It is a rare skill to be able to capture raw human experiences and emotions—both good and bad—and turn them into something validating and beautiful. Andrea Gibson is an artist who does this beautifully.
Andrea takes the darkest moments in their life and turns them into something optimistic and hopeful, reminding their audience of the power in vulnerability and in living. They take the world we live in, with cultural expectations and outdated social norms, and responds to it by saying, “We’re here; we exist, and we won’t be silenced or made to leave without putting up a fight.”
With a career spanning two decades, Gibson took the poetry world by storm and in 2008 became the first winner of the Woman of the World Poetry Slam. They have additionally published seven spoken word albums and five books of poetry. Their most recent work is Lord of the Butterflies.
Enjoying themself and finally home after an eight-month tour, Andrea took the time to have a brief chat with OUT FRONT over the phone.
How do you feel about going on tours, especially the longer tours?
I love being on tour; it’s the perfect thing for me to be doing. I’m always changing, and to have my surroundings change with me is a good fit. I actually have more of a hard time adjusting to coming back home. I was touring in 2008 after doing spoken word for quite a few years, and have been doing it pretty consistently since them.
When you began writing, did you picture your life the way it is now?
I’ve written my whole life, as far back as I can remember. Even in kindergarten, I always saw myself as a writer, so much so that I even went to college to study it, but wouldn’t dream of getting on the mic. It was some 18 years ago when I’d just been broken up with, and something about the devastation of the heartbreak was the driving force I needed to get on the stage for the first time. “Grief brave,” as they call it. I discovered the world of poetry slams and began doing spoken word at Mercury Cafe in Denver, and the rest is history.
While we’re talking about writing, with 12 poetry publications so far, how are you able to write for entire days without repeating yourself? How do you keep your words inspired and fresh?
Well, there have been times when I’ve written things and felt like, “Oh no, what will I write after this? There’s nothing left to write.” One of the blessings of life is that it’s constantly beating us with newness. Everything is always changing; there’s always something new to write about. That’s the sweetness of being an artist; it feels as if there’s not enough, never enough, time to create. I can’t imagine getting to end of my life and feeling like I had created enough. What I write is my experience, and as my experiences change, so does my energy, so it allows for this never-ending ability to write and create. You know, ever since Trump, I’ve been putting out more and more because of the world we live in. But when I first started doing poetry, I wrote a lot about coming out and how it was a very painful experience. But it was healing for me to speak it. Then my energy turned more towards writing about my experience as a survivor of sexual assault. My latest topic is mental health, suicidality and watching my community struggle to stay alive.
Through writing, you say that you don’t set out to explain yourself, but rather to know yourself. How well do you feel you know yourself as of right now?
I think each year I know myself better. If I live to be 100 I wonder how well I’ll know myself. It’d be awesome if at 60 I just felt like, “Ah yes, I am so clear on knowing myself,” and then just had like, 40 years left of smooth sailing. But this is part of the beauty of humans. We are all so complex, made up of millions of tiny pieces of our spirit that make us who we are. That’s part of falling in love, wanting to know all those parts of a person, and part of your own growth is learning to love oneself and all that comes with you. I used to think self-love was an idea, and now I’m tapping into how much more of a body, sensory thing self-love actually is. It’s wildly new and exciting to me. It absolutely blows my mind when I discover something new about myself. Something you’ve lived your life not knowing you had inside you, and then all of a sudden to meet that part of yourself is just fun! Humor is a good way to approach self-love; really the only way to tolerate yourself is through humor. You need to approach all of life with humor.
I think something that drew me into you and your work quickly was how relatable you are to everyone in some way. Are there things that you write just for yourself, that you don’t share?
There are some things I haven’t gotten gutsy enough to perform yet, but I heard that “an unspoken poem is a half finished poem.” There have been times when I had to push through to discomfort and fears, but it’s like having a good cry. It’s cathartic and once you speak it, you feel healed or some sort of healing. I write for words to live out loud, so spoken word as an art form tends to be at its best when you’re listening to it and feeling goosebumps on your skin and butterflies in your stomach.
Speaking of butterflies, I’ve read some summaries of Lord of the Butterflies and understand its a book of poetry available for pre-order now, and that it surrounds many different emotions. But what does Lord of the Butterflies mean to you?
