"Art is a luxury. I am trying my best not to squander my art on self-indulgence, but rather use my privilege to create space for others."
Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Ortiz, your new book The Canción Cannibal Cabaret & Other Songs, is described as a collection of “poem songs and prose poems set in a post-apocalyptic future,” which will be released by San Antonio’s Aztlan Libre Press on July 27. You’ve also described it as a hybrid manuscript for a punk musical.” Please tell us about your new work.
Amalia Ortiz: In the world of the book, bands of American griots roam the post-apocalyptic wasteland enlisting allies into their feminist, LGBTQ+ revolution. In performance, audiences watch an actual band perform the poem songs and prose poems as the teachings of their leader, La Madre Valiente. The songs are all punk. The prose poems are herstories of the mujerista resistance.
LSLL: In your introduction to Canción Cannibal Cabaret, you write about publishing being largely controlled by the white (Anglo?) middle class, and how, since the election of Donald Trump, you’ve found your work increasingly labeled as “political.” Is your work not political? Is the disconnect in the definition of “political” or do you view the label as reductive and reflexive? How do you label your work? What does your apocalypse look like?
AO: I have been writing political work for decades. It is the kind of work that moves me the most. The introduction to my book references poet Cynthia Cruz’s article about how publishing political poetry has become more common post-Trump. When I entered graduate school, however, political poetry was not as popular as it has become. In workshops, my work was compared to '60s political Chicano poetry, as if that style was passé and poetry had moved on. I began writing the manuscript as a case for the need for political poetry at a time when, at least in the classroom, it was perceived as out of fashion. My argument is that political poetry will always be a tool for those on the margins, and those who see political poetry as outdated need to check their privilege.
My apocalypse is happening right now. The genre allows for people to write about immediate problems intensified through fiction so as to distance people from those problems to see them from a different perspective.
LSLL: What advantages do you and your work derive that are particular to partnering with a small, independent press such as Aztlan Libre Press and its publisher, Juan Tejeda? In addition to fabulous accordion accompaniment.
AO: Ha! I wish I could get Juan to join the live show with an accordion solo. My experience working with Aztlan Libre Press has been outstanding so far. Anisa Onofre and Juan have shown such attention to detail and made the experience of publishing with them incredible. I wanted to work with Juan on this project because it is a musical, and Juan understands musicians and how to tour and market musicians.
LSLL: You came to writing from the slam poetry community. How did your background both help and hinder your graduate studies? How is Canción Cannibal Cabaret, your thesis, a reaction to your graduate school experience? How has your work changed because of grad school?
AO: My slam background didn’t hinder me at all in grad school. If anything, graduate school was an opportunity to learn to defend my performance poetry aesthetics in academic terms. I already had a regular practice and discipline. I didn’t hem or haw over assignments as I did as an undergraduate. I understood there was no such thing as writer’s block and actually began grad school with a list of topics and forms I wanted to explore. I would turn to that list when I was given an assignment, so grad school served to give me credit for poems I was going to write anyway. I already had a strong sense of who I was as a writer when I began. I figured out within my first semester that my thesis was going to be a defense of performance poetry. That is how The Canción Cannibal Cabaret began.
That’s not to say that grad school didn’t change my writing. The biggest impact grad school had on me was it made me aware of line breaks and form on the page. As a performance poet, I would place a line break wherever I breathed, sometimes missing enjambment opportunities. This is a slam poet thing which can become pretty obvious to anyone flipping through slam anthologies such as Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry. Most of the poems are justified left with almost no inventive spacing or line breaks. Stanzas can be long with no breaks until a complete thought is finished. Those habits are formed in slam, because to performers, it may not really matter how a poem is laid out on the page if it is written to be memorized. Then, it makes sense that short phrases broken down by breath are easier to memorize and line breaks aren’t even something to consider in slam.
LSLL: Canción Cannibal Cabaret is performance art, a theatrical work with all that the term entails. Please tell us what is involved in bringing this work to a performance venue, be it a stage or the middle of a street?
AO: I wanted to create an easily tourable theatrical piece, so the storytelling is done through a band. I thought this would be easier than traditional theatre, which casts actors and needs a different kind of rehearsal space and a specific kind of performance venue. I own everything I need to perform this show, so it can actually be performed in an alley as long as we have a power supply to tap into and some pretty long extension cords.
Controlling means of production was very important to me from the beginning. I have written other plays which I love so much, but rarely get to produce because I have to go through the conventional theatre-production system. This show is too timely to be slowed down by those practices.
We make it look as easy as a band performing, but there are a million little pieces (costumes, projector, laptop, mics, instruments, etc.), and ultimately, it is my show, and I have to keep track of all the moving parts. It is still a lot to manage.
LSLL: Your debut book of poetry, Rant. Chant. Chisme. (Wings Press, 2015) won the 2015 Poetry Discovery Prize from the Writers’ League of Texas Book Awards and was selected by NBC Latino as one of the “10 Great Latino Books of 2015.” How does your new collection relate to your debut? How has your work evolved since your debut collection was written?
AO: The first book was a collection of poetry written from 1999 to 2015. Over the years, reoccurring themes emerged with a distinct voice, but the book was not written as a collection. The Canción Cannibal Cabaret is a collection wrapped around a specific theme. So, that is a type of evolution of sorts for me.
LSLL: Please tell us a little about your process. Does form or function come first? Or does your inspiration appear visually first? Or maybe you hear it? How do you build a body of work as a performance artist? How did you go about choosing which works belonged in this collection?
