An Interview with Elisa Gabbert
Elisa Gabbert is the author of Thanks for Sending the Engine, a chapbook from Kitchen Press, and, with Kathleen Rooney, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, a collaborative collection. She is the poetry editor of Absent and currently works at a software startup in downtown Boston. She blogs at The French Exit.
In April of 2010, she was interviewed by Elizabeth Hildreth over e-mail about her debut poetry collection The French Exit. They discuss, among other things, why Elisa’s poems are like Zoe Saldana, how to give “robots” extra weight in a poem, how good poetry is like good perfume, how writing a poem is like finding the area of a curve, why, in the case that you find your face crashing through a glass door, you may want to stick out your chin, and why you should not read Wikipedia if you want to have fun at slumber parties.
Hello Elisa, fine author of the debut poetry collection The French Exit. Let’s start out by playing a game. It’s called What Celebrity is Your Debut Poetry Collection Like?
Okay, it’s not really a game. I’m just going to tell you the answer: Zoe Saldana.
Here’s why. Your poems are both cool and hot. Like Eva Mendes is just hot, hot and Catherine Keener is just cool, cool, but Zoe Saltana is skinny with perfect posture and wears buns with no irony and really tailored prissy clothes, and at the same time, she manages to look all drippy, sweaty in a hot, nasty way. That's your book, your poems. So Zoe.
Let me give you an example:
BLGPM W/ DTHWSH
Take me to the library; I’m in the mood
to get murdered. Mmm, murder in the stacks:
shove the LING shelving over and let those
uncracked grammars in teal and burnt umber
make papery work of the burying. […]
It's like a snowman snuck up on you and bit you on the neck. Like a box of dry ice dipped in a vat of Vaseline. So how do you do that? How do all your poems manage to be ballet dancers and flamenco dancers at the same time?
One of my favorite games, aside from "What celebrity do you look like," is "What was your first impression of me?" Once I'm friends with someone, I like comparing notes on what we thought of each other before we'd gotten a real sense of the other. Frequently people tell me they thought I was mean and frosty at first, a snowwoman with bony elbows, but after they've seen me get huggy and weepy after two glasses of wine they know I'm all soft and melty inside.
So, basically, my poems are an extension of me: representative M&M's with crisp outer shells and yielding centers. I'm interested in contrasts and contradictions, poems that do more than one thing -- both funny and sad, idea-driven but attentive to sound, etc. How do I do that? Well, I guess I'm moved to write a poem when I have an interesting nexus of thoughts. If the thoughts aren't multi-dimensional (if they're all hot or all cold in your schematic), I don't bother, or I stow those ideas away until I figure out how to enrich them with some variance in tone or texture.
By the way, I love all dance movies, including Center Stage.
I don’t know Center Stage, though I do like dance movies too: Save the Last Dance, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Honey come to mind. First impressions: I just met you for the first time last week, and I had the experience you’re describing. I was surprised at how extremely fuzzy you were. Even your dress was red and warm and fuzzy. But on your blog -- I love your blog! -- you’re fierce, you’re a force, you’re Poetry Voice of Reason. In your picture, you’re standing all menacing with your bluish black eyes boring into the Unknown, like, “Come and get your poetry news; I dare you.” Another contrast? Your poems on and off the page. The hilarity of your work doesn’t necessarily come through when you’re reading. I think it’s because the humor of your poems is tied up with their structure; the humor, many times is wrapped into the line breaks. You need to see it to get it.
You should see Center Stage. It's the only Zoe Saldana movie I've seen, actually.
That's an interesting insight. I think my poems are hilarious, but people don't always laugh when I read them out loud, unless I make a point of only choosing poems that are very obviously funny. I wasn't sure if it was my delivery or what. But maybe my poems are more funny-looking. I just went looking for an example. This bit maybe, from “Poem without an Epigraph,” which takes place at the beach:
This would be a good spot
for a stand selling single-use
as far as the eye can see.
