I became a huge, relentless, obsessive fan of the poet Andrea Gibson a little over a year ago after a friend posted a video of one of their spoken word performances on Facebook. Full disclosure: I’m a spoken word nerd. There is no art form that attains the ability to move me, to shake me to the depths of my core and make me feel feelings, like spoken word poetry. I write it, perform it, and dutifully attend spoken word shows whenever I can. I get poems stuck in my head on a loop like most people get pop songs stuck in their head. In fact, I work out to spoken word, which might be one of the queerest things about me.
However, finding spoken word that’s actually authentic—and not a hyper-pretentious throwing around of hyper-pretentious words no one uses in real life—can be, uh, hard. There is a lot of disingenuous writing out there, kids. (I should know, I’m the author of some of the worst.)
That being said, when I discovered the brilliant, creative, wordsmith that is Andrea Gibson, I was what the cool kids would describe as “shooketh” (translation: my soul was rocked backward and flipped upside down, in the best way possible). Because Gibson’s way with words was so unique, so seemingly effortless, so spot on, and their delivery of those words was so powerful in its sheer rawness.
Basically, the first time I was exposed to the work of Gibson, I melted into a vulnerable puddle of naked emotion only to come out the other side of the poem with a stronger foundation than I’d had before. Very few artists are able to strip a person away from their self-protective bullshit, allow them to indulge in their unprocessed feelings of pain, and then build them back up into a stronger person in the span of five short minutes. Gibson is a rare artist.
I was nervous when I received an advance copy of Lord of the Butterflies Gibson’s latest book of poems, published by Button Poetry, several weeks ago. Does anyone else find themselves riddled with anxiety when an artist they love produces new work? You know you aren’t going to consume it casually, it will be visceral, it will be intense, and it will force you to confront all the things you’ve been desperately trying to numb away. But alas, last Sunday, I took a deep breath and dove in.
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I read the entire book of poems in one sitting and have probably read each poem at least six times since. And let me tell you: Lord of The Butterflies is a f*cking masterpiece. Reading it doesn’t feel like reading; it feels more like listening to music. Gibson pulls you out of your head and into tosses you into that flowy, meditative musical state where you’re not trying to control or analyze your emotions, you’re just letting them gently wash over you like waves.
The book opens with a poem called “Your Life,” which is a three and a half page song, that taps into the heart of what it feels like to grow up different, to grow up genderqueer. Gibson’s words dance across the page: “Choosing your life/and how that made you into someone who now finds it easy/ to explain your gender by saying you are happiest on the road/when you’re not here or there, but in-between,/that yellow line coming down the center of it all, like a goddamn sunbeam.”
What is so special and powerful about the work in Lord of the Butterflies is how personal and visceral Gibson writes about topics that are all too often expressed in a hyper-intellectual, liberal-arts-school-educated fashion. As a person who has written and edited hundreds (if not thousands) of essays about gender and sexuality over the past decade, I know how easy it is to simply show off how politically sound and educated you are, making each piece a gender-studies course, as a way to avoid tapping into the primal heart of it all. Gibson’s delves into the unexplored underbelly that lurks beneath these very-real issues and taps into the truth and the hurt in a way that is both compelling and refreshing. Gibson boldly feels their way through the issues that affect our queer community daily (such as mental illness, feminism, the devastation of the Trump administration and even the heartbreaking Pulse massacre in Orlando).
But each poem about these “political” events and issues bursts with feeling and is accessible to anyone who has ever felt isolated or unseen (by which I mean you don’t need 17 master’s degrees to be moved by these pieces; they are unpretentious, and everyone from my 70-year-old mother to my 24-year old coworkers have deeply connected with them). Gibson also includes a bevy of gorgeous love poems in Lord of the Butterflies, including the hysterically funny, “Fight For Love,” which is unlike any other love poem I’ve ever read. It celebrates the beauty and humor of two people in love who incessantly battle it out because both of them care so goddamn much. It isn’t flowery; it’s both funny and stunning. (I even had my friends read the poem aloud during the ceremony of my wedding just a few weeks ago, and it was the highlight of the night; no one could stop discussing it, and friends from all walks of life asked me for a copy of it!)
In short, Lord of the Butterflies is a giant ode to love, in all of its messy forms. The love of that lives in the queer community. The complicated love we share with our biological families. The terrifying yet life-affirming love we share with our intimate partners. The love from our friends that keeps us alive in our darkest hours. And most pressingly, the book celebrates the rocky, difficult, but deeply and utterly important love we have for ourselves.
If you don’t buy Lord of the Butterflies (available for pre-order here) you’re missing out, sweet kittens. I’ve taken to keeping it in my purse, so I can whip it out and flip to a random page to be reminded that I’m not alone in this world, during all those daily moments when the bustling city of New York has left me feeling disconnected from humankind.
Buy it for your mother. Buy it for your homophobic uncle and change their perspective on life. Buy it for your sister, your brother, your best friend, and your partner. Buy it for people who claim to hate poetry. For they’ve never experienced poetry quite like this. I promise.