• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
A person in a denim jacket standing in front of a body of water.
On Sept. 6, 2023, Gov. Polis announced Andrea Gibson as Colorado's new poet laureate. Gibson has lived in Boulder for 24 years. They started their full-time poetry career in 2005. (Photo by Megan Falley, courtesy of Colorado Creative Industries)

One day on the playground at a Montessori preschool in Boulder, the school principal approached a teacher, Andrea Gibson, and asked why they were always talking to themself at recess. “I was writing poems in my head,” Gibson told The Colorado Sun. “And she said something like, ‘Maybe you should try doing that full time,’ because I was so distracted on the playground.”

A couple of months later Gibson, who uses they/them pronouns, asked that same principal for a month of absence so that they could tour and perform their poetry. The principal was all for it. Gibson and a friend went on tour and broke even, “which to me was just incredible, I could not believe I went on tour and didn’t lose money,” Gibson said. 

That was 20 years ago. 

Since then, Gibson has written six poetry collections, a nonfiction book, and a collection of illustrated quotes. They are a four-time Denver Grand Slam champion, as well a two-time winner of the Independent Publishers Award, a three-time Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist and the winner of the first Women’s World Poetry Slam. Last week, Gov. Jared Polis announced that Gibson will succeed Bobby LeFebre as Colorado’s poet laureate. 

Colorado was among the first states to create a poet laureate position, which was awarded to Alice Polk Hill, a society woman and club founder, in 1919, and who held the position until her death in 1921. Gibson became the state’s 10th poet laureate and will hold the position for two years, a change from previous laureates’ four-year terms that is meant to open up the opportunity to more poets.  

The position is jointly supported by the Colorado Center for the Book and Colorado Creative Industries, which provide an annual $10,000 stipend for honoraria and travel expenses. The job of the poet laureate is purposefully vague, since every poet brings something different to the table, said Josh Blanchard, director Colorado Creative Industries. Their mandate is to “advocate for literature, poetry and literacy by participating in and hosting readings at schools, libraries, festivals and the state Capitol,” Blanchard said. “And to bridge the gap of understanding between the emotions we experience when we go through a difficult time by giving them definition through voice or word.”

“Not everyone in the audience was a musician”

Gibson has been a full-time poet since 2005, “a bit of a miracle,” they said, when they made the “heartbreaking” decision to quit their Montessori job and hire a manager. “When somebody asks what I do for a living they almost always laugh because they think it’s a joke, they’re like, ‘Oh you sweet thing.’” 

Gibson laughs along when they can tell the other person just doesn’t believe them. “We’re still learning as a culture how to appreciate art and to help find ways for artists to be able to make a living from their art,” Gibson said. “I think it’s a very rare thing, and in my case it involved a lot of luck and good timing.”

YouTube video

The first few years were rough, Gibson admits. They had to learn how to value their poetry in monetary terms, how to charge $7 for a chapbook. Their first manager was a music manager with no background in managing poets, but Gibson thinks she was intrigued by their spoken word performance, and saw its potential to impact an audience the same way a concert might. 

“Whenever I would go to see a band, I knew not everyone in the audience was a musician,” Gibson said. “I love the idea of helping people understand that you don’t have to be a poet to appreciate poetry.” One of the ways that Gibson contributes to that idea, of helping people understand poetry, is by writing and performing poetry that is fluid and full of everyday vernacular. 

“I think people think that poetry is hard to understand, that it’s quiet and it’s boring,” Gibson said. “Which, some of it is quiet, but I don’t write poetry that I think is hard to understand. What I think the spoken word movement has done for poetry is that it created poems that you don’t need a Ph.D. to understand, that you don’t need a high school diploma to understand.”

Their poems might be easy to understand, but they can be hard to hear. Gibson is currently passionate about creating poetry about environmental issues, gun reform, political division and health care — difficult issues that are very much rooted in the everyday realities of Coloradans. 

Gibson talked about fleeing their Boulder-area home on multiple occasions due to wildfire threat, and the juxtaposition of that terror with the calm delight of seeing prairie dogs and bobcats outside of their window. “I’m at once holding the beauty of this planet and seeing how much trouble our planet is in. I think living in Colorado has us very present to that,” Gibson said. 

Gibson also talked about shopping at a King Soopers in Boulder while a massacre was taking place at the grocer’s other Boulder location. “It’s really difficult to live in Colorado and not be really activated around gun reform.” 

YouTube video

They talked about watching a metaphorical wall go up between neighbors over political divisions. And they talked about sitting next to a man in a MAGA hat in the chemo room after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. 

“It changed me,” Gibson said, of both the cancer and the time spent in vulnerable situations with strangers. “These interactions with people who I frankly might be afraid of — you know, I see a MAGA hat and as a queer person get scared, at times — but then I would be in this environment and it would be these very tender, loving interactions with strangers. And I started thinking, ‘What can we do? Like where is the bridge here, is there a bridge?’”

Gibson’s intense and ongoing interactions in the American health care system have also fueled their work with Power to the Patients, a national movement to push hospitals to publish prices online so that patients can make informed decisions about their health care.   

How it hits

There is a noticeable difference between how Gibson would have received the honor of poet laureate before the cancer diagnosis and now, they said. “A past self, it would have lifted up my ego,” they said. But now, “what truly matters becomes all that matters, the garbage falls off. I wanted this position because I felt like it would help me help.” 

That’s not to say they didn’t run out and grab a newspaper from the store to send to their mother when the announcement came out, they added. 

The designation is also special in a way that a national award or honor couldn’t be, Gibson said. “When I talk about making my living as a poet, the roots of that are in Colorado,” they said. “I learned everything I know about writing from the poets of this state. I grew up with the poets of this state. I feel so sentimental about all I’ve learned here, and how this place made my artistic life possible. So it feels like an opportunity to give back.”

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...