Let’s ruin the world
and get it over with. I hate
“the sea.” […]
There are two visual jokes here. One, the line break on robots, in combination with the preceding em-dash, is funny because it gives the word “robots,” which is an inherently funny word, all this extra weight. It’s cantilevered out into the white space all dramatic-like, but it’s the word “robots.” Two, the joke about the sea, to me, is only funny with the scare quotes. As in, I don’t hate the ocean, but I hate “the sea,” the self-important, romanticized version that’s always popping up in poems. I can’t do the quotes when I read because I’m holding the poem, and usually a drink as well. For the nerves.
P.S. I’m glad you like my blog. I think I like blogging as much as writing poetry. I know many poets will think that heresy. I always see this sentiment that blogging is a waste of time and we should all get back to the “real work.” But to me it’s as real a form/genre as any: I’m trying to convey ideas artfully. I can do different things on my blog than I can do in a poem, which is why I want both outlets.
Oooh, thanks for providing examples for me -- “robots” and “the sea” are perfect ones. Heresy? Really? I would never blog. But that’s not because I think it’s a waste of time; I only like arguing with people I love -- and I don’t love anybody on the Internet. It’s the only reason I write for Bookslut -- no comment fields under its articles. (Thanks, Jessa!) I guess writing blog posts can be a waste of time if your posts are stupid. Then again, writing poems can be a waste of time if you write bad poems. When I first emailed you after reading your book, I wrote, “Your poems are like Zoe Saldana, they’re like math, they’re like Rilke.” So I explained the Zoe part. But here’s why I said math and Rilke. You know how if you’re bad at math, you think you finally understand a concept, and then you go make a sandwich, and when you return to your open book, you think, “Wait, what did I just say I understood?” But then when you sit with the book for another five minutes, chomping on your sandwich, you’re like, “Oh yeah, right, I get it.” So do you? With math, it’s easy. There are answers in the back of the book. But with Rilke, it’s trickier. Also, no matter how many times I read Rilke, it’s like I’ve never seen those poems before. I can’t recognize the poems by images or subject matter. I only know them by feel. Like when I enter into the poem and I’m three lines in, I think, “Oh, yeah, that’s the poem, the one that feels like [insert feeling].” That’s how your poems are for me. Check it out. I’m gonna post in some Rilke, and then some of your stuff and show you.
[Long you must suffer] by Rilke, translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann
Long you must suffer, not knowing what,
until suddenly, from a piece of fruit hatefully bitten,
the taste of the suffering enters you.
And then you already almost love what you savor. No one
will talk it out of you again.
Walks Are Useless II by Elisa Gabbert
There’s nothing to be sad about.
My sadness grows restless, nostalgic
for a better bore, the tragic bore
of yesteryear. The stink of the city
grows worse, but at the same rate
that we get used to it. ‘Tis a bore
and nothing more. Even the clouds
are bored, arrange themselves into more
and more exotic vegetables.
Where is the war? I can’t see it.
I feel incredible. What I mean is,
I feel like no one would believe me.
For you, the writer, I guess it’s different. It’s more concrete; you wrote the poem. But for me, it’s endlessly slippery. It’s like I have Alzheimer’s. It’s like your poem is an apple, and I can’t remember what an apple looks like or tastes like until I feel it in my mouth. It’s new experience each time -- until I recognize it as not being new. I feel that way about Tomas Transtromer and Paul Celan, too. I always thought this “only recognize by feel” feeling came about as a result of translation. But now that I think about it, I guess some of Wallace Stevens is like that for me, too. What do you think that is?
Mmm, I know just what you mean. I think it has to do with complexity. Certain things we sense are simple and it's easy to recognize them and conjure them up in your imagination when they're not present, the way you can pretty much play a familiar pop song in your head and it's almost as good as hearing it for real. Or the taste of green apple Jolly Ranchers, which is more consistent than real apples. But with something more complex, you can't simply memorize it. John listens to a lot of experimental chamber music and it often takes me a bit to realize when I've heard it before, and like you said, I recognize it by feel. Or perfume: The best perfumes are complex and abstract and therefore difficult to describe and difficult to remember with anywhere near the sort of rich sensory detail you get when you're actually smelling it. And often, when I've only met someone once or twice, it's hard to picture them clearly, they seem hazy in my mind like a dream face. Which is all to say that poetry is slippery because, like good perfume and good faces, it's complex.
