I’ve always had a hard time expressing myself,” says poet Andrea Gibson.
It’s hard to believe, especially since Gibson has made a career doing just that. There’s not much Gibson hasn’t shared with an audience, with poems covering topics including love, loss, sexuality, gender fluidity, mental illness, suicide, feminism, race, class and more.
It was poetry that gave Gibson a voice.
“For me, as long as I can remember, even as a tiny kid, my safety came from being like, ‘This is happening inside of me!’ Hiding things has always felt toxic in my body,” Gibson says. “I started writing because I have such a difficult time articulating myself in a moment. I loved that [by] writing poetry, I could think about one line for two months if I wanted to. And I could really get my point across. I had so much anxiety, that speaking was difficult for me then. I loved finally having a platform where I could comfortably express myself.”
With almost two decades of performing poetry under their belt, Gibson (who prefers the gender-neutral ‘they’ pronoun) is a four-time Denver Grand Slam Champion and was the first winner of the Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2008. This month, Gibson released their seventh album, Hey Galaxy, and is currently on tour through North America and Europe, with a stop at the Boulder Theater on Feb. 10.
Gibson has lived in Boulder since 1999. It was that relocation that set Gibson off on the road to being a professional poet.
“When I moved to Boulder, I actually moved here from New Orleans with a girlfriend, and we broke up almost as soon as we got here,” Gibson says. “There was something about that breakup that made me brave.”
Gibson signed up for an open mic at the now-closed Penny Lane coffeehouse.
“I hadn’t ever done it before, but you know when you get your heart busted and you’re just like ‘whatever’?” Gibson says. “I had just given up on everything. So I was like, I’m just going to do it. I read a poem and I was so nervous that the paper in my hand was shaking louder than my voice.”
Even though writing had always been a part of their life, Gibson says they never considered poetry as a full-time career because it seemed farfetched. But touring opportunities came, then professional representation and a series of other opportunities that Gibson says came through luck.
“I just felt so grateful to be doing it,” Gibson says. “I couldn’t believe it, and nobody believed me. They’d ask what I do and I’d say I’m a poet, and they’d laugh. Really though! I know it’s weird.”
Since even before they could call it their job, Gibson wrote every free minute available. When they had a day off from teaching at a Montessori school in Boulder, Gibson would wake up early to write and continue through the night. And their process hasn’t changed much in 20 years.
“If it’s a writing day for me, I lock myself in a room all day, and I’m pacing, and I’m doing a lot of yelling, whispering, sometimes singing. If you were to walk in on me, it would be an embarrassing experience for both of us because I’m making sounds that aren’t words. I sound sort of like a drunk seagull.
“If I finally feel like I have something, then I’ll run back to the desk and type it down,” they continue. “And then suddenly it will be night time, and it’ll feel like only an hour has passed.”
Gibson calls this process making the puzzle pieces, saying the most annoying part of writing a poem is figuring out where all the pieces go and how they fit together. For Gibson, rhythm is essential for the poems. They know what the poem sounds like even before the words come.
“I always liked the idea that if somebody didn’t speak English, they might be able to hear me perform and still have a sense of at least the emotion of the piece and have a sense of maybe what the poem is about,” Gibson says. “The emotion to me is the most important thing to capture, and I just don’t always know if that’s done with words.”
To write a poem, Gibson taps into their emotions, and what needs to be said most that day. They ask, “What would I feel bad going to sleep not having written about?” Gibson describes it as a cathartic experience.
“It’s the time that I feel the most OK, or the most at peace in the world, or the most that I’m doing what I’m meant to do,” Gibson says.
Being a slam poet, Gibson does eventually have to leave the writing room to perform their work on stage. Considering the shaking paper at their first open mic, Gibson has come a long way in terms of performing, even if they don’t think so.
“I watch my friends perform, and I am so jealous the whole time. They are like, ‘Look at me!’” Gibson says. “And I feel like half the time I’m onstage, I have no idea what I’m doing with my body.”
But over the years they’ve found ways to cope. Following their therapist’s advice, Gibson gives themself permission to tell the audience exactly what they’re feeling.
