A Dialogue: Jennifer Tamayo and Cornelia Barber

Cornelia Barber and Jennifer Tamayo

Jennifer Tamayo’s poetry is full of movement and vulnerability. It is not ‘about’ the relationship to patriarchy, or to being an immigrant and a woman of color. It is not ‘about’ working through her family history. It ‘is’ all that—words inseparable from life; experience embodied, breathing out words. When I left Harlem after sharing a delicious home cooked dinner I found myself comforted and inspired by JT to do my own artistic, emotional and social work. Just so there is no confusion, this incredibly honest conversation is not a form of catharsis or a pass. It is a call for all of us to do the work. It is not anyone else’s job to remind us of where our ignorance, privilege, and self-riotousness block us and blind us from seeing the truth about ourselves. JT is a poet who fearlessly confronts her ugliest, scariest inner recesses, and her work demands that the rest of us do the same. —Cornelia Barber

CB: Okay, let’s talk about performance. What’s your performance background? How do you incorporate performance into poetry, maybe it’s not exactly incorporation but something else, what is that process for you?

JT: So, it’s hard to think about when it started or how it originated. I have to say performance has been part of my life as an artist from the very beginning. I have been dancing since I was really young, I did theater all throughout high school and college, it’s just like been part of who I am. At some point when I got really interested in poetry there was something like ‘why isn’t this (performance) more present in the way that poets present themselves?’ because to me it didn’t really seem any different, because to me I’m a body in front of other bodies and that is something to be taken advantage of.

CB: When was that? When was the move to poetry?

JT: The move to poetry? Umm was my senior year of college.

CB: Ok.

JT: And I was like it’s time to be less practical.

CB: Haha. Why?

JT: Because I had been so practical for four years. I was doing Pre-Law and thinking about human development, you know, things that are gonna get me a job, until my last semester of college when I was like let’s do all the things I actually want to do. I’m gonna take a visual art class, a sculpture class, a poetry class, these are the things I actually want to do, just to see what it was like and then it was like ‘oh shit I just wasted all my time, like I just wasted the last three years here in college. I should’ve been doing something I loved cause this feels like what your life is supposed to be like.’ So that was like two months before graduating. I was like ‘shit I just paid all this money and did it all wrong.’ I was at U. Chicago. The workshop model at that point still felt like a really organic place to think and talk about work. So, then after that I was like ‘ok I’ll give it one more shot to go and try to do the practical things. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t have access before that. I read, but it wasn’t poetry. So then in terms of performance where I went to school at LSU I just got lucky that both my program and then the school I went to had a performance studies program from the nineties, eighties at the height of performance studies when people were going wild, and so I had professors who taught at the height of that. It was very nurturing.

CB: That is so cool.

JT: The program was just really special. Then it got weird because my generative process of writing became totally connected to performing. So I perform and then I write into the performance. By ‘write into’ I mean I respond to the performance with poetry. Now I can’t write poetry without performing. Out of a poem will come an idea for a performance the night before and then another poem. I can’t see them as separate.

CB: Just as a side note: What was the choice of law and are there any remnants of that that come up for you in your work now?

JT: I’m not first generation ’cause I was not born in the states, but when we came to America ‘success will be defined by our children being doctors and lawyers. You seem to like to talk a lot and argue so you will become a lawyer.’ So that is sort of a part of the imagination of being a young immigrant person. That is what success was gonna look like for me and why indulging in performing arts or written arts or poetry was like, ‘maybe this is a thing I’ll try in my last year, just to see.’ After college I went to work for an immigration law firm, and that influenced a ton of work that I still do now. This book (YOU DA ONE[1]) and [Red Missed Aches] very much have a feeling of thinking about the migrant body and how it is to be an immigrant in the States. A lot of anxiety came from the realities of what it feels like to navigate this ridiculous system of forms and paper and bureaucracy that whether you want it to be part of your body or not you’re like necessarily part of it because these are the systems put in front of you. I think about that time of life for other people a lot, in this way where people’s livelihoods depend a lot on one or two people making precarious decisions for them, including myself. I remember having all this responsibility filling out these forms and just being like ‘this is not how it works, this is not right, I’m 21 just out of college, why am I doing an asylum affidavit?’ But the system is fucked up and so of course that’s how it works.

CB: There is something I really admire about your work which is that, in my own head I have this binary between the political body and the language body, if you want to call it that—

JT: And what does the language body do?