And re math: I was good at it, but it baffles me that I ever did calculus. I think I saved all my homework just so I could gaze upon it with awe later in life. And sometimes writing a poem is like finding the area of a curve or whatever the hell calculus is for -- I look back at something I've written and I'm not sure how I did it. I'm not sure what caused me to have those thoughts in that order, why it made sense at the time, and I come to it almost like an outside reader. I'm pretty sure I know what I mean, but it's slightly beyond my grasp. Like the dream writing in the book's prologue poem ("You must know what it says. But in the dream you can't read it"). I can never read in my dreams. Phones don't work either.
The prologue poem. What a great way to start a book.
It starts here, where you begin
remembering. (How else could it begin?)
You find a notebook, the first several pages
filled in with your own writing, red pen.
You must know what it says.
But in the dream you can’t read it.
In dreams there’s no quality to the weather.
But an orange sky, hanging. Something it means.
You can’t much feel. What you would smell—
your ash breath in the air—is translated elsewhere,
absorbed into the visual field.
So the landscape pulsates,
supersaturated with meanings.
Things that are orange.
Things that sting.
That trill. That signal possession.
Dissipate. Are marred.
You kick a car, and it crumples apart
like a death-hollowed tree.
“Pain” ripples out in a wave.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve thought of the following line in “Commissioned” several times.
So the landscape pulsates,
supersaturated with meanings.
Not as it relates to my dreams, but as it relates to my real life. Ever have a conversation with someone, and you hear what they’re saying, but at the same time, you feel several meanings just under the surface of the words that are actually coming out of their mouth? “Meaningness” should be in the dictionary.
This is your first full-length collection, but you’ve written a full-length collaborative collection, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, with Kathleen Rooney. As writers, you seem so different. Kathleen's poems are like encyclopedias. She’s writing that manuscript about Weldon Kees, and now every time I read something about Weldon Kees, I'm like “That's real? I thought Kathleen made that up." That’s sort of opposite of your poems in The French Exit, which feel so universal and unconcerned with data and facts. So how is your process of collaborating different than working solo? Is it any more or less satisfying or scary to publish your own collection? And lastly, this book is tight as a drum, how long did it take you to write this thing?
I've never thought of Kathy's work as being full of data, but I see what you mean about the Weldon Kees manuscript in particular, which is very biographical. What's funny is that the manuscript I'm working on now is totally full of data; in fact, Kathy read some of it and told me she kept wondering if the lines were true. (The poems are full of statements that sound like facts but may or may not be. Sort of playing with the ideas of voice and authority in first-person poetry.)
My process for writing the majority of the poems in TFE was like so: inspiration would strike and I'd drop what I was doing and write the poem, all in one go. A few of the poems went through major revisions months or years after I wrote them ("Commissioned" is one of those), but many of them I more or less wrote in one very intense sitting. I went through a few prolific periods (e.g., April 2005 when I wrote all the "blogpoems" in the second section) but also periods of no writing at all. Overall it took about five years to write the poems and then put them together (with the help of the mighty Sam Starkweather and the other Birds editors) into a cohesive manuscript. A lot of cutting and reordering was necessary to achieve this, since the subject matter, style and tone of the poems does vary somewhat. Of course, that's less obvious now that they're all packaged in such a way as to convince you they belong in a single book.
This differs hugely from how I collaborate with Kathy -- we write poems line by line, or sometimes by sentence or some other unit, back and forth via e-mail, on a near-daily basis. In other words, we don't wait for inspiration to get started, but it can take days or weeks to finish a poem. Our process is slow and steady whereas my solo process for years has been fast but irregular. However, these days I don't get "inspired" as often as I used to, so I'm trying to adapt the collaborative method to my own writing, by adding a little to my manuscript as often as possible.
I do think it is both more satisfying and scary to publish my own collection. I'm fully responsible for it, so any accolades that get showered on me (still waiting for the really major accolades) are all mine, but of course, I'm also fully responsible for its failures.
You said that you love blogging earlier. Are you still sticking with that statement? I checked your blog post today about what you’re into/not into right now.
And this paragraph in particular about what you are “not into” set off a firestorm of comments:
Issues of journals with all-male contributor lists. It's not designated as a special all-dude issue. I just don't get how editors don't notice a discrepancy like that and feel weird and wonder how it came about. People always say that this happens because all the submissions are from men. But if you're a new magazine (this is Issue 2 of We Are Champion), how about doing some solicitation? I'd venture to guess the editors are already doing that. If you want more submissions from women, publishing all-male issues, without disclaimer, doesn't send the best message.
