All of the good things you hear about the work of Rachel McKibbens are true. I think that is a simple enough truth that anyone who encounters her work will find out on their own quickly. I am really invested in writers who give us not small bits of themselves in their work, but almost all. Huge pieces. No part of themselves uncommitted. Not only does Rachel do that but she does it with the promise of I survived. You can, too. What I have always found more important (and in some ways, more impressive) than the poems, though, is the Rachel who stands up and fights. For survivors, for those overcome with grief, for a balance and a righteousness in any space she claims as a community space. I’ve always found her to have such a kindness that shows up in her work in just the right places. And one that also shows up in any interaction I’ve had with her. Most of all, Rachel has shown so many of us what it is to come down from the mountain, join in, and try to move it together. Even when it seems to barely be making a dent.
I just completed reading Mammoth, for the third time. I’m finding that I read your work differently as I get older/get closer to things I fear. I find myself sitting with the work more, really letting it fully be digested. It occurs to me now that I think you maneuver grief, and the process of grieving in a way that is oddly comforting for me, and I’m sure others. The way you present really large tragedies, from every imaginable angle, allows sadness and grief (and then healing) a kind of permission to bloom. Is that something that you reach for with intention, or even something you feel after the work is done?
I like the use of the word “maneuver” in your question, because it is what we are doing every day of our lives: maneuvering. It isn’t hard to decipher that a large portion of my writing is in response to some kind of loss and that language is how I react. Poetry is the move I make.
In the last four years, I’ve lost a dozen people who were dear to me, and most were all without warning. Freak accidents. Rare illnesses, one after the other. There were so many deaths, I shut down, and did not tend to myself properly. I realize, now, I didn’t give myself time to allow grief to figure its way through me. I compartmentalized and moved on. I avoided it.
My niece Ingrid’s death was the last proverbial straw for me. I knew, if I didn’t acknowledge and share this sorrow, I was going to be severely harmed by it; there was a chance my brain would not come back. The thing about grief that not enough people tell you is that you have to share it. You have to give some of it away, or you will suffer in profound and unfathomable ways.
Every poem in Mammoth was written in some kind of grief-altered state. My only intention was to show how visceral and necessary the mourning process is and the ways in which I, personally, chose to steer through it. I am not a valiant narrator. I reveal a lot of ugliness about myself during those desperate months. And I think that’s important. Healthy, even. To me, death is a language, so really, our only job is to present its many definitions.
This past summer, I managed to get my hands on the documentary Slam Planet, which tracked you and the rest of the Urbana Poetry Slam team as you all prepared for the 2004 poetry slam. Immediately after it finished, I found myself curious and excited to ask about your roots in slam, especially since my first exposure to your work (as a spectator, 2011’s Rustbelt) was in a slam setting. What were those first few years of you slamming like?
In 2001, I started writing poetry (shortly after a dear friend died.) I’d read at open mics for several months and then a slam started at this awesome gay bar in Long Beach, CA. I attended and judged a few, then decided to give it a shot. I was an athlete growing up, so I’ve always had a competitive streak. And I was also in theater my entire school life. So the combination just seemed really fun.
I was a pretty divisive writer. My poetry did not accommodate the typical slam-winning themes. I’d pull 2’s and 10‘s for the same poem. As I became more confident in my writing, I became a more successful competitor. (I should note that the couple times I was the least prepared to slam were the few times that I actually won.)
The scene was much different back then. I mean, all the underlying social problems were the same, but the internet was still pretty new. People weren’t concerned so much with YouTube hits and whether pissing someone off in a Facebook thread could damage their touring career.
I think a common thread in all of these interviews will be examining the way activism plays into the poet as an artist and (more importantly) as a person. There’s fearlessness in the way you organize, support, and hold those who need it, at the right time. What drives that?
I’ll be honest – most of my activism is born entirely FROM fear. I’m scared every day I wake up. This country is fucked up, and the poetry scene is reflective of its culture. Bottom line: I am a mother and I want to leave this place in better shape than how it was in when I first got here. At the rate it’s going, I’m not sure that is remotely possible.
Also, I have noticed over the years that friends of mine who have endured trauma tend to grow up as adults who have an undying need for justice. I can’t see something wrong go down and not want to right it. It’s my nature.
Kind of on the back of that, I wanted to pick one of the things you’ve organized to ask you about. And while the monthly series you curate in Rochester, Poetry and Pie, is really intriguing…I wanted to dig a little more into Pink Door. How did it start, why is it important, and what is the future of it?
(this question was answered on Richard Blanco’s blog a couple weeks ago: http://richard-blanco.com/2014/03/permission-to-make-noise/)
When having these discussions with poets, I’m really interested in finding out how aware they are of their impact. And yours is not only far reaching, but diverse. I have been in spaces where your work and workshops really carve out a space in hearts belonging to people of all ages. You’re adored by teenagers almost in the exact same way you are by adults/your peers. Do you have an audience you aim for? Do you ever find yourself surprised when someone approaches you and says “Hey. Thank you for what you do.”?
