Poet Andrea Gibson is not feeling gloomy right now—in fact, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and a cancer diagnosis, they are feeling hope, gratitude, connectedness, peace and an immeasurable amount of love.
Author of seven books and seven albums, Gibson is releasing their latest book of poetry, You Better Be Lightning, this month. I was thrilled to learn that Ms. and I could play some role, however small, in celebrating the release of this vast and kaleidoscopic collection.
Because of Andrea’s health, we conducted this interview via email. Andrea wrote that “focusing during chemo can be a challenge,” and encouraged us to edit any spelling or grammatical errors they may have written in their answers. While we may have inserted a word or added some line breaks, we did minimal editing in order to preserve the integrity of Andrea’s reflections.
Karla J. Strand: For your seasoned readers and longtime fans, what makes the new collection different from previous collections?
Andrea Gibson: I wrote most of the book newly awake to my own mortality, and the mortality of everyone I loved. There are a number of reasons for that.
1. We were at the beginning of a pandemic.
2. I was spending much of the pandemic with a friend who had a terminal cancer diagnosis, and her wife and young daughter.
3. I share community with a woman who is a hospice singer. Her name is Linda. She sits at the bedsides of people in their final hours and sings them towards eternity. For years I had thought about what poem I might want to hear in my final moments. I had asked myself over and over if I had written a poem that was worthy of a dying person’s ears, and every time I asked myself that, the answer was no. I wanted to write at least one poem that felt like a ‘yes’ to me.
Interestingly, I don’t even know if the poems in this collection will resonate as very different from those in my previous books, but the internal process, the constant vetting of my own grudges, the deleting of my bitternesses—the refusal to include that (perfectly crafted) raging poem about an ex that I really, really wanted to leave in—that’s why the book [is] very new to me.
I wanted to write something from the best of me. Not “best” as in craft or skill—but from the part of my heart I most trust. The part that sees myself, others, and the world with a wider lens and leans towards grace, gratitude, forgiveness, love. Needless to say, it was more than a little bit haunting when I got diagnosed with cancer so soon after handing in my final edits.
It shook me. I’m still shook. In some ways still standing at the end of my driveway on the phone with my doctor, listening to him tell me they saw something out of the ordinary on the CT scan. But here I am, grateful for having made a book the best of me can get behind, and awed by the million ways this time is further widening my lens, further softening my heart.
Strand: What sort of effect did COVID have on your creativity and writing?
Gibson: I was in the middle of what was scheduled to be a very long world tour when COVID hit. The tour itself was very different for me as I had written an entire show about love and it was a blast to perform. A number of pieces from that show found a home in You Better Be Lightning.
Touring gives me so much energy and very rarely depletes me, but as I’m not someone who writes on the road, the cancellation of the tour gave me much more time to write. At first, it was a challenge as I was quite depressed, struggling to feel anything beyond the pain of our planet, and couldn’t stop stalking the news.
Then, one night, I came across a video of quarantined people singing on their balconies in Italy. After that, I woke up each day aching to add something beautiful to the day.
One night, I came across a video of quarantined people singing on their balconies in Italy. After that, I woke up each day aching to add something beautiful to the day.
Strand: Do you have a favorite poem from the new collection?
Gibson: My favorite poem in the collection is “Acceptance Speech Upon Setting the World Record in Goosebumps.” I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun writing a poem. My partner is a writer and she gave me the prompt to write an acceptance speech for a fictional award. I adored the process, especially because I was very quarantined and rarely leaving home. Seeing the same four walls each day forced me to unlock my imagination in new and unexpected ways.
Strand: As the “receiver” of poetry, I find there is such a difference between reading a poem on the page and hearing it recited by the poet. Both have their strengths to me.
How are those modalities different to you as the poet? Do you miss live performance?
Gibson: Every word I write is written to live out loud. The page is not and has never been natural for me. I trust the resonance of my voice more than I trust the words themselves. That’s one reason I love working with Button [Poetry]. They’ve mastered the art of bringing poems to life via video. It’s so important to me that my poems live out loud, Button graciously worked with my management team to find a window of time to record as many poems as possible before I lost my hair to chemo. (That’s not to say I couldn’t have performed while bald, but I was concerned my new look might be a tad distracting.)
Hilariously, we had expected I might only have the energy to perform a few poems at that time, but we ended up filming 55! Fifty-five poems—most of which were about four minutes long. I imagine it sounds exhausting, but it wasn’t at all. I had more energy at the end than I’d had before, simply because I love the art form of spoken word so much and it felt so healing to be doing what I love.
Strand: We all have dear friends who’ve struggled with sexuality, identity, anxieties about acceptance (from themselves and others), and building the inner strength and love to be who they are—I’ve struggled with it myself. What do you say to young people who have similar struggles?
Gibson: Surround yourself with people who adore and celebrate you for exactly who you are right now. Seek out a community invested in your growth, your becoming, your joy. Trust, more than anything, your innate lovability.
I remember the exact moment I discovered what loving myself felt like. It wasn’t anything I had expected as it involved absolutely no thinking, no pep talks about my accomplishments, no comparisons to others. Wildly, I learned the sensation of self-love is the sensation of loving the entire universe, and [it] stirs an almost ecstatic sense of belonging. I wish that for everyone.
Surround yourself with people who adore and celebrate you for exactly who you are right now. Seek out a community invested in your growth, your becoming, your joy.
Strand: I’m no poet, so I wonder if poets have favorite poems. Or is it like having children or pets and you (have to) love them all equally?
Gibson: I don’t have a favorite poem of my own, but I do have favorite poems by others. Mary Oliver wrote a poem titled “The Uses of Sorrow” that I have returned to over and over as a compass for living. It’s the first poem I share with anyone having a difficult time, and its message has carried me on its shoulders every single day for the past three months.
Strand: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to tease readers with?
Gibson: I just recently launched a newsletter called Things That Don’t Suck in which I send out new writings to subscribers many times each month. It was a project dreamt up many, many months ago and one I considered putting the breaks on when I was trying to imagine writing about the beauty of our world in the midst of a cancer diagnosis. Ultimately I decided it was the perfect time for such a project, and it has proved to be a genuine gift to my spirit.
In addition to the newsletter, I’ve been working on a musical album for the past year in which I write song lyrics and collaborate with musicians to bring the songs to life. I hope to have the album finalized by the new year.
Andrea Gibson’s new poetry collection, You Better Be Lightning, will be released on November 9, 2021. Please support Button Poetry and your local, independent and POC-owned bookstores.
This interview was minimally edited for length and clarity.