Rachel McKibbens
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Rachel McKibbens

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"Of Cholas, Cupcakes and Cypher: Interview with Rachel McKibbens"

Cypher Books only puts out a book or two a year and it was great to find out that the book for the second half of 2009 would be Rachel McKibbens’ debut collection since she is that rare poet who can win a slam (emphasis on win) with the same group of poems she just got published (emphasis on published) in a journal.

This e-interview was one of the most fun ones I’ve had putting together since Rachel keeps it honest, direct, visceral, artistic, gruesome and light-hearted all in the same breath. No doubt you’ll find the same qualities in her first book, Pink Elephant, when it comes out in October.

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. - Letras Latinas

"Making Everyone Miserable With Me Rachel McKibbens Writes From the Other OC"

The girl who became the poet Rachel McKibbens was born in Anaheim and grew up in the parts of Orange County not featured in Coast Magazine, facts that account for the raw power and terror of her vital art. "At one point," Rachel McKibbens recalls, "my dad lost his job at the oil refinery and we moved into the ghetto area of Santa Ana . . . . I don't like to say it, but I was raised a complete misogynist. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I was female. My dad had a common-law wife who lived with us throughout the years, and she was weak in my eyes, and with my mom abandoning me and my brother… I didn't have a high opinion of women."

She spent time in the Orangewood home for abused children. In her late teens she lived on the streets.

McKibbens' poems are a reluctant exploration of the world inside her own impoverished background—amid the county's opulence and her own femininity. They're questions, these poems, questioning herself and her surroundings in such pieces as "Grace," where she writes, "We live on the second floor of a motel,/facing the 22 onramp, in a town so hip,/even the Mormon missionaries rock pompadours/and razor scooters./Every night we are kept away from our dreams/by the constant noise of someone else's going/and tires screeching like hysterical women."

It's not exactly the California dream as advertised, but a hard-knock life that, for many in Orange County, is more real than the mansion developments swirling toward the Pacific Ocean. And it's also a perspective of the world that gets a visceral reaction from those reading and listening to McKibbens' poems.

"I like that I can take my horror stories, turn them into metaphors and make everyone miserable with me," says McKibbens. "People like being punched in the gut when I'm on stage; they shake my hand and thank me for it afterward. Other people say, 'I write to change people's minds.' Not me. I write for myself; other people just sit in the audience. What people think—that's the only thing that's theirs anymore. I don't have a wide-scope agenda for people to come to my dark side."

But McKibbens isn't all gut-punching realism and misery. She's also about survival, rebirth and power. "I've started reading [San Francisco poet] Daphne Gottlieb," says McKibbens, "and I realized that having power as a woman does not make you masculine. I thought I was this big tomboy writer, but power doesn't mean I have to teeter on being masculine. Daphne embraces being a woman. I've embraced being a mother and a daughter, but declaring myself a woman?

"But being powerful? I haven't grasped that yet. It's so dangerous to be a girl at all, that I'm threatened by being a female."

But the funny thing about McKibbens—and the thing to gather from both her writing and her life—is that the things she fears are the things she faces head-on. - OC Weekly


After the Blackout & Anatomy of a Traffic Jam are Rachel's spoken word cds. Several of the poems have been "audio published" or can be found on indiefeed.



Rachel McKibbens is a spoken word anomaly: she is one of the most successful and respected poets in the slam scene, as a performer as well as coach, and is on her way to achieving the same literary status after winning a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and having her first full-length book of poetry, "Pink Elephant" (Cypher Books) published this fall. She is considered a "poet's poet." Ask anyone from the National Poetry Slam scene who they would hate to compete against, and McKibbens will be on that list.

McKibbens explains: "I grew up rootless. My mother more myth than mommy. She was a bi-polar con artist. My brother and I were latchkey kids who raised ourselves while our father worked to support us. By kindergarten, books became a form of escapism for me. My battered copy of Grimm's fairy tales was my proverbial tree house. I have been writing since I could talk.

My poems are my roots. The school of writing I come from was taught by Anne Sexton & Judy Bloom, laced with Basquiat images, the winged imagination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the grit of growing up a wide-eyed child in gangland. My poems are truth and biography, relieved by surrealism. Blood, mud and guts, without pity."

Selected Honors

2009: Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion

2009: First full-length book of poems published, "Pink Elephant" (Cypher Books)

2008: National Poetry Slam Team Finalist, 2nd Place

2007: National Poetry Slam Team Finalist, 3rd Place

2007: New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellow

2007: Pushcart Nominee

2006: National Poetry Slam Team Finalist, 3rd Place

2006: Starred in slam documentary "Slam Planet: War of the Words" premiering at SxSW

2006: Individual World Poetry Slam Finalist, 10th Place

2005: HBO Presents Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam

2004: Individual World Poetry Slam Finalist, 3rd Place

2004: HBO Presents Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam

2001: West Coast Regionals Poetry Slam Champion


"I don't think y'all understand what just happened to you. That poem has some of the freshest lines. Those metaphors were sick!"

-- Kanye West, following Rachel McKibbens during the Def Poetry taping

“Rachel McKibbens writes dark, uncompromising poetry that cuts right into your flesh...
She is a poet who reflects loss and triumph in the same paradoxical breath.”

-- Victor Infante, OC Weekly

“I always find Rachel's poetry to be wonderfully visual, even to the point of becoming
cinematic. For me, it plays out in my mind in sepia tones, like an old movie. Rachel is just an
incredibly good storyteller.”

-- Mongo, IndieFeed

“You were the star of the night. I was the happy back-up band. Your poems kill me.”

-- Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

"...since she is that rare poet who can win a slam (emphasis on win) with the same group of poems she just got published (emphasis on published) in a journal."

-- Oscar Bermeo, Letras Latinas