AO: The first poem of this collection came out as a parody of a song. I was listening to “London Calling” by The Clash, and it hit me viscerally how young kids were feeling powerless to get a grip on the chaotic world around them in Thatcher-era England. I had just moved back to the borderlands where I grew up, and the last line of the chorus, “I live by the river,” hit me in this new way. I don’t like using the word “parody,” because in rewriting songs I am not trying to be funny. I prefer the term “repurposing,” because I am using a real quality about a song and changing it to fit a new need.
After the first song in the collection was written, I decided to create a collection of repurposed songs. So, form for this collection was laid out for me for most of the songs. There are three songs in the show not repurposed which began as page poems. In two of those, themes emerged before form.
For example, I decided I wanted to write a didactic poem teaching self-defense moves which would be deliberately catchy so as not to be forgotten at highly emotional times when self-defense is needed. It is repetitive and rhythmic. In that sense, the form had to follow the function. But once I locked myself into creating this kind of collection, there were a few times when I just really liked a song’s form and was locked into using it before I knew what my repurposed song was going to be about.
I took a class exploring the prose poem, and that is how I decided to tie all the songs together, with prose poems in between to tell a larger story. In that sense, the form also followed function.
As for choosing what belonged in the show, I had quite a few rejected pieces which are not in the stage show. I first began the stage show with an original song but realized this world of “repurposed” knowledge should be introduced sooner. The first song in the book is not the first song in the stage show. There is also a “B-sides” section of the book, containing songs which did not fit stylistically into the show but fit thematically. I had to be honest with myself and leave quite a few “other songs” out of the book because they are not of the same world.
Since the completion of the book, I have continued repurposing songs, which also fit stylistically and thematically, but are somehow not of the same world as the book.
LSLL: You grew up in the Rio Grande Valley; your MFA is from UTRGV; and now you live in San Antonio where you are the theatre arts teaching artist for SAY Sí. How did growing up in Texas, particularly in the borderlands, shape your work? Please tell us about your work at SAY Sí and your advice to the next generation of revolutionary artists.
AO: To say that growing up in the valley influenced my writing is a huge understatement. The intersection of growing up on the border, living in poverty, being a woman of color in a world of machismo, and dealing with race and language issues in the US was heavy to say the least. I will spend the rest of my life unpacking, explaining, and trying to make sense of those issues.
Moving back to the valley for grad school after living away for more than twenty years was a shock to the system. I viewed the area through the lens of nostalgia. It was something I had escaped or survived and returning reminded me of those who have stewed in the area. Those who will live and die there. I will never view it through that lazy lens again.
What I love most about working at SAY Sí is the organization’s emphasis on social justice. I would not be interested in producing art which was completely detached from a sense of responsibility to audiences. To future artists, I remind them to always check their privilege. I grew up poor and disempowered but still had privileges others on this planet live without. I am now hyperaware of the privilege I have these days as a citizen and artist. Art is a luxury. I am trying my best not to squander my art on self-indulgence but rather use my privilege to create space for others.
LSLL: Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what’s next for you?
AO: I had an Artpace residency ending last March and began writing all new work for a third book focused specifically on women in punk. I was on a roll with that project but got derailed when the original publisher for The CCC, Wings Press, imploded. I don’t need to go into why—that can all be found on the internet. But that sent me searching for a new publisher and working on this project for the last year. I haven’t gotten back to that women in punk project. Working with a band on The CCC stole all my focus lately, so I want to continue working with them on future projects.
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand and whose performances are you streaming?
AO: Tears of the Trufflepig: A Novel by Fernando A. Flores was a recent gift from my husband. My brother read it and said it mentions our hometown of La Feria! I’m looking forward to reading it on the week of our tour. I loved his [Flores’s] first book, and will probably re-read that one on tour too, because it will fit thematically with playing with the band for a solid week. I placed The Handyman’s Guide to the End Times: Poems by Juan J. Morales on the coffee table in my living room because I want everyone to read it. It is also post-apocalyptic, though stylistically very different from The CCC.
I am currently obsessed with streaming videos by Hobo Johnson. I think he considers himself a hip-hop emcee, but his lyrics sound like spoken word on many of his tracks.
Canción Cannibal Cabaret Summer Tour
Cancion Cannibal Cabaret book release,
live @Guadalupe Theater, San Antonio TX, July 27 2019
Cancion Cannibal Cabaret, live @Notsuoh, 314 Main St, Houston TX, July 30 2019
Cancion Cannibal Cabaret, live @House With The Big Windows,
522 Burleson St, San Marcos TX, July 31 2019
Cancion Cannibal Cabaret, live @Wild Detectives, 314 W 8th St, Dallas TX, August 1 2019
Cancion Cannibal Cabaret, live @McAllen, TX, August 2 2019
Cancion Cannibal Cabaret, live @Hop Shop, 923 S 7th St, Harlingen TX
Cancion Cannibal Cabaret, live in San Antonio TX, November 2019 (location TBA)
Amalia Ortiz is a Tejana actor/writer/activist. She's featured on three seasons of Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry on HBO and the NAACP Image Awards on FOX. Amalia's debut book of poetry, Rant. Chant. Chisme., was selected by NBC News as one of the "10 Great Latino Books of 2015." Amalia's second book, The Canción Cannibal Cabaret & Other Songs, will be released nationally July 27th, 2019 by Aztlan Libre Press. Visit her online here: http://www.amaliaortiz.net/.