The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can you write love poems in the Trump era? A Q&A with genderqueer artist Andrea Gibson.

“It’s a wild thing to be making art that you hope will be obsolete,” says Andrea Gibson, of political poetry. (Coco Aramaki)

Lots of performers say they suffer from stage fright, but Andrea Gibson really means it. The spoken-word poet sometimes has full-blown panic attacks onstage. When that happens, Gibson doesn’t try to hide behind a mask of confidence. Instead, the genderqueer artist reads a poem called “Ode to the Public Panic Attack.” That act of radical honesty and vulnerability is typical of Gibson, who has been riveting audiences with beautifully constructed love poems and scorching political rants for nearly two decades. Since Gibson’s first performance at a Boulder coffee shop in 1999, the poet has gone on to release seven albums and four books, and has graduated to big stages that are usually reserved for brash rock bands. Gibson is performing at just such a stage — the 9:30 Club — on Friday.

After coming up in coffee shops, is it strange to perform in big music venues?
I think it’s a testament to how spoken word is becoming more popular. More people are hearing about it and sort of falling in love with it. I perform most of my poems backed by music, so it can be, in many ways, similar to a music show. For this show, [singer-songwriter] Mary Lambert is going to be opening, so I’ll be collaborating with her during my set on some pieces.

Why do you think spoken-word poetry is gaining popularity?
Spoken word is a really political art form, and I think there’s an exceptional need for it right now, with this current administration.

How has the political climate affected your writing?
I was working on a project that was entirely about love right before the election. A lot of it was going to be lighthearted and funny. And then when Trump got elected, I changed the whole perspective of the album. It became a lot angrier and a lot more political.

Are you going to go back and finish your love poem album?
Yes, definitely. Because all the love poems were queer love poems — in its own way, it was a very political project, too. And if you think about how much destruction is happening right now, love is sort of the opposite of that. I definitely want to go back to it at some point.

How do you decide on the setlist for a show?
Most of the poems I am doing are from my new album, “Hey Galaxy.” I tap into whatever I’m feeling most emotional about before the show and typically read those poems. Often, I’ll ask the audience what particular poems they want to hear that night and go off what feels most natural to me. I never perform anything I can’t read authentically or honestly at that moment. If I’ve just gotten my heart broken right before the show, it could be the saddest show ever. Or Trump could have done something right before I went onstage, and it’s the angriest show.

What’s your most requested poem?
Honestly, the most requested poems are love poems, the very saddest love poems I’ve written. I think that maybe there’s just a lot of heartbroken people at all times in any given room.

Your love poems seem like they’re more timeless and enduring than your political poems, which are rooted in a particular moment.
It’s a wild thing to be making art that you hope will be obsolete. Many years ago when we invaded Iraq, I remember writing a poem about it and thinking it was going to have no relevance in a few months, and years later, it was still relevant, which was heartbreaking. Or writing a poem about sexual assault and hoping the world changes so that it’s not relevant anymore, and many years later it’s still very relevant. But this art form is strange. You’re writing and creating art that you’re hoping the world doesn’t need forever.

Do you see yourself as a genderqueer poet or as a poet who happens to be genderqueer?
I don’t think I could pick one of those identities over the other. Poetry has been one of the ways that I’ve unpacked and discovered and created my own gender. I have many poems about gender, but it’s not as if I know myself really well and I sit down and write it all out. I actually write it all out to get to know myself. Writing is the process of uncovering more and more of who I am.