“We’re all constantly messing up and all constantly changing”: an interview with Andrea Gibson

by Ilana Masad

Filed under: Blog, Interviews |

Andrea Gibson’s newest book, Take Me With You, is a pocket-sized collection of one-liners, couplets, greatest hits, and longer form poetry. Reading straight through it will fill your heart to the brim, while taking it slow will provide droplets of necessary insight and humor into otherwise gray days. Andrea Gibson was kind enough to speak to assistant nonfiction editor Ilana Masad about their work. Click here to buy Take Me With You.

Ilana Masad: Because your poems often include a musical element, a rhythmic element, but also work on the page, written down, I wonder—what is your writing process like?

Andrea Gibson: You know, that’s been a process I’ve learned more about over the years, because when I first started writing spoken word poetry I was writing so much for sound and so much for rhythm that it was really difficult to get those poems to live on the page in a way that I felt represented them. And then over time, just having done enough books at this point and learning the editing process, it’s actually changed my writing. I think there are ways that I write maybe similar to a songwriter—I know the sound of the poem before I even know the words to it. But over time I’ve gotten to marry those elements a little better, learning how to have them live in both places and be powerful in each.

IM: You’ve come out publicly as genderqueer recently, and spoken about the power of language and labels for understanding ourselves. How do you think coming out has had an effect on your recent work?

AG: You know, it’s wild, because I think that I wrote my first genderqueer poem maybe eight years ago, and five years ago I started using nonbinary they/them/theirs pronouns publicly. But I think a lot of people have been experiencing that it’s a recent come out, and I think it sort of is—I don’t think there’s ever one coming out moment. But I think that with the new poem, “Your Life”, I went into it a little bit more deeply than I have in the past and so there’s just been new talk about it. That’s what folks are talking to me about when I’m at live shows and meet people.

I think one way it has [changed my work] is it’s almost impossible for me to not bring gender or gender identity into nearly every poem I write now. I can feel its presence every time I’m writing, and that conversation feels relevant in literally every other thing I’m talking about. For a few years I noticed that Jesus had made his way into nearly every poem I was writing, and these last years I feel like gender is one of the more pressing things on my mind and it’s just popping up everywhere. But I’m also in a different place with it where it’s more fun for me to explore. There was a time when I was existing in my gender in a more painful way, and a more oppressed way, and since I’ve gotten to a different place with it, it feels more like fun and celebration. I’m also fueled by the idea that I’m not at a landing point with it; I think it’s something for me that is constantly evolving. I have no idea where I’ll be in my gender five years from now and it’s exciting to be curious about what that will be. At this point for me it can be a fun process of figuring out.

IM: I saw this very interesting argument recently on Twitter—someone was talking about how they’re scared that destroying the gender binary before we destroy the patriarchy will somehow mean that we don’t discuss the patriarchy anymore. I don’t think I agree but it was an interesting concept, and I wondered what you thought.

AG: You know, I think about that all the time because a lot of my community where I live in Colorado is a generation older than me and there can be a thought that goes around that nonbinary and trans identities are against feminism. I feel like something’s been set up in that whole conversation that is misleading, because today all of those things can exist at once. I also think it’s not about saying that gender doesn’t exist. It’s also simultaneously really important for me to be really celebrating the voices of women and understanding how important that is, because patriarchy is still this ugly monster in our culture that comes into everything, that comes into homophobia, and I think it’s also the main thing hating on genderqueerness and trans identities. I think we can be working for it all at the same time—to bring down patriarchy and also to be lifting up folks that don’t exist in our cultural boxes of gender. I’ve had some conversations in the past where folks were assuming that because I identify as genderqueer that I have this desire to do away with the concept of men and women and that’s not at all the case and also that can often be harmful to trans people who very much want to identify as one or the other.

IM: Your new book, Take Me With You, includes fragments of poems, couplets, and drawings. Are the drawings your own?

AG: No, I wish! They’re drawings by an artist friend of mine in the UK named Sarah J. Coleman and I’ve loved her work for a long time and she’s just a wonderful person. I really wanted to collaborate with a woman artist on that project and so I loved doing it with her. That’s the reason why I started reading poems to music, I think—I always prefer to be making art with other people as opposed to by myself. 

IM: What was the process of having your poems broken up this way, made into small bite-sized pieces as they are in the book?

AG: The book is made up of a lot of things. If I’ve had ten different people come up and show me the same tattoo of a particular line that they’ve gotten tattooed on their body, I would think, you know, let’s include that line in the book even if it’s from an older piece. And then I was just looking through everything I’ve ever written. Half of [the book] has been previously published somewhere, and the other half might just be lines I wrote for the book or lines from new poems that aren’t published.

I was looking for things that were inspiring on their own. I have this thought about myself, and I don’t know if it’s true, but I think I’m a better writer if I’m only writing one line at a time as opposed to a full poem. I can point to every poem I’ve written and think, that line right there is the heart of that poem.

I wanted [the book] to be something where if someone was having a hard day they could just flip to any page and maybe something would spark their creativity or make them feel more hopeful or more awake or more inspired. And that was sort of a response to—do you have a phone where the news is coming in on your phone like every five minutes, you’re getting bad news popping up everywhere? So it was sort of in reaction to that—I wanted to make a smaller book that someone could carry in their pocket and maybe a few times a day instead of opening to the awful news coming in on their phones, they could take out something different that might make the day better.

IM: “I hope never to be an honest poet. I hope to always forgive faster than I write.” This is one of the fragments in the book, and it’s one of the ones I’ve found most puzzling. What does it mean to you?

AG: Oh gosh, I’ve been thinking about that all the time. That line was actually sort of heavy for me. To be honest, it was specifically about my experience with writing about my family. It’s a tricky thing too, because spoken word is a really vulnerable art form known for being really willing to just put all the truth out there and I love the art form for that reason. And I also want to be careful with how I’m speaking about people who may have hurt me in my life. I don’t love the idea of putting things down in stone when we’re all constantly messing up and all constantly changing and learning. I have friends whose poetry I love, and whose character I really respect, and they’ll just write anything about any experience that they’ve had—and it’s different for me. I don’t know if it’s just that I grew up in such a conservative home and conservative town where you don’t really talk about people… I don’t know. Some of that is dangerous, and I’m certainly willing to talk about, for instance, the man who sexually assaulted me. That’s something that I wouldn’t censor. But if it’s about my mother or a relationship that I had that was painful—I do, I want to give some space before writing that down and so that’s what that line is about.

IM: In another poem, you tell the story of how you learned that Gandhi said women shouldn’t fight off their rapists, and you write, “I believe there is such a thing as a nonviolent fist.” This feels incredibly potent to our time, to the idea of resistance, to the #MeToo movement. How would you define a nonviolent fist?

AG: I haven’t, since I heard that [about Gandhi], been able to stop thinking about it. The idea that it would be violent to protect yourself—I don’t get down with that, for myself or for my community. I can respect people’s decision to be pacifist, but I also think you can be a pacifist and punch somebody off of you. And so I’m just thinking about what’s been called violence that doesn’t resonate with me as violence. When I’m watching folks in the Black Lives Matter movement get called violent, none of that is resonating as violence to me—it’s self-defense.

Andrea Gibson is a spoken word artist who regularly tours, performing poetry which focuses on gender norms, politics, social reform and the struggles LGBTQ people face in today's society. A devoted fan base sees Gibson's work as a rally cry for action and a welcome mat at the door of the heart's most compassionate room. Born in Calais, Maine, Gibson now resides outside of Boulder, Colorado.