The Line / Break season one finale features poet, activist, and educator Rachel McKibbens! Rachel joins our host, Laura Buccieri, for conversation about her days in a punk rock band, poetry as truth-telling, and being supported by ancestors.
That’s a wrap on Line / Break season one! Thanks for watching along. You can explore any episodes you missed here on our website.
Line / Break is a new interview series from Copper Canyon Press that goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We’re hungry to see poets on screen talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So we’re giving them a call, and bringing those conversations to you. New episodes, hosted by Director of Publicity Laura Buccieri, launch on Fridays this spring.
Laura Buccieri (00:00): I’m Laura Buccieri, the Director of Publicity at Copper Canyon Press, and you are watching our new interview series, Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. I’ve always had the dream of seeing more poets represented on screen, talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So in this episode, we are speaking with Rachel McKibbens. Rachel, thank you so much for being here. How’s your day going?
Rachel McKibbens (00:30): Hell, yeah. It’s been pretty chill. Watched Lady Gaga sing The National Anthem—
Laura Buccieri (00:36): That was great.
Rachel McKibbens (00:37): … minutes ago. And I was tempted to tweet, “Gaga is greater than MAGA,” but I was like, “I’m on a social media, kind of like a hiatus for…” I wanted to be on hiatus for all of winter, but I still have to keep up with my peeps because I live very far away from people I love, with the exception of my family, who I’ve been in semi-quarantine with for since March.
Laura Buccieri (01:12): It’s almost a year. That would have been a great comeback tweet, by the way. If you’ve been on hiatus, that’s the one tweet that you come back with.
Rachel McKibbens (01:24): But I’m like, “Pro-Gaga? Out of everything else I could do right now?” Nevermind. That’s fine, but no. I’ve been simmering on a joke, or just some fuck shit, talking trash.
Laura Buccieri (01:39): I love that. Well, I’m wondering if you would mind doing a quick intro, like name, pronouns, where you live, most recent book you published, anything else you want to say.
Rachel McKibbens (01:53): Okay. My name is Rachel McKibbens. I’ve been debating for literally eight years, whether or not to drop my ex husband’s last name. I was born Rachel Anne Camacho in Anaheim, which is why my middle name is Anne. Anne from Anaheim.
Laura Buccieri (02:08): Oh?
Rachel McKibbens (02:10): Isn’t that horrible? But anyways, I grew up just minutes from Disneyland. And all the other little cholas in Santa Ana, California… It was so funny because we’d have these big bangs and then rock our Mickey Mouse hats, and then fight bitches. That’s ridiculous. My pronouns are she/her, although I do like a femme/them mixed together. The themme, T-H-E-M-M-E, has been a thing where, the minute I saw that, I felt really seen.
Rachel McKibbens (02:40): My most recent book published is blud on Copper Canyon, of course. But the most recent book that I’m reading is Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, by Torrin A. Greathouse on Milkweed, which is fucking amazing. And I’m embarrassed to say that, I was supposed to blurb it and was sent this a long time ago, but it was during hardcore protests in our city. So I didn’t even see this. And it got tucked under mail. My mail is like this. So I found this two days ago and I’m like, “Oh, my God.”
Laura Buccieri (03:18): That’s a good gift.
Rachel McKibbens (03:19): I’m such a piece of shit. No, I was supposed to blurb it. It’s already out now. And I’m like, “Oh my God,” but it’s such a stunning book. “Family Portrait as Unfinished Meal” is such a phenomenal poem. Go buy the book, please. Even though it’s not on Copper Canyon, I’m going to fucking boost that shit.
Laura Buccieri (03:40): No. Milkweed is amazing.
Rachel McKibbens (03:45): [crosstalk 00:03:45] Am I allowed to say that? What are the rules, or aren’t the rules.
Laura Buccieri (03:47): No, there are no rules. Come on.
Rachel McKibbens (03:50): [crosstalk 00:03:50] Let’s just do this. Just kidding.
Laura Buccieri (03:51): Well, I appreciate—
Rachel McKibbens (03:56): I’m in upstate New York. Sorry. Moved to New York in 2003 and I’m very close to the Canadian border, which matters not, because they will never let us in again. I mean, they already give me a hard time when I come over for previous infractions as a young chola, so I’m always taken aside and given an hour long grilling.
