Award-winning poet Andrea Gibson visited Cornell on Friday to read poetry unpacking LGBTQ+ oppression, identity, intersectionality, gun control, and liberating the United States’ society for marginalized people.
Gibson is a spoken-word poet and LGBTQ+ activist, inaugural winner of the Women of the World Poetry Slam, third place winner of the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2006 and 2007, and fourth place winner of the 2004 National Poetry Slam.
Identifying outside a gender binary and using they/them pronouns, Gibson is part of many pride groups, anti-war organizations, and groups fighting patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. They have also published four books and run the support system Stay Here With Me, an “interactive, safe space offering collective support while encouraging individual healing to keep those who visit alive today, and wanting to stay alive until tomorrow.”
Gibson performed a lineup of poems regarding identity, Queer love, political anger, experiencing panic attacks, and grief.
“I’m going to start with love before I start yelling about Trump,” Gibson told the room, sparking applause. “I’ll eventually come back to more love and then yell more about Trump.”
Gibson considers the feel of the room before choosing the order of each poem, working carefully to balance grief and tears with love and community, they told The Sun in an interview before the event.
“That’s a balance that I have to figure out each time I do a show. I usually come up with a tentative set list for what I’m going to read and when I get on stage I feel into what I can read authentically and honestly that night, and what I feel like the room can take in,” Gibson said.
When Gibson opened the performance with a love poem to a woman, many in the audience nodded and applauded as Gibson described experiences to which they could relate without having to change the pronouns.
“Your Life,” one of Gibson’s poems, articulated how Queer and nonbinary experiences are intersected with all other systems of oppression. “You don’t yet know the boys are built in their confidence on stolen land, but you do worry the girls might be occupied with things you will never understand. Won’t ever, ever be good at.”
Self-described as “essentially a creative curse word,” Gibson interspersed the grief with a poem titled “To The Men Catcalling My Girlfriend While I’m Walking Beside Her.”
Catcalling is common in Ithaca, stated several audience members. “Maybe I should just walk around campus and you could point out the windows to me of places where that happens, and I can start hollering the poem,” Gibson offered jokingly.
Poetry for social change can be part of the fight towards Queer and nonbinary liberation, and creating art for social change is paramount in this urgent political reality, according to Gibson.
“Sometimes just the practice of creating something beautiful is resistance to oppression; making something that is not destruction is its own sort of healing, I think,” Gibson told The Sun.
Gibson’s reading of the poem “Orlando,” a tribute to and battle cry for the 49 people the LGBTQ+ community lost in the Pulse massacre, brought most of the audience to tears.
Although many art forms need to actively be liberated from an oppressive canon or re-interpreted through a social justice reading, spoken word poetry is the opposite, Gibson said.
“The whole culture of spoken word is rooted in different social justice movements. It’s really rare to go to a poetry reading these days and not hear somebody specifically talking about what’s happening in our world in a really direct way. I think that [spoken word poems] can be rally cries for action.”
“Ode to the Public Panic Attack” was a poem for everyone who had experienced the terror and indignity of panic attacks, and caused copious nods throughout the audience when asked who among them had experienced panic attacks.
“I feel for college students who have panic attacks,” they said. “Especially in such a high-pressure environment. Is it high-pressure here?” Gibson asked, sparking rueful laughter.
Gibson urged all Cornell students to use any privileges they have to stand up for others who are being targeted politically or systemically.
“I think this is a time where every opportunity you have to step in — to say something, to change something, to do something, to call out something being harmful — is [necessary]. It’s not as though we have a lot of time. There’s no time; so much is happening every moment that is destroying people’s lives. So we have to act with that sort of pressure.”
In the urgent political climate, Gibson urged Cornell students to engage in difficult conversations as long as they can ensure their own safety. “Often if you think people aren’t receptive there are ways to change the conversation so that they will be more receptive,” Gibson said.
To LGBTQ+ Cornell students, Gibson advised: “Find people who love and accept you just as you are right now and surround yourself with those people. Be really willing to regularly ask them to tell you why you’re amazing.”