Poet and Activist, Andrea Gibson: The Autostraddle Interview

Andrea Gibson’s words move me in a way I find difficult to describe. As a wordsmith myself I’m not often at a loss for letters and syllables to articulate my emotions, but Andrea knocks the wind out of me with poems filled with clever wordplay, honest confessions and sharp truths. I spent most of the winter listening to Flower Boy, Andrea’s most recent full-length album, on my commute to work, which means I spent most of the winter crying on the M train from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I never felt embarrassed, even though it’s supposed to be embarrassing to cry in public in New York City, because I just sort of felt like, what else are you supposed to do when you listen to Andrea Gibson’s poetry? How can a body ingest that much honesty and not react?

Writing an introduction about Andrea Gibson for the Autostraddle community feels a little bit silly, like telling you that Shane is sexy or that intersectionality is essential, ya know? Andrea has been speaking our feelings and telling the truth through spoken word poetry since 2000 and has been an outspoken activist for just as long. With five full-length albums (Bullets and Windchimes, Swarm, When the Bough Breaks, Yellowbird, and Flower Boy), four self-published books (Trees that Grow in Cemeteries, Yellow Bird, What the Yarn Knows of Sweaters, and Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns) and two books published by Write Bloody Publishing (Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns, The Madness Vase), there’s a lot of material to love when it comes to Andrea Gibson. I love all of it, and I know I’m not alone. The sold out shows I’ve attended, the gratitude I’ve seen when fans meet Andrea in person and the outpouring of love and admiration evident on Tumblr are testaments to how much Andrea Gibson’s words mean to our community.

We told you all about our personal Andrea Gibson Feelings during Autostraddle Pure Poetry Week back in February 2011, and now, two years later, we’re gifting you The Andrea Gibson Autostraddle Interview, just in time to celebrate National Poetry Month. Thank you, Andrea, for your words.

photo by maria

photo by Maria Del Naja via andreagibson.org

Why do you write poems?

I write because it is while I’m writing that I feel most connected to why we’re here. I write because silence is a heavy weight to carry. I write to remember. I write to heal. I write to let the air in. I write as a practice of listening.

Do you have a routine when you write a poem?

I have a difficult time writing on the road, but when I’m home I’m pretty consistent. I wake up, make tea, and start writing. For me that looks like running around my house yelling at the walls, whispering at the kitchen table, running the emotion through my body until it turns into sound, and then lastly words. Words are the last thing that come to me in writing a poem. If someone were to walk into my writing process I think they would think it was quite a hilarious sight.

How do you motivate yourself when you really don’t want to write?

I can get easily motivated by reading poems by other poets. It’s rare for me to read a poem and not want to write.

Do you have any writing advice you wouldn’t mind sharing with us?

I think it’s important to commit to writing consistently, to not wait to be struck by the mood. Also I think paying close attention to art you love and don’t love, and noticing why you love it and don’t love it, is imperative to uncovering your own voice… Just the noticing of what moves you, and asking yourself why.

andrea gibson, bowery poetry club, new york copyright vanessa friedman 2012

andrea gibson, bowery poetry club, new york
copyright vanessa friedman 2012

How do you interact with your older poems? Is it strange to go back and read what you once felt if you’re no longer feeling that way?

Great question. First, I don’t ever read a poem I’m not feeling. Each night I plan a set list I have to tap into myself and figure out what I am capable of reading authentically and with my whole present self. In terms of how I feel about older poems, some I still really identify with, some I don’t, and some, truthfully, I regret having ever written. Our politics change over time. Our minds and hearts change over time. Some of what I thought was okay to say a decade ago is not what I think is okay to say today.

Cherry Grrl interviewed you in October 2008 and when they asked what inspires you to write you said:

Anything that makes my heart race I write about. Anything that makes my stomach hurt. Anything that keeps me awake at night. Anything that makes me want to stay in bed for a week. Anything that makes we wish I could play a musical instrument. Anything that makes me want to move to Canada.

Can you tell us some of the things that are keeping you up awake at night these days? Or things that are making you want to move to Canada? I’m Canadian but I live in New York so I threaten this on a fairly regular basis.

Lately I’ve been kept up by Steubenville. I can’t bare this world’s treatment of women. As for what makes me want to move to Canada, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately talking with my community about bullying, and how to change the system that educates teachers, and how to make schools safe. I was in Toronto a couple of weeks ago and was blown away by how much further ahead they are in this realm.

That interview was from before Obama was elected in 2008 but you alluded to feeling hopeful about him and his vision. Now he’s been elected twice! Have your feelings about him stayed the same or shifted?

