Poet Andrea Gibson is not feeling gloomy right now—in fact, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and a cancer diagnosis, they are feeling hope, gratitude, connectedness, peace and an immeasurable amount of love.
Author of seven books and seven albums, Gibson is releasing their latest book of poetry, You Better Be Lightning, this month. I was thrilled to learn that Ms. and I could play some role, however small, in celebrating the release of this vast and kaleidoscopic collection.
Because of Andrea’s health, we conducted this interview via email. Andrea wrote that “focusing during chemo can be a challenge,” and encouraged us to edit any spelling or grammatical errors they may have written in their answers. While we may have inserted a word or added some line breaks, we did minimal editing in order to preserve the integrity of Andrea’s reflections.
Karla J. Strand: For your seasoned readers and longtime fans, what makes the new collection different from previous collections?
Andrea Gibson: I wrote most of the book newly awake to my own mortality, and the mortality of everyone I loved. There are a number of reasons for that.
1. We were at the beginning of a pandemic.
2. I was spending much of the pandemic with a friend who had a terminal cancer diagnosis, and her wife and young daughter.
3. I share community with a woman who is a hospice singer. Her name is Linda. She sits at the bedsides of people in their final hours and sings them towards eternity. For years I had thought about what poem I might want to hear in my final moments. I had asked myself over and over if I had written a poem that was worthy of a dying person’s ears, and every time I asked myself that, the answer was no. I wanted to write at least one poem that felt like a ‘yes’ to me.
Interestingly, I don’t even know if the poems in this collection will resonate as very different from those in my previous books, but the internal process, the constant vetting of my own grudges, the deleting of my bitternesses—the refusal to include that (perfectly crafted) raging poem about an ex that I really, really wanted to leave in—that’s why the book [is] very new to me.
I wanted to write something from the best of me. Not “best” as in craft or skill—but from the part of my heart I most trust. The part that sees myself, others, and the world with a wider lens and leans towards grace, gratitude, forgiveness, love. Needless to say, it was more than a little bit haunting when I got diagnosed with cancer so soon after handing in my final edits.
It shook me. I’m still shook. In some ways still standing at the end of my driveway on the phone with my doctor, listening to him tell me they saw something out of the ordinary on the CT scan. But here I am, grateful for having made a book the best of me can get behind, and awed by the million ways this time is further widening my lens, further softening my heart.
trand: What sort of effect did COVID have on your creativity and writing?
Gibson: I was in the middle of what was scheduled to be a very long world tour when COVID hit. The tour itself was very different for me as I had written an entire show about love and it was a blast to perform. A number of pieces from that show found a home in You Better Be Lightning.
Touring gives me so much energy and very rarely depletes me, but as I’m not someone who writes on the road, the cancellation of the tour gave me much more time to write. At first, it was a challenge as I was quite depressed, struggling to feel anything beyond the pain of our planet, and couldn’t stop stalking the news.
Then, one night, I came across a video of quarantined people singing on their balconies in Italy. After that, I woke up each day aching to add something beautiful to the day.