Rachel McKibbens

Rachel McKibbens
“As a Chicana mother, I want to tell the story of myself and my ancestors in ways that guide my children towards the kind of self-love I never had permission to know when I was young.”

 

It’s about to get real with gorgeous and ferocious poet, activist, essayist, playwright and poetry slam champion Rachel McKibbens, whose poems tear me up inside–in the best way. (Seriously. Read “Deeper than Dirt” at poets.org)

 

I follow Rachel on Facebook, where she brings cultural and social truth as well as the coolest pictures and funniest anecdotes about her life as the mother of daughters. I knew I had to interview this badass mama-writer, and lucky for us all she agreed.

 

Interview with Rachel McKibbens

 

How do you find the balance between mothering and writing? Do you ever find the lines crossing in interesting ways?

Writing is a kind of mothering, isn’t it? When I write, I am nurturing something, whether it’s a grief or thought that is creating conflict within me and needs to be resolved with a poet’s language. I’ve been a mother for so long, but I’ve been a writer for even longer. The two don’t seem like separate things, both are such heavy powers. I am constantly trying to awaken myself to the ways in which I can be a better caregiver, through parenting and writing.

Does being a Latina mother affect your writing?


I think most writers of color make deliberate choices in their writing, choices that carry a more visceral kind of immediacy and weight. We don’t have the luxury of waiting, of imagining we will have long enough lifespans to tell our stories from older, self-reflective perspectives. History books have revealed to us that we are required to tell our stories now, as they are happening, if we are expected to have them told properly, if at all. There is so much at stake. And it is far more necessity than obligation. As a Chicana mother, I want to tell the story of myself and my ancestors in ways that guide my children towards the kind of self-love I never had permission to know when I was young.

In addition to being a badass writer with many acclaimed written works, you’re also a hugely successful performer (ahem, Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion)! Can you speak about your experiences as a slam poet mama?

I was an athlete most of my childhood, and a theater nerd, and a writer, so it makes sense that I would end up involved in something that combined the three. Poetry slam continues to do what it was created to do – it gets people who wouldn’t ordinarily think they liked poetry into being interested in poetry. I’ve attended several National Poetry Slams with babies on my hip, nursing them offstage just minutes before it was my turn on the mic. I’ve been able to have transformative dialogue with my kids, as well as thousands of people from all over the country, thanks to a poem heard onstage. There are plenty ridiculous things about poetry slam that I could get into, but the same could be said of, say, chess tournaments or comic book conventions.

You write emotionally resonant poetry about trauma, especially family trauma. You’ve also written candidly about living with mental illness. Can you speak about motherhood and the writing-healing process?

I’ve said in the past that I believe poetry is the second language of the oppressed. Trauma is often the first. We have to bend language to get it to fit what we have experienced. It is such an extraordinary thing to survive, to outlast. I am working hard, every day, to stay here. To exist and mother and lover and speak. I don’t do a perfect job, but I am constantly working. This morning, a dark thought swept through my head, and I almost allowed myself to drift away with it. But instead, I talked myself out of it. I drew the language that demanded I stay, and used it. As a mother, there is so much shame in ever feeling like I shouldn’t be alive. So I write about that shame. I write about my fears and my needs. Speaking and telling and naming is a tremendous gift. If I can write about it, if I can say, “There are mornings when I want to die,” I can un-say it, too.

Poets have often asked me where I find the courage to write. Your poetry and nonfiction lay bare the bones. Where do you find the courage to write, poeta?

I feel I’ve answered this in my previous responses, so I’ll just keep it brief: courage begets courage. We should always be reading work that scares and pushes us.

Have you found that there are particular challenges facing mother-writers than those of other writers?

Naturally. It’s a constant spinning of expectations: help with homework, revise that poem, write that cover letter, buy groceries, pay the soccer league dues, submit your work, answer a dozen emails asking for ______ , fold the laundry, sew the button back on, read this book, don’t go crazy, round up the merchandise, print out the itinerary, pick up ____ from rehearsal, apply for this grant, pay attention, don’t space out, draw a dinosaur, comb your hair, sign that permission slip then write the best poem of your life.

What advice can you share with mother-writers who may be struggling to continue their craft or to find the path toward publication and/or performance?

Set a goal for your writing-self, and stick to it. I have lists of things I expect of myself. Each day, there are about ten things I must do. Five of them have to do with craft, the other five life. Then I reward myself for accomplishing these tasks. A cookie. Lipstick. A round of Katamari. Allow small successes to be enough.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on my third poetry manuscript. It’s about living with bipolar disorder, my mother’s schizophrenia and my childhood gender dysphoria. Comedy gold.

*Visit Rachel’s website for more awesomeness: rachelmckibbens.com

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Interview with Rachel McKibbens | Jennifer Givhan, Poet & Novelist

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