never really answered that question, which sort of made me feel a little bit cautious, because I thought, certainly, with a program such as theirs — and they’ve had a lot of experiences with different kinds of poets and poets of color; poetry represents different kinds of communities, and poetry is anchored in community — that certainly I couldn’t possibly be the very first person that did anything that was challenging institutions and institutional power. So I just thought, well, this can’t really be what’s going down here.
But as we kind of went through it, and they wanted me to be real specific that number one, this was in fact a poetry workshop, and I’m like, well, of course it is, but I don’t necessarily need to put in my workshop description “poetry,” because it’s just an assumption that it is a poetry workshop, and people who know my work, and people who don’t know my work, don’t need to worry about it because I don’t think of poetry as just one kind of thing. And I think that they in their responses to me were really trying to narrow it down to a specific kind of poetic expression. And that really was troubling to me because as a teacher in a college environment, and a teacher in Native communities, I know that poetry in books is only a micro expression of what poetry is actually happening in the real world. •