Her first book of poetry, Pink Elephant, will be published by Cypher Books this fall.
Oscar Bermeo: You are one of the most respected and successful poets in Slam Poetry and a sought after workshop facilitator in poetry and performance. So why the need for book publication?
Rachel McKibbens: That question is bizarre, son! I have never considered myself a “successful” slam poet. The one time I won anything (the Women of the World Poetry Slam) was by accident. You can ask anyone who was in that audience. So, the closeted jock in me got a little mad about it, too, because it was the most unprepared I have ever been for a competition; I hadn't read in public in over seven months. I had no clue if anything I'd written was accessible. I felt like winning that slam after eight years of competing on phenomenal teams (and never winning) was a sort of condolence prize. Like Scorsese winning his first Oscar for that shitty Departed movie instead of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.
I love teaching writing workshops. It's totally selfish because I learn much more from the students than they probably do out of me. What's wild is (and I didn't realize this until the last workshop I led,) I have NEVER attended a real-live writing workshop. I moved to New York six years ago and dove right into facilitating. In between that, reading poems all over the place and raising all these younglings, I completely forgot about putting time aside to, oh I dunno, brush my hair or go to a workshop.
Sometimes I'll tell my classes, “Writing is a lot like sex. You won't have any fun unless you're willing to switch positions.” Slam is fun. Teaching is fun. But it'd suck if I only limited myself to those mediums. Having Pink Elephant published is still very nerve-wracking to me. Last year, when I realized it was finally the book I wanted it to be, I considered burning it in some Santerian release ritual. I needed to just be done with it. It is the only place where several moments of my life have been given any acknowledgment. The Mexican in me felt wrapped by the family's tradition of tight knit silence, but everything else that I am (mother, daughter, sister, lover) won that inner crusade. My boo convinced me that letting it get published was a lot like sending my youngest to kindergarten. The whole “letting go as moving forward” cliché. I just shat a tiny Dr. Phil with that sentence.
OB: How did you and Cypher Books come together?
RM: Willie Perdomo approached me three years ago after a reading in New York, asking if I had a manuscript. At the time, all I had was this crazy-long word document loaded with every poem I'd ever written, in no particular order. An ambrosia salad of poetry. And that's what I sent him. I don't know if he actually read the thing, bless his heart, because I didn't hear from him until a year later. By then, I had gone through the word doc and attempted to steer it towards becoming a book. I sent him that version, but decided shortly after that everything I wrote was crap so I spent the next year avoiding him. When I moved to Rochester, he sent me a final email asking “what's up with Pink Elephant?” This time, the book was split into two separate manuscripts, and I had about fifteen new poems added to Pink Elephant from the 2008 NaPoWriMo challenge. I finally liked it. And so did Willie & his partner in crime, Lisa Simmons. They offered me a contract, and I got nervous all over again. Pink Elephant is such a personal book, I wasn't sure it was meant for public consumption. So much of the poems are small versions of amends, from myself, to myself. I worried whether the book would be relevant to anyone else but me. Luckily, Willie convinced me it could be, after a very long phone conversation where I tried to talk him out of publishing it. I made him promise, however, no accompanying CD. It could only be the written story, nothing else.
OB: After many years in New York City, you've relocated to Upstate New York, how has the move affected your writing? And what is the poetry community like in your new home?
RM: Moving upstate hasn't affected the content of my writing, but it certainly has affected the process. Leaving the city has allowed my bones to finally settle. I had no idea how long I'd kept my shoulders hiked up to my ears. The city squeezed me in every way: financially, creatively and spiritually. Having a large family in NYC is almost impossible unless you're a zillionaire. It's remarkable what a big backyard can do for parents who write; I can relax, now. I feel I have a lot more time to spend on a poem. There isn't that hurried churning sensation that the NYC poetry scene puts out. Even better, I can sit at my desk without a rat bumping into my ankles. Peace and quiet is rad.
The poetry scene in Rochester is interesting. Writers & Books have lots of writing workshops, but the poetry readings themselves are incredibly small and intimate and sometimes bizarre. No time limits on the mic. You can do or say whatever you want. It's well-behaved anarchy, for the most part, much like the series where I began my poetry adventures – Two Idiots Peddling Poetry in Orange, California. I've only been to a reading out here maybe three times. Getting on a mic isn't a top concern to me. It never has been. But it was expected of me, for a very long time, and I'm still an orphan-hearted people pleaser. So it's probably for the best that I've moved somewhere where nothing is expected of me.
OB: Folks are quick to label your poetry under a couple of different banners: slam, performance, confessional, Def Poetry, raw, dark, literary. How would you define your poetics?
RM: I don't think I can define my own poetics. My brain is all over the place. I'm writing sestinas about the female version of Pinnochio one day, then writing about the dead dog in my mother's refrigerator the next. All of the words in your question can describe at least one of my poems, but none of these words can cover them all. Plus, I'm funny. Not haha funny. But oh Lord funny counts, right? Hmmm. I guess you could say I'm the Jamie Foxx of poetry.
OB: Can you describe your poetic process? How does a Rachel McKibbens poem come together?
RM: I stand around in dark alleys, praying to get victimized. No good poem is bloodless. You have to have a really shitty life if you want to come up with something worthwhile to write. Lots of babydaddies and garage tats are a bonus. If you want to really knock 'em out of the park, I suggest having a mother who leaves you in a hot car with the windows rolled up while she plays bingo at the cult factory.
OB: What's the secret to good cupcake making? Is it in the batter or in the icing?
RM: Both. Always dash a little almond extract into your batter. It brings a new dimension of flavor to the cake and confuses the eater into believing that this new, unidentifiable taste means the baker pisses strands of solid gold. For frosting, always use real butter (even if the recipe allows shortening as a substitute) and don't be afraid to add a shot or two of sour cream once the confectioners sugar has been mixed in.
Rachel will be joined by Tara Betts, Jane Cassady, Bekah Dinnerstein, Erica Fabri, Benjamin Lear, Daniel McGinn, Jacob Rakovan, Samantha Thornhill and other guests to celebrate the publication of Pink Elephant at New York City's Bowery Poetry Club on October 29th.
For more information regarding Pink Elephant, please contact Cypher Books.
For writing exercises, sample poems, calendar of events and more insight into cupcake baking, visit Rachel's website: rachelmckibbens.com.