The girl who became the poet RAC 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."
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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.
Rachel "RAC" McKibbens reads with poet Ellyn Maybe and novelist Chris Abani at Golden West College, Community Room 102, Lot H on Gothard Street, Huntington Beach, (714) 968-0905; Fri., May 30, 7:30 p.m. $3.