Laura Buccieri (04:26): So when you’re crossing by car, they take you aside?
Rachel McKibbens (04:32): Bus or car. They did it by car so often that I went to the bus and I was like, “It’ll be different.” Nope. And I’m like, “Wow, you really had me hold up everyone on this fucking bus?”
Laura Buccieri (04:41): Oh my God. They just wanted your autograph.
Rachel McKibbens (04:48): Never pull your tampon out and throw it at an off duty police officer.
Laura Buccieri (04:52): Ooh. That’s a good PSA.
Rachel McKibbens (04:54): It’s a felony, I guess. Boring. Anyway—
Laura Buccieri (05:00): Well, I’m wondering if we could… Since you brought up your childhood with your Mickey Mouse hat or ears on, I’m wondering if we could go back a bit to when you first started writing poetry. Which, might not have been the same time as the Mickey Mouse situation. It might’ve been later than that, but I’m wondering… Because, I’ve obviously read poems by you on the page in your book, but I’ve also seen you perform poetry. And so I’m wondering when you first started writing, were you writing for the page? Were you performing poetry? Did you know you were writing poetry? Take us back.
Rachel McKibbens (05:38): That’s a really cool question. Well, I’ve had always been a short story writer and a playwright, all through junior high and high school. And I would do kind of like surrealist fiction. And then I had a nervous breakdown after performing in my senior play, where I essentially had to play my dad. I had never had alcohol in my life at that point. I was 18. I had a one-year-old son and I was also homeless, unbeknownst to the rest of my teachers or classmates. And so I think having to climb into, essentially, my dad and re-enact drunken violence, it really did a thing. And so I was turned off of acting, which everyone thought, I was going to be in Hollywood. I was going to become this great star. But back in the day when I was trying to venture into theater and commercials and movie work, they were like, “If you don’t speak Spanish… You are so ethnic looking.”
Rachel McKibbens (06:46): And I’m like the fucking whitest Mexican in my family. Everyone else is dark, except for me. And because I’d always been called “güera” and “little white girl” and stuff, by my own family members, I had this perception of self that was very different than Hollywood. They were like, “Look at you.” And I’m like, “What?” And they were like, “You’re only literally ever going to be on Telemundo.” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know enough Spanish. What the fuck am I going to do?” So I was really in limbo and I was homeless and I had a child on my hip. And it wasn’t until I was in this punk rock group, 9-0-2-Wine-0. And I was a senior and my bandmate, we had both been voted class clown in high school.
Rachel McKibbens (07:36): He was our bassist and he died of a heroin overdose. And that was such a transformative experience for me because that level of grief, not knowing how to channel all of that, was so intense for me, that all I could do was write him letters. Angry letters. And I eventually took it a step further and read one of those letters at an open mic. And burst into tears, ran off the stage, never to be seen again. And then one of the people who was there at the open mic stopped me, and was like, “Oh my gosh, you read that beautiful poem about your friend who was plugged into the wall.” Because, at one point he had been on life support. And they called it a poem. And that was not familiar to me. All of the poetry I’d ever been introduced to in high school was by crunchy old white men
Laura Buccieri (08:33): Me too.
Rachel McKibbens (08:33): … who were writing about nature, and I just could not fucking relate to them.
Rachel McKibbens (08:40): And so, calling that a poem was step one. And then also finding a poetry section at Tower Records. Old school place, I don’t know, it dates me, but who cares. That such a cool place because they would have all this music and then a lot more punk rock zines and poetry books by drunks and shit. And so I got introduced to Charles Bukowski, which I think is a horrible gateway drug. However, he affected the way I wrote. And I was compared to certain names and I looked them up and I’m like, “Oh, okay. This too, was a crazy mother. Great.” I could relate. I related immensely to Sexton, not as much to Plath. But then, Lucille Clifton’s work, I was like, “Oh.” And then, Cisneros.
