Slammin’ Down with Andrea Gibson

Sabrina talks poetry and activism with Andrea Gibson.

[box]Andrea Gibson is a slam poet whose work focuses on social and political issues such as gender norms, sexuality, and war. She additionally works with a group called “Vox Feminista,” a group dedicated to expressing these issues through performance art. Andrea has published six books, four of them self-published and two of them through Write Bloody Publishing in 2009 and 2011, and has won awards at the Denver Grand Slam, the 2004 National Poetry Slam, and the 2006 and 2007 Individual World Poetry Slam. [/box]

Sabrina Melendez: What is your definition of slam poetry?

Andrea Gibson: Slam is a competition that was invented in the mid 80’s by Marc Smith, a construction worker in Chicago who wanted poetry readings to be more engaging, more interesting to audiences, more passionate and exciting. Spoken word poetry is an art form that has become more popular because of slam competitions. Everyone defines spoken word differently. For me, spoken word is the art of reading a poem out loud in a way that emotionally and authentically represents the mood of the poem on the page. It requires a willingness from the poet to enter the poem with her whole self, and to essentially live that poem into sound.

SM: What do you think is lost when poetry is written down rather than said aloud? Vice versa?

AG: I don’t think anything is lost in either direction. I think they are simply different ways of expressing. On the page, for example, the emotion of an entire piece can be contained in a single line break. On the stage, the poet’s voice might crack. I believe both the page and stage are places where a poem can live fully.

SM: Do you consider yourself an activist through your poetry and if so, from what point in time did you begin to consider yourself so?

AG: I started competing in poetry slams in the same year I joined Vox Feminista, a radical performance group of women, trans, and genderqueer people bent on social change. Vox is a group that is as committed to direct action as it is committed to creating art the inspires people to live in a kinder more compassionate way. It’s not that I think art in itself is inactive, but I think to best serve any social movement, that art has to at some point inspire
direct action. Vox’s motto is to “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” and I have in many ways adopted that as the backbone for my writing.

SM: How did you launch your career as a poet? Any advice for people interested in pursuing slam poetry?

AG: I discovered poetry slam in Denver in 1999. I competed for several years with the Denver slam team. I owe more than I can name here to the poets in that community. We travelled to National Poetry Slam competitions around the country, and I was doing a lot of local events as well. In 2003 I started booking my own tours and for the next couple of years did a ton of very small shows featuring at poetry readings and slams in any city that would have me. I was on the road constantly, selling just enough chapbooks each night to buy gas to get to the next city. In 2005 I lucked out and met my current manager, Christen Greene. Christen’s roster, except for me, is made up entirely of musicians– so my career has been structured a little differently than some of the other touring poets I know. When asked to give advice to people wishing to pursue a career in spoken word I often say: 1) write your heart out, 2) write even when you don’t feel like writing 3)come to every single performance open and attentive and electric with the knowing that each stage is a blessing and a privilege, 4) perform your poems to as many people as will listen, in as many venues as you can, in as many cities you are able to travel to, and 5) have an online presence in which your work is readily available for people to find.

SM: In one of your previous interviews, you admitted that you have horrible stage fright. Do you have any coping methods or rituals for before you go on stage?

AG: Yeah, stage fright… you would think after 13 years it would go away, wouldn’t you?? It hasn’t, and honestly I’ve tried just about everything and have not figured out a good way to deal with the pre-performance stage fright, but once I get on the actual stage I’ve learned to channel that nervousness into the emotion of the piece. It’s sort of a meditation in removing my ego from the whole experience and just letting the poem exist and run through me. Typically by my 3rd poem of the set, I’ve stopped sweating through my shirt.

SM: Does your poetry just spew out when you write it or does it take a long time?

AG: I write out loud. I write running around my house, screaming at the walls, jumping on the couch. So yeah, I guess you’d call that part a spewing. What takes time is the piecing together at the end. Linking metaphors, linking rhythm, having all the spewing tie together in a way that works in a whole piece. I’m especially particular about the sound of a poem, until it flows in my ear like a song, it doesn’t feel finished.

SM: Sometimes you use music behind your poetry and sometimes you don’t. What is your take on that? Are there certain poems that stand better alone, and why?

AG: I started using music behind my poems because I have so many incredible musician friends I wanted to collaborate with. Also, when I’m writing I almost always have music playing in the background, so it just felt fitting to add that layer on stage. That said, there are some poems that live best alone. This year I’ve had the opportunity to perform alongside poets who never ever use music with their poems, and I’ve found that single voice on stage incredibly alive and refreshing, more raw and gutsy, in a way. So my use of music may shift a bit in the future.

SM: When you think, do you think in pictures, feelings, or words?

AG: Feelings.