When you get a particularly vicious comment (you did), does that just roll right off you? Or are you sucked into, to quote you, “the black hole of awfulness” that is the comment thread for days on end?
I wouldn't say that it rolls right off me. I don't enjoy being insulted. I don't enjoy ignorance and sexism. But I can handle vicious comments. I make some strong assertions on my blog but generally I've given the matter serious thought first. So if someone wants to challenge me, they need to make a convincing argument and do it in a civil way. Who was it that said the surest sign of intelligence is the ability to change one's mind in public? The whole point of an argument (and I like arguments) is the potential to change someone's mind. But yes, I do get sucked into comment streams that feel like black holes sometimes, where it feels truly pointless to, you know, have a point. I'm very happy with the level of discourse in the comments on my own blog though. And I don't even moderate.
Does blogging feed your poetry somehow? Also, how does being a poetry editor at Absent influence your poetry?
I would say that blogging and being a poetry editor inform and influence my poetry, insofar as everything I do informs my poetry. It all comes out of what I think about. When I learn something I generally want to write about it. And I learn stuff from the Internet all the time! I learn stuff from poetry, too.
Did you feel a bunch of people sucking up to you at AWP trying to weasel their way into Issue 5 of Absent? That’s the reason I complimented your dress when I met you, btw.
I don't think people are falling all over themselves to get into Absent. It's pretty small and only comes out like once per year. (One woman at AWP did pet my hair, but I don't think she knew I was an editor.) In terms of sucking up, I'll admit that if someone makes it clear in their cover letter that they are a reader/fan of Absent (i.e., with more than just a passing remark), I probably give their submission a little more attention. But that doesn't mean I'll publish it if I don't love it without reservation.
I know. Absent rejected me! But I still love it, the work and the way it looks, too. Speaking of, we’ll go back to your poems and the blog, but what’s up with the cover of your book? I didn’t see the art attributed to anybody. I’m terrible at processing images, so for all the books I get, I ask my husband who’s a painter what’s happening with the cover art. He said it looks Victorian. Like a Victorian portrait pixelized by IBM in 1982. Did you choose the art? If so, why? And does it tie to the content and the title The French Exit in any way?
The cover was designed by Joshua Elliot, who is mega-talented. (He also designed the cover for my chapbook, Thanks for Sending the Engine.) When we were brainstorming about cover designs, we knew we didn't want it to be too literal. "The French exit" has a double (at least!) meaning. Slangwise, it means leaving (e.g., a party) without saying goodbye. In the context of the book, it also refers obliquely to French doors. Many of the poems reference an incident in which I passed out and stumbled unconscious into a French door, breaking one of the glass panes with my face. (I have a bitching scar on my chin to show for it.) It was something of a French exit in itself because it happened without warning and no one saw it (not even me, since I wasn't really there). So we didn't want the cover image to be French doors or something, which would be too punny and potentially limit the metaphorical applications of the phrase within the book.
Dan Boehl (one of the Birds) has a particular fondness for the line "serious face while gaming" from the last poem, and I have a particular fondness for the aesthetics of classic video games (Atari, NES). We were batting around the idea of using a screenshot from Pong for the cover (they naturally look like book covers, with the "net" in the center as the spine), since it would be kind of abstract on that scale and not totally obvious at first. (It took me a while to see the cover of The Anger Scale by Katie Degentesh for what it is, a scantron.) Josh ended up going in a different direction, but riffing on the 8-bit theme. He'd always wanted to do something with a clip art image like that. We love how the X in "EXIT" looks in the 8-bit font, and how it marks the spot on the woman's forehead.
So how has it been working with Birds LLC? You and Chris Tonelli are its first authors. How did you guys decide to work together? Did they solicit you or did you send work to them to consider?
It's been pretty fabulous. Since they're a brand new press, they can't rest on reputation. They're building their reputation with these first books, so they're working really hard and have been involved with every step. Sam Starkweather in particular worked really closely with me on the manuscript itself, as I mentioned above. I can't say enough good things about that process. He made the book at least ten times better. I mean, it's a book now. Before it was a "book."