Rachel McKibbens (09:36): And then it’s this great moment for the self where you’re like, “Oh, okay. So this is who I’m in dialogue with.” I didn’t even start writing poetry until I was 24. And I feel like I was really late into it, but just as I was just starting to read often… [aside] Hi, dear. On the open mics, they started a poetry slam in this lesbian bar in Long Beach. And I literally thought it would involve actual physical contact. My own personal context sort of heard “slam” and all I could think of is, “Oh, I get to hurt a bitch.” And it wasn’t until of course I was there, and I was like, “What?”
Rachel McKibbens (10:27): Because, a lot of people don’t know, I’m a former jock also. I was on the basketball team—
Laura Buccieri (10:34): What position?
Rachel McKibbens (10:36): I was a power forward, duh. Constantly elbowing all of the white, suburban kids from Irvine, California. These weird events, I sort of tumbleweeded through. And a lot of it still shapes how I approach poetry, how I approach writing. And to not be a learned poet, I didn’t go to college, never studied poetry. Was teaching workshops before I was ever actually in one. I’ve always just kind of slipped in through the cracks in my own way, whether it be the literal judicial system, the social services system, the literary world, all of that. I just sort of *boop*.
Laura Buccieri (11:29): So then, when did you start…? You said, you started writing poetry at 24, but then when did you start realizing that you could write poetry for the performance? Or, were they one and the same?
Rachel McKibbens (11:46): Yeah. I mean, I was just writing poetry to not commit felonies. I was also trying to navigate the particular culture, I grew up… Mexican gang culture, you don’t fucking snitch on your family, you don’t name shit. Right? So to understand how poetry and all of its devices allowed me to tell the truth, slant of course, it really was a saving grace for me. And I don’t think I’d be where I’m at, just on a psychological level, if it wasn’t for the ability to not only write what I needed to, to no longer have it clog my arteries, but to also be a student of witness and to listen to other writers, tell their stories and to find community in that way. And I think it was… I mean, so remember, I was an athlete who became a theater nerd, who then was writing.
Rachel McKibbens (13:03): And so it was a very natural unfurling for me to end up within the poetry slam scene. But I was winning slams with sonnets about Laci Peterson. In 2003, I had this poem about suicidal ideation and about not having a mom and about… I mean, it was essentially those two things, but I remember the last line was, “I’ve had 24 chances to have one good year. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I don’t want another turn.” And then to just stop right there, for me to be in a poetry slam where there’s like 150 people in the audience… This is at Da Poetry Lounge in Hollywood. Fairfax High School. Phenomenal slam, one of the best ones I’ve ever been to. And I had just followed all of these other poets who were such beautiful, big personalities, anthemic poetry.
Rachel McKibbens (14:02): And then I just stood still and just talked about wanting to die. And I loved that I would get zeros and tens for the same poem. There were the people that were tapped into and understood what the fuck was happening. And there were others who was like, “This is absolutely not something you put on stage as performance.” But I wasn’t in there to perform, I was just there to share my work. And so I didn’t… I had a very small group of folks who were always rooting for me. And then there was a whole other team of folks who were always like, “What? This is a chaotic person. I don’t know what they’re going to read about.” But I mean, I was out there telling my stories and trying to be as honest as possible. And I think that—
Laura Buccieri (14:52): Were you—?
Rachel McKibbens (14:54): Go ahead.
Laura Buccieri (14:55): I was going to say, were you also in the band? And did you keep doing plays?
Rachel McKibbens (15:01): No. So I stopped doing plays after I had my little mini nervous breakdown when I was 18 in high school. Then I was homeless and I was sleeping on couches, and I was in a band. And remember, I was homeless with a child, which was not easy. And then I ended up moving in with my boyfriend who was also the drummer and I didn’t really start writing until we split up. This was an abusive relationship, which is really wild when people find out that I was even in one, they’re like, “There’s just no fucking way you tolerated that.” And I’m like, “You don’t know my upbringing.” That shit was normal to me. It made sense. It’s shit I was used to.
Rachel McKibbens (15:43): It was feeling comfortable that made me fucked up. It was any moments of stillness or quiet, where I was suspicious all the time. So, that level of chaos wasn’t anything I thought to escape. It was very familiar to me. But once I finally broke it off for the final time with him, and at this point I had two kids, and then our bassist died. I had to shed the former skin of so many selves in that moment. And that I just happened to start into poetry, is still such a wildly… I mean, I was definitely guided by my people.
