Elisa Gabbert - With a sense of humor and an ability to find glimmers of the absurd in the profound, she uses the lyric essay like a koan to provoke the reader’s reflection—unsettling the role of truth and interrogating the “I"


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Elisa Gabbert, The Self Unstable, Black Ocean, 2013.

thefrenchexit.blogspot.com/

Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable combines elements of memoir, philosophy, and aphorism to explore and trouble our ideas of the self, memory, happiness, aesthetics, love, and sex. With a sense of humor and an ability to find glimmers of the absurd in the profound, she uses the lyric essay like a koan to provoke the reader’s reflection—unsettling the role of truth and interrogating the “I” in both literary and daily life: “The future isn’t anywhere, so we can never get there. We can only disappear.”

With what voice do I want to read out loud from The Self Unstable? Do I read with a full-throated Poetry voice or a playful wink-wink voice or with the voice of an oracle or a mystic hippie fortuneteller? I can’t decide, and maybe that’s part of the instability to which the title of this work alludes. Who is the self in these declarative prose poems? Elisa Gabbert uses the force of her tone and sentence structures to create authority, despite the fact that the identity of the speaker is neither fixed nor always recognizable. At the junction of aphorism, confession, and armchair philosophy, these prose poems delight in their ability to make profundity flippant and flip profound. Gabbert writes, “History is the news via consensus.” The speaker here doesn’t say anything we don’t already know, nor does she say it in a new or nuanced way. This axiom could, at first, be met with a little eye roll, with a “duh.” But Gabbert subverts the power of her declarative tone by playing with the declaration: “And then they add mood music.” And then I laugh out loud.
But for this reader, the most intriguing and illuminating pieces of the unstable self in these poems come out when the speaker abandons declaration for a question: “Which comes first, senseless violence or meaningful violence?” In her question, the self and the self as citizen of the world are most united. Because of the prose form, the lack of space and breathing room around this question, the fact that it goes unanswered is quickly forgotten. The question mark itself nearly disappears into the string of declarative sentences. Gabbert reminds us here that the self begins as a question. Only later does it become the façade of a certainty. S. Whitney Holmes

Already, I have the problem of memory. Memories act precariously when they are the palate of thought. Example: I can’t remember when I first read Elisa Gabbert, but I remember the rough poetics of The French Exit. Bodies and minds took beatings. The words violenced through the poems. I was especially captivated by the sexual aggression. A voice attempted to transcend the self through bodily destruction, like autoerotic asphyxiation. Like a lack of could force the mind out of the body.
The Self Unstable exemplifies a bodiless self. Gabbert explores how thought dictates action, then action dictates belief. Memories lead the way because they create an illusion of understanding. “It can almost ruin you, the belief that you can choose,” (3). Language shreds the roles of identity. Her Twitter-brain essays/poems fragment connections. Art, games, leisure, love, sex – everything that fills our time – seem like activities to enjoy. Instead, they [dis]assemble the violent act of creation.
Animals, news, dreams pollute the mind. Where is placement? Ego feels displaced. Ego never had a place. Like grandparents coming through Ellis Island, body and mind attempt to locate a self. Look, my Dad found the papers. The family’s entrance was legitimate. At least on my Mom’s side. Names were misspelled, but sound has barely changed. The art of phonetics assert an idea of WHO. Some sort of declaration of I AM.
Generations exist as fragments collaged through shared behaviors. Family is why I’m here, but is family ME? Who has a choice in creation? Forget ideals, love and sex are “enjoyment of adversity,” (67). We ruin others. Relationships start based on these fallacies. Gabbert explains that a shared a taste in music creates the idea sameness. My mixtape to you means SOMETHING.
If we are not friends, I’m probably looking for sex. Sex drives interaction. When the self is unstable, adoration is not the goal. “I like men to dislike me a little,” (74). The act is an ultimate sharing of fluids, but we pretend it stands for intimacy. As if we can take our self to the lab. As if we swallow someone else’s fluids/words/scent, then understand it ALL. Pretend history is total.
Like a tomboy getting changed in a female locker room, the self feels uncomfortable among others. I never knew the right thing to say. Now everyone is “in love with” things/people/ideas, but when I used the term of endearment “love” because I heard it on television, other girls would move a few lockers away. The game of self is affirmed by others. Admire a shirt, a haircut, a limb, but never a total being. I never associated those interactions with sex, but I was longing for acceptance.
I hear something in music. My mind and body can’t explain it. The euphony and cacophony blend into different heart rates. The ticking self counts down days. “Human life is structured around overcoming problems, primarily hunger,” (14). I have needs, but they are not defined. Most actions are reactions to wanting more feeling. Addressing hunger imples a need to live long. Laugh and cry at the same time.
What else is left? When you are bored, it is selfish to make another human. Creating another person documents the memory of your DNA. Stop hording. Environmental factors alter genes, but the constant chaos of genetics is more stable than the self. You disappear, but your imprint does not.
What do art and aesthetics do? They do not clothe or feed, but they unsettle when moving past an attempt to describe beauty. Beauty is remembered and old, a product of easy memory. “In the pursuit of the new, we must cultivate fear, where there was no need for it historically,” (39). I understand take-off, but I do not understand landings. At such speed, shouldn’t everything smash? I want to collide colors with language to the point of vomiting.
Stay awake through life. Standards exist before us. What to do with them? Dress in themes. Colors are defining even if someone else chooses them. - Tracy Dimond

excerpts:

Voting is inherently good—it inures us to outcomes, to our statistical
insignificance. “I vote every day by not having children.” Our most
frequently accessed memories are most likely to be wrong, not to
mention streaked with light. Pride is the successful avoidance of
shame.

