Poetry Friday: Rachel McKibbens, 2012 Festival Poet

Posted on by Rebecca Gambale, Program Associate

Rachel McKibbens isn’t afraid to take on difficult topics. Her poems approach life in a way that is raw and honest – and she wants to deliver it to you that way, whether in print or on stage. When she is performing her poetry, you never hear her coasting through her poems, she uses her voice and body to create a connection with her audience. She often comes near tears speaking of love, or pain, or anger –and you find you’re right there with her. She is sometimes harsh, sometimes vulnerable, but she is always genuine. She provides a trustworthy voice through, at times, devastating hardship – she is your best friend, your mother, your sister, your guide.

Speaking from this place of intimacy makes the brutal moments in her poems that much more unbearable, and the love that much more powerful. In the video above, as McKibbens reads her poem “Last Love”, the listener can’t help but feel personally addressed by her. She wants us to have the love she describes. This generosity of spirit makes it impossible to be an uninvolved, passive audience member – we are her daughters, we are these men that they will someday love.

Alternately, in her performance of her poem The Giver, transmitting her hurt and anger at her lover’s affair) makes us step into the shoes of the betrayed. She blends the literal and vivid pain with beautiful imagery – speaking of her lover’s mistress: “Yesterday a bird slammed into our bedroom door when she thought of your hands.” It is strong compositional choices like these that ensure an audience doesn’t have to have shared the same experience to share the authentic human reactions she is able to express here. In testimony to this, you can hear the breath escape from the mouths of the audience as the poem ends.

This audible, seemingly involuntary exhale is what you will hear over and over from  the audience when McKibbens reads – it is a physical reaction to an emotional connection. It is visceral. It is what enables these personal stories to move beyond the vacuum of personal experience, and to be brought to light and shared with an audience.

In addition to her innate gift for moving a room full of people, McKibbens, who describes herself as “an ex-punk rock chola with five children,” has a staggering list of poetic accomplishments. She is 2009 Women of the World poetry slam champion, an eight-time National Poetry Slam team member, a three-time NPS finalist, and a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow and Pushcart nominee. She has been featured on Def Poetry Jam and was lauded by Kanye West for her performance there. Her work is as powerful on the page as it is on the stage, and her first book, Pink Elephant, was released in 2009. She has held extensive classes and workshops in underprivileged communities and in mental facilities, and she cites these experiences as especially meaningful to her.

In an interview for the Best American Poetry blog, McKibbens says:

“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.”

For her ability to be compassionate and generous as she leads us into the sometimes heartbreakingly difficult and personal world of her poems, she is truly inspiring. We are excited to welcome Rachel at the Festival in October, and know that the students on Student Day will feel the same.


Please use the “Comments” box below to share other resources you may have found for this poet.  In this way, we can build together a mini-wiki-encyclopedia on the 2012 Festival Poets.

For more information on the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program,
visit our website dodgepoetry.org

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