A Conversation with Rachel McKibbens

Author of Pink Elephant (Cypher Books, Dec. 2009)
By Stephanie Renae Johnson

I first stumbled upon Rachel McKibbens’ name through a friend of a friend who described the poetess as “a monstress,” in the sense that she is so productive and such a heartstring-tugging writer. Indeed, Ms. McKibbens’ poetry is visceral and lovely, but it is the reality of it, the sheer strength of her words that, to me, makes her poetry worth reading. It was a joy to interview Rachel McKibbens about her first book of poems, Pink Elephant.

Stephanie Johnson: Thank you so much for doing this interview. I have to say, as a performance poet, I’m intrigued by your work. You show your background in slam poetry—your words are evocative and harsh, but sweet (“he smacked me like a housefly”.) When writing a poem, do you differentiate between slam and page poetry? Where is the line between the two for you, if there is one at all? 

Rachel McKibbens: I was writing long before I knew slam existed. Competing in poetry slams has never affected what I write, which is probably why I have a reputation within the slam community for being a sort of anomaly, for bringing “quiet” work to the stage. The louder stuff tends to get more attention, and often the poems with top 40 accessibility do well in competition, but I don’t let that dictate what I write about or how I present it. There’s a place in slam for every kind of poetry. 

SJ: Your poetry is mostly autobiographical—yet you’ve written that you tell your students to always save something for themselves. Is this a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of a thing, or do you have certain subjects that you don’t touch, as a rule? It’s hard to imagine where your boundaries lie, as your poems range from topics such as child abuse to molestation and rape. 

RM: These topics are not all I write about. The poems in Pink Elephant are autobiographical, so the subject matter is pretty set in stone, however the rest of my work, as a whole, is not married to one topic or one time in my life. Sixty percent or more of what I have written is not autobiographical. Of course, elements of my life will always be lodged somewhere within a poem, even if it isn’t about me. Child abuse, molestation, and rape are all physical violence. That, to me, is only one topic. The entire world’s worth of experience is available to every writer. The boundaries aren’t meant to be seen, otherwise I’m not doing my job. It is dangerous to assume you have a complete knowledge of a writer and their personal life based on what they’ve revealed to you. You only know what they want you to know. I follow the same guidelines I give my students—write what you have to write. What you want to write. And that is all. You have a right to protect yourself and you have a right to change the story.

SJ: Along that line, your work mostly reminds me of confessional poetry, leaving nothing or next to nothing out. What genre do you consider your work? Or do you not even aim for a genre, but more of a theme?

RM: I’ve never liked the term “confessional” because of the implication of guilt and shame in the term. I do recognize it has become shorthand for those of us who are willing to reveal more of our personal landscape. That said, I consider myself a surrealist. Often my most confessional work is deeply rooted in the fantastic and surreal.

SJ: As a mother of five, you’ve written, “my life is not my own”—how does being a mother and a teacher affect your work? Do your kids understand “writing space?”

RM: I don’t even know what that means. Writing space is internal, for me. I never think to write, I just know when to write. Something calls and I answer. It is important, as a parent, to model creative behavior. Let your kids catch you making something.

SJ: That said, mothers, a lack thereof, and mothering is the fuel of many of
your poems. Who do you feel has “mothered” you as a poet? What lady-poets
do you admire most?

RM: Anne Sexton, Bjork, and Mother Goose.

SJ: You’ve said the pantoum is your favorite poetry form, but I didn’t see any
in your book. How do you address form poetry—do you have form phases, where one is specifically prominent? Any other favorites?

RM: I have a great respect for the dead, and when writing poems for them I often use form, as an invocation, as something sacred. The departed deserve more technique and work on my part. There is a sonnet in Pink Elephant. There are no pantoums. The book is almost four years old, and I did not become addicted to pantoums until about three years ago. Here are a couple of pantoums that have been published since the book came out:

SJ: Some of your poems are so locally specific, especially “California, 1984,” your poem about Richard Ramirez. What impact does sense of place have on your poetry? You grew up in California, but now live in upstate New York—do
you feel a sense of bicoastal tendencies when you write with a place in mind?

RM: The poem you mention was specific because 1) that’s where it took place and 2) Richard Ramirez sought very specific locations and people. I believe every poem has its own place. Its own weather. Its own soundtrack. 

Order Pink Elephant through the publisher at Cypher Books or on Amazon.

Poet Rachel McKibbens is an ex-punk rock chola with five children. Known for her astonishingly visceral stage presence and devotion to craft, McKibbens has become one of the most respected poets in the spoken word community. She is the 2009 Women of the World poetry slam champion, is 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. For four years, she co-curated the award-winning louderARTS Project reading series in New York City, coaching their poetry slam team to three consecutive National Poetry Slam final stages. She teaches poetry and creative writing throughout the country, from housing projects and needle exchanges to high schools, hospitals and universities. McKibbens was a mentor for Urban Word NYC, teaching poetry at Bellevue Hospital through The Healing Arts Program, targeting at-risk youth. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Acentos Review, The November 3rd Club, Frigg Magazine, The Pedestal Magazine, Melusine, Wicked Alice, World Literature Today, Bowery Women: Poems, and So Luminous, the Wildflowers. She co-wrote the play-in-verse Eight Chamber Hunger Orchestra, which premiered at the Bowery Poetry Club in Spring of 2007 to a capacity crowd. She has shared stages with Nikki Giovanni, Kanye West, Billy Collins, Martin Espada, Ellyn Maybe, Eve Ensler and Nick Flynn. She was featured in the slam documentary, Slam Planet: War of the Words which premiered at the 2006 SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas. She appeared twice on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, has read at college campuses across the country, the Henry Miller Library, coffee houses, dive bars, homeless shelters, and the Juilliard School of Fine Arts. She recently completed two full-length poetry manuscripts and is working on a collection of short stories. Her first book of poetry, Pink Elephant (Cypher Books) was released in December 2009. She lives in Rochester, NY.

About the Interviewer: Stephanie Renae Johnson is a recent graduate of Flagler College’s English Literature and Creative Writing programs, and now works as a production artist, typesetting books. Aside from applying to grad school, Stephanie does freelance editing work. Her poems and short stories have been published in numerous online literary magazines, including Danse Macbre, The Orlando Sentinel, and First Stop Fiction. She is currently working on a middle grade novel for children. You can find Stephanie’s horribly witty thoughts about literature here, at her blog.