Which comes first, senseless violence or meaningful violence? I mean
everything I say, because everything means. Don’t speak to me of
facts. I despise history as I despise current events. History is the news
via consensus. And then they add mood music. Don’t speak of the
future. What hasn’t happened can never happen. I want to live in the
hypothetical, the unproved.

Most days we don’t think about the war. We don’t watch the news.
It’s not that what we don’t know can’t hurt us; it’s that we like to
conjure causes for our pain. The life of the mind: Life is in our minds
and the news is outside. Life is tragic in real time, but the memories
are farcical. What good does it do to feel the same things over and
over, to rehearse the same pains? I want a part in the play within the
play.

I saw a figure from a distance and thought it was me. I drank from the opposite side of a glass. If you can’t describe how you feel to yourself, you can’t be sure what you’re feeling, or that you feel at all. Consciousness as unreliable narrator. I spoke with conviction; my friend called it “trolling.” The self is a play that you watch from the audience – you affect it, but you can’t control it.

Men say infuriating things, and the fury has nowhere to go. The fury becomes ingrown. Your personality is a choice, so why are you half little-girl and unlike yourself? You don’t change, exactly, but the wave amplifies. The world is your ulcer. Love turns blood-brown. Be careful what you say, in that it tells you what you think.

The word sexy is sexy. That’s how culture works. If you’re not “trying too hard” you’re trying hard not to. Irony is seen as a filter on sincerity; in truth both irony and sincerity are filters. In its pure form the data is too powerful. All language is descriptive.

When you suspect someone is in love with you, you begin to treat them with contempt. Cruelty is justified, even an obligation. You engage in the feminism of detesting attention. Despite your complaints, you hope to remain attractive. In fact, you become more so. Men test the limits of your capacity for cruelty, follow you into bars.

If information has replaced the story, what will replace information? We have arrived at the future, but its use is restricted to the military. UIs aspire to the uncanny valley. We don’t want to get over Romanticism. The bankruptcy of collective memory. The etymology of “hi.”

What I miss about childhood is awe – the filter of inexperience, without the further filter of inadequacy, shame. But shame, a friend told me, can be comforting. Adulthood is knowing that someone is watching, an increasing sensation of things being fixed. When I hear the song for the second time, what I like is its familiarity. It has not become more beautiful, nor have I gained access to its beauty.

Be thankful for adversity. Boethius said, “For in all adversity of fortune the worst sort of misery is to have been happy.” It’s easier to repeat mistakes than re-create successes, so think of your past self as a different person – each self, a different person. No great art comes from happiness, comfort, but discomfort is not enough. I write from suffering, not lust.

The last day of my 29th year, I woke up crying. “Despite myself.” Youth is wasted, full stop. We trade awe for regret, beauty for truth. I’ll remember forever how Brandon Shimoda threw his half-eaten ice cream cone in the trash: “This is boring.” Awe is nothing like shock. Time moves so fast I want it to move faster, make memories of you.

As they get older, as the women’s movement progresses, women report less happiness, or is it—a slight difference—more unhappiness? But, you can argue, there’s more to life than being happy. Most people choose power over happiness. A man in a coma for 23 years was found to have been conscious the whole time. This is a variation on the fantasy of attending your own funeral. Most of the time, if you “don’t want to know,” you already do.  

Poetry fails as art in that it is not a Veblen good. The more you
charge for it, the more worthless it seems. Information wants to
be free, but what about beauty? The sublime? Is art about anything?
Whatever it is, it’s not meaning.


In air hockey, accidentally scoring on yourself is the alt win condition.
As we age it becomes more difficult to experience triumph without
drinking or conquering nations. Stress ages us quickly, as does
eating–really, a supreme irony. If we want to be happy, why are we
so fond of sad endings?



In my sex tape the vocalist does an anagram-esque sequence like overheard speech in a foreign language. This takes place off-camera, but you can tell by the players’ reactions the soundtrack’s intrinsic. It’s so cerebral it’s not sexy, but for the paradox, the inherently sexy ex. All games are dangerous. Schadenfreude complicates utilitarianism.

Hobbies, for adults, are advanced forms of indirect consumerism. Kids have no money, so they play games like “House” and “School” evoking settings they will later resent. Awareness is the great human problem; most endings are ruined by knowing they are. It’s not clear what role processing speed has in subjective experience. A game of chess may be played at long distance and extended over a lifetime. The total amount of fun is constant, but is it ever at any point perceptible?


Hangovers worsen as we age, but our tolerance does not decrease accordingly. File this under design concerns, system-level. The definition of “binge drinking” is disturbingly lax. Most adults can’t have fun without alcohol, but it’s easy enough to redefine fun. If not the malleability of language, the source of the argument can often be traced back to dissatisfying sex.



Elisa Gabbert, The French Exit, Birds LLC, 2010.

