Andrea Poet

The winner of the first ever Women of the World Poetry Slam talks Trump, guns and Christianity with Sam Bennett

Andrea Poet Black and White

 Are you shy? I ask Andrea Gibson. The American spoken word performer laughs. “Yeah – I’m sort of a hermit when I’m home.” Where they live there are plenty of llamas, pigs and bunnies, “and not very many people – I spend a lot of time with myself.” They are less shy immediately following a gig. “After I perform and get all of my anxious energy out, I have lots of conversations with people – that’s when I feel the most open. But my shyness is so much that I never thought I would get onstage and perform. The fact I ever did is a miracle. And it’s still just as scary as it was the first time – I can’t believe it hasn’t gotten less terrifying.”

Onstage nervousness in part informs the title of the LGBT poet’s latest collection, Lord of the Butterflies. It is further based on the impact spoken word can have on audiences. “The art form is full of goosebumps; you never go to a spoken word show and not get goosebumps and butterflies.” Lord of the Butterflies is also one of the nicknames they gave their girlfriend – ‘Hey Galaxy, Hey Lord of the Butterflies, Hey Pudding,’ reads the poem ‘Give Her’.

They laugh again when I ask if it’s their angriest collection yet. “It definitely has a lot of loving rage in it. It also has a lot of humour and tenderness, but I think the fact Trump had just gotten elected when I started writing, has contributed to it being a more angry collection.” Lord of the Butterflies doesn’t hold back on the President or those who voted for him, ‘Dear Trump Voter’ including lines such as: ‘Your vote for man who is guaranteeing every woman a jury of her rapist’s peers.’

Did they have any feeling Trump would get in? No. “Nobody around me had any idea. I remember, the night he got elected, feeling more deflated than I’d ever felt in my life. I was in such despair and depression, as many people were, as soon as he got elected and for months afterwards.” The artist was perhaps naïve in not seeing it coming. “I was probably paying attention to my community of people where it just seemed so far-fetched that someone like that could become President. I wasn’t paying attention to the actual reality of this country. So he got elected. And here we are.”

‘Your Life’ is a lookback at Gibson’s schooldays. “I don’t know if genderful is a word,” they say, “but I keep calling it a genderful pep talk to my younger self. It’s about my growing up in a very conservative town, in a very conservative time.” Were they a happy kid? “I think I was a mixture. I had a lot of sadness, a ton of fear, but I also had a lot of joy.” Growing up in rural Maine, “My days were just filled running around in the woods, building tree houses, biking to my friend’s house. It’s very cold where I come from so we would snowmobile all around town and sledge all day long. I have those memories and I also have memories of feeling very different and not having anybody I could communicate that with. So it was all things, sort of how my life is now, I’m happy sometimes and I’m miserable sometimes.” Andrea Poet Behind Gate

I mention a line in ‘Your Life’ about them killing their own God. “I grew up in the Baptist church and was very Christian. Then as soon as I came out, I felt like I had to let all of that go to love myself and honour who I was. That was the way I felt for quite a few years, but after some time I think it shifted a little. I don’t identify as Christian now, I don’t identify with any religion, but I definitely can see that people can be religious and also very celebratory and loving towards queer people. But in the beginning I was like, ‘I am done with this whole thing.’ I didn’t think I could love the God they were talking about and love myself at the same time.”

The shooting at Pulse nightclub in 2016 is also written of in Butterflies. “The process of writing [‘Orlando’] went by so quickly,” its author says. “I felt so emotional, and the poem came out really fast, sort of like sobbing. The poem feels a bit like a prayer to me. It’s one of the most difficult I have to perform onstage, I hate performing it, it’s painful. Usually a piece gets easier over time to read at a show. This one hasn’t at all, and I think it’s because a lot of things that need to be changing here aren’t.”

What will it take for the gun laws in the States to alter? No amount of death seems to do the job. “No, it doesn’t, which is just heartbreaking. Every time another massacre takes place, you think, ‘Ok, this is going to change it.’ And it doesn’t. I think it’s going to require some sort of revolt that is so loud that people on the side of guns just can’t get elected. But so far that hasn’t happened.”

‘It’s true what they say about the gays being so fashionable,’ says ‘Orlando’, ‘our ghosts never go out of style.’ What is meant by this? “Another line is talking about history not being history,” they say. “I guess it speaks to the fact that LGBTQ people are still not safe.” Ever since the Pulse massacre, they’ve stood onstage at shows thinking about the safety of their “mostly queer” audience. “If I go to a club and I’m dancing, I think about it – it feels like a threat everywhere now.” They’ve seen change over the years and felt like a gentler world was being created for future generations. “To watch that not be the case is awful.”

They then direct me to ‘Gender in the Key of Lyme Disease’ and the line, “Even when the truth isn’t hopeful, the telling of it is.” This is what they had in mind when writing about difficult subjects. “Especially in the US right now the government is not telling the truth. There are so many lies ruling our culture, that to tell the truth right now – even if the truth is a hard one to hear – is so important.”

Andrea Poet Facing Away Pose Black and White

Andrea Gibson’s Lord of the Butterflies tour is coming to the UK in May. See andreagibson.org for full details.

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