Rachel McKibbens (16:30): I’ve always had the dead behind me. I’ve always been supported by my ancestors and by folks I’ve met along the way. I know that for a fact. I’ve been saved too many times in such weird ways too often, for me to not recognize the power of the afterlife community.
Laura Buccieri (16:52): Yeah. Of course.
Rachel McKibbens (16:52): That shit is real.
Laura Buccieri (16:54): I mean, poetry people in general—
Rachel McKibbens (16:57): True.
Laura Buccieri (16:58): … dead or alive.
Rachel McKibbens (17:00): Yeah, absolutely. And if I’m to outlast myself, even, I think it’s just through the word. That’s just how the fuck we move on. That’s how we grieve. It’s such an important ritual, the word. And I’m going to always pay homage to those who shaped me, who misshaped me. I see value in all of it.
Laura Buccieri (17:37): I-
Rachel McKibbens (17:38): Death is my teacher, but life is the long lesson. So I’m constantly trying to understand and listen, and have an awareness, that I think is really required of a poet or of any artist. To just finally be able to be at peace with my surroundings and name them in a way, or former surroundings, has been such a gift, which I… I think about my brother who doesn’t write, who doesn’t share, who doesn’t reveal. And I understand that, that is just not… It’s a non-life. I don’t want to out someone for that, but I truly understand how unwitnessed he is. He doesn’t have support because he just doesn’t speak. And so I think part of my duty too, is to let him be witness to his own self sometimes, through my work. I’m very careful about that. You don’t want to exploit fellow survivors. It’s just such a fine line.
Rachel McKibbens (18:53): But I didn’t start sending work out until years into it. Because, before I’d be solicited by folks within the slam scene, who are starting a little online journal. This is before Twitter, before Facebook, all that. I was just putting my shit up for free on LiveJournal. That made sense to me. And I like to write chapbooks that are specifically for a reading, one reading only. And that book can only be purchased in that moment. And those poems, I wiped from my computer. So I don’t even have them anymore. It’s art that belongs now to someone else.
Rachel McKibbens (19:39): Someone was like, “Aren’t you afraid, as someone who’s been plagiarized? Aren’t you scared to give someone your work?” And I’m like, “I wrote the poem and I gave it away. And it’s done its job, I needed it to do for myself. And whatever it does in the future, I surrender.” And it bothers people so much sometimes, that there’s work like that, that exists. But for me, I like art to be a very shared intimate experience sometimes, even more exclusively so. And so I mean, it’s not like… I have former lovers who have poems that no one else has ever seen. Y’all aren’t worried about that. So I’m okay with being in the room with someone and giving Scott a book of poems that only he has. And I signed it, he could sell it someday to no one. No one will buy my shit. No, I’m just kidding.
Laura Buccieri (20:36): I did figure. Canadian Border patrol will.
Rachel McKibbens (20:40): Right. That’s funny. They actually made me recite a poem off the top of my head. The Canadian—
Laura Buccieri (20:46): Why? To test if you were a poet?
Rachel McKibbens (20:48): Yeah. Because, I surely didn’t look like one.
Laura Buccieri (20:51): What did you recite?
Rachel McKibbens (20:53): We don’t all look like Margaret Atwood. So I recited, “Letter From My Heart to My Brain/ Letter From My Brain to My Heart.”
Laura Buccieri (21:00): Oh, that’s one of my favorites poems of yours.
Rachel McKibbens (21:05): And the first time it was held by the Canadian border patrol, I was actually nursing a fucking six-week-old baby. And I didn’t have a birth certificate… I didn’t know to get to Detroit, I was going to veer off and go a little bit through… I didn’t know that. And then I was stuck and I was like, “Oh, fuck.” And I literally had milk leaking down the front of my shirt. I’m telling them when my book, Pink Elephant is coming out, on what press, what is the date? All this stuff. It was just really wild. I’ve always had an unfortunate time with the Canadians.
Laura Buccieri (21:44): Wow. That is…that’s wow. I wonder if you are… I know at least from knowing you a little bit, that you’re doing a lot of activism, you’re out there protesting, you are using your body and your voice in that way, these days. But do you feel as though you’re also inclined to write? Or, do you feel as though you’re doing mostly things in your community physically?