I have a lot of friends who voted green party in the last election. My political community tends to lean far left and while I’m relieved as hell that Romney is not president, I’m not thrilled with many of the decisions President Obama has made while in office. I believe we need a radical shift in culture to heal the planet.

andrea gibson

photo by Maria Del Naja via andreagibson.org

What gives you hope these days?

Mostly, how much I notice people caring. I am blessed to perform in spaces, within communities, where people really truly care about what’s happening in the world, and really truly care about each other. It gives me so much ease of heart to see and feel that.

You are an activist as well as a poet. Do you view these as separate identities or are they connected?

Poet Lauren Zuniga intros a poem in one of her books by saying, “Art can and should be activism.” I agree. In a culture of lies, I think speaking the truth can be a revolutionary act. That said, there is more to do than write poems. I discovered my voice as a poet within activist communities in Colorado. My first poems were essentially rally cries. I was working with a group called Vox Feminista. Vox’s motto is “to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I think we need to be doing that on the stage and on the streets. For every performance Vox does, they do several actions. The first action I ever participated in was a peace march near the military base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When they started throwing tear gas there was a 5-year-old girl beside me. I will never forget the look on her face. That face is in almost every poem I’ve ever written.

One of my favorite poems you’ve written is “Class,” on Flower Boy. I particularly love how you talk about the people you’ve met later in life, the ones who don’t even realize what privilege they have discussing certain topics. Can you talk more about that specific kind of privilege, how it exists in different communities, and how we can all confront it and deal with it so we’re not alienating the people we would like to help?

I love that that’s one of your favorite poems. That poem is really close to my heart. I perform at a lot of universities and it’s always important to me to acknowledge out loud the privilege of a college education. When I left home I was anxious to get away from what I at the time called “backwards thinking.” It took me years of growing and learning to begin to understand my own history and to begin to see how my own classism had been littering my heart as well as my early writing. “Class” is a poem the celebrates the community and family that raised and loved me.

Who are your favorite writers and poets?

For today I’ll say: Mary Oliver, bell hooks, Rachel McKibbens, Kate Bornstein.

What is your favorite thing about performing your poems?

The kind kind faces in the audience. The reminder that I am not alone.

And your least favorite?

Stage fright!

Do fans ever bring you weird things to your shows?

People bring a lot of really sweet things to shows. Once after a show, a woman gave me a broken ring. She said, “It broke during the show because I was clapping so hard.”

What can we expect to see from you next?

Something very very exciting! In the next couple of months I will be launching a site with my good friend Kelsey Gibb, devoted to helping young people stay alive. It’s called “STAY HERE WITH ME.” We’ve been working hard for months to prepare for it’s launch and it’s almost ready!

photo by Maria Del Naja via andreagibson.org

photo by Maria Del Naja via andreagibson.org


Andrea Gibson has a lot of shows coming up — see if one is happening near you.

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Vanessa is a queer feminist writer, NYU grad, crush monster, and Jewish Grandma In Training. She has a radical brain, a mushy heart, and a million floral print dresses. She's currently on a big adventure but she'll be back one day, pinky swear. In the meantime, she can sometimes be found on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 198 articles for us.

80 Comments

  1. Thumb up 10

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    VANESSA, GREAT INTERVIEW!

    I love Andrea Gibson and I think she’s incredibly talented. I also strongly appreciate her politics–she just pulled out of MichFest because of their trans* exclusion policy, which I think is appropriate because her poetry revolves so much around gender.

    Anyway, Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns is a great book that I recommend to everyone–but read the poems out loud, they feel so much better that way.

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      “she just pulled out of MichFest because of their trans* exclusion policy, which I think is appropriate because her poetry revolves so much around gender.”

      And I’m glad she did so as well, although I don’t think it matters what subject her poetry revolves around, it was the right thing to do. I hope other artists & performers follow her example (HINT: Indigo Girls, JD Samson, Melissa Ferrick, Julie Goldman). The concept of “change from within” without putting your money where your mouth is doesn’t mean an awful lot.

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          Marika, JD played at Michfest with Le Tigre in 2006 and they were previously signed to Mr. Lady records, a company which totally supported the WBW policy. Shouldn’t be a big surprise. :( More importantly, I really like Andrea Gibson’s essay about why she wasn’t going including:

          “My dream for the festival and our community is that this conversation could be successfully mediated to a place of healing and co-creation. Throughout the past weeks as this has been weighing very heavy on my heart, I have been seeking consistent perspective from a mentor who does work in the world of conflict mediation. She often says, “I wonder how everyone can get what they want?” And what she means by that “want” is not, “I want the festival to welcome trans women” or “I don’t want the festival to welcome trans women.” Instead, it is searching for the deeper “want” beneath each of those statements. What is a truer, more revealing statement we can share with each other? My guess is most women in this conversation have a similar want that sounds something like, “I want to feel heard, seen, safe, respected and celebrated.” I am curious about how ALL of the women involved can feel heard, seen, safe, respected and celebrated, and I am curious about the ways art itself can help uncover some of those answers. I would be honored and moved to collaborate artistically on that project.”

