Poet Amalia Ortiz Challenges Establishment with Canción Cannibal Cabaret

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Courtesy / Amalia Ortiz

Amalia Ortiz (center) performs Canción Cannibal Cabaret at the U.S.-Mexico border.

San Antonio-based actor, poet, playwright, and activist Amalia Ortiz will celebrate the release of her latest work, The Canción Cannibal Cabaret & Other Songs, with a free performance and book launch at the Guadalupe Theater on Saturday, July 27.

The work is a knotty and ambitious affair, a Xicana punk-rock narrative set in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s also a hybrid manuscript-performance piece that functions as a text (released by the local Aztlan Libre Press) and as an electric performance piece. 

Canción Cannibal Cabaret uses parodies and reinterpretations of familiar songs, as well as wholly original songs and poems, to illuminate the life of protagonist La Madre Valiente, a refugee and a revolutionary. 

Ortiz, who is 47 and was raised in the Rio Grande Valley, was already an accomplished poet/spoken word artist when she began work on Canción Cannibal Cabaret in her second year of graduate school at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, where she received her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing in 2016.

Ortiz’ first book, a collection of poems titled Rant. Chant. Chisme. came out in 2015 and was selected by NBC News as one of the 10 Great Latino Books of the year. It also won the Writers’ League of the Texas 2015 Poetry Discovery Prize.

Before that, Ortiz won numerous accolades as a slam/performance poet and was featured in the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam. She’s also been a Hedgebrook writer-in-residence and a fellow at the CantoMundo national poetry workshop.

More recently, Ortiz was named the inaugural performance artist-in-residence at Artpace in Spring 2018, and early this year was awarded a Fund for the Arts San Antonio Artist Grant by the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures to make videos of the work from Canción Cannibal Cabaret.

It was graduate school itself, and the academic establishment’s narrow understanding of what poetry is and can be, that ultimately lit the fire that became Canción Cannibal Cabaret, Ortiz said.

In the 14-page introduction to the text, Ortiz outlines what she sees as the flaws in the Western academic concept of what constitutes poetry. She argues that the academy places too much value on subtlety and technical prowess while elevating the work of white male poets over that of women and people of color.

As a performance poet she said she has been made to feel at times like her work was too blunt or too political or not technically refined enough. 

“People turn their noses up when you say you are a performance poet,” she told the Rivard Report. “But what some perceive as crudeness is a deliberate tactic, which is why I chose the punk sound — because I identify with it and because in punk crudeness is strength and revolt.”

Her response to an institution that made her feel as though she had to submit to its standards or stand on the sidelines was to get even louder and more brash.

“A big portion of the book is my reaction to graduate school and the literary machine of publishing,” she said. “Which wasn’t my intention when I started as a performance poet, because my genre is just about really connecting with people — but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized the need to document.”

By the time she had defended her thesis in graduate school, she had successfully gotten her advisors to grasp where she was coming from — and she even persuaded them to consider a makeshift performance as part of her cumulative work.

Rather than dismiss the establishment, she worked to open the establishment to her ideas and in so doing hopes that she has blazed a trail for others to do the same. 

Ortiz has performed Canción Cannibal Cabaret in full only a few times. At the Guadalupe Theater performance, she will present what she believes will be the most fully realized version of the piece yet. The show will feature eight performers, including Ortiz, with choreography and costumes to accompany the poem-songs.

In the future, she hopes to take the performance and her message of non-conformity and community activism on the road.

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