by Kristin Kurens
Womanhood comes equipped with
the pepper spray your dad gave you on your 16th birthday
Headlines about star athletes who walk away unscathed
as you rot, unconscious, legs peeled open
pants down behind the dumpster
It is being “grabbed by the pussy”
–Gigi Bella, “Suppertime”
Gigi Bella may call herself blue-lipstick brave, but her depth runs far deeper than lipstick. The Albuquerque slam poeta is a force of words, recently taking the tenth spot at the Women of the World Slam Poetry competition in Dallas this past March.
Some would argue that the recent election is a call to renewal, awakening, rebirth—a time for new voices. If that is indeed the case, Gigi can take her rank among the leaders, calling out the shit, advocating for a better world, while owning beauty, sexuality, and self.
We spoke at a coffee shop in April, about politics, race, sexuality, and, of course, poetry. Watching Gigi perform is inspiring. Her words slice the air, often carrying the weight of old paradigms, dissecting inherited trauma, racism, sexism.
Gigi just turned a refreshing twenty-three years old, and published her first collection of poetry, 22, this year with the independent press Swimming With Elephants Publications. She’s femme and feminist, a woman of color split between two worlds.
“With brown people,” she tells me in a recent interview, “you have this weird dichotomy where you're either not brown enough or you're too brown. If you're too brown, that makes you trashy, a wetback, poor, gross, and you represent us in a negative way.
“If you're not brown enough, like me, I’m a white-passing female... I'm not what it is to be a real brown girl, but I'm a descendant of Mexico, They say I'm a guera, not a real New Mexican woman.
“You see a lot of it in Santa Fe, with our senators and the people who govern us. It's just a bastardization of who you are, which is really upsetting. There are so many beautiful things about being brown. A lot of people find favor in whiteness and in the system of whiteness, and the benefits it affords them.”
Gigi is unapologetically Gigi. "If I’m going to be brave and wear blue lipstick, then I have to be blue-lipstick brave all the time."
When she walks into the coffee shop, she's wearing blue lipstick, glittery eye-makeup and big star earrings filled with tiny silver-star confetti.
These same boys will call us queens of deception
With our contour and porcelain and pretty
They will watch us in the bathroom mirror and say
“You don’t have to wear all that makeup for me,”
And the first thought in my head is
Hey, asshole, who the fuck said I was doing this for you?
–Gigi Bella, “War Paint”
"I kind of traversed this weird ground lately with being a femme cis woman, which I never thought was going to be a weird thing for me. I’ve always been very openly feminine. I love makeup, I love dressing up, I'm like a Disney princess, Stevie Nicks, that's my life. That's who I am and I've always been that way.
“I went to Women of the World to compete. It was the biggest thing I've ever done in terms of poetry. I was representing Albuquerque.”
Gigi competed against poets who she'd admired on YouTube, binge-watching with deep admiration in an ice-cream stupor. Ninety-six women competed this year.
"I took it as a great honor, and really prepared in every possible way."
She packed her bags full of her favorite outfits. There is a fine line in slam poetry... no costumes. But Gigi has a deep love of theatre and musical theatre. Showing up, being present is somewhat rooted in the ritual of prepping for a stage performance.
"I am dramatic in what I wear. To me, being on stage is a very practiced thing. I'm used to doing my makeup and putting on something that's a little more extravagant than what I normally wear. I was doing that every night that I was there and feeling really good about myself. It was working in my favor."
Her choice of attire wasn't much of an issue at Women of the World—until the end. "I made final stage, which is unheard of. That's the top poets in the competition. I'm tenth in the world, and that's weird," she laughs.
"So I went and bought a mermaid dress." It was a sparkly prom dress, exactly what Gigi would expect to wear on the final stage in a gorgeous, old theatre. "I was really done up. When I got there that night, I was really surprised, because I was treated poorly from the minute I walked through the door, by all the people who were competing.
“Everybody stopped and looked me up and down, like not cool with me. Somebody made a comment to the effect of ‘you're being super extra.’ And ‘Anybody ever tell you that you do too much?’”
That reaction was unexpected for Gigi; she had assumed she was in a community of women who supported each other. She performed and was out in the first round. She didn't say anything to her competitors who she felt judged her unfairly for simply being herself.