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            Thanks for the info Gina! You are always so helpful. :) Looking at this and researching a bit, it seems that I’m really woefully uninformed about the riot girl movement (and how it was overwhelmingly white and cisgender oriented, especially) so I appreciate you bringing my attention to some of these artists.

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        omg that line…i always blush a little when i’m on the subway and it happens because i’m like, oh my god, that’s hot, and then i’m like, oh my god, i’m in public. oops.

        also it’s so romantic that a couple wanted that read at their wedding, i think “how it ends” and “i do” are two of the most romantic lovely poems in the world. even though “i do” is more political, the sentiments just make me weep sappy sentimental tears of love.

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          Oh I know! I start grinning like an idiot because ‘boobs’ and then I feel goofy. And the ending to ‘I do’? The “goodbye” just kills me… I’d have to leave that part of the poem out of a wedding reading, even though the whole thing is amazing, I just can’thandle it.

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    vanessa this interview is so … it’s really difficult to accurately and interestingly describe a great interview WITH A POET. like i don’t think i have the vocabulary to talk about a poet. anyway I LOVE IT. the interview. especially “how do you interact with your older poems” and everything andrea had to say about the writing process.

    so good.

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    I saw her read at a local College just last week, so awesome to watch her live. I wish I had been able to attend their student workshops too.

  4. Thumb up 4

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    I think I stopped breathing while reading this interview. I saw Andrea Gibson perform in NYC last week, in a crowd of about 500 with toilet paper being passed around to wipe the tears. I loved the answer to the best part of performing: “The kind kind faces in the audience. The reminder that I am not alone.” I think we all left that night feeling that warmth.

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    I love Andrea’s poetry. And this interview reminded me that I need to call for my advanced ticket for her show here in about a month. It will be my first time seeing her live. I was supposed to see her last summer but I was afraid I would feel too much. This year the venue is just a few blocks from my house. Somehow the walk/solitude to and from her show I think will be very appropriate.

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      i think you will love the live show. you will definitely feel too much, but that’s okay — it reminds me of a line in one of andrea’s poems (“jellyfish”): “a doctor once told me i feel too much. i said, so does god. that’s why you can see the grand canyon from the moon.” enjoy yourself and the performance and your walks to/from home.

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    I’m so very grateful for this interview. Andrea Gibson is absolutely wonderful. One of my friends is obsessed with her, and in her choreography class, would choreograph pieces to Gibson’s poetry. The images in the poems combined with the visual displays would always take my breath away. I just added her albums to the list of things I need to buy and her books to the list of things I need to read. I want more Gibson. Even her answers to this interview are simple, yet powerful and articulate.

    Oh, and this. This is my fave:

    I perform at a lot of universities and it’s always important to me to acknowledge out loud the privilege of a college education.”

    Amen to that!

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      yikes that’s so tough! my answer is two-fold: i LOVE flower boy, and it is andrea’s most recently released work, so i think that’s not a bad place to start, BUT i also think everything andrea has ever created is so good and worthwhile so i would also suggest starting from the beginning and just working your way through? i don’t want to overwhelm you though.

      can anyone else jump in here because i’m clearly struggling…basically i think my answer is, “listen to everything, probably start with flower boy, but maybe actually start from the beginning, also oh god i love yellowbird…” so what i mean to say is i am very unhelpful but wherever you start it’s gonna be great, i promise.

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            this makes me so happy. i’m so glad you like it.

            i sent this interview to my mom (she doesn’t read the site regularly but she does when i ask her to) and she wrote me back saying she’d like me to burn her a cd with more of andrea’s poetry because she enjoyed the interview and “class” so much. i’m not sure why i feel like you need to know this but basically i’m glad more humans are experiencing andrea’s words and i’m glad you are one of those humans and that my mom is another one of those humans. that’s all.

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    Mmmmm.
    That’s really all I have to say.
    Well, that, and she’s coming to speak in my town in a few weeks, and I am fully prepared to camp out hours in advance (it’s free and there aren’t tickets involved).
    Her work is so personally meaningful to me, especially Trellis, Sleeping, and Walmart. I cannot listen to Gibson and not cry.
    Plus, the other night I had a dream that she fell madly in love with me and serenaded me and I finally decided that marriage was something I could see myself doing and it was just perfect.

