Review and photos by Seraphim Dibble
“I know how much the pain of this world weighs, and I know that you can tip the scales in the side of love.” Poetry readings. What comes to mind from those words? A quiet room? People reading from papers in a monotone? What if instead, you picture a family gathering where your heart will be exposed to both destruction and absolute love. A place where you will laugh and cry in turn with the poet. Where the artist implores you to participate loudly. Witnessing poet Andrea Gibson perform their slam poetry live isn’t just a show. It is an experience you will feel throughout your entire soul.
On the eve of Boulder Pride, Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder Colorado was filled with over nine hundred people. The crowd was a smorgasbord of people from all walks of life, gathering to feel something together. Chautauqua Auditorium is a historic structure opened for performances on 4th July, 1898. The show opened with an introduction about the structure, before Sam Rae took the stage.
Sam Rae is a phenomenal modern folk musician. She has played before shows for huge legends like Willie Nelson. She was not afraid at all to expose her vulnerability to the audience, opening with a song she had written only two days prior and certainly not performed live. Between the soft drums and the post-rock feel of the songs, it was a soft and riveting performance. She combined cellos with drums, rock guitar with violins, even inviting several people she’d gone to school with on stage to perform with her. The cadence of her voice drifted into the rafters and back down. There is no way to describe the sound of Sam Rae’s music without using metaphor and poetic device, it was that beautiful.
As Sam Rae finished her set, the audience stirred and moved about. Many went outside for a few minutes, as the auditorium is not air conditioned. After a bit, the lights dimmed, and a small figure came on stage, approaching the microphone. Their friend performed a piano and lyric intro before Andrea Gibson stepped into their first poem of the night. One of the early lines is the opener for this review, a powerful reminder that no matter how dark the world is, we can bring light to the dark places. Their next piece was a pep talk directed to their younger self, “Your Life”. An exploration of their gender and their relationship with it. It is both a sad and joyous poem, ending on the reminder to live your “sweet and beautiful life”.
The next was written to be spoken aloud in public, to the people it was written about. Titled “To the Men Catcalling My Girlfriend While I’m Walking Beside Her”, it is a direct, angry, and humorous poem about the frustrations about being asked to always take the high world. It isn’t impossible to “just keep your mouth shut. You can do it man, I know you can.” The thing with their performances is that they combine the whimsical with the devastating. This isn’t just a place to laugh and experience shared joy. It is a place to bring your vulnerability. Their sister was arrested for drug charges two years ago, and the poem “Photoshopping My Sister’s Mugshot” was a response to that. A heartfelt and shattering poem about loving someone going through addiction, one that implores you to feel and experience what Andrea themself experienced. How it would have been much easier to turn their back, but they could never have lived with that. A reminder that sometimes, “the truth isn’t the right filter” to view somebody’s life through.
They do make sure that the audience knows, though, that this is the night before pride. It is going to be a celebration, and there won’t be that many sad poems. It is a reminder how important it is to experience radical, unapologetic self-love. Andrea Gibson also reminded us that it is important to laugh when we hear something to laugh at before starting “Boomerang Valentine”.There is no quiet listening here. The audience laughs loudly and raucously throughout at each funny line, falling quiet at one of the poem’s most powerful truths. “You are the best thing to happen to you.” The follow-up was their poem, “Ode to the Public Panic Attack”. It was half comedic list, half talking about their experiences with panic attacks. Most of the comedy was for people who had experienced the same, nodding and laughing when the audience knew exactly what they were talking about.
It has only been two years since the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Florida. “Orlando” is one of their most difficult poems to perform, and most difficult to listen to. It isn’t just about the mass shooting. It is about the entire experience of being gay in the United States. A reminder that “half of us are already dead to our families before we die”. The raw and emotional performance was absolutely crushing, leaving the audience without words. Their friend started playing “Stand By Me” for several minutes, however, before Andrea starts their poem “Angels of the Get-Through”. A stirring monument to the power of our best friends, it is a masterful follow-up. While “Orlando” might have left everybody feeling absolutely bleak and hopeless, “Angels of the Get-Through” reminds us that “laughters can go extinct and come back”. It was still time to laugh after that, with them sharing their poem to their partner, “Fight for Love”. It is important to remember that couples fight, even when they’re in love. They fight over deep or shallow things, and that is okay.
Somehow, the extreme emotional swings don’t give you whiplash at all. Rather, it is like a natural progression, moderating the heartbreak with reassurance and pain. Andrea Gibson had a new poem for the next piece, one without a title where the words could still change. It was to be their last depressing poem of the night, but it was crushing. One of the lines spoke about how tears don’t fall in space, then “Is that what happens to the NRA, a child asks after their classmates use up all the red crayons to say goodbye”. It doesn’t pull punches later, either. “It is silent as space, but not as silent as the Christians on the Senate floor”. During “Ode to the Public Panic Attack”, Andrea says that they hope to make audiences uncomfortable with their politics, not their flailing limbs, and this poem aims to do just that. They spoke a bit about joy after that, saying, “Without joy I don’t know what we have to give to the world”. They smirked a bit, then finished with, “I might argue with that another time because I have some friends who are constantly depressed and have plenty to give”.
It was okay, though. It was time for love poems and joy for the rest of the night. The love poem was an older one. Like “Fight for Love”, it is a reminder that love is beautiful, but can also bring pain. But that every bit of it is worth it. They also performed two more older poems, one of them being “The Nutritionist”. Andrea Gibson poured their soul into it, reminding everybody listening that when we are at the worst depths of our emotions, we are not alone in that. Even when it looks like everybody else is happy, we are not alone, and that it is okay to just feel that awful depression together. For their last poem, “A Letter to My Dog”, Andrea brought their dog, Squash, on stage. “Letter” is an adorable and hilarious poem to their dog, comparing Squash’s behaviors to their own while also reminding us that our dogs can be heroes, too.
To revisit the start of this, this isn’t just a performance. It’s an experience. Andrea Gibson alternates between building us up, then exposing our deepest hearts to destruction. It is a family gathering where loud laughter and sobs are both welcome and even desired. To quote one of their other poems, “call my ring finger whatever finger I use to flip off the rules of how my feelings are supposed to supposed to feel”. The only rule here is that you allow yourself to feel honestly.