Writing From the Gut: An interview with Rachel McKibbens
By Javi Mason
“I don’t care if white readers can’t relate. I’m here to tell my stories, and those of my ancestors and peers who are no longer on this planet. This intent requires me to be as Mexican and bold and queer and gutsy as I can be.” – Rachel McKibbens, Queer Mexican Poet and Activist
When I purchased my copies of Mammoth and Pink Elephant at a fund raiser for The Spirit Room, author Rachel McKibbens advised me to read Mammoth first so I could ease into the second book when the time arrived. I heeded her words and I am glad I have. Though only a few pages, Mammoth is not a chapbook one can easily read from start to finish. It chronicles the loss of the author’s young niece, a period that devastates McKibbens to this day. Vulnerability, rage, and a penetrating sense of loss exudes from each piece—to the extent that it resembles the grief I have experienced when I lost my grandmother in 2004.
Her ability to breathe life into words is one of the numerous reasons why the California native is crowned a legend in the Slam Poetry community. McKibbens conceals nothing, utilizing worldbuilding and conviction to pen autobiographical poetry that many fans are emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually unprepared for. In addition, she advocates for those with mental illness and domestic violence survivors and hosts the Pink Door Retreat, a week-long safe haven for Queer writers of color. And she has no plans of slowing down as she has recently published the bestselling poetry collection Blud and hosting Poetry and Pie Night at The Spirit Room, an establishment known for its cocktails, amazing dishes, and profound respect for New York State’s supernatural history.
I had the honor to interview McKibbens about her writing, The Spirit Room, and her advocacy as a Queer Mexican Femme and Conjure Woman.
Javi Mason: When did you discover your love for the written word?
Rachel McKibbens: I’d always been a reader, devouring every book I could get my hands on in my grandmother’s sordid library. I was reading Stephen King, V.C. Andrews & Danielle Steele novels by the time I was in kindergarten. Horrible! LOL
J.M.: Who are your literary influences and why?
R.M.: Definitely Gabriel García Márquez, Anne Sexton & Judy Blume, in reverse chronological order. Once I read Judy Blume’s angsty pre-teen books, I felt truly seen. I was such a confused kid, struggling with my gender identity. I had all this masculine energy and foul-mouthedness from being raised by violent men, and every girl in Blume’s books was confused or misunderstood, so I identified with that deeply. Márquez came later, in high school. It was the brightest storytelling I’d ever encountered. I felt as if a small door opened up inside me that got bigger as I turned the page. The magic intertwined with the real experiences felt like the most honest text I’d ever read. The poetry of Anne Sexton grounded me in a way I’d never expected to be. The visceral, femme narrative was one I could find myself in. I’d denied so much of myself growing up—I was a self-hating misogynist. Sexton’s work allowed me to see into the complicated inner turmoil of being a mother and wife and woman living with mental illness. Her voice allowed me to recognize my own. To shed all the decades of shame that had silenced me.
J.M.: You had the opportunity to teach poetry through the Healing Arts Program at Bellevue Hospital. Could you tell me about that experience?
R.M.: I did a TEDx talk a few years back about it. That will explain more than I ever could here. In a nutshell, it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. Those students remain the bravest, must vulnerable writers I have ever taught and I will forever be indebted to them. They helped me open up about my own lived experiences and struggles with mental illness. It was something my family never talked about. Those students gifted me my language.
J.M.: I’m reading Mammoth right now and it focuses primarily on the loss of your niece. How did writing this chapbook help you process that loss? What was it like for you to share that part of your life with the world and to actually read these poems out loud?
R.M.: It’s the most impossible grief you can imagine—the loss of a child—and I had to write it or my head was going to explode. A lot of those poems were written in a partially dissociated state. I was so buried beneath sorrow and rage. It is still a hard book to read from. I have to spend all day getting mentally prepared to confront those poems. I documented my niece’s treatments and her health on Facebook, so in a way, we had the support of the literary community and friends abroad to detangle all the emotions. To help me navigate all that brutal terrain. There was so much hope. So much fight. When she passed, people responded as if she were someone they had known. They’d been rooting for her and her family the whole way. The book was as much a gift to them as it was her mama. It needed to happen, to allow healing to start.
[Ed note: the second part of this interview will appear in our February issue and online. See p. 27 of Issue 518 for a review of the Spirit Room]