Spoken-word artist Andrea Gibson is in the fight for hearts and minds
As a teenager growing up in remote Calais, Maine, on the Canadian border, the poet Andrea Gibson lived for basketball. “My little town felt so bad for me, shooting around at the public court so late, that they actually gave me the keys so I could turn the lights on myself,” Gibson says.
After the Calais High School girls’ basketball team went undefeated and won a state championship in 1993, the young boys playing hoop at the park took to identifying as their heroes: not Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, but Andrea Gibson, Tracy Mulholland, and the rest of the Lady Blue Devils.
“It was a beautiful thing that happened in terms of gender,” Gibson recalls. “These little boys calling themselves our names.”
Gibson, who uses the nonbinary pronouns they and them, has been performing a new poem of late on tour called “How I Became a Poet.” It isn’t really about poetry — it’s about basketball.
“It’s probably the longest poem I’ve ever written,” Gibson says, on the phone ahead of a Wednesday headlining date at the Paradise. “I can see the faces in the crowd. I can tell they’re not getting the metaphors.”
Fifteen years or so into a spoken-word career, Gibson is a starting all-star of the national slam poetry scene. They recently released their fourth book of new poems, “Lord of the Butterflies,” and seventh album of spoken performances, “Hey Galaxy,” as well as a brand new book called “How Poetry Can Change Your Heart,” co-written with life partner and fellow poet Megan Falley. Gibson’s latest project, a video for the poem “America, Reloading,” is a chilling reminder that the call for gun reform has yielded almost no results.
In the spoken-word field, Gibson says, “you’re often writing about things you don’t want to be writing about. If I had my way, I’d be writing only love poems.
“But it’s a political art form. You’re trying to write to change minds and hearts.”
With subjects including bigotry, homophobia, the patriarchy, and the violence these biases incite, Gibson’s work is confrontational. But it’s also joyful. From the new poem “First Love,” for instance: “[A]s soon as you loved me/all my callous went away./ My hands so soft it hurt to pray.”
The publisher calls “Lord of the Butterflies” a collection of “protests, panic attacks and pride parades.”
“I only have one poem that I’ve officially ‘retired,’ ” says Gibson, who lives in Colorado. “It’s about marriage equality. It could still be relevant in many ways, but it’s the one I’d written that I saw something change on” — now that gay marriage has been legalized — “and I decided I wouldn’t read it anymore. I wanted to celebrate something getting better.
“This is a destructive time. I think the opposite energy of destruction is creating. The more we’re creating, the more we’re living in opposition to this sort of violence of the culture. . . . Spoken-word artists write poems that are rallying cries, protest songs.”
While Gibson finds writing arduous — “I’m the type who will lock myself in a room for 12 hours, and nobody will see me the entire day” — Falley can sit down over a bowl of cereal and knock out a new poem.
“It’s frustrating that she doesn’t love the process as much as I do,” Gibson admits. Unlike her partner, Falley prefers the theatrical aspect of spoken word: “She loves being onstage,” says Gibson. “I don’t come to the stage naturally. I’ve got a whole lot of stage fright. I love the art form so much, but I’m terrified every time I’m up there.”
Not that you’d know it, the way Gibson commands a room, with a relentless sense of urgency and emotions — “having feelings all over” — leavened by an occasional flash of humor. Their poems are often set to music; the video for “America, Reloading” features a foreboding instrumental background created by Ani DiFranco, whose own work inspired Gibson when they were discovering the power of creative writing back at Maine’s Saint Joseph’s College in the mid-1990s.
After college, Gibson moved to New Orleans to live with a girlfriend. They started a landscaping business together “and probably drank way too much beer.” After a year or so of that, one day Gibson, while mowing a lawn near Tulane University, watched the students as they made their way to and from class with their arms full of books.
“I remember just feeling I wanted to do something different now. I wanted to be writing, basically.” That led to Colorado, and an immersion in the performance poetry scene.
Though Gibson was raised in the Baptist church, there’s no connection now. Still, the poet has come to see how the church had an undeniable role in shaping them.
“I just did an amazing event at a large Episcopal church in Denver, with Broderick Greer, a queer black priest, and [Christian singer-songwriter] Julien Baker. To be able to read the kind of poems I write in a huge church felt almost perfect, in a way.
“I’ve always been a spiritual person,” Gibson continues. “I don’t identify as a Christian anymore, but I very much appreciate having that wonder, that expansiveness instilled in me when I was young.
“I pray all the time, I just don’t know who to.” The poet laughs. “Maybe the person I’m sitting next to at the coffee shop.”
With Megan Falley. At the Paradise Rock Club, May 1 at 7 p.m. Tickets $20-$25, www.crossroadspresents.com