As a former slammer from
wa(aaaaa)y back, I’ve experienced the
prejudices of “book poets” first-hand. My poems have been dismissed outright
(“That may be good for a slam, but…”) when I wasn’t writing slam poems at
all—when I hadn’t written a slam poem in ten years. It reminds me of that old joke:
“But you f*ck one sheep...”
Despite of, or maybe because of, my experience, I too have prejudices against spoken word poets. Though I’ve seen many incredible spoken word poets perform, I’ve seen far more bad ones—which, come to think of it, is exactly the same experience I've had with book poets.
Rachel McKibbens is the 2009 Women of the World poetry slam champion. A ten-year veteran of the spoken word scene, she has read her work on the same bill as Elizabeth Alexander, Michael McClure, Nikki Giovanni, Paul Martinez Pompa, Martín Espada Nick Flynn, Billy Collins, Ellyn Maybe, Eve Ensler, and Lauryn Hill, to name a few, at hundreds of venues across the country. She has performed before a single audience of over 1,200 people (the 2007 National Poetry Slam finals in Austin, Texas). Panties were thrown at her in praise. Fans have tattooed themselves with lines from her poems. And years before Kanye West did that bizarro thing at the Grammy’s on behalf of Beyonce, he did it at a taping of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam on behalf of Rachel McKibbens.
We met at a university literary festival. She was 100% bullshit-free. I knew I loved her when a blushing student approached her during a break and whispered, “I’m going to introduce you." Rachel lit up, “You are? That’s great, honey!” Her voice dropped an octave, “Let me see it.” “W-w-what?” the girl stammered. “Your introduction. Let me see it.” The student slunk off to fetch a note card. Rachel read it while the girl looked on. “OK,” she said flatly, and handed the card back. The girl left skid marks. Rachel said at an unrepentant volume, “They never mention the NYFA [New York Foundation for the Arts grant], my book, or my teaching experience—only the tattoos.” She is covered with them, including a teardrop in the corner of her eye, and the words “BOOK” and “WORM” on her knuckles.
Then Rachel read her poems.
I heard a story on NPR once about country-western radio focus groups. The test subjects were asked to rate the songs they heard from 1 to 5, with 5 being “Most Exciting.” The songs that were deemed best for radio weren’t the 5’s, or the 1’s. They were the 3’s, because 3’s didn’t interrupt people’s routine—they didn’t create any overwhelming feelings. I see a buttload of bloodless poetry that inexplicably seems to be shooting for a 3—there’s no big feelings in sight—no vulnerability—it’s too-cool-for-school. And nobody’s f*cking! I don’t know if poets are doing it on purpose, or on accident, or which, if either, is more excusable. Opaque poems are a great place to hide your feelings—even from yourself.
But all of the poems Rachel’s first
book, Pink Elephant, are 5’s, or, to
quote Spinal Tap, “This one goes
up to 11.”
Most are stories from her hellish childhood growing up in southern California. The poems are wrenchingly gruesome, yet genuinely affirming, and—thank the maker—very, very funny. There are no easy answers. The victims inflict violence on other victims, animals, and so on. Being that they were written by the Women of the World poetry slam champion, it didn’t surprise me that the poems were impeccably-paced and visceral. But I was stunned by her deft sound play and attention to structure and form on the page. Her work completely defied all my own prejudices about spoken word/slam poetry, and it made me remember why I fell in love with poetry in the first place.
What are some experiences that have stood out for you on stage—good, bad and otherwise?
The good experience is always when I am leaving the stage and I know I didn't suck ass. The worst experience was in a library in White Plains, New York. A woman got upset about a poem of mine (“For Du'a Khalil”) and stood up and started screaming and pointing at me. It was totally like when that snaggle-toothed hunchback lady started booing Princess Buttercup [in The Princess Bride]. It rattled the hell out of me.
When I was filming for Def Poetry, some hip-hop fella whose first album was about to be released went up after me and started berating the crowd, telling them how "dope" my poem was and how they didn't "get it," and then he pulled out a piece of paper and recited an actual line of mine. I was flattered, but more embarrassed, because he was being filmed and the producers were pretty strict about "wasting their time." I found out later who the guy was. Kanye West. It all makes perfect sense now. So now I just tell people I am The Beyonce of poetry.
Are you saying that Kanye's been pulling that stunt for years? What am I talking about? Of course he has.
I inspired Kanye's bitch-assery. Yes.
Do people recognize you from Def Poetry Jam? Has
anyone ever quoted you, to you?
When the episode first aired, people would come up to me on the subway and tell me they liked my poem on DPJ, and I'd be like “What the hell were you doing watching poetry that late at night?” I didn't realize how many people tuned in. These days, I get a lot of recognition from young poets. And tons of speech and debaters want the poem “After School, Special” for competition. Cuh-ray-zay!
A girl once sent me a photo of a line of mine tattooed on her back. “My prince charming will pick me poison apples and kiss me to death” is a tramp stamp.
People cover my poems every once in a while, which is bizarre, especially considering the subject matter is often, like, invasively personal.