“So even if I start having a panic attack mid poem, I stop the poem and say, ‘Hey y’all, I’m completely coming out of my skin here, and this is what it feels like. I can’t feel my hands. My face feels like it’s gonna fall off.’ To have the freedom to do that has chilled me out onstage,” Gibson says. “Because it’s one thing to have the initial anxiety. It’s another thing to feel like you have to hide something. Whenever I feel like I have to hide something, everything in me feels off and bad. If I ever feel like I’m having a dishonest experience with the audience, that just feels gross.”
Over the past few years, Gibson has opened up about their struggle with depression and anxiety. Becoming more transparent with their mental illness has been beneficial for them and their audience. Gibson spends a lot of time talking to fans after shows and listening to others’ similar stories.
“[People tell me] how refreshing it was to hear somebody actually talking out loud about these things, and also having other people sharing their stories with me, it began to feel like more of a communal thing,” Gibson says. “I got more of a sense of how important spoken word is to people.”
The community aspect is vital for Gibson. And especially considering the state of the country right now, with a never-ending cycle of bad news, Gibson hopes their show can provide a space for people.
“God, I want some comfort to come from somewhere. I know when I’m doing a show, that everybody else has come from that same news cycle,” they say. “Maybe it’s not even news, maybe it’s the life they’re living. Maybe they’re looking at getting deported. Maybe they had to sneak out of their parents’ house to even get to the show because their parents are homophobic. I consider all that going into the night.”
Gibson also realizes that since they’ve written about suicide and mental illness, that at least a handful of people in the audience could be struggling with similar issues.
“So I want to be comforting in a way,” they say. “And sometimes that looks different. Sometimes the truth is comforting, even if it’s a heavy truth. And sometimes it’s just a reminder that we’re not alone and trying to create a space where folks leave feeling less alone.”
Along with sharing their honesty and connecting with the crowd, as an activist, Gibson is hoping to inspire the audience to take action and make the world a better place.
Activism has always been a part of Gibson’s life. They say they’ve spent the past year at protests, rallies and just generally screaming against the Trump administration. Gibson has also spent many years as a member of Vox Feminista, a multimedia performance group for social change.
Gibson frequently refers to Vox Feminista’s motto, “To comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable,” as a source of inspiration. Much of their work is providing comfort to those that seek it, but it’s the latter half of the quote that is the bigger challenge.
“When I think about disturbing the comfortable, I think of, and maybe this isn’t fair and maybe it is, Trump voters. Unfortunately, not enough Trump voters are coming to my shows,” Gibson says with a laugh. “That’s the hard thing. I’m writing all my disturbing poems for people who will never hear them. How do I get Trump voters to my show?”
As a proponent for truth, Gibson says at least now the ugliness that riddles the U.S. is being uncovered.
“It’s no longer hidden. It’s out there in such a way that we’re seeing it,” Gibson says. “The country has always been this racist. It didn’t just suddenly get racist with Trump.”
Suffering from what, they call, political mood swings, Gibson says it’s hard to be hopeful, but there’s a glimmer in the distance. Gibson sees a parallel between poetry and the current political state.
“If I believe in what poetry does, which is bring truth to light, then maybe there’s a way that I can believe that this a really transformative time, that the truth is coming into the light,” Gibson says. “Some huge change could come from that. So that’s what gives me hope.”
Gibson looks toward the future wide-eyed and curious, with a thirst for more understanding.
From their early days in poetry, Gibson has learned a lot by realizing, paradoxically, maybe they haven’t learned much at all.
“When I first started writing, I was learning so much so quickly that I was writing from a place of knowing a lot, like this is the right way and this is how to think, and anybody else who doesn’t think this way is stupid,” they say. “I had a really black-and-white thought processes of right and wrong. And I think one of the ways it’s evolved over the years is I feel like I know less, and I wonder more. I’m more invested in curiosity and asking more questions instead of thinking things are as simple as they look on the surface.”
As the old adage goes, the older you get, the more you realize you know nothing. Gibson agrees with a laugh, “Pretty soon, I’ll know nothing.”
On the Bill: Andrea Gibson. 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10. Boulder Theater. 2032 14th St., Boulder, bouldertheater.com. Event is sold out.