SM: Any recurring dreams you’d be willing to share with us?

AG: I am 4 years old. My father is watering the lawn of the local bank where he’s the janitor. A very very tall cat in a suit and a top hat walks up and throws me over his shoulder. I scream for my father. He looks at me, smiles, and keeps watering the lawn. He, for some reason, can’t see the cat. I keep screaming. The cat carries me to a huge ice house in the middle of the forest. He locks me inside. And then I wake up. (This is what I call the “Bad Cat Dream”. I’ve had it since I was 4 years old. If you have any ideas on how to prematurely remove a dream from your dream life, please let me know. I’d love to never see that cat again. 🙂 )

Early Judgments

Clint Margrave’s The Early Death of Men will die on you early – if you’re expecting something filled with skulls.

Clint Margrave. The Early Death of Men. New York, NY. 2012. 96 pages. $14.95. ISBN 978-1-935520-60-3

Cover art is in interesting thing: we see it and it calls to us, pulling our sweaty palms to the spines of dusty books – or, it makes us violently avert our eyes and wish we’d never caught a glimpse of it. When I first saw the dark drawings of scapulae and vertebrae on Clint Margrave’s latest collection of poems, my sweaty hands were magnetized to its flesh. I believed I was about to bite into a piece of epic, morbid, and perhaps even gothic humanism. In, they are poems of the existential, poems of wisdom gained, of innate humor in dark situations. They are poems of philosophy, nostalgia, of recklessness. Not quite what I was expecting – but of course, I shan’t blame the author for not succeeding at something he wasn’t trying to do. Instead, I shall examine the part that actually matters the most about the book (i.e. not the cover) – the text. A poem’s title:

“The Role of Art”

Quite a noble topic to attempt to tackle in a poem, indeed. One that, after the Enlightenment period and the coming of self-awareness in Western society and thought, that became a topic of debate in many a French salon and thoughtful letter among the edified aristocracy. Surely though, since the topic is so heavily trodden, we should expect Margrave to provide an interesting twist, a new angle. Some lines:

“Like all who tell the truth,/ Art has few patrons,/is always offending somebody./Art is solitary,/rebellious/abstract./It is not communal./And when embraced too fully,/has a tendency/to crash things down.”

Alright. Here are some ideas on this grand topic, and yet I am left asking – where is the power behind these statements? They are constructed like those in a philosophical essay, and lack the spark that is required of a poem: the ability to revitalize what has been said by saying it in a way that can’t be said. The ability to make me, the reader (or listener) have shivers rocket down their spine with the knowledge that they have heard something carrying an undeniable truth. These statements saying things like “Art is an outcast/whose only role/is to protect its value” leave me not with a feeling that I have received a truth, but instead feeling discontent. If the function of this poem was to change or enlighten my perspective as to the role of art, it was not successful.

It can be said that the difference between a novel and a poem is that a novel opens the door to your home (with your good graces) and moves in with all of its stuff – furniture, un-nameable musical instruments, and psychological disorders – and camps out in your living room for a few months. A poem, on the other hand, opens your door without knocking, screams something profound in its haggard and tired voice, and slams the door closed again, perhaps knocking a few priceless artifacts off of your wall while doing so.

And thus, I have more difficulties as I encounter another of Margrave’s poems, Exposed:

“His last night at the hospital,/my dying father was in no condition/to change himself./The nurse and I slipped his pants down,/and for the first time,/I saw he wasn’t circumcised.”

Sure enough, this seemingly autobiographical story holds within it plenty of leads – the one that Margrave chooses is one wherein he speaks that the differences between the Voice and the Father goes beyond the internal, but to the external as well. It’s a perfectly plausible avenue, but one that is executed with such blundering imprecision that I found myself scratching my head after reading it, thinking to myself, “is that really it? Why is this a poem and not a personal essay?” Sure, plainly written, everyman-style poetry has a solid place in literature – Andrea Gibson, with her raw content that screams through a megaphone, even in the dark corners of a university library, is proof of that. But, that’s because she’s effective in extracting all of the emotion out of a thought without delving into contrived similes and cliché literary devices, so the sound of spoken language streamlines the emotion as it would in a tear-jerking argument. In Exposed, Margrave fails to make use of the tools and freedom the poetic form provides to elaborate upon his desired effect, or to compact enough emotion into its lines for me to rationalize its minimal length. I want the real story. I want the background. I want emotional history. I want to feel empathy for the Voice. As a reader, I feel denied of it.

The Early Death of Men is a collection of poetry caught in its fetal stages somewhere between non-fiction essays and everyman poetry, with as much precision as a jackhammer trying to perform neurosurgery. Ignore it, and instead scour and search for some literature that will truly shake, dismantle, and empower you.