Most poets will only dream of having their poems “covered.” Reading your book this morning, I started crying several times and missed my stop on the train. It is so heart-breaking, and yet very affirming. How true is the book?
I did a few minor tweaks here and there (for example, in “814” I have my brother and I find a dead body when it was actually a neighbor boy whose name I can't recall.) And poetic license steers my language. I write of my hungry children [note: Rachel has five children] that I “feed them my thumb for breakfast” instead of saying how I chopped off the tip of my thumb and bled into their home fries.
I consider the book to be memoir, which is why the poems are, for the most part, presented chronologically. I allowed elements of magical realism to coincide with the hard truths to temper the burden of the more difficult stories. In “Tomboy,” I torture a mermaid, and even though that is not possible (because I have never caught one), I think it is one of the most honest poems in the book. My mother left when I was two. I spent a lot of my childhood hating little girls. Hating females, entirely. I hated female teachers. I hated my female friends and their mothers who hugged them when they picked them up from school.
I am in the process of writing a
memoir which covers my relationship with my mother, but Pink Elephant was the necessary first step for me. I tried my best
to provide an arc, to give the reader relief points—a reminder that yes, these
things happened, but I have never stopped living because of them. I am a mother
with five incredible kids. I haven't stabbed anyone in the supermarket. I don't
leave dead animals on my ex-husband’s porch. I am not what happened to me.
Amen. How have you experienced book poets’ prejudices at you for being a slam poet?
In the past six months, I've read at book festivals, conferences, panels, etc. and in all but one, my bio in the program mentioned my slam title, but nothing about my book. A couple times my book wasn't even ordered with the other presenters’, and that smarts. I spent four years on that book, and it was by no means an easy book to write. Writers with slam backgrounds tend to get booked as the “entertainment.” There have been a few instances of snobbery, but I consider that to be more of a reflection of that writer's overall character as a human being—not their literary prowess.
You say Pink Elephant was "the necessary first step." What has poetry allowed you to do in order to move into nonfiction?
Poetry is a lot like drag. Its flamboyant language and sideways approach allow the tucked, taped-down truth to sneak in. I didn't write a word about my childhood until I was 24, when I “discovered” poetry. I recognized how metaphor and ambiguity, etc. granted me endless permissions. I could write about everything without feeling like a snitch.
I'm only three chapters into my memoir but I've probably had about six full-fledged anxiety attacks. There are so many triggers, which is why I spent a this morning going back over each chapter, enhancing the prose with poetic elements to help bring my heart rate down. For me, the movement of truth between confessional poetry and memoir has always been more of a waltz than straightforward confrontation.
I have a list of specific moments I want to include in my manuscript. I write out the facts as I know them, and a lot of these things bring me close to meltdown. Then I go back over it and meditate on who I was at that time, the things I thought about, wished for, believed in...the literal poetry of my self. I have a ridiculous memory. I remember clothes I was wearing. What I was eating. This is the relief I need. I'm going to southern California next month, and I plan on getting copies of as many court documents as I can to help fill in any holes. Sweet lord, I'm not sure if I'm ready for what I'll find, but I know it’s where I have to go.
What do you mean by “For me, the movement of truth between confessional poetry and memoir has always been more of a waltz than straightforward confrontation”?
For me, the truth in confessional poetry is a different kind of honesty. It has a lawlessness that allows it to take on as many shapes as it wants, whereas the truth in memoir must come from a sharply-defined place, or it will be asked to explain itself when it gets bent. A memoir cannot survive on facts facts facts, just as poetry, of any kind for that matter, cannot survive on pretty language alone.
Do you have guilt about writing about your childhood? Because, to me, your voice in the poems is fearless, but I bet you hear that a lot, and of course, nobody is fearless.
I can't say that I have guilt, but anxiety, absolutely. With the exception of maybe two or three of the poems, the events in Pink Elephant could only have been written once I had reached a level of amends with them, which means I am really far from the person I was when I experienced them. Sometimes I'll get wacky-brave and write about something that has recently annihilated my heart, and then I end up having a nervous breakdown in front of an audience when I try to read it.
There are plenty of poems I've written out of guilt, though. But that's a whole other jar of snakes. As for the fearlessness. Well. I lived my entire life either bullshitting or being bullshitted. And now I'm older and I'm a mother of five really outstanding human beings and I just don't have time for bullshit.
When did you start doing slam? And do you think slam gave you permission to get down and dirty into your childhood?
I started slamming the same year I started writing poetry. 2001. During the third or fourth open mic at The Ugly Mug in Orange, California, someone announced that a slam was opening up in Long Beach. The Mexican in me assumed this had something to do with masked poets and wrestling. Boy, was that a letdown.
I wouldn't say slam gave me any permissions in terms of the content of my writing, but it certainly taught me a lot about cadence, rhythm and sound. I've been a syllable counter since the day I understood words. Sonics are extremely important to me. And timing. I don't think you can really learn these things in their entirety unless it’s on a microphone. Reading it aloud to yourself in your home is not the same as knowing how to honor your poem by reading it to an audience properly. Many page poets don't read their poems correctly. I've heard brilliant pieces of writing fall flat because the reader didn’t learn the poem's voice.
