Andrea Gibson, Performance Poet
I’ve heard my share of slam poetry, and most of the time it just runs together. Poem into poem, poet into poet—a looping formulaic tirade, a la Taylor Mali’s hilarious satire “How to Write a Political Poem.” (If you’re not familiar, you can listen to this poem on Youtube). But there’s almost always a standout. That’s Andrea Gibson.
Andrea Gibson is a fierce risk-taker. The Denver-based activist poet has been writing and performing poetry seriously for about 10 years. In that time she’s been a Denver Grand Champion four times, placed in the top four at the Individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS) three times, and appeared on television, radio, and film. Most recently, she won the 2008 Women of the World Poetry Slam.
Like her live performances, Gibson’s fourth full-length spoken word album Yellowbird is energetic, emotional, and expansive. The title poem exemplifies the magnitude that Gibson can encompass and the distances she can travel in one poem to make one simple, but powerful point. “We have to create/ it is the only thing louder than destruction…” To make this point, Gibson moves deftly through time and space, around the world, and across social issues—from Johnny Cash to Picasso, from New Orleans to Palestine, from education to apartheid. The poem “Yellowbird” (watch it on Youtube) is simultaneously hilarious and serious, universal and personal, critical and self-conscious, timely and timeless. She has an amazing flair for metaphor, but sometimes her lines are so painfully and direct and indicting:
Why is art the first class to be dropped by any public school?
Why are music rooms empty in junior highs from New York City to Nashville, Tennessee
How can you burn CD after CD after CD
while filling your tank with an infinite amount of gas
like the war is worth funding, but music isn’t?
Our culture is a prison…
In fact, American culture and policy are among Gibson’s favorite targets. In “Prison-Industrial” she describes how it feels to be a Caucasian woman giving a poetry reading in a men’s prison.
My butterflies have become suicide bombers crashing to the walls of my gut.
Yes, I am searching your eyes for Jeffrey Dahmer,
searching your face for blood red crime.
It’s what white people do.
We look for weapons of mass destruction in the Garden of Eden,
or we cuff you to the trunk of the same tree your ancestors were hung from.
The land of the free has replaced its plantations with penitentiaries…
Gibson does not hold back in her indictments of large issues and institutions. One of my favorite poems is “Every Month,” the shortest poem on the album, which wastes no words in taking pointed and irreverent aim at religion. However, as the lines above illustrate, Gibson is not afraid to turn that sharply focused lens on herself. The poems on Yellowbird are complex and honest. She makes herself vulnerable and holds herself just as accountable as anyone or anything else she might target. For instance, in “Trellis” she contemplates how one rape victim’s silence can lead to another woman’s victimization. “Name That Meat” begins with the poet, a vegetarian, questioning what she and her meat-eating girlfriend have in common—and then goes on to the gamut of intimate, everyday hypocrisies: “I got a closet full of protest signs buried by all the times I wish I had been kinder to a friend.” Gibson struggles with the contradictions between idealism and reality, between stereotypes and the actions of real people; and she keenly observes: “we all grow in two directions/ one towards the sky, limbs holding hymns or war cries that all the world can see/ the other beneath the surface, roots gripping a truth less obvious….”
For all its cynicism and uncertainty, Yellowbird is also filled with hope and redemption—or at least the possibility of redemption. Poems like “Thank Goodness” and “Yellowbird” celebrate strength, resilience, and optimism in seemingly hopeless circumstances, without becoming overly sentimental or cliché. In fact, some of Gibson’s most “inspirational” lines are her most inspired, lines like “we are thick skin covering nothing but wishbones” (“Thank Goodness”) and “I don’t know if God will ever have a purple heart,/ but I know we have a bow that we can pull above the strings of a combat book and make it sing” (“Yellowbird”). Several poems are made even more powerful by the accompanying music. On this record, Gibson calls up the talents of a variety of musicians and songwriters, including Holly Smokovitz, Chris Pureka, and Kim Taylor. On some tracks the music lends a mournful, mellowing quality, in other cases the music lifts Gibson’s words like the wings of the birds that fly through these poems.
There are, unfortunately, a few places where Yellowbird falls with a big, fat thud. Gibson sometimes lapses into the cliché spoken word cadence (fastfastfast STOP), which sometimes serves the poems perfectly and other times is very distracting. Even more off-putting are the few rare moments when the poems go too far, to a place that feels shocking for the sake of shocking, as in “How It Ends”: “…and when you ask if I want to role play altar boys fucking in the church kitchen during Sunday mass/ I will say ‘hell yes’ but only if you leave a hickey on my ass in the shape of Jesus’s palm so I can be sure I got nailed down.” To be clear, it is not the religious imagery that I object to—rather the unnecessary salaciousness in the midst of an otherwise tender poem.
But these are rare lapses, smudges in an otherwise awe-inspiring work of art. Andrea Gibson is a reflective, honest poet, and Yellowbird carries listeners on a powerful, emotional journey. In these poems, she will challenge you to think, to create, to change—even just a little bit. I challenge you not to respond.
Better yet, check her out live this Wednesday, October 21, at 7:30 p.m., at Milkboy Coffee in Ardmore. Tickets are $5 in advance, $7 at the door. For more information visit www.andreagibson.org. She’ll also be performing at Bryn Mawr College this Friday, but unfortunately for those of us outside the tri-college consortium that gig’s closed to the public.