Andrea Gibson, author of the new book Lord of the Butterflies, has been sounding off and sinking deep into language for almost 20 years.
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It all started when they (Gibson uses they/them/their pronouns), a college basketball player turned creative writing student, attended the 1999 Denver Poetry Slam and fell in love with spoken word. After being immersed in that scene for five years, they started touring the country, doing open mics.
Now, with a multitude of published poetry beneath their belt, Gibson tours full-time, giving voice to things most people wouldn’t dare say.
While the topics Gibson covers in Lord of the Butterflies – love, loss, politics, identity – will be familiar to fans of the poet, there’s a new vulnerability here. “In this book, I write a lot of things that terrify me to share or even to share it with myself,” says Gibson. “Sometimes just facing the truth of your own life can be so intimidating.”
From the devastating “Ivy,” about visiting an ex’s new apartment, to “Orlando,” a grief-stricken meditation on the Pulse nightclub shooting, Gibson lays their emotions bare but doesn’t indulge in hopelessness. Whipsmart Gibson rants about privilege in “White Feminism (Noun)” and gets real about hook-up culture in “Dear Tinder.” While they could simply amuse with clever turns of phrase, they don’t; instead, they dig into the pain of being human and trying to survive in the current socio-political culture.
“It was almost impossible not to write a political book during these times,” they say. “I can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the emotions I have around the Trump administration.”
While Gibson doesn’t consider poetry or spoken word a form of activism per se, they do believe it can inspire activism. “Just the process of writing can be transformative to you because you’re diving into the heart of what you believe and you’re even shifting your own beliefs through the process of writing,” they say. “But also in experiencing other people’s stories and being witness to other people’s lives and the intimate details of their lives, it has the power to impact everything.”
In Gibson’s eyes, spoken word is a passionate, honest conversation between the poet and the audience. Laughter, tears, anger, and even “sacred rage” emerge in the process, and the space is safe enough to hold them all. But just because they’ve been doing this for years doesn’t mean it gets any easier. “I heard rumors that the nerves would eventually go away, but that hasn’t been the case for me. I am nervous every single time I perform. I heard once that the amount of nerves we have for an event is equal to the amount of respect for it. I consider all those nerves sort of ‘respect butterflies’ flying around my belly,” they say.
For Gibson, poetry is a way to create beauty out of destruction, to find healing from trauma. They believe in the motto of Mexican poet Cesar A. Cruz, that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” especially when it comes to the LGBTQ+ population. “I’m writing for the voting homophobe and I’m also writing for queer people who want to be inspired and need some hope in their lives,” they say.
For Lord of the Butterflies, Gibson approached Minneapolis-based Button Poetry to be their publisher. They admired how the company is bringing spoken word and poetry to young people via its one million YouTube subscribers and over 150,000 books sold.
While readers may not be buying as many poetry books as they used to, Gibson finds people are still interacting with poetry, even if it is on social media, a medium that they find “stressful.” “The art form itself is thriving,” they say. “It’s not as elite of an art form as we might have thought of it in the past.”
Ultimately, though, one gets the sense that Gibson is writing not for notoriety or even “likes,” but to save lives. “You don’t want a soft death,” they write. “You want a hard life that is your life.”
IF YOU GO:
Andrea Gibson, Lord of the Butterflies
With Hieu Minh Nguyen
8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27
$20-$35; find more info here