What a complex and lovely book this is! Reading Elisa Gabbert’s obsessively interior, technically rigorous poems is like listening in on the thoughts of a mind so fiercely observant and subtle that I find in them always some new twist, some surprising layer I hadn’t noticed before. By turns moving and witty, sharp-eyed and impressionistic, Gabbert writes with technical sophistication and keen intelligence. This is a terrific book.
- Kevin Prufer

It’s a pleasure to listen to the opinions of the narrator of The French Exit. Clear-eyed imagery and wit control the anxiety: “[A] boy at the counter disappears / or I can see through him.” Likewise, in a fine prose poem: “Do not be afraid of angering the birds. What angers the birds is fear.” The energy throughout Gabbert’s collection has the clip of the French exit itself – allons-y! – self-aware, self-sufficient, in control, in touch.
- Caroline Knox

Elisa Gabbert’s bold, confident, and unwavering poems pack a punch with every ending. They careen, dip and reverse. “It wants to keep / running forever, but / it can’t stop stopping,” she writes. Just when I think I want one of Gabbert’s poems to go on forever, it screeches to a halt, but it is the perfect halt. This is not easy to do, but Gabbert has mastered the art of making a poem.
- Noelle Kocot


The voice that animates The French Exit is smart and philosophically dexterous, capable of showing the self to be a fetish-object of its own and also a refractive subject of Lacanian devotion, as a mirror which doesn’t so much distort as endless “reveal,” like the panopticon eye of a camera.

The prison of time, according to polyglot Vladimir Nabokov, is “spherical and without exits, short of suicide.” Freedom, and even happiness, to follow this logic, would be to carve a space for oneself within this time-bound context, yet in Elisa Gabbert’s The French Exit, the options for assertion of presence, and, conversely, the Stevensian art of “waving adieu,” abound. To leave without saying goodbye is to render a “French Exit,” yet Gabbert’s debut collection skims this idiom of connotations of peremptory haste, imparting to the concept (here rendered literally by the word SORTIE emblazoned on French doors which demarcate an interior) a molten wealth of contradiction: nostalgia sans sentimentality, anxiety sans self-preoccupation. Gabbert’s rhyme schemes are as subtle as her psychoanalytic investigations: “ . . . it seems like// we’re still out there: Man vs. Nature. I wonder out loud/ if it’s some kind of joke and one of them says If it is,// it’s the saddest, the longest, the slowest, most beautiful joke// you could tell. He doubles me over. He knows me so well.”
Exquisitely pictorial ( . . . “confusing feeling with seeming, I think./ And nothing, and suffering, with fog”), post-historical, and combative (“I can defenestrate anything/ except for the window”), these poems and their occasionally patterned nature (section three being composed of “blogpoems” of witty force and technoculture-saturated play) are as original as anything being written today. The first stanza of “Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin”: “Every time you reproduce a piece of art/ you remove some of its aura and that’s why/ your mix tape didn’t impress me much,/ it was so fucking aura-less . . . ”
The speaker begs the question of whence comes the desire to leave a written demarcation on the world; the answer here is clearly one part the writing of desire (“Desire explodes and the last thing it feels/ is every point touching something”), jouissance as the drive capable of ousting the death-instinct, nausea and ennui, and one part the desire to challenge the enormity of all that abuts and delimits the self.
From “Poem Without Free Will”:
. . . Time doesn’t just fly;
it ninja-stars me.
It’s obvious to want to die,
but in the poem, I have to.
No life but in desire.
One remarkable feature of this work is the specificity of the images the poet draws up as shield and savor against said enormity (and the enormity of desire) here frequently rendered not as void or abyss, but, in league with the Romantics, a body of water.
“ . . . How stupid of me// to find your pencil marks sexy. To prefer them/ to the world: the huge freezing ocean: it does nothing// for me . . . Is there a bird down there, objecting? Politely?// Excuse me, world. I wasn’t ready to be buried.” Or, “Let’s ruin the world/ and get it over with. I hate// ‘the sea.’”
The voice that animates The French Exit is smart and philosophically dexterous, capable of showing the self to be a fetish-object of its own and also a refractive subject of Lacanian devotion, as a mirror which doesn’t so much distort as endless “reveal,” like the panopticon eye of a camera: “Like a hairline/ crack down my mirror—I am always// looking at the distance, at it splitting me./ I am warped along that fault.// Sometimes the distance looks at me/ and for a moment I feel requited// but . . . It doesn’t remember// when we were touching, eye to eye.” The mirror here and elsewhere figures as a koan; from her homage to Stevens’ “The Snow Man“ “ . . . the mirror always knows. Think nothing/ and you’re still not thinking nothing.”
Ruthless in its deriding of the very metaphors it employs, there are few notes of glibness in this collection; as if happily trapped within the flux of va-et-vient, the speaker posits desire as the nebulous “thing itself” and also as the thing toward which it is useless to strive, as desire is perpetually generated by its withholding (“he wants me/ wanting more, and I want it too . . . “). In a world where the fear of madness is tantamount to the fear that madness is desirable (“I want . . . to be close// to the sky as I lose my mind—/ I’m afraid. I’m afraid/ I’ll feel pretty transcendent”), all bets appear to have been off before the poem—or time—even began. These tensions give rise to poems that glow, brutally and tenderly, as the body itself enacts the gestures needed to construct the (a) world.
From “Poem With a Threshold”:
Look into my image
distortion disorder and tell me
what you really feel, now
that you’re incomprehensible, Mr.—
tell me ‘what for.’ I love you
but my arms are full.
I opened my face with the door. - Virginia Konchan