I was showing your book around a table, and someone leafed through it and said, "These don't look like slam poems." And they don’t. 1) They lack that stereotypical need to lift/rise/resolve at the end, and 2) everyone is three-dimensional—people hurt others as they've been hurt. In standard slam fare, people are good or bad/victims or perps. And when we met, you told me, "I got a lot of haters." Have people criticized your work at slams because it doesn't fit the mold?
After I read, a friend once said, “You’ll never win at this game ending poems the way you do. If you had some happier endings, you'd be a champion.” Which didn't really matter to me because I have never played to win. Winning in 2009 was an absolute accident. I was stunned. Confused. I've only ever played to change the game. Slam has grown a lot in the last decade. Many poets are willing to simplify, which is refreshing, and there are a lot less anthemic, wrapped-in-a-bow poems happening. In slams, I approach a poem exactly as I do at readings. I stand at the mic, and I read my poem. That's it. I don't have a hook (unless it's a pantoum) and you're right, there are no resolutions in my poems that would make an audience feel better. I've slammed 75% of the poems in Pink Elephant, and two of them (“Weather's Here, Wish You Were Beautiful” and “Central Park Mother's Day”) have received perfect scores in national competition, and neither one could ever be accused of being a “slam poem.”
As for my “haters” comment, I have several in the slam scene because I'm pretty forthright about what I think is terrible and I have openly criticized slam champions (or popular slammers) for being clichéd, one-trick ponies. I spent four years teaching poetry to some of the most disadvantaged kids in New York City, and I saw first-hand the positive affects that spoken word had on them—they gained confidence in their own voices and wrote extremely gutsy poetry. Some of the kids were kicked out of their homes for what they wrote. So when grown folks get up on the mic with careless writing, it pisses me off. You're teaching up there, whether you like it or not.
Your ear is excellent, and you said honed that on stage. Who are the poets you like?
I consider so many people poets, even if that is not their specific medium. I love Lorca. Sexton. Espada. Simic. Howe. Dobyns. Clifton. Cisneros. Olds. I think Gerald Stern kills it on the mic. Jack Gilbert's electric. Erica Fabri's “Dialect of a Skirt” makes me swoon. Daniel McGinn, Samantha Thornhill, Lucy Anderton and Regie Cabico need to have a full-length book of poems already. John Patrick Shanley is my favorite playwright, and his work, which is like having a mouthful of blood and grit, influenced my approach to writing, absolutely. The strategic mess of Basquiat. Khalo's regal and knowing women. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, full-blown jedi. And Arundhati Roy is clearly from some pure gold planet.
You have extensive teaching experience, but no MFA. Ever think about getting one?
I have never set foot in a college except to read my poems. I was homeless for a year after high school and never thought about school again until this year. I recently applied to two MFA programs, but a family situation put all of that on the back burner. I'd like to get an MFA. I've been teaching in-school workshops since 2002. I started teaching adults in 2005 at Bellevue Hospital. ACS. Needle exchanges. Shelters. I also have a blog on my website where I post writing exercises. I try to update it once or twice a month.
Why do you think more universities don’t offer performance poetry classes? They're in demand, right? It seems to me like there's gold in them thar hills.
Spoken word is considered extra-curricular—just a bunch of flakes on a microphone. And nine times out of ten, the shittiest examples of a genre hit the big time. A lot of academics think that the spoken word poet in a McDonald's commercial is all there is to it, so why the hell would they want to teach that? The best of spoken word poets, Cabico, Shira Erlichman, Blair, Shappy Seasholtz, Daphne Gottlieb and Jason Bayani, to name a few, should be taught. What they do is by no means easy.
Three poems by Rachel McKibbens
How It's Done
To forgive my father means to uncover
the value of my own life. To admire
what had the guts to be cruel, to lie down
with it at the smallest hint of kindness
and donate this body to house
the few sweet things
that could come from it.
The Day After the First Time We Ran Away From Home
My brother came into the bedroom
and told me he'd found our neighbor's turtle
on our patio, and he told me he lured it
to the back door with some lettuce,
and it ate out of his hand until the lettuce was gone,
and my brother didn't know what to do next,
so the turtle started to move on,
and this angered my brother, so he kicked it,
and it skidded across the pavement on its back
and it cracked against the garage door
and my brother felt bad but by then
there was no going back, so he sprayed
the turtle's head with Raid
and wrapped it up in a bath towel
and threw it into the garbage bin behind
the parking lot, and then he threw
more garbage on top of that, and then
he climbed into the bin and stomped the trash
down, and then he came back inside
and watched some television.
What I Never Wrote
was how you begged me
to keep it. But you were never home
and I was, but didn't want to be.
And by then you had become a man
smaller than a man. So I thought it away.
Closed my eyes and dreamt it out of me.
The next morning, you knocked
on the bathroom door, then charged in.
I stood and pointed into the tub.
I said, Look at that.
And you asked, Is that—
And I said, Yes.
And you said, Oh
and shaved off your beard.