Rachel McKibbens (22:22): I think at this point that’s really the most I can do. We opened up a spot here downtown, that’s feet from the police precinct, against City Hall. And it’s where a lot of the hotspot of the Black Lives Matter protesting was happening. And we just were convenient enough to where we were having to protect and shield some protesters from the fuck shit that was happening. They were shooting expired tear gas at folks. My daughter, who was on the front line all summer, has three periods a month now. There’s so much trauma that has yet to be really addressed properly. Because, you had the pandemic, then you had severe racialized injustice happening. You had cities that were coming after their citizens, treating them like insurgents.
Rachel McKibbens (23:29): And the best we could do really, was open up our spot and offer a sanctuary. And there was a night where they gassed out the sanctuary church across the parking lot from us, the back door. And so at one point we had a bunch of medics and people, who just had the fumes… So I was actually cooking at this time. I push open the back door like, “Come in.” And I’m still in the kitchen. And at one point I thought I spilled cayenne. And that the air intake had put it up my nose and my eyes, and it was just everyone passing by with fumes. And so, “Oh, shit.” And then I looked and there was a literal tank coming down the alley and we shut the door. It was such a brutal, devastating night. I can’t imagine writing about it. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe, but I definitely can never… I’m never able to write within the eye of the hurricane. I have to be really free from it, to be safe enough to put language to it and to properly assess it.
Laura Buccieri (24:35): I get that.
Rachel McKibbens (24:38): But I think that too, just… I don’t know. I mean, I understand that all perspectives are important. But right now, Black folks and their voices should be centered in all of this. They have not for so long. And our country is supremely damaged and so far behind because of that very uncentering of Black voices. So I feel like if anything all I’m really supposed to do is provide shelter. That’s what I’ve been doing with the writing retreat. That’s what I’ve been doing with you know, the writing retreat. I hold Pink Door—10th anniversary. And really, the only thing that’s ever really been is an opportunity to provide space so that community can come together and build its own organic, beautiful fuckin… Sounds so kumbaya but, bridge to each other. I’m not hands-on. I think people have a different idea, but I’m out there stirring beans and polishing silver-plate thrifted forks.
Rachel McKibbens (25:54): I’m not—like, everyone else, it’s up to them to create the space for themselves. And it’s such a beautiful thing. And I think that really, as someone who is absolutely against the prison industrial complex and who’s against police, and who is very invested in community revolution and rehabilitation and restoration, I’m just going to stay that person. I mean, whether I write about it or not, it’s still fucking happening. And I’m still doing work. I’m still a poet. And it took me a long time to think of… Because, I was like, “I haven’t written in three years.” It’s like, I haven’t felt the need to do that specific thing, but it’s not like I’m still not working. It’s not like I’m not attempting to propel folks to the front who have not been given that opportunity.
Rachel McKibbens (26:55): That’s just what it is. The poetry, just because it saved me once doesn’t mean necessarily that I have to revert back to that.
Laura Buccieri (27:05): Use it every time.
Rachel McKibbens (27:08): Yeah. I have witty protest signs, because I’m a poet.
Laura Buccieri (27:16): Nice.
Rachel McKibbens (27:18): We played the Star Wars Imperial March at the fuckin state police as they lined up in front of our little cocktail bar where we serve booze out of tea cups on doilies. And that’s us as poets. You know, my partner’s a poet too, and we were on this spot, and only I think a poet could have really responded in the ways that we did during those protests and during those attacks. And I’m really here for anyone who’s willing to put your fuckin chin over your feet and do that work without accolades.
Rachel McKibbens (28:01): That should never be the point. Just as like, there’s a million beautiful books that have never won an award, and they’re still some of the best books I’ve ever read. And recognition, I guess it can be nice. But at the end of the day, you cannot fuckin unname my life, my stories. You cannot rewrite shit for me, because I’ve always done that. And that’s been important to me to even allow, as I’ve said to friends lately who are delving into creative nonfiction and fiction, I’m like, “Well, just make sure that you’re honest. Even your fiction is honest. Doesn’t have to be true, but it better fuckin be honest.” And so that’s what I’m trying to do with my work in every way, whether it’s poetry or a fuckin bowl of grits, or throwing back a gas can into a line of cops.