The modus operandi of Elisa Gabbert’s new book, The French Exit, can be found in the title’s definition. To make a French exit is to leave without saying goodbye, and indeed, the poems in this collection demonstrate a conjuror’s skill in the elaborate ways to leave an image, an argument, or even the idea of a text itself.
Gabbert’s poems have a rich relationship with legerdemain. The evidence of the senses is a nemesis, an indulgence, and a distraction, and the opening poem (“What Happened”) in the first section proper presents the reader with the mannequin’s dilemma. The voice feels compelled to settle into a body, but the narrative’s heir apparent is regaining consciousness after a fall, and at first merely “looks sweet there, concussed.” A figurative description of the book’s method follows:
Then the body wakes up
Extracts itself from a hood of blood—
Shakes off its addenda, composites—
Sleeves of glass—
It rises—It stands in her outline…
This masterful confusion of material and immaterial animates the book, and the dispassion about the self allows the writer to enact a number of equally lovely sleights of hand. Many of the poems skate across the surface tension of this conflict: namely, that to talk about trauma, to delineate its causes and stylize its effects, is to obscure the lovely dilemma of empiricism, of seeing and knowing. Even while the author is drawn to image and reason, she is also in love with the vanishing point, where all perspective is ecstatically compressed into a single node. Thus, the standard lyric exhaust of “your ash breath in the air” is “translated elsewhere…” (“Commissioned”). I found myself admiring the many ways Gabbert’s rhetoric points off-stage, indicating that absence is the most intellectually erotic product.
At her most effective, these grammatical absences imbue even a catalogue of dropped subjects with liminality. Often books that juggle philosophical postulates result in a poverty economy, where images and intimacy are grudgingly doled out in the manner of food stamps, but The French Exit signals early on that narrow focus is going to reward rather than punish the reader:
So the landscape pulsates,
supersaturated with meanings.
With meaningness.
Things that are orange.
Things that sting.
That trill. That signal possession.
Dissipate. Are marred.
(“Commissioned”)
Although Gabbert is deeply concerned with taxonomy and representation, this initial music (as evidenced by the refracted echoes of things/sting and are/marred) lets us know the reader is going to be wooed as well as argued with.
However, such aural excellence is backed by deft spatial intelligence. The diagrams and dioramas enclosed by the poems worship even the simplest egress, investing it with nimble delirium:
I left the party, through the French exit
to the smaller one inside
where the cake said
I HAVE NO CONCEPT OF TIME
(“Poem with a Threshold”)
The caps are a risky move, and in the hands of a lesser poet, a fatal one, but for every such extravagance, whether we’re talking about “uncracked grammars in teal and burnt umber” (“Blogpoem with DTWSH”) or lush fields exploding on a TV screen like “they’d / nabbed a horrifically gorgeous rash” (“Blogpoem w/ Blue Balls”), there are a series of tightly-wound, logical acrobatics that lets us know that Gabbert is in control:
Another: approaching
the treeline to find they’re not far
away, just very small trees.
(“Poem with Intrinsic Music”)
Look into my image
distortion disorder and tell me
what you really feel, now
that you’re incomprehensible, Mr.—
tell me “what for.”
(“Poem with a Threshold”)
He was doing this quantum thing
every time I looked away—
(“Decoherence”)
My favorite poems in the collection are the ones where the oscillation between image and argument is serrated with humor in the form of an ominous direct address, one that advises us that “[my] virus / is waiting for you to eat the cow” (“Blogpoem as Meme, or Blogpoem after Daniel Dennett”), or instructs the reader not to “be afraid of angering the birds,” since ‘[w]hat angers the birds is fear” (“Ornithological Blogpoem”).
This humor can fly below radar in such terse sorties, such as when the speaker blames Walter Benjamin’s theory of art reproduction and the loss of its “aura” for why a suitor’s mix tape “didn’t impress me much…” (“Blogpoem after Walter Benjamin”), or it can saunter off the page in a somewhat more pyrotechnical fashion:
…so I’m starting over—
with that A-hole who gave me an Atomic Harvest
tape and his debate club shirt that said
Making the world safe for hypocrisy…
(“Blogpoem with Autorape”)
Gabbert can operate in many modes, and with surprising results, but the pitfall of such loquaciousness and swerving is that the poems sometimes don’t interrogate argument so much as they merely fail to acknowledge the need for some kind of structural or vocative imperative. This is unintentionally summarized neatly in “Poem with a Plot”:
I wish most days didn’t end up this way—
like episodes of a realist sitcom
where problems aren’t solved so much
as abandoned…
While I adore the commentary, the caution is appropriate. Despite Gabbert’s many strengths (and there are quite a few of those), there’s an occasional extreme to which those gestures are taken. Gabbert is far too canny and precise a poet to settle for an image like the following:
P.S. Like my love for you,
like the infinite crystalline watchface of
God of the sky, my email will never die.
(“Blogpoem for April”)
On a syntactical level, there was slight over-reliance on the parenthetical and the dash as grammatical sinew to rush the argument through elision, which can fall short if not properly modulated:
We enter the cathedral. I fall for it every time,
gothic trick of the mind—awe, guilt, fear of X, all of it—
made small by this capriciousness, destroyable.
(“Day Trip with Spires”)
Finally, I notice that Gabbert has a tendency to escape the impacts of her arguments using explosive devices. Too many poems end in dissolution, dispersal, or atomization. This thanatopsis can be psychic, as in the case of “X” (“I want to lie on the top level / of an empty garage, to be close // to the sky as I lose my mind…”), or iconic, as in the case of “Commissioned” (“You kick a car and it crumples apart / like a death-hollowed tree. // ‘Pain’ ripples out in a wave.”). Either way, the reader feels that it’s not quite fair for the writer to export the implications of the poem entirely out of the text itself. We wish that the speaker, rather than the direct object, got to experience such devout consummation:
Desire explodes and the last thing it feels
is every point touching something.
(“Camera Obscura”)