CB: I think of the language body as poetry itself and what comes out of the words, tones and motivations that a writer puts into that language. Not just the symbols, but how a writer got to them. So I think about them separately. A poem can be ‘about’ a social or political body or not, but it is still always ‘about’ it. But I find in your work you access a balance that is not binary. It’s the same thing. I’m wondering about that, and I’m thinking of ‘ENGLUUUUSH’ a phrase from YOU DA ONE, and a lot of the word play that you do that incorporates broken English, and exchanging different signifiers changing the meanings of phrases, how that creates a body that is both social and language based. 

JT: It’s strange I never saw it like that. I don’t even imagine it as separate. They don’t exist that way for me and it’s partly I think—if you had ever asked me you know what are you working in, what body? I would always say the language body, for sure, ‘that’s the only one I’m in.’ And then maybe after you or somebody else would interrogate that, it would be like, ‘no the political body that’s the one I’m more engaged in.’ The two are so intertwined to me. ‘ENGLUUUUSH’ is really strange, the way you’re describing it. I think it was connected to the language body and like this gushing of language that flows through me and how I constantly think English is a thing in my mouth. I feel very separate to it, English. It doesn’t come to me easily. I don’t feel comfortable in any language. I think that is where the word play and the homophonic shifts come in. Something that happened very early on in my poetry life; I would miss-spell something or write something incorrectly, there is no way I could get out of my body the fact that this is not my native language. No matter how many degrees away you get your body will never forget. At first I would try to stifle it, ‘I will fix that word, I will fix that word’,’ there was a strong desire to fix and tame this thing that was part of me, and then my mentors were like this is not a thing you tame, this is a thing you cultivate. Even if it makes you uncomfortable because it might come across as she doesn’t know how to spell or you might emphasize this broken language that isn’t broken, this is English too. You know? As if English were ever stable, that purity of the English language also felt really shitty.

CB: Or like a performance, a negative performance?

JT: Yeah, a negative performance, umm so it became this thing that instead of seeing it as a marker for my difference or a marker as the way my language was failing, it was the opposite. You rupture it. Be the thing that makes your voice, your voice. Suddenly that became so freeing as a poet. To have somebody say ‘stop trying to fix it and instead, dig into it, go more deeply’ and out of that came a poetry that felt a lot more alive to me.

CB: So you’re from Colombia originally?

JT: I was born there and then we immigrated here when I was like 4, then crossed over into Mexico, then we went to Puerto Rico. We’re true migrants.

CB: That’s interesting because when I think of your work there is like this intense intimacy, and I’ve never thought of it before, but in my head right now I’m thinking of intimacy in terms of space. Your home is so lovely, and there is such a feeling of love here. The home is always where love (and therefore trauma) can come from, and in your work as well, and I’m wondering if there is a relationship between migrating and making a kind of home, making an intimacy within that migration…what’s the relationship there, is there one?

JT: I think it’s like I feel very homeless and not connected to a home in the full sense of a home, in the full sense of like ‘this is where I’m from.’ I don’t feel Colombian. I certainly don’t feel American. I would never say I’m Puerto Rican even though I spent most of my formative years there. That sense of homelessness brings a need for the tiny creative space I make for myself. Like that space will bring a compensation to that homelessness.

CB: Do you feel like you write through that relationship between intimacy and migration?

JT: Definitely through intimacy. I feel very comfortable writing very personally and it is because I don’t know what it is…it’s about trying to create a very intimate space for myself I’m not worried about sharing, but it’s also because there is a transience of documents, things will come and go. When you’re an immigrant there are certain kinds of documents that will exist forever, and the more important documents fade away more quickly: photos, letters things like that don’t exist in your life because of how your life has shaped out to be. There is a tension there. On the one hand the book I write is for right now, and if I share it with everybody then nobody will forget, and on the other there is this moment of I can share intimacy and everyone will forget anyway cause nothing will last forever. So there is a relationship with documentation that’s very complex. This book will be for right now and forgotten. In that way it relates to the transience of the migrant.

CB: That transience also reflects the greater transience of just humans and our time on earth and the way we actually live and the way that western culture certainly tries to avoid, forget and alleviate the pain of getting to know that transience.

JT: Yeah. And the pain of transience is like, I don’t maybe…maybe to feel the pain of transience is also to have had the pleasure of constancy.

CB: Attachment.

JT: Attachment. So if you don’t have that…transience just becomes…

CB: Or…It is…? (As in transience does not become but rather is.)

JT: It’s so fucked up saying it, like ‘fuck attachments I don’t have any,’ but hearing you say that, it’s like the pain of transience? What is that? It’s true. If you have community and a sense of connection to something else then you do experience loss or something…as we talk about it, it’s like, maybe a lot of the work is about a desire for connection or attachment that I know is not present because of this migratory condition happening.