Rachel McKibbens (29:04): I wholeheartedly believe in “fuck the police.” I wholeheartedly believe in the power of art as rehabilitative and completing and creating a functioning society and community. And that’s just never going to stop till the day I die. And even then, I’ll hopefully have instilled in my children the same level of recognition. I’m doing my best to not raise an accountant. Bottom line.
Laura Buccieri (29:38): Sure.
Rachel McKibbens (29:39): Well, at least to have one that’s a fuckin misfit accountant. Dope, amazing. But they’re going to know the difference between race and class. They’re going to know who the fuck Airea D. Matthews is. They’re going to know who Dominique Christina is. They’re going to know who Jericho Brown is. They’re going to know this shit, while they’re working numbers. If, they must… In every aspect, I think that my kids are well-rounded because of poetry and because of the organization that they’ve been of witness to, that they’ve been a part of. All of that shit feeds the soul, and makes us better writers and people.
Laura Buccieri (30:21): No, better humans. I wonder if you might read us a poem.
Rachel McKibbens (30:29): Sure.
Laura Buccieri (30:31): I would love to hear one.
Rachel McKibbens (30:32): Then I need to go buy some pinto beans for my cook.
Laura Buccieri (30:35): All right. Okay.
Rachel McKibbens (30:38): No one texted me, and then suddenly everyone’s texting during this?
Rachel McKibbens (30:45): Well, let me think about what we were talking about.
Laura Buccieri (30:49): Sure.
Rachel McKibbens (30:49): And then… I guess, [sings] what I’ll read is… Don’t listen to me, I’m just being corny. Thank you for having me, Laura. I’m really grateful to have this opportunity to just—
Laura Buccieri (31:10): Oh, my gosh. Thank you for being here.
Rachel McKibbens (31:12): … have an adult conversation that doesn’t have Phineas and Ferb in the background. I’ll read “the second time” because I love it. And I’ve been thinking about this girl a lot. I think, for troubled queer kids growing up, especially within a culture that I did, so much, the machista fuckin bullshit, the Chicano lifestyle, it was really hard. And I think about this young girl who asked me this question, all the time.
Rachel McKibbens (31:51):
“the second time”
was in my classmate’s
mouth. Lying on
the floor of her baby blue
bedroom she asked,
Do you think
you’re a boy or a girl?
& everything inside
me came bruising
to the surface.
Neither, I said
& it was understood.
In that charged silence,
she rolled over, draped
her wronged body
over mine, as if to anchor
the damaged bastard
with no desire to stay.
She listened to the awakened
heat of me, its bright
song infecting my blood.
Our feral bodies, driven
by unmothered chaos
returned each other to
the living. All hail
the power of a proper
finger fuck & the wet
demolition of shame.
What I had once
mistaken for death
was, instead, a door.
Rachel McKibbens (32:51): That’s my poem.
Laura Buccieri (32:54): Rachel. God, thank you.
Rachel McKibbens (32:57): Of course.
Laura Buccieri (33:00): I love that. I love you. I appreciate you for being here and taking the time, and reaching back into history a little bit.
Laura Buccieri (33:15): I just appreciate it and I hope to see you maybe physically, soon.
Rachel McKibbens (33:22): I don’t know. We’ll see. I don’t even know how to be near people.
Laura Buccieri (33:28): It’s fine. Maybe, I’ll see you on Zoom.
Rachel McKibbens (33:29): For sure. I love you back. So grateful for you. And I almost read your book, a poem out of yours [crosstalk 00:33:39].
Laura Buccieri (33:39): Oh, please.
Rachel McKibbens (33:40): And I was like, “Oh, this will be so embarrassing for Laura.”
Laura Buccieri (33:44): I would have turned red.
Rachel McKibbens (33:45): I had it in my hands.
Laura Buccieri (33:46): No. I’m glad you didn’t.
Laura Buccieri (33:50): Well, thank you all for watching and we will see you next time.
Rachel McKibbens (33:54): Bye.