When Andrea Gibson came to Galesburg, she had never heard so many trains in her life.
Underneath the impassioned words of the 2008 Women’s World Poetry Slam Winner on Saturday night, those distinct Galesburg drones permeated the air. But the sound of the rails only served to intensify her voice during every heated moment of her gut-wrenching and soul-searching poetry.
The event began with a short introduction by Students Against Sexism in Society (SASS) president and senior Amelia Garcia. As Gibson approached the lone mic, students gathered around the brick walls of the Gizmo applauded. Many gathered in a semicircle around her, setting up an even more intimate atmosphere.
In between poems, Gibson commented that the atmosphere made her more exposed than the typical performance.
“This is the most vulnerable I’ve been [on stage],” Gibson said.
The emotional power behind Gibson’s poetry is truly a force to be reckoned with. Seeing her live with anecdotes about her poems interspersed is enough to change one’s life. Her reserved and shy demeanor in person contrasts her larger-than-life presence on stage, reciting her poetry as if she is conducting her own orchestra of language.
It was junior Allison Levine’s first time seeing Gibson live. For her, it was more than just her poetry that drew her in.
“I liked her spontaneous outbursts in between poems … She was very exciting, and I could feel her outrage,” she said.
Indeed, the content of Gibson’s poetry that she often draws from such outbursts is what packs the most punch. Covering a wide range of gay rights and gender issues, she is one of the most politically relevant poets today. The beautiful yet quirky “I Do” (what Gibson fans call “the Prop 8 poem,” or “the gay marriage poem”) opens with a playful scat and flows into a lover’s ode and a longing for its commemoration through marriage in the face of a homophobic world. “Blue Blanket” is the devastating lament of a rape victim ending with a powerful statement of male responsibility, “she’s not asking what you’re gonna tell your daughter, she’s asking what you’re gonna teach your son.”
Often her poems, such as “Jellyfish,” were backed by instrumental musical tracks, which added a moving cinematic element to the scene.
Gibson’s vulnerability came through in full force in “A Letter to the Playground Bully,” her autobiographical poem as a victim of homophobia even at eight years old.
Looking around the audience, one could see that everyone in the vicinity was caught up in the lucidity of her words. It was almost impossible to sit stoically through her performance. It comes as no surprise that one of the organizations she works with is Vox Feminista, whose model is “comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable” on gay rights issues.
The reading was followed by a march through campus put on by SASS and Common Ground in honor of Take Back the Night, a foundation dedicated to preventing and ending sexual assault.
Before the march, Gibson shared that because of a current medical condition that causes pain when she walks, she would not be able to join the group. At the moment she mentioned this, numerous hands flew up and volunteered to lend their bikes, skateboards or scooters. The act of generosity sent a smile came across Gibson’s face. Although she admits to being quite the expert in skateboarding, in the end she chose the scooter, joined the pack and thanked everyone profusely. The march was followed by an open mic for poetry and testimonies.
The weekend’s events, in addition to Gibson’s poetry workshop on Friday, were a success for sponsors SASS and Common Ground. Garcia, herself a huge fan of Gibson’s, was pleased with the diverse audience and the overall response.
“A variety of people who were not at SASS were there … and [Gibson] seemed genuinely excited to be here,” she said.
The event also marked closing time for both Garcia and Gibson. While it was Gibson’s last show of her college tour before she went back home out east, it was Garcia’s last SASS event before graduation.
Garcia felt the event ended the year on a high note for the organization, and served as a springboard for next year’s leadership into planning for future events.
“It was a good way to end SASS this term … I wish the best of luck to next year’s leadership,” she said.
Perhaps the sound of trains during Gibson’s reading was not so out of place, after all.