‘How is this perfect?’

Colorado’s new poet laureate on queer representation and the ‘gift’ of mortality

Credit: Megan Falley

When poet and performer Andrea Gibson was growing up as a closeted queer kid in the days before the internet, there was no roadmap from their hometown in rural Maine to the person they needed to become.  

“I’m nonbinary, but I never had that word when I was young. I used ‘tomboy,’ because it was all that fit me,” says the longtime Boulder resident who moved to their new home on the Front Range in 1999. “I didn’t have [queer] artists I could look to as role models — not just for having a voice, but for being thrilled about their lives.”

Now Gibson is that model for others, having recently been appointed Colorado Poet Laureate by Gov. Jared Polis during a Sept. 6 ceremony in the shadow of the Flatirons at Chautauqua Park. The honor is typically bestowed at the State Capitol, but with Gibson’s immune system weakened by treatment for ovarian cancer after a life-changing diagnosis two years ago, the celebration was held outdoors.

“It was this small circle of many of the artists a generation older than myself who raised me up, who taught me about the intersection of art and activism 20 years ago, sitting in the front row beside me. I just felt so indebted to them,” says the 48-year-old author of celebrated poetry collections like You Better Be Lightning, Pansy and Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns. “I’m not supposed to hug right now, so it was so hard to not just hug everybody.”

Gibson’s prestigious new role essentially functions as a state-sanctioned poetry ambassador, attending a gauntlet of public readings, talks and other cultural events to help promote the artform across Colorado. (“My partner just keeps calling me the president of poetry,” they say with a laugh.) 

It’s a daunting task on its face, especially for a person with serious health complications. Looking at the shoes left behind by previous state poet laureate Bobby LeFebre, the youngest and first person of color to hold the position in Colorado, Gibson didn’t know if it was the right move at such a vulnerable moment in their life.

“I could see how much he was giving to the state — how much energy and heart he was putting into it. He was everywhere, all the time. And I thought, ‘How am I going to do that?’ I had an initial hesitation,” they recall. “[But] I know so many poets who are disabled or chronically ill, or navigating a serious disease … so I had a ‘yes’ to the moment when I got over my own ableism. I want these things to be possible for everyone.”

Credit: Megan Falley

Memento mori

But there was a grimmer question at the heart of Gibson’s hesitation: Would they live long enough to complete the four-year term? Hanging over the poet’s head like a swinging ax, the thought spun even more doubt around the lingering uncertainty regarding what was perhaps the most monumental decision of their professional life. 

“Then I realized that nobody can promise that. I’ve shared so much about my diagnosis, not so people understand that I am mortal, but because I want other people to know that they are,” Gibson says. “Because knowing that I’m mortal, that I could die any day, has gifted me so much gratitude and awe and joy. It has just transformed my life. Like I said at the ceremony: I wish that for everyone, minus the cancer.” 

So Gibson wrapped their arms around the moment. Back home for treatment after so much time on the road, often spending more than half the year on tour performing heartstopping works from the dozen-plus critically acclaimed books and albums under their belt, the new poet laureate designation has offered a chance to reconnect with the community that helped shape them.   

“This is bringing back all these memories about when I started writing and creating in Boulder, [like] my first open mics at Penny Lane. Seeing people I haven’t seen in 20 years has just been really beautiful,” they say. “I can feel this nourishing my spirit, my health, and my excitement for life.”

This rooted sense of connection should serve Gibson as they embark on a new chapter in an already accomplished career. And if that haunting thought behind the swinging ax begins to rattle its chains, there’s another question that resonates for the former closeted queer kid who needed someone like themself to answer with joy.

“Every day since my diagnosis, I ask myself: ‘How is this perfect?’ and every day I get an answer as to why,” they say. “This was another reason.” 


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