First, Gibson (they, them) thought of their family and felt desperate to avoid bringing the weight of this kind of grief to their relatives, since Gibson’s grandmother had already lost two of her children, one to ovarian cancer. Then, Gibson started thinking, “The book, the book, the book."
"I'd just handed in the final draft for a book in which I had vetted each and every line with this question: ‘Would I be okay saying this if it were my last words?’ And because of that, it was hard to imagine there was any way that what they saw on the CT scan wouldn’t kill me,” Gibson says.
You Better Be Lightning, Gibson’s new collection of poetry that was released on November 9, was written with everyone’s mortality in mind. Before writing anything for it, Gibson would ask: "Am I writing a poem worthy of someone’s last moments on this earth?"
“Writing the book had haunted me some,” Gibson explains. “Throughout the process, I had thought, ‘Why am I doing this?,’ and I’d come up with a number of reasonable answers. One, because I’m writing in a world pandemic. Two, because my friend has a terminal cancer diagnosis, and I’m spending more time with her and her family throughout the pandemic than anyone else. Three, because no one should ever write anything without making room for the fact that it may be the last thing they write. But after my diagnosis, my relationship with the book changed dramatically. I was infinitely more grateful for its existence.”
The first poem written for the collection was “The Year of No Grudges.” Gibson was furious with a friend when they started, but by the time they reached the second stanza, they felt nothing but gratitude for this person, a feeling that continues through the rest of the piece. “Writing that poem was such a transformative experience for me,” Gibson says. “I was newly awakened to the power of perspective, and realized that my life is not impacted by what happens to me nearly as much as it’s impacted by how I relate to what happens to me. Had I not had that experience with the poem, I have no doubt my response to my cancer diagnosis would have been very different, would have involved far less acceptance and far more suffering. Before the surgery in which I was officially diagnosed, I knew from the CT scan and from my own intuition that there was a good chance it was cancer, and I almost immediately thought, ‘No matter what happens, I’m going to do everything I can to have this experience open my heart instead of close it.’”
On July 30, Gibson posted a video to Instagram with health updates. At the beginning, they note that they didn’t want to share a written post in fear of it coming across as gloomy, since that’s not how they were feeling. “What’s true is I’m not feeling gloomy right now,” Gibson says in the video. “I’m feeling an overwhelming amount of hope, and even more so than that, an overwhelming amount of love and gratitude.”
A spoken-word poet, Gibson intends for each piece to also live out loud in performance. But after the initial diagnosis and starting chemotherapy, they were worried that the poems from You Better Be Lightning wouldn’t have that chance.
This past summer, the book's publisher, Button Poetry, sent a cinematographer to Colorado, who set up a recording studio in an Airbnb near Gibson’s home in Boulder and extended an open invitation for Gibson to record over the course of three days. Initially, Gibson was uncertain if they’d be able to record just two or three poems. But ultimately, they recorded 55. “I had so much energy, and it felt so wonderful to be doing what I love,” Gibson says. “It just was so wonderful to hear some of the poems for the first time out loud — and then also, Button had picked these poems that had never been filmed on video that were just old poems of mine. So I got to film some poems from like 2002. … It's almost like I was standing there on the mic, listening to my younger self and feeling how much it changed and also hearing lines in a new way."
Those poems were written shortly after Gibson came to Colorado. "Right after college, in 1998, I went on a road trip driving for months all over the country looking for my 'home,'" the poet recalls. "I moved to New Orleans for a year, then moved to Boulder in 1999. That year was the most impactful of my life, as I discovered the open mic at Penny Lane in Boulder and the weekly slam at the Mercury Cafe in Denver. And also that year, I joined Vox Feminista, a political performance group, and through them I got involved in other local activist groups and found my community in Colorado."
And with the filming experience this summer, those early poems finally found their voice. “It was nice to hear the poems out loud," Gibson continues, "and I feel really grateful that was able to happen, because I could [have] very well had an experience with chemo that would have made it so that would have been too hard to do.”
One of the first poems they filmed was “Acceptance Speech after Setting the World Record in Goosebumps.” Observes Gibson: “It's a happy poem, and yet I'm crying throughout it. ... I was so emotional because I was just feeling so much love for this world and the existence of goosebumps — like what a miracle. What a miracle goosebumps are. It wasn't sad poems that were bringing me to tears in all of that; it was like every time I get to this really happy poem, which is a lot of them, it would overwhelm me. It was a similar experience when visitors would come right after my diagnosis. I could hardly do it, because I'd just start crying from love. It was like I was meeting these poems out loud for the first time and having a really tender experience with them.”
“Acceptance Speech after Setting the World Record in Goosebumps” details a number of wonder-filled moments from the poet’s life, like seeing Prince perform live, catching a moonrise over the Continental Divide and learning that it rains diamonds on Jupiter. The piece epitomizes Gibson's commitment to leading with love and uncovering awe in the everyday.
This was something Gibson had been striving to do for fifteen years — to not be so consumed by worry and to live guided by what truly matters — but had struggled with. “I struggled and struggled, and I tried just about everything to get there,” they recall. “Writing the book was part of trying to get there. I’ve said this a lot, but I don’t always write where I am. I write where I want to be and try to follow the poem in light’s direction."
The poet continues: "Now, reading the book, reading lines like ‘Bitterness is the easiest way to leave the world having had only a near-life experience’ — that’s an idea that takes virtually no effort for me to live in line with now. But when I wrote it, not being bitter was an aspiration, not a fact.”
Just three years ago, while on tour for Hey Galaxy, a full-length poetry album, Gibson says they showed up to the microphone with less certainty than ever. Historically, the poet spent their life terrified of death, illness and how vulnerable our bodies are. But all that shifted with the diagnosis.
“I recognized the futility of trying to control what was happening in my life and instinctively gave up on doing so,” Gibson explains. “And when I gave up control, I realized that something far more beautiful lives beneath control. My own aliveness lives beneath it. My own heart lives beneath it. I stopped thinking about the future or the past. The day I was in became all that existed, and is still all that exists now, but it is so, so much. It is so much more than the past and future I had been living in before.”
Andrea Gibson's You Better Be Lightning is now available, order it here.