Spoken-word artist Andrea Gibson returns to Asheville with a book and an album

MUTUAL ATTRACTION: While poet Andrea Gibson still struggles with performance nerves, “The people who come to my shows are such … open-hearted people,” they say. “The experience of just being in a room with people like that is so nurturing to me that [I have] more energy at the end of a set than I had before it.” Photo by Coco Aramaki

“I can’t create quickly enough. There’s so much coming out of me, my management had to wrangle me back,” says Andrea Gibson. The spoken-word artist, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, is currently on tour with both a new book of poetry (Take Me With You) and album (Hey Galaxy). They return to Asheville for events at both Malaprop’s and The Grey Eagle on Thursday, Feb. 22.

“I have two more completed books already. I’m like, ‘I need to get these out right now,’” says Gibson. So having a record and poetry collection released together is perfect timing for the artist.

“The book is something I’ve never done before. It’s a smaller book. I wanted something that can actually fit in people’s pockets,” they explain. “You know how, every 10 minutes, something pops up on our phones these days and you realize something awful is happening in the world? … I wanted something that people could slip out of their pockets and quickly open a page and get some inspiration that would keep us motivated and not just weighted down with despair.”

The same could be said of Gibson’s spoken-word offerings. Delivered with passion, insistence and deep compassion, the poetry is raw and revealing of truths at once personal and universal. Beyond the clear LGBT themes of Gibson’s “Orlando,” written in response to the Pulse Nightclub shooting, the poem also tells us of the human condition of love and loss.

In “Radio,” Gibson lays out this breathless litany of romance: “Winking, then blowing me a kiss, offering me an apple, daring me to demand the orchard, insisting I come from her rib.” On Hey Galaxy, that poem is paired with the Bon Iver song “Flume,” covered by musician Jesse Thomas.

In fact, most tracks on Gibson’s album are set to music. The spoken-word artist discovered that collaborative possibility while touring. “I made a bunch of musician friends, and just over the course of spending lots of time in rooms with musicians, I started brainstorming what we may be able to do together,” they say. “‘I wrote this love poem, and isn’t it wild that you have a love song with some of the same words in it or the same themes?’ That started naturally just by hanging out with people.”

On this tour, Gibson is performing onstage with musician Lara Ruggles and will likely work out some pieces with opener Chastity Brown, as well.

This year, the spoken-word artist has also started collaborating with dancers. One project, with New York City Ballet principal dancer Lauren Lovette, was staged at the Vail Dance Festival in Colorado in August. “[I prefer] making art with other people to making art by myself,” Gibson says. “It feels exciting and adventurous.”

Being in the spotlight is not, however, a natural fit for the artist. Gibson says they were compelled to the stage only because they fell in love with spoken word. “When I first discovered it, I’d never been so moved,” they say. “The poets onstage weren’t reading on paper. They were looking at the people they were talking to. It seemed like a conversation was being had.”

Gibson writes with that same kind of kinetic energy. “I hardly ever put anything on the page without imagining how it would sound,” they explain. “I started writing walking around my house, just talking to myself. I have half the poem in my head, memorized, before I’d run over to the computer and type something out.”

Moving from written to spoken word changed Gibson’s relationship to poetry, and so has activism and political awareness. Their piece “Letter to White Queers” questions their own relationship to violence and that of the broader LGBT community, asking why news of Matthew Shepard’s 1998 death was more widely recognized than the murders of James Byrd Jr. and other people of color. “What determines whose death will storm my chest, will flood my eyes, will make me want to burn down a city and pray with every ounce of my winded grace that more than the smoke will rise?” Gibson asks in the poem.

On their current tour, Gibson is donating $1 from each ticket to Black Lives Matter. “This is an art form that is celebrated and occupied by a lot of marginalized people, specifically folks of color,” Gibson says of spoken word. “I’ve been thinking a lot about my responsibility in terms of where the money is going and what I’m talking about onstage.”

Following the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson, Mo., police in 2014, Gibson expressed their outrage on social media. The post against white supremacy was met with pushback, “and some of the comments came from white, queer-identified people, which shocked me,” Gibson says.

True to their art, Gibson addressed the experience in a powerful verse: “You wanna know what white is? White is having somebody tell you you’d be a pleasure to hang, having a whole lot of people agree, and not even thinking to lock your door that night.”

WHO: Andrea Gibson book signing
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 22, 2:30 p.m. Free

WHO: Andrea Gibson with Chastity Brown
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 22, 8 p.m. $22 advance/$25 day of show

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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