If you have not yet heard or seen Andrea Gibson, you may not have learned the true meaning of “spellbinding.” Gibson, who performed in Baxter Hall Saturday night amidst the clatter and chatter wafting over from Late Night, is a nationally-renowned spoken word poet from Maine. The subject of her poetry ranges from politics to love to queer and feminist issues and to other topics less easy to pin down.
Gibson is small and slender, with short choppy hair and a voice that defies her size. The power of Gibson’s poetry seemed to come from the sincerity with which she spoke it. As a listener, you knew she was telling you the truth as she sees it and as best as she can put into words. She was also endearingly fidgety, but nevertheless very present as a performer, telling the audience whatever came to her mind in between poems (at one point, she paused the background music right before beginning a piece to share that, from her vantage point on the stage, the audio equipment had formed a shadow heart on the ground).
As a self-proclaimed activist, many of her poems were powerfully and cogently critical of political issues. “One third of the homeless men in this country are veterans, and we have the nerve to support our troops with pretty yellow ribbons while giving nothing but dirty looks to their outstretched hands,” she railed in one piece criticizing the Iraq War.
While some of her lines were straightforward like this one, most of her writing was packed with so much imagery, along with their metaphors and connotations, that it could leave a listener reeling. The vividness with which she expressed these metaphors ensured that the deluge did not overwhelm the audience, but at the same time made her poems worth listening to a second, third or maybe 10th time (as it was for this writer).
“Maybe there are cartwheels in your mouth. Maybe your words will grow up to be gymnasts.
Maybe you have been kicking people with them by accident,” she said in a piece called “A Letter to the Playground Bully, from Andrea, Age 8½.” This piece is also exemplary of the range she displayed in her performance – while some poets develop tendencies for a particular themes or moods, Gibson’s poems leaped from tragedy to brazenness to whimsy to wistfulness, although all were characteristically genuine.
Of course, one of the things Gibson’s poetry is most famous for is her original portrayal of queer issues, and in her performance at the College she did not disappoint. She read several poems that cast light on various related topics, including an eerie yet touching one about homosexuals around the world who are burned in punishment for their actions, a poignant and funny piece about her experience with children’s carefree attitude towards gender and a heart-wrenching love poem about the right to marry, told as if she were at the deathbed of her beloved.
In addition to her breathtaking performance, Gibson also led a poetry workshop on Sunday morning, in which a small group of students gathered to listen and discuss some contemporary spoken word poems and try a little writing of their own. Here, she also read another of her poems that is worth mentioning, though it wasn’t in the original performance, because it encapsulates the essence of what makes Gibson’s poetry valuable.
The poem, called “Say Yes,” begins with the line, “When two violins are placed in the same room, if a chord on one violin is struck, the other violin will sound the note. If this is your definition of hope, this is for you.” Halfway through, she implored the listeners with a vivid demand: “If you’re writing letters to the prisoners, start tearing down the bars. If you’re handing out flashlights in the dark, start handing out stars.” The poem closes dramatically and movingly: “Play like Saturn is on its knees, proposing with all of its 10,000 rings that we give every breath – this is for saying yes.”
After Saturday night’s performance, I have no doubt that many people were saying yes – to Andrea Gibson.