This weeks #BadAssBabe is Rachel McKibbens. Rachel is a Chicana poet, activist and mental health advocate with nearly two decades of involvement exposing the transformative power of poetry to a broad spectrum of humans: from needle exchanges to high schools, halfway houses to Ivy League universities. She is the author of Pink Elephant and Into The Dark and Emptying Field (the poem I dressed as for Halloween in 2014). She is a two-time New York Foundation for the Arts fellow and the 2009 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion. She has numerous other accolades but I want to talk about what she means to mean and what she is about to mean to folks all over the country.
The first time I saw Rachel McKibbens perform was on the National Poetry Slam Finals stage (I think it was 2007 in Austin, Texas). I was just getting back into slam after seven years and two kids. When Rachel took the stage, people lost their shit and I thought, oh this must be one of the big dogs, let me take notes. Rachel performed Central Park, Mother's Day with a fierce, careful tone that was drastically different than most of the things being performed in slam back then (and even now, really). The poem gutted me. It was about her son giving her a handful of tulip heads but it is also about every mother’s deepest fears.
A mama forgets what her weapons can do.
Can't know which of her failures
will be what does it.
Tommy's turn with the belt, in fifteen years,
becomes Meaghan's throbbing black eye.
I don’t have the notes I took that day but I think it something about “Performance in service to the poem, not the other way around.” I consistently use Rachel’s work in writing workshops and quote something she said in a workshop at the Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2010.
Don't ask how I can win this poetry slam, ask what is my poem's job in this poetry slam?
What is this poems job in this room? On this page?
Don't let the truth get in the way of good writing
In 2012, I planned a cross-country tour around the first ever Pink Door Writing Retreat where I had the good fortune of sleeping in a tent in Rachel's backyard. Pink Door arose out of this urgent need for women in the slam and literary communities to engage and nurture each other in a non-competitive space. Rachel created that space and opened her home and backyard to 30 writers from all over the country. Now, four years later, after listening to feedback from attendees Pink Door has evolved into an annual event for writers of color to promote community and dialogue among writers excluded from the dominant cultural narrative.(If you are WOC, applications are open now, go apply!) Just another reason, Rachel is exposing the transformative power of poetry and driving the culture in literary communities.
Which brings me to her next adventure. The Outlast Project.
THE OUTLAST PROJECT is a cathartic poetry event & interactive healing art project designed to empower survivors of sexual assault. In her IndieGoGo campaign which raised 13k in one month, she says,
During a poetry tour in 2012, an unexpected phenomenon occurred: at the conclusion of every show, audience members approached me to share their own accounts of survival. I understood the urgency in this, the urgent need to be heard. By sharing my own story onstage, finally giving my experience its truest name, I was demanding myself to exist beyond that experience. The more I said it out loud, the further I moved away from what happened.
I know this so well. One of the things I treasure the most about performing poems is those moments after a show when someone collapses in my arms, crying, and/or shares their brave story with me. It is how I know I am on the right path, the reminder that sharing art with each other is necessary form of intimacy.
In 2014, when I was finally ready to start processing my own childhood trauma, I started doing trauma therapy and built my own altar to nurture myself through the process. I texted Rachel on the regular for support. She was always there to light a candle or cast a circle or just generally encourage me with her witchy wonder. She reminded me that I was more than what happened. That my sex life would return. That I was not alone. This is the kind of healer she is.
So a lot of people are dealing with trauma and a lot of those people are nurtured by poetry. Many of us know that but just say: oh that’s a thing that happens but oh well, who am I to do anything about it? Rachel went deeper. She decided to go on tour with the specific intention of creating an interactive poetry show that fuses humor, trivia, poetry & song to address consent, sexual assault prevention & survivor self-care. Armed with a typewriter, buckets of glitter, silk roses, wooden hearts, a coven of hot glue guns & the mightiest volunteers in the galaxy (aka The Outlast Recovery Squad) we will assist anyone who wants to to get brave & rebuild.
You heard it, folks. Glitter AND a coven ANDANDAND poems. So not only do you get to listen to staggering poems from the High Priestess of Language but then you have the option of participating in a magical craft workshop where you build a shrine of your grief and then release it into an expanding art installation. Fuck. Yes.
Okay, so you know you need to be a part of this, right? The tour dates are already filling in from Cornell University to MacAlester in Minnesota so you can either find a city near you where Outlast will be or you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to set one up in your area.
IN THE MEANTIME, WATCH THESE WRECKING BALLS
Who would ever choose to be the damaged house,
better to be the demolition gender
Cinderblock and dog rotted
I strutted the world
AND THIS ONE
Let the girls in the locker room corner me again
If it brings me to you
Let this wild depression throw me beneath its hooves
If it brings me to you
Let my father break me again and again
If it brings me to you
TO FIND OUT MORE GO TO RACHELMCKIBBENS.COM