CB: When you were talking before I got this really vivid image in my head of a legal, certified document, some really long, you have to fill it out for six hours, someone else has to help you, it’s this really intense bureaucratic document. Then rupturing out of that is like scribble and shapes and shit and your face—and they’re not sitting next to one another, they’re layered on top of each other and that is in you, where migration and intimacy, law and poetry are connected.

JT: I get that. Yeah. I like the idea of images coming to your mind.

CB: (Laughter and shyness) It’s interesting this is really becoming an origin story.

JT: Yeah, I know. Can’t help it.

CB: Is that okay?

JT: Yeah, no it is.

CB: Okay. So in that realm, there’s a deep connection to your mother or the mother figure. She is always fighting the father figure, the patriarch, the one your voice is also fighting against, but there is also this sense of deep love and connection to her and I’m wondering about not necessarily your relationship with your mother as much as that figure in the book and how she functions.

JT: [Red Missed Aches] was a book for my mother, about my mother. Using a lot of her narrative as a way of thinking about not so much motherhood, but a way of thinking about being a daughter, which is always positioned against something else and it’s never central, like daughters are present and certainly have their own weight to how they exist in books and poems, but I wanted the daughter to be central really and the mother sort of orbiting around it. So [Red Missed Aches] is like my mother book, my mom book, and then YOU DA ONE is like the father book. So I see them as coexisting. She is definitely—I’m trying to think of moments where she exists in the book and I can’t even think of any…

CB: Well you repeat in italics the word temperamental

JT: That’s right. It was like ‘this will be documenting this huge fucking challenge I have in front of me as a real person. There is no way I’m gonna get through this huge challenge without writing a fucking book or doing something creative because otherwise I’m going to go into a puddle of nothing because I feel so intimidated by this moment that is supposed to be so grandiose and important.’ It was like existing parallel to my life as a way to help my life. I could imagine this tyrant daughter who was gonna be able to bear pain and not take any shit and experience any fantasy I wanted while I, ‘I’ had to live my regular life that had to respond to people in ways that were patient, and human, and loving.

CB: But coming out of maybe the stuff we were talking about before of achieving some aliveness that some other kind of writing doesn’t? 

JT: Yeah. I felt really cool about being able to write the book because I felt as a person I wasn’t gonna be given space to feel a type of wholeness, or fullness, so the mother in the book plays a secondary role 1) because there was a book already about her and then 2) because she is like this ghost bridge to this world of Colombia and my father, and in many ways I thought I was going to Colombia for myself, to rekindle something lost, but in many ways I was going to Colombia to satisfy this like intense guilt my mother had over taking me away and pulling me way from my family and native land and the responsibility she felt like ‘I created these conditions for this person and now I am guilty,’ and so she exists in that way. The temperamental part is fucked up, that’s what my father said to me and I remember feeling this wave of disgust and anger, and recognition at the same time. In some ways I wanted to protect her from this thing that like I think she sees in herself and recognizes in me. Talking about not just my specific mom, but…

CB: The Oedipal mother…

JT: Yeah the Oedipal mother…

CB: And maybe the Oedipal father…

JT: Yeah I think I see the Oedipal father way more present. Um. I find her this strong presence in the book but also she’s like in the roots of the book, but not in the dirt.

CB: I totally felt you when you said ‘ghost’ at first.  Like she’s holding space for you to have a lot of this discourse in the first place, and I think she is doing work. In those places you use her to reach out of the poetry into more of the meta-narrative of you the author and that grandiose experience you’re describing as being a daughter.

JT: Yeah I think she definitely does work. My mother is also the most important person in my life. I don’t think there will ever be a text where she doesn’t exist. Her narrative feels imbued with the politics I want to think about, in terms of her as an immigrant, a single mother, woman of color. It feels very important to me to narrate her story, to survive my mother’s story. To discuss it is survival. To tell my mother’s story is radical, and I have become very close to it. To not have it be erased the way so many other stories are erased.

CB: Especially female and WOC. 

JT: I’m thinking about women in Texas with their babies right now being detained. And I’m thinking, ‘that was me and my mother.’ And to write about it and keep it present is not just my responsibility it is reality.

CB: So what about ‘Daddy?’ And maybe even not so much about him because even though he is what you’re fighting and working through maybe he’s not the most important voice.

JT: Yeah, he’s not the most important daddy. He’s not the most important daddy. Um… Yeah I think it’s hard to separate… the real daddy and the daddy, daddy… haha… way more so… this is some high concept shit right here… mommy mommy are a lot easier to separate because one is a figure I understand deeply, and one is an energy I understand… daddy and daddy are very connected because one of them I don’t understand, so I’ve had to imagine daddy. And consider him this force and energy in my life that’s been playing out. There was a different desire to undermine daddy or the patriarchy within this book, and it was having this daughter who was not gonna play into this traditional role where one was being overpowered by the other, so it felt very pleasurable for me to play that out in a book, even if my real daddy was a placeholder for that. That’s kind of weird to say. Weird to think how he might think about that; being a placeholder, but that’s what it is.

