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Andrea Gibson realized they could be a writer when they got their first F on a paper. Gibson (they/them) was a senior in high school at the time and especially proud of the assignment, which is why they were stunned to receive a “big, fat F.”
“The teacher dragged me out into the hallway and told me he didn’t believe that I had written the paper, but I had,” Gibson remembers. “That was the moment that I thought ‘Wow, I might know how to do this.’”
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The Boulder-based poet went on to study creative writing in college and has since published six books of poetry and won the Denver Grand Slam four times. On September 6, Gibson was announced as Colorado’s newest poet laureate by Governor Jared Polis, replacing the beloved Bobby LeFebre. For the next two years, Gibson will be expected to share an appreciation of poetry at various events throughout the state, and they will also provide Polis with an annual report of the poet laureate program. Ahead of Gibson’s term, we sat down with the writer to pick their brain on all things poetry.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What does the writing process look like for you?
When I write, I can go into a tunnel of sorts, and all of a sudden 10 hours will pass that felt like 10 minutes. I lock myself in a room in my house and do a lot of my writing out loud. I’ll pace around the room and speak out loud, and every now and then I’ll go back to the computer and type what I’ve written. I love spoken word poetry…. I write with the sound of the poem in mind.
Why do you prefer spoken word poetry?
Some people would argue with me on this, but I believe that an unspoken poem is a half-finished poem. There is something so potent to me about somebody on a mic telling their story. One of the things that had me fall in love with spoken word was the first time I attended a poetry slam. There was so much eye contact between the poet and the audience, and the poet would really memorize their poetry to deliver it that way. It was such an intimate, powerful experience of people sharing their stories and others being active witnesses to those stories. I really fell in love with the energy of that art form.
How do you want readers to read your poems? Should they be read out loud?
I know this isn’t good for selling my books but I feel like I come through the page a bit awkwardly. I’m just so in tune with how it sounds out loud that when I wrote my first book, I didn’t even know how to form them on the page. Over the years, I’ve become more familiar with that process and how to do it well. But no, I don’t think people need to read my poems out loud. As you read them, though, I think you can tell they were written out loud. You can tell that there’s a big focus on rhythm in my poetry and how it sounds, and I think you can even see that by looking at the page.
You’ve lived in Colorado since 1999. How has living here for so many years affected your writing, if at all?
Colorado is where I went to my first open mic and read a poem of mine for the first time. Colorado is where I made a community of friends within the poetry community. While I studied writing in college, everything I know about writing I’ve learned from the poets of Colorado, and there are so many incredible writers in this state. That has influenced my writing more than anything. Colorado is also where I discovered activism. This is where I’ve learned the intersection between art and direct action: If you’re creating art about something, you want to back up what you’re saying with action in the world.
You write about so many different topics (climate change, gun control, the LGBTQ+ experience). How do you decide what to write about next?
It’s really whatever I’m feeling passionate about. Typically, I’ll witness something, whether it’s beautiful or grief-filled, and an emotion will well up in me, and then it’s like a detox of sorts to write it out of my body. If I go too long without writing about what’s been coming up in me, I start to feel really bad. It’s a cleansing process, and I think creating in general is very healing.
When you were first announced as the new poet laureate, you said, “I spent so much time writing about what’s wrong in the world, now I write about what I dream the world can be.” When did that shift happen for you?
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and I’ve been in chemotherapy ever since. When I got diagnosed, I had this shift in perceptions about the world and my own life. I suddenly was just struck by the beauty of this existence, and how much we had to have been cherished to have been made by the universe. I was sort of walking around the world with my mouth wide open in awe and astonishment. I just didn’t have it in me to write about what was wrong with the world, but I was still passionate about all of the social justice causes I’ve been passionate about for the past two decades. So, for example, if I was writing about climate change, I once would have written about the mountains burning, but I would now write about things like bees falling asleep in flowers—reasons why the world is worth saving. When I was in my 20s, I wrote a line that goes, “Everybody knows what you’re against, show them what you’re for.” I feel like I’m finally at that place where I’m writing about what I’m for.
As poet laureate, you’ve said that you want people who don’t read poetry to be introduced to it. Do you have any ideas as to how you’ll accomplish that?
I just want to expose more people to more kinds of poetry. I’ve dreamed of having poetry shows at music venues where the audience shows up for poets with the same kind of enthusiasm that they would for a band. If you go to a poetry reading, it’s really common that everyone in the audience is a poet. But if you go to see a band, not everyone in the audience is a musician. I want people to know that you don’t have to be a writer of poetry to appreciate it. In the same way that maybe not everybody loves country music but they might love hip-hop, I feel like there’s a kind of poem for everyone. When someone says they don’t love poetry, I just think they haven’t found the kind of poetry that would resonate with them.
Are you worried that you’re now going to be too busy attending events to write your own poetry?
Typically these events only inspire me to write even more. It’s really difficult to go into a middle school and hear them read their poetry and not come home to a million different ideas I want to write about. I’m pretty confident that the poet laureate events will support my writing and my writing will support the events. One thing I’m doing now is compiling the writing that I’ve done and categorizing it into poems appropriate for elementary schools, and that’s been really fun to do.
Do you have any advice for people who want to start writing poetry?
The best advice is to just read as much poetry as you can find. If you’re not into reading poetry, there’s so much you can listen to. Just go to YouTube, and you’ll find a hundred poems on any topic. If I’m ever stuck on writing, I’ll start reading. Sometimes you can use a word in somebody’s poem as a prompt. Another thing is to be courageous enough to make art that nobody loves but you. Start sharing your story for yourself. It’s like being an active listener in your own life. Don’t censor yourself or edit on the spot. Just freewrite, and the more you do it, the more people will fall in love with it.