December 8, 2013
2008 (and first ever) Women of the World Poetry Slam winner, Andrea Gibson, has amassed a large following. This was evidenced by her sold-out show earlier this month at The Crocodile in Seattle. The crowd was visibly entranced; they felt as though someone was speaking to them, speaking of their issues, problems, and joys. On her posters and website, Gibson is labeled as an “artist” and “activist,” two roles that I think are very hard to play at the same time.
Amazingly, Utah State representative, Christine Johnson chose to skip the morning prayer, at a state legislature meeting, in favor of reading Gibson‘s poem “Say Yes.” This prompted a discussion on homosexuality in the media and an analysis by Utah‘s local news, who reduced the meaning of the poem to being about nothing more than just being gay. This is a direct dialogue that the poet has sparked and it is very admirable and inspirational that a poem, or poet, still has the ability to do something like that. The more misplaced queer youth that listen to her poetry, the better; it is positive to present them with a successful and powerful voice that may have a corresponding perspective. I respect Andrea for her success in becoming a true inspiration to a large group of people, which I’m sure includes a high percentage in the under twenty-one demographic. She’s made a point of mentioning that all of her tour dates are all-ages, because that is something that is important to her–she knows her audience. I arrived at the venue intrigued to witness any poet who was able to sell more than five-hundred tickets and sell out a venue.
Unfortunately, in order to make her points and have such a wide appeal, the art suffers. I am a long-time performer of spoken word and even teach a class to high school students, giving writing prompts and honing in performances. There are some fundamental problems that I find with Gibson‘s solo show, most of which, from my experience, can apply to spoken word performances, in general. First, there was music present in the background during most of her poems. That is all fine and well, but the choice of music was so bland that I wish that it hadn’t been there, at all. It also never changed much throughout the night–just the same soft guitar picking through chords, with Gibson‘s poetry running continuously over it. There was no instance that the music ever had more of a role than she did, or when her poetry played start and stop, to some extent, with the music. It just maintained the same basic formula: background music runs, poetry goes on top in the foreground.
The poet’s delivery also shifted very little. Gibson employed a wavering, trembling voice at nearly all times, with many audible inhales. Exaggerating some words, she dismissed others softly, while smiling in the–very common for spoken word–attitude of humbling oneself below the “earth-crushing” metaphor that they’ve just created, or emotion that they’ve expressed. Too often, the 38-year-old used whimsical metaphors referring to collective childhood memories. I can remember her employing the reference of skipping rocks, within two consecutive poems. There was no newness for me in these comparisons. I like to be more surprised by the imagery in poetry, and I didn’t find the content of Andrea Gibson‘s work to be overly radical, either.
My ability to listen was never challenged; nothing seemed like the artist was pushing boundaries, or directing the audience into action. The repetitiousness of her delivery made me view it as merely an audience ploy, lessening the impact of her points. I recall hearing a young man–probably twenty-two years old–utilizing a similar tremble in his voice, while reciting a poem about trying to cum and hang himself, at the same time. I guarantee that this was not strictly intended to shock, at all, but was genuinely something that he needed to say; it was clear in his voice. The general feeling in the crowd for those who witnessed that poem was that we shouldn’t be listening, that it was too revealing; we were challenged to listen, to sit with the tremor of this boy’s hands. I remember feeling an audience becoming less and less comfortable, as a poet continued to list names for female genitalia in a sort of cathartic ritualized song. It is hard to describe why something affects you more than something else, but you always know when there’s truth.
It is undeniable that a common thread in Andrea Gibson‘s poetry involves self-harm (mostly wrist-cutting), struggling to fit-in, and life in America as a queer youth. For someone who has experienced a fair amount of spoken word, these topics are nothing fresh or daring. Spoken word poetry has always been a medium for marginalized and discriminated voices. The world of spoken word has always been inclusive and accepting of such subjects. This foundation, the medium needs to accept as fact, and then go from there. When using spoken word as a tool for the youth to express their voices, that shock of being able to speak one’s mind and being listened to is special and rewarding. For a professional spoken word artist, choice of music, delivery, and message have to be analyzed as well. There is, admittedly, also a personal bias in this review, which is that I don’t believe that self-love and radical acceptance can save us from the problems of discrimination and sexism that Gibson brings up. Her poetry is optimistic and hopeful, because anyone can be beautiful, and anyone can have power (sort of the morals of the story). There were not poems that ended with suicide, or poems that really focused on depression, without the need to be hopeful, which I see as one reality with which I connect. However, whether it was done in passing or as a metaphor, she mentioned the cutting of her wrists, over and over, but never truly detailed and dissected the experience. I definitely believe in the potential for Andrea Gibson‘s poetry to be therapeutic for those who find it therapeutic, but for me, her work is only mildly artistically interesting.