“I’m having an emotional day,” Andrea Gibson, award-winning poet and activist, said before a thronged KnightSpot on Feb. 28. “I’m going to start my period at midnight.” Menstruation woes, however, were by no means key to Gibson’s emotive performing style. With arrestingly lucid imagery, delivered with the impassioned, quavering quality of her voice, Gibson is likely to enthrall an audience at any time of the month.
Growing up in the woods of northern Maine, Gibson struggled with gender identity and societal snubbing of her sexuality. Her experiences have largely influenced her writings, which emphasize themes of ignorance, self-loathing and prejudice.
The first poem she recited, a coming to terms with sexuality, death, family and adulthood, allowed listeners an undaunted glimpse into her life. Lines such as “snicker bar windpipe” rendered the piece a breathtakingly specific autobiography, as Gibson led us through her childhood.
Many of Gibson’s poems are fearlessly personal, often bringing awareness to her own bouts with depression and hardship. Ironically, by focusing on her own stories, she turned attention onto ours.
“I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out” encourages self-acceptance, especially on days when it feels impossible. Written as “a love poem for my body,” according to Gibson, the poem guided us through her memories –“the day my ribcage became monkey bars for a girl” – and allusions to recovery from attempted suicide. She repeated, “This is my body” throughout the poem, as if to admit it, embrace it and then offer it as a medium through which we can attain our own inner peace.
In addition to connecting with the audience through common understanding, Gibson drew on conditions in other parts of the world and suggested the universality of human struggle. “When the Bough Breaks” centers on international narratives, asking, “Do we really believe our need for Prozac has nothing to do with Baghdad, with Kabul, with the Mexican border?” Her words urged listeners to view others’ pain not as something concentrated elsewhere but as something that deserves consciousness beyond our own personal issues.
Gibson spoke of life’s heaviness but also knew when to incorporate humor. In one of her most original works, she refers to her dog as “my beating heart with fur and legs.” The poem states, “I know you think it’s insane I still poop in the house,” gradually delving deeper into the absurdities of being human. The end product is a creative inquiry into a canine’s reality and a wish for the simple wisdom that all dogs seem to have.
Though Gibson often zeroed in on social issues, she always left room for hope. At the very end of her set, she delivered a poem in homage to Tyler Clementi, a college student who committed suicide in 2010 after being targeted by homophobic cyberbullying. While acknowledging Clementi’s story, Gibson also heartingly entreated into the life within each of us, reciting, “If the only thing we have to gain in staying is each other, my god that is plenty, my god that is enough.”