CB: Maybe this is my own projection of both patriarchy and my personal experience with my dad, but for me, because of your fight and because of the desire to not play into the usual ‘daughter’ role, there is this possession there, like there is already this possession of your own body and blood and self and sexuality that comes from him sort of no matter what the relationship is that we are bound to. It starts in the blood. And that is patriarchy. That is the relationship of men and women in society. I myself am trying to work through that possession, what does that mean and what is my willingness as a woman to participate in being possessed where even fighting it is a form of accepting it? Something like that… there are lots of paradoxes that come up… do you resonate with that?

JT: I think…I don’t read the book like that, but it resonates with me personally. I love that this book gets read outside of my body, outside of me documenting this moment. It gets read in ways that are much more dynamic than ways in which I could possibly read it because I am so attached. But I see that possession and I see that defiance and I feel I should have felt more liberated by it, but instead I felt more contained by it or dominated by it.

CB: Ugh I’m so glad you say that. It’s comforting to hear that.

JT: Because what did I play out here? The imaginary dad could only force an imaginary daughter, and those two things exist next to each other and there was no way to get out of that. No matter how much I forced it, if I was rebelling or like responding to anything there was still always the idea of the good daughter. It was a reaction to him.

CB: Is there any guilt in that or like self-hate thing that comes with that?

JT: I can’t say no. And I can’t say yes. If there are places in my life that feel free it’s in my writing. And that feels entitled and privileged. But it is a no judgment space. But also part of the reason for saying that is that I was writing this for my family in Colombia, and it was so pleasurable to write to an audience where you can say everything and people will watch you say it, but the people intended to hear it will never actually hear it. I feel most fucked up about that. I was able to scream in the air all the things I felt without the repercussions of someone being like why did you say this?

CB: Yeah.

JT: And so if there is any shame or guilt it is around that. I knew going into it that it would never be received by the audience it’s written for. The shame of good daughter and playing into these suffocating feminine roles; I know those exist inside of me so I’m done feeling shame about them. No. I’m not done. I understand I’m feeling shame about them. It’s a constant dance. You were saying it plays out for you too. You said it resonates with you?

CB: It totally does. I just did this performance the other night. I do performance art as well as writing, and I’m very much coming out of the lineage of Marina Abramović and Karen Finly and Ana Mendieta, who I also want to talk to you about at some point. I am really interested in the body and its relationship to the male gaze. So I just did this performance the other night where I was partially nude for some parts of it, which I usually am in these things, and at this point have a really centered relationship with that nakedness, and as a performer what it means for me and all the layers and layers and layers of looking at myself, and being looked at. So doing it feels really solid, ‘I’m making this choice, it’s an artistic choice, and that’s it,’ and a really good male friend of mine who is usually really supportive of my work got really deeply upset about the nudity. He had an intense kind of violent reaction. It came as such a shock. It made me face the containment of my own process because no matter how many people come up to me and tell me ‘that was awesome, that made me think about how I look at women’ or whatever, there is an internal voice that says, ‘I’m a slut, I’m inviting sex, my play is too intense’ for who? For Daddy? For my own innocence or purity complex? So him having that reaction brought all of that out in a similar way that you writing YOU DA ONE, should have maybe freed you, but it made you feel more contained or revealed some of the containment of playing out ‘the good daughter.’

JT: I wanna call him right now and be like ‘who the fuck are you?’

CB: Hahah.

JT: That’s also like the shit of being in a relationship, not like just with a beloved, but with anyone. That burden is born. And then you ask whose feelings get responded to? Who responds with what feelings first? In that way this work was particularly more aggressive as a way of being like ‘I want to be aggressive too,’ but in a way that’s safe. How did you respond?

CB: Eh, I took from it what I needed to take. Rather than focusing on his feelings, and feeling guilty and apologetic I heard him out and then asked myself how what he’s saying can help me. How is what I’m doing also a constraint? I am having these dudes stare at me… they can say whatever they want, but there is always going to be this sexuality there, and even if that is what I want… is that what I want?

