Poetry Is A Lifeline: An Ode To Andrea Gibson

Andrea Gibson will pull you back into focus when you feel yourself fading away.

I first heard the poetry of Andrea Gibson about five years ago, when my breakup wounds were so fresh they looked like daisies, not grotesque sores anything could skulk inside and infect. 

I’ve learned this life lesson the hard way (as is my tendency): Heartbreak is beautiful because it cracks you wide open. Art, movies, books, music, poems penetrate so much deeper when your heart’s been hammer-smashed. What normally rests on the casual surface creeps into the deepest core of who you are.

I wouldn’t have been on YouTube searching for poems to weep along to had my girlfriend, Leah, not dumped me (for the second time in six months) earlier that morning. I hadn’t sought out new poetry amidst this last stab at a solid relationship with Leah. I guess I was scared. I guess I was afraid it might show me things I didn’t want to see; poetry can be like looking into a mirror.

But now, I was in this strange juxtaposition of being both heartbroken and numb at the same time. I felt hollow, disconnected from myself, homesick for myself — like I was floating aimlessly through the air not knowing when (or if) I was going to land on solid ground, like my internal anchor had come undone and nothing was keeping me rooted into the earth. I watched my body surrender further and further up into the clouds. I was disappearing. 

I didn’t want to go out like that. I didn’t want to lose myself — not yet.

I intrinsically knew that the only way to feel again was to consume some new goddamn art. Words and voice strike the most profound chords within me, so I knew I needed some spoken-word poetry. I poured myself a giant globe of Sauvignon Blanc. I gazed with empty eyes into my laptop screen. Please bring me back to life.  Please bring me back to life. Please bring me back to life.

By the time I reached the verse below, I could actually feel myself slipping back into my skin.

Now every time I hear the word love I think going, going,

The first week you were gone,

I kept seeing your hand wave goodbye

Like a windshield wiper in a flooding car

In the last real moment, I believed the hurricane would let me out alive.

-Andrea Gibson, Maybe I Need You

As I took in the truest, rawest, most honest performance — backed up by the most honest, gut-wrenching, stunningly-strung-together words I’d encountered in half a decade — I asked myself: Who is this person? Who is this person? Who is this person?

I quickly learned that this person was the mesmerizing poet Andrea Gibson.

I spent the rest of the night inhaling the work of Andrea Gibson like a rabid lesbian dog. I watched YouTube videos of their intimate, vulnerable, and courageous as fuck performances until my eyes felt like they were bleeding from the wicked glow of my laptop. I read every poem of theirs I could find on the internet. I read them so many times I fell asleep with their words permeating me in my sleep, keeping me honest in my dreams. I bought their books. I lusted after their merch.

I felt so grateful to be emoting to such incredible art. It made the breakup feel…sort of…worth it

But mostly, I cried. I cried. I cried. I cried so hard I flushed out a tidal wave of hurt I’d been harboring in my bones, a hurt that made it hard to move my limbs without feeling a nerve pinch but never seemed to reach my heart. I cried so hard I was salty in places I didn’t know I had. I cried so hard I felt like I was flushing childhood traumas that I didn’t even know were childhood traumas out of my subconscious!

The next morning, I felt little beams of light shining in my perforated heart. That tiny bit of light added a newfound brightness to my day. Feeling feelings to powerful works of art can do that. Feeling feelings to powerful works of art can be sort of like getting a facial with painful extractions. All the toxic shit that’s been stewing beneath the forefront of your epidermis is suddenly yanked out. It hurts. You’ve got to confront some ugly truths, head-on. But once the dirt and the bad memories and the neglected garbage has been set free, you can feel your skin rejoicing in its ability to breathe again. It’s pretty amazing.

My prayer to the YouTube gods was answered. (Digital heaven exists, I suppose.) Andrea Gibson’s poetry did bring me back to life, because their words gave me permission to let myself be visceral again. Their words woke up my senses after they’d been dulled down by self-medication and reality TV. Their story dissipated the shame that felt like it was forever wrapped around me like a python. They inspired me to stop numbing the most powerful tool in my toolbox: my emotions.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen Andrea Gibson live twice and even had their poem read aloud by some of my best friends at my wedding (because no one — no one — writes about love like Andrea Gibson).

Gibson’s poem being performed by friends at Zara’s wedding. Photo by Tara Tomlinson Photography

It’s not just their poems of heartbreak and love that have impacted me. Andrea Gibson’s poems have taught me about politics. They’ve personalized the politics in ways that have informed my decisions as a voter. They’ve helped me see outside of my own backyard. But mostly, they’ve made me feel connected.

And there is no feeling like feeling connected.

I’d rather feel connected than feel happy or drunk or pretty or right. And I know so many people who have felt themselves fading away, who also have confessed that the work of Andrea Gibson has brought them back into focus. I could say it’s because Andrea Gibson’s way with words is so utterly unique, breathtakingly-beautiful, hyper-expressive, nuanced, sophisticated, accessible, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at the same time. I could say it’s because Andrea Gibson is the best kind of performer: the kind who allows themselves to have private moments in front of a live audience.

All of this is true. But I think Andrea Gibson’s most compelling quality is that the only hero of their story is the truth. They give us the truth — in all of its breathtaking, sad, unfinished, hopeful, glory. And the truth doesn’t have to be profound or fair, nor does it have to win even; it just has to be true. And hearing and reading something so blatant in its truthfulness reminds us that we don’t have to be heroic or profound or fair or to win, either. We just have to be real. We just have to be alive. And knowing that makes life feel so much less claustrophobic, so much less scary — so much more exciting.

Andrea Gibson’s work makes me want to live in the greatest hero of all heroes: the truth.

And that has set me free.

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