GAH. This is the freak-me-outest question of all time. I’ll just say that I am aware of my impact on some level, but I imagine it being a lot smaller than you are insinuating. I didn’t know until very recently that anyone was listening, and now that I do know, I am a lot more cautious with what I put out there. Let’s be real for a minute. Most bitches are too soft; I was raised by convicts, so I am blunt and will clown you, hard. When I first joined Facebook, I learned that the hard way. But I digress…
Now, as an educator, I’ve always connected best with anyone who has outrun the bad hand they’ve been dealt. Survival is its own culture, and survivors recognize fellow survivors pretty easily. We speak a different language. We hold our bodies differently and we tend not to mince words. There is an urgency in us that is extremely clear. These are the people my poems are reaching for.
Into The Dark And Emptying Field was, in some ways, frightening. I didn’t find myself afraid to read it, of course, but there were all of these small nightmares in there, constructed so well. On first read, it hit me harder than most everything I read last year. I remember it being really sharp in its depictions of loneliness. What was behind the process of putting that gem together?
I have always been fascinated by people who do terrible things to others. There were a couple years where it became an unhealthy obsession for me, back when I first moved to New York city and was alone most of each day. I think so much of our bad behavior stems from the anxiety of being alone. Solitude can be comforting when it is deliberate, but when it isn’t, it is a dangerous beast. The people depicted in ITD&EF are all based on people I have known and they all have one thing in common: they do not want to be rejected, and are willing to sink to horrifying lows to avoid it.
I was extremely close to my mother as a child, and due to that, I find a connection with art that portrays motherhood in a very real, touchable way. I think of a piece like “Poem for Three Dead Girls of Last Summer” (among many others), and how you layout the truth behind love leading to fear. How important is it to portray the realities of being a mother (or even being a daughter) in your work?
I will live my entire life not knowing what it is like to be close to my mother. Growing up motherless shaped who I am as a caregiver to my children. It is a lot of work to be present and safe for my babies, especially when my own personal history with family is clouded in such violence and loss. I’ve always resented how the maternal instinct is assumed. For some, it is a foreign language they will never have the tongue for. The way I have lived is a reality rarely depicted by the media. My mother was/is mentally ill. She was raised in an extremely abusive household. She was incapable of taking care of me and my brother. This does not make her a bad person just as it does not make me a pitiful person. Quite simply, I have never been her daughter and she has never been my mother. Not everyone can grasp this concept. Hell, some days I can’t either. So I work it out through my writing. On page, I actually have a relationship with the woman. I speak to her often. I can even dare to love her at times.
Coming back to another slam question. My first REAL experience taking in your work from a slam perspective came during 2012’s Rustbelt, when you summoned that UNREAL Flesh & Blud team to Columbus. Being quite literally a complete rookie and having to bout against the four of you was one of the true joys of my first year doing this whole thing. I have more conflicting feelings about the space now. There’s a part in the film Almost Famous where Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs tells the kid, “you’ve come along at a very dangerous time for Rock n’ Roll”. In so many words, I heard similar things from “veterans” my first year in. With that in mind, will you ever get out there again? Is your work in that area done? Will you please bring another Flesh and Blud team to Rustbelt sometime?
The 2011 team was our response to the dizzying gender imbalance in the sport. Poets Laura Yes Yes & Emily Rose asked me if I wanted to be a part of it and of course I jumped at the chance. I’d never been on an all-woman team. There’d been a few that competed at NPS, but they were, and still are, painfully rare. Aricka Foreman and Gypsee Yo rounded out the team and we had an extraordinary time. I called it Team Fire in my head. The 2012 team (me, Emily Rose, Megan Falley & Marty McConnell) was Team Nuance. I would totally bring another all-woman team to Rustbelt, but I’d only coach. I love coaching. And it’d open up a spot for another woman to join, so that’s all gravy.
Who are the writers who still push you in the way that you’ve pushed so many?
Robert Lashley, Stevie Edwards and Sam Sax. BOOM.
Straight up, though. I love delicious things. So, with that said, I am fascinated by your relationship with desserts. I’ve had friends go to Poetry and Pie (and Pink Door), and come back raving about the treats. So, if you’ll forgive me for ending with a fluff question, I find myself called to ask what the most unique and/or inspiring cake you have ever come across, or made, or attempted to make is?
I rarely eat any of the things I actually bake, but the last thing I made that knocked my own socks off was a strawberry blackberry pie. It was so simple, yet had this spark to each bite. I also did a coconut milk wash on the crust that added a little glitter. That said, Poetry & Pie Night is not limited to just pies. Since it’s a potluck, people bring all kinds of amazing baked goods. The history of dessert fascinates me. During the Middle Ages, sugar was so expensive only the upper class could enjoy it. And also, the Mexican in me LOVES how foofy and rose-adorned desserts get to be, like one big quinceañera dress.
Rachel, thank you so much for doing this. Thank you for your work, both on the page, and in the necessary spaces that have nothing to do with writing. Hope to see you soon.
RACHEL MCKIBBENS is a 2007 New York Foundation of the Arts Poetry Fellow, a Pushcart nominee, and the 2009 Women’s Individual World Poetry Slam champion. She has read her work at universities, schools, galleries, and various other venues across the nation. She teaches poetry and creative writing across the country at all levels. An ex-punk rock chola with five children, Rachel lives in upstate New York with writer Jacob Rakovan and their five children. She is the author of Pink Elephant (Cypher Books, 2009) and Into the Dark & Emptying Field (Small Doggies Press, 2013)