Still, the brash experiments contained within The French Exit more than compensate for the occasional ad-hoc forays. The book lays out a lot of directions to follow, and the polyphony therein is marvelous. Gabbert has a dizzying number of recommendations for reality, and they range from a Richter scale of quaintness for Amsterdam (“Blogpoem the Litany”), a T-shirt’s alarming imperative of HAVE A KNIFE DAY (“Poem with Negation”), and the proper “nefarious angles” at which pictures should be hung (“Poem with a Superpower”). Indeed, The French Exit tells the truth, but adjusts its empirical rhymes at a delicious slant. - Simeon Berry


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
remote-control boats—robots
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.  
Commissioned  
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.
With meaningness. 
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.
With meaningness.
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!  - Interview by Elizabeth Hildreth


TT - The editing process at Birds sounds really interesting. Can you talk a little about the practicalities of it, as far as French Exit was concerned?
E.G. - Birds assigns a lead editor to each book they accept for publication. My editor was Sampson Starkweather. We've been friends and mutual fans for a long time, and he always had lots of free-floating ideas about my poetry and nothing to do with them. This was a chance for us to funnel those ideas into something, namely, making my book better. I was having a really hard time editing the manuscript on my own – I didn't know how to order it, I didn't know which poems to take out and which to put in. I desperately wanted someone who knew my work to step in and tell me what to do. Sam was that person! It was a great working relationship because I trusted his judgment completely, but he always made it clear that every decision was ultimately up to me. I took almost all of his suggestions. We had long phone calls every few weeks over the course of several months, during which time we finalized cuts and settled on the sections. I also did major revisions of a few key poems. All the editors had good suggestions for the manuscript, but they were mostly filtered through Sam so I never felt too overwhelmed. We were all pretty invested in it, since it's my first book and one of their first books too.
TT - Many of the pieces in the book are called “blogpoems,” a new word to me. Can you give us a definition?
E.G - The "blogpoem" concept grew out of NaPoWriMo, which is the poetry version of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month); my friend Maureen Thorson is generally credited with "inventing" NaPoWriMo. This was back around 2006; I knew a number of poets who were writing a poem a day that April and posting the drafts to their blogs. At the time, I didn't have a blog, but my good friend Chris Tonelli did. I semi-joked that I should send him tossed off, throwaway poems to post on his blog, and he challenged me to do it. The first one I wrote was "Blogpoem for April" – like I said, it was originally kind of a joke; I was making fun of the idea that you would write a poem so quickly. The trouble was, it turned out to be a good poem! So then I decided to take the project seriously – I wrote each poem quickly, with minimal revision, in a burst of energy, and I tried to make them all appropriate to the blog format/setting – pretty short, and relatively light and digestible. Suitable for Internet reading. It turned to be a lot of fun, and because I had to write one every day, they are often built out of trivial or inane ideas, because you can't write about something profound every single day. Turning those little thoughts and lines into decent poems was part of the challenge.
TT - Many of your poems are funny, on one or several levels. Aristotle claimed humour was a matter of surprise, and that’s often the case here, although which bit of which poem will surprise any given reader may be a surprise in itself. How do you think of humour in relation to your poetry? What is its place? What are you using it for?
E.G. - Humor is so important to me – my conversational style revolves around banter and jokes, and I gravitate toward people who are always joking, to the point that it's kind of hard for me to connect with people who aren't that way. That filter of wit, sarcasm, levity, it just colors my whole worldview. Similarly I gravitate toward poetry with a sense of humor, though I'm not really satisfied with poems that are content to be simply funny. My favorite poems (songs, people) are usually wry, funny-sad, funny but vulnerable. I like a kind of intelligence that knows the world is tawdry but carries on anyway, making the most of it. That's how I want humor to function in my poems, as comedy brushing against tragedy. And that may be where the surprise comes from – not expecting the two to bump up together.
TT - These are poems of ideas, and you play with various philosophical positions in the texts. Which philosophers have been an influence? Any ideas that have had more impact than others?
E.G. - Great question. The philosopher with the most influence has probably been Daniel Dennett (who, like Benjamin, gets his own blogpoem). I'm drawn to a kind of bullet-biting, hyperrational philosophy of mind/science (Eliezer Yudkowsky would be another example of this): no souls, no free will, no one, coherent world – that kind of thing. The trick is to accept this lack of magic or "spirituality" in the world and still find room for happiness, which is entirely possible. I don't cotton at all to the theory that if you have no sense of God or some great unknowable unknown, there's no reason to live. A lot of what I'm doing in my poetry, I think, is playing with that space where we forget we have no control over anything and that nothing ultimately matters – that's where we live our lives, in that forgetting. However smart or rational we are, it's our nature to forget it.
TT - In my review, I’ve written about “Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin.” In that poem you mention aura – and allude to Benjamin’s belief that the acceleration of life in the modern city is responsible for its disintegration. You also play with the problem of mechanical reproductions and the way they cut our connection to the uniqueness of reality. The blogpoem is a clever, compressed discussion of auratic perception. Do you believe modern urban life has fundamentally changed the way we see reality? If yes – and the answer, based on your poems, seems to be yes – in what way? What does the change mean to art, which, if nothing else, is bound up in “aural perception’s” interplay of closeness and distance and in the uniqueness of existence.
E.G. - I think yes, our perception of reality is fundamentally different, though it's been different my whole life, so it's hard for me to compare my perception to that of a frontier woman or a caveman. In regards to art, I was thinking specifically of this tendency for things not to feel "special" – which says nothing about how good or bad they are as art. When we read a book of poems, what we appreciate is the information, not the actual instance of the book. (OK, design wonks go on and on about the physical object of a book, but that's really beside the point to the poetry. It's a copy. The book is not THE BOOK, the pure idea. If all extant copies were burned, we could print more books, etc.) And this is kind of the norm now, what with everything being digitized, to receive things as information, wherein the form/format is pretty incidental. The medium is not the message. Because people want to be able to choose their own medium (like, hey, from now on I will receive all messages via my iPhone; you, as the messenger, can no longer control the medium).
This is not to say that I think everything was better in the past, or anything like that. Though I do wish Hollywood would stop with the remakes already.
TT - Walter Benjamin plays with time, Lewis Carroll plays with time in Alice in Wonderland, syncopes play with time, you play with the way they play with time, and you play with time on your own terms. What’s going on with that?
E.G. - Time is the great enemy. On the micro scale it moves too slowly, on the macro scale it moves too fast. Days are long, years are short. I don't see how anyone can be alive and aware and not obsess about time, all the time. Who said all poems are about death? All poems are also about time, since death is ultimately about time.
TT - Syncope is a fascinating and frightening thing/concept/occurrence, in all its various meanings and permutations. I talk about some of them and the way you use them as a connecting metaphor, in my review, but I wonder if you have anything you’d like to say about your use of it.
E.G. - I'm not sure I could add anything to your present understanding of it. I think you see how it's working in the book at least as well as I do! Certainly I was exploring the scariness of a brush with death as a reminder that anyone could die at any time. In a way I think it's weird that we fear our own deaths. So what if I die – I won't be around to miss me. What's really scary is the thought of everyone else dying.