Well, the title came from a poem called “Give Her,” which I wrote after I was giving my partner at the time a list of nicknames, and ‘Lord of the Butterflies’ is one of the nicknames I had given her. The book itself touches on so many different ideas: love, gender, and sexuality; fascism and Trump; addiction, mental illness, and spirituality. But I think the heart of the book really is about feeling and feeling deeply into all that’s happening and the grief and beauty thats happening in our world. It’s furious in ways but also tender and funny at times.
What’s your favorite piece you’ve written or that you’re most comfortable performing?
Well actually, my favorite pieces to perform are the light, funny ones. I can just feel the audiences’ relief as they laugh. I actually wrote a new poem called “Fight for Love,” which is a love poem about the arguments I’ve had with my partner. I don’t think we see the realistic parts of relationships being romanticized enough, like small, petty arguments, or the bigger ones. It happens, you know? But I have some poems that are just so hard to read and are so heavy. For example, when I wrote “Orlando” it was hard to read; I thought it would get easier over time, but it has only gotten harder the longer I perform it. Sometimes I really struggle to get through it.
My personal favorite is “The Nutritionist” with, “I have been told, sometimes, the most healing thing to do, is remind ourselves over and over and over; Other people feel this too.”
Yeah, that’s an interesting one. When I wrote “The Nutritionist” it changed everything. I wasn’t having a ton of conversations with people who were struggling to stay alive; I wasn’t seeing or hearing those feelings. But after that, so many people are coming up to me after shows talking about those moments. And it reminds me that there is something beautiful in sharing things are painful. Not that you want anyone to feel this pain, but when you can share your pain with someone who understands, there’s a certain comfort to it that reminds you that you aren’t alone. The thing about loneliness, I’ve heard that loneliness resonates in the same part of the brain as physical suffering.
You’ve said in the past that you “can point to every poem you’ve written and think, that line right there is the heart of that poem.” Is there a line you’ve written or can think of that you can point to as being the heart of you?
Oh wow. You know, there’s a line that I am so happy I wrote because it resonates with so many people; almost everyone brings it up to me. [Andrea has to google their own name, which they hate doing, in order to track down the exact line.] The line is, “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,” from a poem called Jellyfish. The fact that it resonates with so many people is amazing. It feels timeless for me; it resonates on some level of me that was there at three years old and will be with me till the day I die.
You’ve also said that you believe that “your gender will be changing up until the moment you take your last breath.” This feeling, to know we’re never done evolving, is so incredibly exciting. Do you think gender is similar? Is is constantly changing for everyone?
You know, I can’t speak for everyone because some people do feel more solidly in their gender. But for me personally, I feel my gender is constantly shifting and evolving, and my awareness of it is constantly shifting and evolving with it. Gender is just another thing I’m interested in exploring. I’m not here saying my gender is all figured out, and that’s what makes it so cool. I discover things about myself that just completely shock me. Which, sometimes can be painful or hard to accept, but as of right now I’m at a place where I’m ever-curious.
One more quote I’m curious if you could expand on; you’ve said that you think “we closet our bliss. We’re culturally expected to taper it all down. Our anxiety, depression, grief.” I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment and am curious what a world where we aren’t expected to repress our feelings would look like to you?
Ugh, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately in terms of fashion. I’ve noticed that I’m being way less flamboyant than I want to be. I look in the mirror, and I’m like, “Why am I wearing so much grey and black?” I think there some cultural oppression going on with how we are expected to present ourselves. Honestly, we aren’t weird enough; people need to be weirder. I wish we had “how to be weird” lessons as kids. I can feel the parts of myself, with depression anxiety, fear, would all loosen up if I let myself have the freedom, the permission, for joy.
We live in a world where we feel as if we need permission to feel joy, when instead we need to understand that joy is a natural feeling. I’ve felt so much heaviness since Trump was elected, and I can feel how I would have more energy to create the change in the world if I leaned into the joy. If I gave permission to myself to feel. We all need to give ourselves permission to be weird and wild, to be expressive, to live exactly as we’re feeling. I mean, the fact that we don’t see people crying in the grocery store is ridiculous. The fact that we don’t walk around the world with tears dripping down our faces, it isn’t healthy. With the permission for yourself, you also need to give it to others, the key being not to be freaked out by other people’s feelings.