Lit Chat: Meet April Gibson
April Gibson is a poet, essayist, and educator whose work has appeared in Pluck!, Valley Voices, Tidal Basin Review, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. She has received a Loft Mentor Series Award in Poetry, a Vermont Studio Center Residency, and is a fellow of The Watering Hole Poetry Retreat, a VONA/Voices Writing Workshop fellow, and a Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop fellow. Her chapbook, Automation (2015), was published by Willow Books as part of their emerging poet and writer series. Her current project is a full-length poetry collection titled The Black Woman Press Conference. I met April some years ago at a reading at Common Good Books and I was immediately struck by her poetry’s force and grace. It was my pleasure to interview this bright, bold light about her recent and in-progress performance and poetic work.
Sun Yung Shin: April, please tell us about your current project, a poetry collection titled The Black Woman Press Conference. Did the performance at The New Griots Festival fulfill your goals you had for your involvement?
April Gibson: I have been working on a poetry collection for a little over a year. I began in July 2016 after a year of struggling to write anything. The work, in a way, comes out of that silence, the trauma that it culminated in, and the healing that came and continues to come after. Black women are often stereotyped as loud and disruptive, which is funny because no one seems to ever really listen to what we have to say, and most people don’t seem to speak up for us. So, the stage, the podium, and the microphone are my ways of speaking up in order for me, and women like me, to hear each other over the deafening silence.
The performance of The Black Woman Press Conference at the New Griots Festival was transformative for me as a person and as an artist. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I hadn’t done anything exactly like this performance before, but the outcome was more than I would have imagined. I performed for an hour, which for poets may seem like an eternity. But the theatre environment pushed me to be creative in other ways, from props and lighting to audio/visual components used to complement and enhance the poetry. I must tip my hat to theatre folks. They put in work!
My last performance of The Black Woman Press Conference felt serendipitous, as it fell on July 11, which one year prior had been the very day I began my journey of reclamation. The best part of the entire performance, however, was the audience. My work deals with the theme of silence of being silenced, part of disrupting that silence requires speaking up and being loud, which is why I used the concept of a press conference. But the other part requires being witnessed, listened to, in a way that is felt, believed. I think there is healing in being believed. Something many women are not offered. The performance solidified for me that the purpose I have for the book is the right one, which is to create a conversation where women, particularly Black women, can be speaker, can be spoken to, listener and listened to, believer and believed. And my hope is that these poems, be they about Mississippi, museums, “f---boys," or centipedes, allow me to be a witness to my own story and to others.
SYS: Who are some of your favorite poets, old or new? When and how did you come to your practice/work as a poet?
AG: Some of my classically favorite poets are Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks, among many others. Though I’m not a fan of categorizing poets as favorites, I will proudly say that I love Patricia Smith. I try reading as many poets as my busy life allows and try to introduce them to my students. A few poets I’ve recently taught include Rachel McKibbens, Natalie Diaz, Danez Smith, Warsan Shire, Derrick Harriell, Camille Dungy, and Aracelis Girmay, to name a few.
I’ve been in love with reading since I was a young girl, though much of what I read included religious texts more than poetry. I am a preacher’s kid and developed much of my creative and critical inquiry through examining, interpreting, and contextualizing the Bible. As a child, I also read a lot of fiction, nonfiction, and encyclopedias, basically anything in reach. But for some reason, I was always drawn to poetry. I used to write poems for church, on Easter for example. I kept a journal. I was the designated letter write for my family. Despite all this, I never intended to become a writer. I was more interested in becoming a visual artist, with drawing being one of my strongest interests. My first career choice was architecture, but that didn’t work out, because: math.
Though I’ve always been obsessed with words, language, and creative expression, I didn’t really decide on becoming a writer until after I completed my undergraduate degree in English. The whole poet thing happened organically. The poet and writer Kelly Norman Ellis was instrumental in me coming to practice as a poet, as my teacher and mentor during my MFA program. My degree is actually in Creative Nonfiction, but I couldn’t stay away from poetry. I figured if I couldn’t stay away then there was a reason, there was something there for me. There is.
SYS: How do you find balance (or not) between your life as an academic/administrator in higher ed and as an artist? How can academia be more supportive to working artists?
AG: People ask me this a lot. I think the balance is off and becoming more lopsided... a.k.a. I’m having a harder time producing work while working. I mostly conjure poems by magic when no one is looking. Seriously though, I’ve found a few things that work; for example, when you are asking your students to write to an in-class prompt, you can write along with the students. Also, let’s say I hypothetically rant on social media a lot. I can go back later and find gems in those rants, which are sometimes neglected poems begging for attention.
I am a firm believer that in order to systematically change anything, you must first change people’s attitude toward a thing. Academia can be more supportive to working artists by being more supportive of the arts. Also by creating positions that make better use of working artists. I also propose more money and more time for daydreaming and naps.
SYS: If you could do anything as an artist if you had all the money/time in the universe, what would it be?
AG: If I had all the money in the world, I would burn it in hopes that we would find value in living things. But, if I could do anything as an artist without having to worry about the cost, I would make sure that every person who wanted to pursue an arts education would be able to do so without incurring debt, and with promising earning prospects. I don’t believe in starving artists.
SYS: Is there something you’d love to see in the twin cities literary community that hasn’t happened or manifested yet? Is there something you need or would want people to know about you as a writer or what you consider your writing community/genres that are misunderstood or not understood?
AG: I think the Twin Cities has a strong community of artists. It is one of the reasons I continue to bear the winters. And, though I try to stay plugged in, I may not be aware of every single thing happening, though I know that there is always space to grow. As a transplant, honestly, I think Minnesotans are some of the most socially awkward people I’ve ever encountered. So when we think about that in the context of an artistic community, let’s just multiply the awkward. Though I’m fine with it, I’m not sure if it helps or hurts the community, but I am going to bet that it could possibly contribute to misunderstandings. Since I moved here, I’ve often felt like the loudest person in the room, mostly because where I come from people don’t have filters; they just tell you their truth (usually out of love). So many times I end up feeling like I’ve said the wrong thing. I guess I’m saying, I want more space to be my loud, unashamed self and I want folks to be loud and unashamed with me.
SYS: Did you have any artist-related feelings about the eclipse?
AG: Not sure if they are artist-related feelings, as I attribute half of everything, good or bad, to the sun, moon, and stars, but I feel the world seems to have upgraded to bat-shit crazy 2.0. since the eclipse. Though, interestingly, I wasn’t very emotionally moved by the eclipse, and, oddly, had no desire to stare into it.
SYS: Thank you so much for your time and talent!
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose), which won a Minnesota Literary Award, and the best-selling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (anthology of essays). With the filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang she recently co-founded the Women of Color Artist Collective. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.