TT - The French Exit – It’s a syncope, it’s a party left without notice, it’s a French window, it’s coitus interruptus, happiness, interest, brothers, lovers gone awol, life ended abruptly and without warning. How did you arrive at such a wide ranging metaphor?

E.G. - You've nailed it, it's all those things. It wasn't at first; first it was just a phrase I liked, which I learned from a guy I had a crush on, who was particularly adept at it. So I put it in a poem. Later on, unrelatedly, I had a syncopal episode and fell into a French door. The "French exit" ended up in another poem. The phrase just bloomed for me somehow; I realized slowly how it was functioning on all these different levels in my poems, and it ended up governing the structure of the book. The phrase has taken on new weight and I can't just use it in casual conversation anymore. It feels almost mystical now, like some portal to another dimension.
TT - “The Word Fuseki” is a terribly poignant, painful poem. I talk about it at some length in my review but I wonder if you would address the two lines in brackets halfway through – (I wanted to keep that. Why did I give it away?) There’s always a giving away in poetry, and it’s often a giving away of something the poet might have preferred to keep. What can you tell us about that tendency/necessity/compulsion/gift?
E.G. - I think every writer has things they need to write about – and they're the very subjects we tend to avoid, because people tell us to, because it's so hard to get it right. I tried to write that particular poem several times over the course of a couple of years. I couldn't get it right. Even a successful poem is a failure in some way – you feel you've spent that subject, that's it, you'll never write another good poem again. But again, we have to. For me, the poetry that really tears me up and stays with me has to take that huge risk of showing the reader its weakness. It has to play its hand. -  - tangerinetreepress.blogspot.com/

POEM WITH A THRESHOLD

In the grip of the NYC sublime
I fell in love out of boredom.

I left the party, thru the French exit
to the smaller one inside

where the cake said
I HAVE NO CONCEPT OF TIME.

Look into my image
distortion disorder and tell me

what you really feel, now
that you’re incomprehensible, Mr.—

tell me “what for.” I love you
but my arms are full.

I opened my face with the door.



Elisa Gabbert. Thanks for Sending the Engine, a chapbook, Kitchen Press, 2007. 


