Andrea Gibson is as nervous about this interview as I am. One would probably not expect a spoken word poet who is currently on an international tour promoting their seventh album and their fourth book to be nervous about a phone interview with a twenty-something from Maine — but Gibson, having grown up in the northern part of the state, tells me that this is the tour stop that always makes them the most nervous. This isn’t because they’re nervous about what anyone is going to think, but because “I just really want this show to be great for the people who are there. I want them to have a blast, even if they’re crying.”
Their work has a way of doing that — making folks cry. Gibson themself is no exception to this rule. “There’s been a lot of crying on this tour,” they tell me. “I’ve cried a lot while reading these poems and I’m thinking I’ve got to get a grip because you can’t talk if you’re crying, but it’s happened more this year than any other year that I’ve performed, where I’m getting really emotional on stage and just giving myself permission to do that.” And there is a lot to feel. After a deep breath to calm our mutual nerves, Gibson and I chatted on the phone for an hour to talk about their new album, Hey Galaxy, and all of the feelings that go with it.
I would love to hear what it was like for you to put this album together in the Trump era.
Ugh, I still hate that we have to say Trump era. In all my years of doing spoken word, I’ve never made an album that was just love poems, so I wanted to do that. I was so excited to create this thing that was just all about love; if I had my way I would only ever write love poems. Then he got elected and I just couldn’t stomach not speaking to the truth more directly. So I stopped in my tracks and started writing more political stuff. In terms of keeping the love on the album, I never want to put out an album that doesn’t have love poems on it. But that’s sadly also political because I’m talking about a woman.
How did growing up in Maine influence your work?
Probably in every single way. I don’t even know if I could put words to it. I know growing up there really influenced how much I absolutely have to bring some sort of beauty into everything I write, whether it’s the trees or the moon or the coast. Also Jesus; I’ll think I’ve finally written a poem where I’ve left Jesus out but I never seem to forget about him. In my earlier writing there was definitely a lot of anger toward conservative folks, but then later on I started to wake up to some of the ways my writing was, in retrospect, classist in my lens on things. So then I started writing in a way that was trying to be a little more introspective about that place and about working class folks and about the things I loved about growing up there.
Can you tell me about your early experiences with spoken word?
The first time I got on the mic, I had just gotten my heart broken and I went to this poetry reading and for the first time I was brave enough because I was so devastated I didn’t even care. I remember the paper was shaking so hard in my hands you could hardly hear my voice over it, but then the next week I went to my first slam and I could hardly sit in my chair because I couldn’t believe something like that existed. I was so excited that nobody was reading off a paper, I’d never seen that before. It was so terrifying, and it still was for years — I still have stage fright. But I just loved it, and I loved that it felt like a movement. Spoken word to me is very much a social justice movement. You don’t go to a slam without hearing poems that were written in the hope of creating some change.
Can you tell me more about that idea of spoken word poetry being political?
Putting your own story into the world is a radical act. The experience of sitting in a room and being a quiet witness to other people’s stories is something that can change the world, and so the whole nature of the poetry slam is political even if the poem is about pudding; someone beat me in a poetry slam once with a love poem for pudding, and in my mind that’s political because it’s beauty and, sadly, beauty has become a political thing.
What do you hope people feel walking out the door after your shows?
I want people to leave my shows feeling like they’re not alone in the difficult things they’re feeling or experiencing. I want them to feel inspired and excited to create great things in the world. Those are the core things on my mind. I know a lot of people come to my shows alone, and it’s scary to do that, so I hope that they leave feeling like they have some community or like there are people in their city who are like them.
Andrea Gibson | with Chastity Brown | Wed, May 2 | Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St., Portland | $19-21 | www.portcitymusichall.com