National Poetry Month Feature: Rachel McKibbens
An interview + writing prompts from one of poetry’s most powerful voices.
I am a cathedral of deadbolts and I’d rather burn myself down than change the locks.
Rachel Mckibbens is a Chicana poet, activist, and playwright whose writing has influenced an entire generation of writers and political activists. Rachel is a force to be reckoned with, both on the page and as a performer. She is the author of numerous groundbreaking collections of poetry, including the critically acclaimed Pink Elephant and blud. Rachel writes about motherhood, violence, and mental illness in a signature style that is razor sharp, macabre, and intimate. Much of Rachel’s life story is reflected in her poems. This astonishing vulnerability, coupled with her unique, gut-punch style of writing is why her work resonates so deeply with readers, especially those who have felt the multitude of erasures that she has—from abandonment to being silenced.
In 2022, Rachel was the subject of the Serial podcast We Were Three in which New York Times journalist Nancy Updike profiled the devastating loss of Rachel’s father and brother who both died from Covid-19 within one week of each other. It is a powerful reminder of how disinformation can—and does—readily destroy people’s lives in a world where alternative “facts” are easily found and immediately available. The series explores the real-life events that underpin everything Rachel has ever reflected on in her writing: the complicated relationship she had with her father, growing up in an abusive household and how it affected her and her brother, and so much more. While the three-part series tells the story of two people who believed anti-vaccination and government conspiracy theories, it is also a story of how a poet survives the grief of such an experience—how she has survived her entire life, through many griefs the world over.
I Forget Who I Said It To, But I Remember How, Afterwards, They Looked at Me As Though I Had Driven A Steak Knife Through Their Mother’s Hand by Rachel McKibbens I love my brother. He had the exact same childhood as I did. But he doesn't get credit for it. He isn't the writer. I am the star of the violence. I expose. My Peter, when he marries, I will be so sad. No girl in the world deserves him but me.
Rachel’s writing is not just limited to the experiences of her childhood, though some of my favorite poems of hers are about that. She is considered a queen of simile and metaphor, a brilliant love poet, and a feminist powder keg who can hypnotize and shatter you in a single sentence.
Below are some of my favorite poems written by Rachel, followed by our interview and writing prompts from the prolific writer herself.
Amber Tamblyn: How does a poem come to you? What is the first seed of it, and how does it plant itself in you?
Rachel McKibbens: Most often, a poem starts manifesting after a word combo gets stuck in my brain. I'm a sucker for sound texture; my ear is always waiting to hear an interesting sonic pattern. I'll lift a word from a nearby stranger's conversation then build from there. I use a lot of assonance and consonance in my work. Slant rhyme and meter. I'll begin with a couple words that carry a fun musicality, like "lovesick witch," then build an entire poem around them. The rest of the writing process is me figuring out the tone of the poem based on that image and then mapping a way to get to it.
Still, my writing process is kind of seasonal. I will sit down and complete ten to twenty poems in the span of a few days, then go months, sometimes years, before I even think of writing again. And in that time, I'm reading and listening and witnessing everything around me. Some will mistake these periods of stillness as writer's block, but I'm quite literally gathering in that time. Exploring images that can do some heavy lifting for me, learning the temperature of a sound, making lists of words I have never used in a poem or piece of writing. Developing a sharper syntax.
This is why my earlier writing prompts were built like recipes. They began with a three-step inventory required of the writer before the actual prompt was given. I initially built these writing exercises while teaching poetry in a psych ward. As a neurodivergent person myself, I felt it necessary to break down the thought process in steps (gathering) so a writer could feel they had "ingredients" for a piece of writing before even knowing what the subject was.
These days, my prompts are more complicated—they ask hard questions that require a deep level of interior landscaping, and it's up to the writer to create their own inventory of details/memory/images.
Amber: Who are some of your favorite women poets and why? Any particular poem that has stayed with you over the years?
Rachel: Sweet lord, the list is long. I feel my poetic voice was awakened by Anne Sexton's writing. I am the daughter of a woman living with mental illness, and I'm also a mother living with mental illness, so Sexton's poems delivered me to myself. I understood I needed to have my poetry be most accessible to me, above all else, if I was going to truly be vulnerable in my art. Patricia Smith's spirited and emotional risks were catalysts for my own bravery both onstage and on the page. Her ability to needle into the meat of a brutal subject and force the readers to become her accomplices is such a mastery of the craft. Ai is another. Lucille Clifton. Jan Beatty. Airea D. Matthews. All of these women gave/give zero fucks about the patriarchal gaze of the literary canon and have this primal undercurrent driving their poetry.
I consider Clifton's poem “jasper texas 1998” to be a perfect example of art reflecting its environment. The first time I read it, I had to catch my breath. I teach this poem when discussing syntax, precision, and restraint. [Clifton] was such a divine seer and storyteller. No word was allowed to just be a word. The graphic nature of the poem—embroidered by her infamous ability to create lasting impact with a minimal amount of lines alongside this Orpheus-like moment where the victim's voice survives long enough to indict a country for its legacy of white supremacy—makes it one of the most captivating and devastating poems I have ever come across.
Amber: Sharon Olds chose that poem when we asked her this question in our interview last week. I love that both of you, with such different backgrounds and life experiences, chose the same poem to reflect on. Why is poetry such an important medium for our creativity?
Rachel: Poetry guarantees a life beyond the flesh.
Amber: What is a simple piece of advice you would give to someone who might want to write a poem but isn’t sure how to begin?
Rachel: Start at the end. Write from the bright and horrific pit of the aftermath. Fuck linear time. Resurrect what belongs here and bury what doesn't. Write one line of advice delivered by the twenty-seven ghosts of you. Hunt down everything that has hurt you and make a museum of all you've outlasted. Saddle your sweetest day and ride it down into the earth. Show up unannounced at your ex's wedding reception skinless and messy. Pour yourself all over the white tablecloth and make a toast.
Amber: What do you long for?
Rachel: Good dental.
Three Writing Prompts from Rachel Mckibbens:
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