An up-and-coming poet whose work will soon be more widely known if there's any justice in the world of poetry is Elisa Gabbert, whose first chapbook Thanks for Sending the Engine was published by Kitchen Press in early 2007. The book contains a number of memorable poems that are simultaneously funny, insightful and daring.
Thematically, Gabbert's work puts many of the more contradictory aspects of human behavior on display, especially those more embarrassing behaviors that we all know we're supposed to hide: contradictions, blindspots, neediness, annoyance, the desire to act badly just so we don't have to listen to somebody drone on about everything that's safe to say. An exhilarating chaos runs through Gabbert's poems, one that's aware of itself as performance at the same that the performance collapses distinctions between what's playful and what's serious.
The book features several repetitious game-like poems which show a young poet engagingly testing her ability for image and simile, Through a series of quick cuts and startling juxtapositions, both "What The World Was Like" and "Blogpoem W/Epigraph" highlight Gabbert's flexible and wide-ranging eloquence. “What The World Was Like” is surreal in a casual way that might cause a careless reader to look past its hints regarding deeper psychological and social dilemmas:
The beginning of time was like winning the lottery with a parking ticket
The formation of stars was like an actual rabbit in an imaginary thicket.
The first movie was like a stranger knocking loudly on your trapdoor.
The first supper was like a police sketch of what killed the dinosaurs.
The relaxed ease with which Gabbert tosses out these lines contrasts the alienation and fear lurking just beneath the surface of the details.
The exuberance of these game-like poems remains a prominent feature throughout the chapbook, but many of the other poems are more directly angry or sarcastic. The images in those poems more thoroughly explore the troubled nature of the narrator and her relationships to a series of often disturbing characters. Consider the opening of "Blogpoem W/DTHWSH”:
Take me to the library: I’m in the mood
to get murdered. Mm, 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. Chris,
this is me courting depression, or it courting
me. I’m not seduced by death, just death’s
techniques—the way it lets me let it buy me
a drink. Then drives me home with the lights
off, in stealth mode. I want that void IN me.
If the casual line breaks seem obviously New York School, the frenetic and fierce perversity feels unique. The lines attack and reveal at the same time, showing us a narrator who is both bookish and emotionally volatile. Yet the honesty with which she explores her own difficulties results finally in a vulnerable bravery. She may care what Chris thinks but that's not going to stop her from requiring Chris, and herself, to understand exactly what's on her mind. Importantly, the desire for self-destruction expressed here (and in other of Gabbert's poems) isn't the same as giving way to that desire. Instead the bluntness of the sexual metaphor at the end of the passage suggests not so much a giving in to the death drive as a willingness to welcome it and acknowledge its presence, then to go on from there. The narrator wishes to accept her darker impulses as a way of living more fully.
“Blogpoem W/ Blue Balls” is one of the poems that most effectively displays Gabbert's sarcastic tone, a tone that often seems justifiably biting but is also charismatic and full of blatantly expressed desire, as in these opening lines:
Dude. How could you seduce me w/
your date-rape-drug-metaphor, your
beautiful, your bisexual non-sequitur,
& then make a like a tree for the neon
SORTIE sign of our moment’s theater?
You missed a great scene: the fields
on screen just exploded into lushness
like contagious brushfire, like they’d
nabbed a horrifically gorgeous rash.
The rhythm of these lines has virtuosic flair and irrepressible energy. Also, as in many of Gabbert's poems, the intense need for contact with others, sexual and otherwise, is mixed equally with rage at the self-absorption and lack of awareness of those very same others. Gabbert's work often reminds me of something once said about John Lennon: that he wasn't sure whether he wanted to make love to his audience or throttle it.
Throughout the chapbook, Gabbert relentlessly exposes the daily foibles of personal relationships and people's confused and aggressive feelings, including the narrator's own. And she does it frequently with a frame of reference that understands the larger contexts of social institutions and literature. There's a striking ambivalence, for instance, in Gabbert's attitude towards the body, one that combines the disgust of Plath (as Michelle Detorie has pointed out) with the more revolutionary anger of post -60s feminist poetry, yet ultimately refuses either self-hatred or self-assertive politicized rhetoric.
I wonder, as Gabbert's writing continues, whether she will be able to stretch to more areas outside the interpersonal, or find new ways of exploring it. Her poems are still quite youthful, and some lines come close to asserting generalizations that don't entirely hold. But these aren't criticisms so much as a way of asking whether her poems can continue to thrive in the eye of the maelstrom, or whether as time goes on that focus will become a restraint that she'll feel a need to move beyond.
But if, as Frank O'Hara said, “You just go on your nerve,” Gabbert has as much nerve as anyone. For a first chapbook, Thanks For Sending the Engine serves as an excellent introduction to a poet whose work I want to keep reading. Her writing resonates for me with a number of other outstanding women poets who have been around just a little longer: K. Lorraine Graham, Stephanie Young, and precursors by only a few more years like Nada Gordon and Catherine Wagner. All of their writing shares a few things in common; restless energy, a willingness to turn the expected upside down, and an ability to bluntly startle with things usually supposed to remain unsaid. In the writing of these women, there's a relationship between sexual desire, anger, and an exploration of the dynamics of power in specific human interactions that strikes me as different from what came before. I might tentatively describe it as a kind of aggressive femininity, an intentional contradiction designed to challenge the common definition of femininity in cultural studies contexts as a passivity born of powerlessness. -  Mark Wallace

That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness by Kathleen Rooney & Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, Otoliths, 2008. 