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      Trellis is actually most important to me, because I first heard it exactly one month after I heard that the person who molested me from 9 to 11 had just gone to prison for raping a thirteen year old. I sent the poem to my sister, our childhood best friend, and the person’s younger sister, and every single one of them called me sobbing because someone had put words to our sudden guilt for keeping silent about the person who had ruined our lives. And we talked for hours about something we had NEVER spoken a WORD about for ten years. I have never felt more free than after that conversation. And it wouldn’t have happened, at least not a long while longer, had I not heard that poem that described all of my feelings so eloquently, feelings I couldn’t even put the simplest of words to.
      Mmm.

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        sela i’ve been wanting to respond to your comment for 24 hours now and i still don’t know what to say.

        “trellis” just breaks me entirely, and i say that as someone who is not a survivor and does not personally identify with the words…it is just such a heavy, big, important poem. i actually heard it for the first time live, when andrea performed at bowery poetry club last year, and suffice it to say it was such a shattering experience. i sobbed openly through most of the poem. i can’t believe we live in a world where so many people identify with those words.

        i guess what i’m trying to say is i’m glad you feel safe enough here to share your experience with us, and i’m so sorry about what happened to you but find small comfort in knowing that the poem helped you finally feel free. and thank you for expressing your feelings.

        also, your dream sounds perfect and i hope you have a great time at the upcoming performance. definitely camp out in advance, the bowery show sold out and a ton of humans didn’t get in.

        <3

  8. Thumb up 4

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    Great interview. As a poet myself, I really appreciate the questions. Andrea came to Austin with Lauren Zuniga recently (another amazing poet you must check out). There were no chairs and Andrea took a poll by show of hands on if people wanted to sit on the ground. The thoughtfulness was amazing. Most people stood but my wife laid in my lap while we at on the floor and enjoyed.

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    She’s coming to Northampton this Sunday, for any Massachusetts people

    Now, I haven’t bought tickets yet so don’t go and buy them all while I’m trying to convince my friend to come.

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        It’s sold out now, they’ll be releasing a few tickets at the door:-(

        I guess I won’t be seeing her but I did see her for free last year at Smith so I can’t complain… too much.

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      I BEGGED my mother to buy me tickets to the show in Boston for a Christmas present. When she didn’t remember to buy them and they were sold out she bought me the ones for the Iron Horse and added an extra ticket for her husband. Then I realized that I had to go to an Andrea Gibson show…with my mother….and my homophobic stepfather. I’m curious to see how the night goes, but at this point I don’t feel like going at all because I know it will start a HUGE debate between the three of us. But…Andrea Gibson…gawww….she’s so talented and well spoken.

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        please still go! is there a way you can stand separately from your mom & her husband? could you maybe explain some of the content before you go and dissuade them from attending? from a very optimistic perspective, perhaps the poems will make them reconsider some of their feelings?

        i just don’t want homophobia to stop you from experiencing an andrea gibson performance, ya know?

  10. Thumb up 4

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    Andrea Gibson is my favourite spoken word artist. I devour her poems, and each one makes me sob until I have no more energy left to cry(which is why I can only listen to her for so long, it’s literally exhausting, in the best way!)

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    I love her! I listen to “Yellowbird” every time I need inspiration to create something. Or “Ashes” when I need to cry (and that album has made me cry deep, healing, ugly tears.) She has a way of splaying your soul out of your body.

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    oh wow, bringing back memories! I saw her in Providence in maybe… 2005/6? and was in college, and was sketching the whole time and totally gave her the drawing at the end! had completely forgotten that part~ what lovely words.

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    I saw her perform… was very intense.. I love how she shares all of her parts. the broken ones, the shattered ones, all mixed up..
    I am reading “By nightfall,” … anyone else reading it.. I am reminded of a beautiful paragraph Cunningham wrote about he is more drawn to a person’s sadness.. I loved how he wrote it.. it is true. We know people when they are vulnerable, raw, intense, fragile, that is when character is revealed. I have an idea let me know if anyone wants to join. I want to have “–share your truth” day on facebook, post that line and share something raw and vulnerable and encourage your friends to do the same.. if you’re in..let me know ;)..

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    First of all, Well fucking done, AS.
    This is the kind of BIG interview that you guys deserve.
    Let’s face it, we’re Andrea’s audience and even though most of us already love her, we’re probably going to spend approx 100 hours after we read this rediscovering her every performance on youtube.
    damn. i love this woman.

    So much talent. xx

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