JT: As you were saying about it I was thinking about my own performance work as it relates to current work that’s becoming much more violently political and going back to the seventies—they’re manipulative in some ways. They do a lot for me personally, but because of the community I exist in I read a ton for white audiences. Most poets I connect with in NYC for whatever reason, well for reasons that are very real, because I come out of an MFA program this this and that, for those reasons I’ve been having this question around when I do a performance and it is very charged, which it often is, and it’s focused around why women of color are oppressed, and many times there is this moment of sadness that propels the performance; I end up crying in front of these audiences and I feel very conflicted about that because it’s like 1) why am I crying in front of a bunch of white people? 2) Why… again as you were saying, where in your performance guys come up to you… why do we continue to create spaces of thought for those who have historically already had spaces created for them in order to consider or think? Why is that our primary audience? Even if we’re not thinking of them as our primary audience as we’re conceiving of a piece, somehow they end up at the center and that becomes like, what am I doing? Who is being pleasured by this thing? And somehow the catharsis I create when talking about oppression of women of color, or immigrants, or detainees, is still allowing a catharsis for many of these people who feel guilty about oppression in their own backyards, and in your performance surrounding sexuality, it’s like isn’t it nice you got to think about these issues and also be pleasured by the gaze that’s in you, that you can’t get rid of… there’s something there that needs to transition that cathartic moment, and ask whose catharsis am I privileging? How am I going to privilege that over something else? I’m not sure if when people say thank you, I am helping who I want to help.

CB: It’s like playing the same conversation over and over with an intermission like the catharsis is an intermission that maybe feels to some people like being absolved. But ultimately it’s repeating a conversation.

JT: Oh yeah, it does feel like an absolution, like isn’t it nice I got to come here and think these thoughts and got to reconsider this. But maybe it provides people a pass. Like I’m not making them do work. I’m doing the work for them by allowing them to feel shitty for five minutes. But then they go home and don’t feel shitty anymore.

CB: The last thing I want to talk about is Rihanna, who is she to you? Particularly coming out of this conversation about performance. Pop-stars are the embodiment of all of this to me, the worst parts of capitalism and consumerism and society, but they also have huge influences on how we see ourselves and also are huge projections of what we want women to look like and how we want them to be and express themselves.

JT: Rihanna. I love her so much and I have so many complicated feelings about her. I think in this book I was trying to negotiate this melodramatic moment and I was eager to grab material from the world as a way to piece this thing together, understanding these pieces from the world, whether its Rihanna or spam messages, how can I make all this co-exist. The Rihanna song, it was like how can Rihanna help me consider my existence as a daughter and a human being and a poet? And how can the poetry help me better understand Rihanna and particularly this one song? How can these be in connection with each other… being a daughter, a young woman and everything that comes along with that, being a sexualized object, being connected the patriarchy, if you think as ‘Da One’ as ‘Da-ddy’ that being that father, this moment of you and one as connected by patriarchy—and that energized so much writing within the book there was no way not to have it be a central piece of it. There was a moment when Rihanna was a very visible figure of domestic abuse, those images were everywhere, there was no way not to see them, there was that violence that was inescapable alongside the very rich and glittery life she leads.  It felt like, how is this living? How is it living to have your pop star bf assault you and then within months have those images coexist with images of you on tour? That incongruence is so painful and confusing. It feels very important. I get how those things don’t come together from the outside. That felt like a good guiding piece for understanding what was happening in me that’s not coming together. This song felt like a portal into this space, a devotion that resonates for paternal feelings. The song comes in and out of this devotion in a way a daughter would be. What would this saccharine sweet daughter who could also turn into this violent and vicious daughter be? Being in between worlds that feel very distant but that are clearly in communication with one another…

CB: Right. And maybe there is a connection between how sweet the performance is and the abuse.

JT: Oh yeah. The performance of sweetness is generated by a type of abuse.

CB: There is such a lineage, I mean it’s horrible, but there is such a lineage, I was just watching the Nina Simone documentary—

JT: I can’t wait to see that. The Netflix one?

CB: Yeah. She is amazing. But her husband was highly abusive to her, and one of my earliest movie memories is the Tina Turner movie—

JT: Yes, What’s Love Got to Do With It.

CB: Yes. And those scenes of just such gruesome domestic abuse and the juxtaposition of her on stage and so powerful and in control and glittery. Those images stick.

JT: I love Nina Simone too, there’s this one song, not written by her, but that she sings, ‘Feelings,’ that also embodies all this, she has a rendition of it, and I would sing that song too in performance. Yes, and there is a connection to what those women sing and how they sing, and I felt like the music, there was something embedded inside of it that spoke to this performativity and ultra-fem sexuality that also understood the gravity and embodied the feelings, and the violence that women face.


[1] The 2nd printing and edition of YOU DA ONE is forthcoming from Noemi and Letras Latinas in 2016.