By Carly Fox
A ubiquitous name in the spoken-word movement and the first winner of the Women’s World Poetry Slam, Andrea Gibson performed at the Best Buy Theater in NYC on October 15, 2013. Singer/Songwriters Nicole Reynolds and Mary Lambert opened for Gibson to a crowded room of more than 200 visibly queer and adoring fans. Through fearless prose, heart-wrenching honesty, and unapologetic presence, the three powerful voices interwove themes of queer politics, sexuality, gender, body image, sexual violence, and love and loss into her performance. Echoing the heart of feminism, that the personal is always political, Gibson, Reynolds, and Lambert also highlighted the fundamental importance of practicing radical self-love and authenticity as a means to reject sexism, racism, and homophobia.
Musician and poet Mary Lambert opened the show with a striking sense of honesty and emotional intensity. Lambert, who has been described in The New York Times as a “rarity”, is the powerful female voice accompanying hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in the gay rights and marriage equality anthem “Same Love,” which has sold over two million copies in the US alone.
Lambert’s poems and songs covered a wide range of political and deeply personal territory, using her sophisticated voice to address issues of rape, self-harm, and homophobia.
Perhaps most poignant and moving was Lambert’s reading of her poem “Body Love,” in which she describes with unparalleled images and metaphors the epidemic of body shame and self-hatred among young girls and women.
Lambert’s poem begins with the line:
“I know girls who wonder if they’re disaster and sexy enough to fit in.
I know girls who are fleeing bombs from the mosques of their skin, playing Russian roulette with death. It’s never easy to accept that our bodies are fallible and flawed. But when do we draw the line? When the knife hits the skin isn’t it the same thing as purging because we’re so obsessed with death?”
Most striking about this performance was the profound honesty Lambert brought to the arena. Indeed, the crackling and bittersweet pain in her voice suggested that this was not just an abstract story for Lambert, but a deeply personal testament of overcoming self-rejection and embracing self-love.
By the end of the poem Lambert exclaims “The time has come for us to reclaim our bodies.” “Try this”, she urges the listener, “Take your hands over your bumpy love body naked. And remember the first time you touched someone with the sole purpose of learning all of them.”
Indeed Lambert’s trenchant prose are a powerful reminder to reject the lies of sexism and patriarchy.
“Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet. And brother arm wrapping shoulders and remember this is important to our worth more than who you fuck. You are worth more than a waist line.”
In her online bio Lambert admits she is good at “two things: crying and singing.”
True to this statement, Lambert ended her set with a soft giggle and unassuming bow, telling the audience “Thanks for letting me cry at you.”
Philadelphia based singer and songwriter Nicole Reynolds, who works on organic farms raising sheep and growing her own food through the WWOOF program (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), followed Lambert with songs about her childhood, farming, the art of storytelling, and the chaotic feeling of falling in love for the first time. In an interview with the Pittsburg CityPaper, Reynolds says “I’m just honest on stage. I think for people to start opening their minds — and they’re starting to — it just takes a whole lot of people being honest.” Indeed the honesty of Reynold’s performance was striking. Whether humorous, sad or melancholy, Reynold’s songs were filled with an uncanny sense of authenticity.
Introducing her song “Like the Ocean,” Reynold’s explained that it was about her childhood, adolescence, sexuality, being raised Catholic, and how she came through it.
The song’s opening phrases highlight much of the fear and homophobia that young queer adolescents often face.
“When I was a girl they told me in this world some things fit and some things don’t. A man and a woman, a man and a woman that’s what he wrote. This we know. A priest looked at me with his big blue eyes. He told me my love was the devil in disguise. My mother couldn’t look at me. Her eyes turned blank.”
By the end of the song, however, Reynold’s deeply moving lyrics underscore her reclaimed sense of self love and openness.
“I think what I think and I say what I see. I cut my own hair and I am who I be. I love who I love who I love like the ocean.”
Andrea Gibson, followed Reynolds and Lambert with more provocative reflections on authenticity, love, and the need to look honestly at personal shame. Gibson’s poems addressed issues of white privilege, racism, homophobia, and recent public tragedies like the death of Tyler Clementi and the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Before reading her poem about Trayvon Martin, Gibson described the personal and collective grief his death caused, and the anger and helplessness she felt on July 13, 2013, the day George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin.
In her poem “July 13, 2013” Gibson laments “I don’t know what makes us human more than our crimes. That just breaks my heart.”
“I am small as a kid being pushed inside a locker. Good god I want to be big. Big enough to stop editing the ugly out of my bio. To empty every bullet from the chamber of my heart to fill it with the hoodie of a boy. What poem will walk him home? What radio tower of light, what redemption will dull the blade, melt it down to mirror. Give us back to god. Unhaunt the house of the mother choosing the color of the casket.”
Other poems addressed issues deeply personal to Gibson. In “An Insider’s Guide on How to be Sick”, a poem about having Lyme disease, Gibson explores her own sense of shame and fear. “Nothing has brought up shame as much as living with Lyme disease” she explained candidly to the audience. Admitting that it had taken her over a year and a half to find the courage to perform the poem in public, Gibson credited the transgender and human rights activist Leslie Feinberg as a powerful inspiration. Feinberg, who Gibson called one of her biggest “activist heroes”, writes openly about her personal experience of having Lyme disease on her blog TransgenderWarrior.
Highlighting the vivid reality of living with a disease, in “An Insider’s Guide on How to be Sick,” Gibson explains:
“Every fever is a love note to remind you there are better things to be than cool. Fuck cool. Fuck every pair of skinny jeans. From the month your muscles started atrophying to a size two.”
Gibson ends her poem with a powerful reminder that one could choose to embrace challenges as teachers. “Everything is a lesson” she says.“Lesson number one through infinity: You will never have a greater opportunity to learn to love your enemy than when your enemy is your own red blood. Truce is a word made of velvet. Wear it everywhere you go.”
In a culture which constantly bombards young girls and women with messages of shame, self-rejection, and not-enoughness, Andrea Gibson, Nicole Reynolds, and Mary Lambert remind us to speak our own stories, and embrace ourselves and others with compassion, love, and honesty. Indeed their words stand as powerful testaments that radical self-love and unabashed honesty is perhaps one of the most profoundly political acts in which we can engage.