“I cry as much as most people pee,” Andrea Gibson read from one of her poems this past Thursday. As the last event in Take Back the Month, the Rape and Sexual Assult Network and its various cosponsors brought a queer, feminist spoken word poet to campus to fill Goodrich Hall with beautiful words of catharsis, pain, healing and empowerment. Gibson’s lyrical lines flowed out of her mouth with immense passion, and a lot of her poetry was accompanied with appropriate melodies that made the space one of solidarity and empathy. Gibson’s humor penetrated throughout her performance, frequently making fun of how secluded Williamstown is and calling out a predominantly straight community with lines like, “You’ll never hear a church organ again and not think ‘that’s so gay.’” Gibson’s wit rang painfully true. She commented on the problems with rigidity in academia and higher education, saying that she spent college learning from nuns and took philosophy classes that covered no feminist or queer theories. “My environmental studies class teacher never believed in dinosaurs. I knew feminism existed, but it was all rumors.”
Gibson began each poem with a commentary on the story behind the poem. Her commentary was just as scintillating as her poetry. She talked about how when she taught writing workshops for little kids, they all wrote poems for their friends. “Why don’t we do that anymore?” Gibson asked. Thus she began a poem for her best friend: “Angels of the Get Through.” The poem, with memorable lines including “fine is the suckiest word,” “an avalanche of feel-it-all” and “everyone’s survival looks like some form of death,” touched upon the sincerity of undying friendship and how her best friend paid for three years of her rent when she was a struggling poet. This poem was also dedicated to anyone in the audience who was having “the hardest time of their lives,” and it brought many listeners to tears because the words felt so true, so powerful. Gibson spoke the words that many of us have held inside us for a really long time, and to hear them spoken in the open made the listener feel vulnerable but also relieved.
Gibson had another poem titled “This is to the men catcalling my girlfriend when I’m walking beside her” that called out the patriarchy and the men who disrespect women, the violence of her words paralleling the violence these men commit against women. This piece aroused both anger and agreement from the listener, especially at the line that expressed great frustration at how society treats women: “It is not hard to just keep your mouth shut, just keep your mouth shut. You can do it, MAN, I know you can.”
But Gibson contrasted this frustration with telling a story of how her father was an ally to her grandmother. Even when Gibson and her father argued over her queerness and identity, she remembered how powerful it was when her father refused to go out at all on weekends during high school because his father didn’t hit his mother when he was at home. This story showed the empathy Gibson held for humanity; her ability to notice the beautiful deeds of individuals was highlighted in her poetry. Her poem, “Photoshopping My Sister’s Mugshot,” was a poetic endeavor that stemmed out of having to write a character statement for her sister. Gibson asked the audience to not record this poem, as she was still fighting a personal battle with coming to terms with her sister’s heroin addiction.
As part of Take Back the Month programming, Gibson’s poetry gave hope to survivors and people suffering from various traumas with identity, mental health and self-image. Her poem “Letter to the Playground Bully, from Andrea, Age 8, and three-fourths” was a reclaiming of her kindness as a little girl when faced with bullying from people who would’ve rearranged her initials Andrea Faye Gibson to form “fag.” As “she grew up to be a war,” she realized the power in growing into a kinder, more compassionate version of herself. “Birthday” was a poem dedicated to the struggles of dealing with depression as a female and “I Sing My Body Electric” was a poem about loving her body and treating her body as an ally rather than an enemy.
Gibson said, “Art has two responsibilities: to tell the truth and to create hope.” For the audience, her poetry occupied both roles in the most earnest fashion. She assured the audience that “it’s ok to not be ok” and wished that we can be more public about comforting ourselves as she instructed us to give ourselves a self-hug. “Bless you from the queer gods of the universe,” Gibson said as she closed her performance, but her poetry remained in my head for a long time after.