Still, at the end of the competition, she came in tenth—no small feat for a young slam poet from Albuquerque at her first national competition. She celebrated by going to Whataburger, still decked out in her mermaid dress.
They call me
because I like the way my own orgasms sound
They call me
because I love being told I’m sexy
Call me SLUT
because my vagina is fucking magnificent
–Gigi Bella, "Slut"
Gigi’s sexuality bleeds and flows into her poetry, something that wasn’t always easy. Her family is firmly religious, and she started writing as a teenager, before she knew the full power and bliss of sex.
"I'm very close with my family, which is something that I think is kind of few and far between for people my age. It's lovely. My parents are still married; that's kind of an anomaly in and of itself. They definitely grew up in the Reagan era. We've had a lot of interesting conversations, especially over the last few years."
A few years ago, feminist writer and poet Jessica Helen Lopez released her book Cunt.Bomb., also released by Swimming with Elephants Publications. Gigi competed with Lopez on the 2016 ABQ Slam Team—members included Mercedez Holtry, Eva Crespin, Damien Flores. To support Lopez, team members, including Gigi, sported t-shirts bearing the book title.
I ask her how her family, especially her parents, reacted, given their conservative background.
"That stuff has been fine. It's taken some getting used to, and we have a lot less tension in those areas,” she says. “When I first started discovering that I was a feminist and identifying as a feminist and as a writer, discovering myself, a lot changed for me. When I was eighteen, almost nineteen, I wrote a poem that kind of changed everything.”
That poem is called “Slut,” and it’s one that she performed in the finals at Women of the World Poetry Slam while wearing a glam prom dress, a sweet juxtaposition of attitude and attire.
"I was scared to write about having sex, because I was like, my parents are coming to these things. I was raised in the church, so I had a very demure idea about sex and sexuality.”
That religious background gave Gigi a sense of conflict about sexuality. She felt like a whore, sleeping around with no steady boyfriend. But sex was thoroughly enjoyable. Sex in poetry seemed untouchable for her, off limits.
Her poetry took a turn, she tells me, when she really started to listen to people talk. It started with a guy who she dated for a while. He had a gift for poetic language. "I take things that people say that to me are poetry. To me everyone's a poet. People say these really beautiful things, things that are so inherently them.”
The phrase that turned Gigi: I deserve a good rogering once in a while.
Gigi elaborates, "I just loved the phrase. I loved the way he said it. I loved the face he made. I started writing a poem about all the great sex we were having, and I used that line."
It wasn't just about sex, it was also about her loving herself, enjoying herself and feeling beautiful. But the conflict wasn't instantly eradicated. "It also started to be about the shame that came along with that."
It was scary: revealing one’s true self, being open, exposed, and vulnerable, not just to the world, but to her own family. Her family is incredibly supportive and proud.
Gigi sometimes forgets the power of her words. "I've been doing it for such a long time surrounded by so many people who also do it that I forget that it's so controversial to say what you actually think about things. I don't realize that people could still be offended. I forget to take that into account. This is what I have to say; I'm just going to say it."
While teaching a writing workshop at a predominately white high school, that realization took a turn after the 2016 presidential election.
"My existence is political. Everything that I'm saying is inherently political, whether I want it to be or not. I'm honest and grounded in what I think and what I believe. I'm always open to discussion or to think or being wrong or learning.
"There are inequalities that we face as women, as people of color. I write what I'm passionate about most, and I'm passionate about change. I'm passionate about being a woman of color.
"When I write about things that I'm passionate about, no matter what it is, it always turns into something bigger than that."
Gigi can be found in New York these days, recently claiming the first Bronx poetry championship and joining the Project X team. Follow her triumphs and trials on Instagram here. Order 22, her collection of poetry here.
Kristin Kurens is a writer, editor, and artist. She thrives on words, music, art, and aiding the verbally challenged. In her free time she writes fiction, paints, travels, imbibes—always in pursuit of the authentic and strange.
*The original posting of this article incorrectly stated that Gigi Bella collaborated an a project called Cunt. Bomb. Cunt. Bomb. is a book written by Jessica Helen Lopez. Gigi, Lopez and other poets wore cunt. bomb. t-shirts to honor the release at a slam poetry competition. This article has since been updated with the correction.