Their publishing model at this stage is solicitation-based, with a focus on close author relationships. It's also a collective and they embrace self-publishing as a long and necessary tradition. I've known all the editors for years, Chris being my oldest friend among them. We all love each other's poetry and have been reading it for years. In a way they know my work better than anyone else, so who better to edit and publish it?
Is “Ornithological Blogpoem” -- the one with the last two lines, “Do not be afraid of angering the birds. What angers the birds is fear.” -- a callout to Birds LLC? I’m sure it’s not. But it would be sweet if it was.
I wrote "Ornithological Blogpoem" long before the press existed, but they've adopted it as a sort of manifesto, which I approve of heartily.
So you've written many posts on your blog about ideas. I believe it started out by you making the point that there are many poems being written by poets that have no complex ideas. They're full of imagery and description but lack ideas. Now you're doing a workshop at Grubstreet. It's described this way: "Poems that describe a heron or the moon can be nice, but what sets the one you remember apart from all the rest? Chances are it’s an interesting idea."
Wish I could attend. Too far, too poor. Anyway, these posts have really changed the way I think about poetry. How often does someone say something that forever more changes how you view something? You mention that idea can't be separated from sound; that's what makes a perfect line in poetry. And also that sound itself may bring you to an idea. Your poem "Near-Life Experience" is interesting, the way it presents an idea and at the same time uses sound to call up certain feelings and associations.
Weird. I almost died. Don't touch
my pivot point, my cicatrix—
it prickles me. My center of
gravity, my weak spot
for mortality. Where they held me
when I got dipped.
And later you write in this same poem
I almost slipped
on this almost bird, fallen
to the earth...
You're identifying this adult fontanel, this portal to sudden death. And in the second line, you use "cicatrix" which, to my dirty mind at least, calls up "cervix" -- another portal to death, the death that is life. In this case, did the sound bring you to the idea or the idea to the sound? Or is that process unclear when the poem is finished and you're looking back?
Exactly, a fontanel. This is from the series of poems I wrote following the French door incident described above. It sucks that I sliced open my face, but it could have been so much worse -- a shard of glass could have cut my eye or my throat. As it is, the accident did only cosmetic damage. My chin was a pretty safe spot to take the blow. But I sort of inverted it in the poem, so the site of the scar is the danger zone, the part that needs to be protected. And it’s a reminder of how close we always are to death or serious injury. Kind of gives you the chills if you think about it too much. The “dipped” part is a reference to Achilles of course.
Cicatrix does sound sexual, doesn’t it? Also, insectual. It reminds me of coccyx, another word I used in a poem once. Certainly some of the meaning here is tied up in sound -- the “sick” of cicatrix leads to "prickles" (chills) (and "prickles" is kind of dirty too I guess), and the dip of the Achilles heel leads eventually to the slip. I wasn’t consciously thinking about sex when I wrote this, but maybe syncope, the blackout, is already sexualized, this idea of being all body while the mind takes a powder.
In the aftermath the process is somewhat unclear, yes. I think the idea seems to come first, but the idea is realized in sound, and the sound comes back to shape and shift the idea, ourobouros-like.
After I read your poem, I looked “syncope” up on Wikipedia and then I linked to "the fainting game."
Talk about being reminded of how close we are to death. I played the fainting game at every slumber party I went to from 4th to 6th grade I think. It was like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey for prepubescent girls in Indiana. I'd hyperventilate and lie back and somebody would push on my chest and I'd black out and come to and be like, "Whoa. How long was I out for? Do it again." At the risk of sounding like a complete moron: The fainting game can kill you? It felt amazing; it felt like a dream. Maybe some dreams feel like impending cardiac arrest? Note to self: No more fainting game at night with husband and children. Note to Elisa: Thank you for writing a poem with the word "syncope" in it.
I was always too afraid to do the fainting game myself. I did participate in "Light As a Feather, Stiff as a Board," but I guess that was dangerous too, since your friends might have dropped you.
Thanks so much for the interview and the very thoughtful reading of my book. It was a pleasure!
Elizabeth Hildreth is a writer and instructional designer in Chicago.