Poet. Writer. Activist. Storyteller. Grand Rapids native Rachel Gleason is all of these and many more.
Gleason spends her days as a subcontractor, painter, performer and writer. She is a member of the Diatribe and helps host the weekly “Drunken Retort” poetry event at Stella’s Bar.
But a little more than 10 years ago, Gleason was on a whole different life track.
“It was very controlling, very small,” Gleason said, describing the church she attended in Hudsonville with her family growing up. She described it as “cult-like.”
She was 19 when she came out as a lesbian and left the church.
“I think that shapes most of what I do and who I am,” Gleason said. “For a long time, I felt like I didn’t have a voice or couldn’t talk about things. I experienced shame on a deep level. Now it’s important for me to show that we can have a pride that renounces that shame.”
Gleason went on to attend Grand Valley State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2011. She wanted to get more involved in the art community, so she set out to various events around town to see where she fit in. In 2013, she fell back in love with poetry and found a space where there were people with the same passions.
That May, Gleason started to attend The Drunken Retort, a poetry event that brings in nationally-renowned artists, held at Stella’s Bar and Lounge on Monday nights. Gleason was excited and ready to jump in.
“I knew that people were interested in (poetry) and would go to shows, but at those shows, Fable and Foster … who they are and the way they interact with each other encourages so much reaction and involvement from the audience,” Gleason said. “That’s what makes the show so unique and so special, that nationally-touring artists can do huge shows but come here and have an audience that’s captivated, interested and is giving that energy back to them.”
Marcel Price (Fable) and G. Foster are spoken word poets in a group with Gleason called Diatribe. The group formed in 2013 and that fall presented the ArtPrize exhibit “Word,” the first blind- and deaf-friendly ArtPrize show. Gleason joined the Diatribe soon after.
The nonprofit group volunteers at 54th Street Academy, where they host an after-school program that lasts six to 12 weeks. The long-term goal for Diatribe is to fund student scholarships and host a community-wide poetry slam.
On top of collaborating with others, Gleason is also featured in shows where she recites poetry and spoken word and sometimes sings.
“It just kind of comes to me in the moment,” Gleason said about creating her pieces. “It’s about a snapshot of something beautiful or ugly, or seeing something ugly as beautiful.”
Gleason plans to go on tour to perform this summer. She is also working on a memoir. Although she got out to a rough start, Gleason is happy to be where she is now.
“I’m grateful every day that I’m able to have the perspective that I do,” Gleason said. “I’ve struggled with addiction and drinking since then. When I rebelled, I rebelled hard. … I know that it could have been a lot worse, that I could not be here.”
Gleason said she learned a lot from her dad, who faced a struggle of his own for a long time. Even though he went through a lot, she said he always told her not to be the victim.
“He is the most positive, generous, kind, compassionate person that I know,” Gleason said. “He always taught me, ‘Tough rocks. Life sucks, but don’t be a victim.’”