Writing poetry is hard. This is not news to anyone who has seriously dedicated themselves to writing it. But writing poetry with another person? Wouldn't that qualify as being one of the hardest things in the world of writing to do? Would there be stylistic clashes? Would schedules work out so such poems could be written? Would the poems be terrible?
Luckily for us, Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney have overcome all of these potential hazards and have put together a marvelous collection of collaborative poetry: That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness. This collection is not the first of collaborative poetry to be released. Indeed, Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton have produced many wonderful collections of collaborative work (Exquisite Politics and Oyl to name a few). And in 2007, an anthology of collaborative poetry, Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, edited by Duhamel, Seaton, and David Trinidad, was published by Soft Skull Press.
It's clear that collaborative poetry is alive and well, but how do Gabbert and Rooney accomplish creating their brand of poems? First and foremost, there's no way to tell which lines were written by Gabbert and which were written by Rooney. The poems in the collection are all nice, tight packages of verse littered with vivid imagery. Take for example the poem “Nice Vocabulary”:

I've been inappropriately molested by my imagination—
I once had the phrase "graham crackers" stuck in my head
for like a thousand days. Damn the man! Snap crackle pop.
Butcher block hydrangea. Dashboard hula dancer.
Horrible schnauzer. Lavender bulldozer. Word-a-Day calendar.
Oh, I meant to tell you. You're not my BF anymore.
Or even my AE: arch-enemy. We're not on terms.
Watch me walk away, off this long pier into infinity.
It is impossible to tell where one poet's words start and end. Even if one has read the individual works of Gabbert and Rooney, it may only offer a slight hint into where each line came from. And anyway, is it important to know? I don't think so. The speaker in “Nice Vocabulary” is a tormented soul for sure, and that fact comes through clear as day.
The third voice created by Gabbert and Rooney in these poems is neither of them, rather, it is some kind of gentle poetry Frankenstein monster–comprised of equal parts Gabbert and Rooney. Not only that, the poems are funny, which is something that unfortunately is lacking from much of the poetry being produced today. That can be seen in poems like “At the Pizzeria”:

Everything went from great, to eh, & then to crap
when you called my novel a novella. “I smell a rat,”
you said. Do rats have a smell? How do you know?
Your taste & your social graces need some revising,
so you might need to take some necessary steps:
the “Fox Trot,” the “Robot,” & the “Cotton-Eyed Joe”
for a start . . . asshole. It takes two to tango, i.e.,
haven’t you ever heard of a little thing called compromise?
I can never admit that I’ve got the hots for you,
but you’d see if you’d just look into my flaming eyes.
The poems in That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness ooze this humor and are filled with “insane” jumps from topic to topic in many of the poems. These elements make the book a treasure and a source for inspiration and fun in poetry. I, for one, hope Gabbert and Rooney's insanity doesn't end any time soon. - Nathan Logan

American collaborative poetry is a peculiar rabbit, partially because the American tradition is so rooted in self-reliance. In the introduction to Saints of Hysteria, an anthology of collaborative poetry published last year, Charles Henri Ford (an early practitioner of 20th century collaboration) is quoted as calling the method a kind of “intellectual sport.” Yes, sport.  Play sounds about right; as the reader, you get to watch poets have a blast.
But I’m suspicious of most collaborative poetry. In Saints of Hysteria, poems are accompanied by authors’ notes explaining process. I can’t help but feel that this is because in much collaborative poetry, process is the only valuable part; the poems themselves are seldom live enough to outstrip the poets’ blatant need for creative, collaborative process—in select cases, their need for a public banding of arms. But of course it’s the resulting organism, not the authorship, which matters most in poetry.
That said, I’ll borrow a construction from the venerable Kurt Loder: I think I’d trade the last six “collaborative” books I’ve read for just half of Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney’s hip, smart, self-aware and incredibly focused new collection.
The best thing about That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness is that it is a singular, sustained inspiration spoken by a singular, if conflicted, voice. The other best thing is how completely unreserved the authors are about using “teenage” language. They live in 21st century United States, which means they live in the world of text messages, of expressions like “LOL” and “hottie”—and they have the speech of the place. Which of course means they risk a number of easy criticisms.
Yet these criticisms would not only show a complete misunderstanding of satire and irony–they would be the criticisms of some all-knowing “authority figure” who thinks—teaches, even—that things can only be one way. This “authority figure” is to be defied. Of course rebellion for its own sake, while charming, is ultimately juvenile. This poet willfully floats on her sinking raft, fully aware of the air as it hisses out, fully aware that she is, by natural law, on the road to becoming some form of “authority figure” herself.
That is, the Gabert/Rooney poet at once makes fun of and celebrates her own naïveté. She is a strikingly, believably conflicted young woman who is generally good-natured about her romantic, professional, and fatalistic struggles. She is sarcastic, but never cynical:
                                       …everyone knows
college is a rite of middle classage. They said
Write what you know—what I know is
waitressing.
These lines seem a refusal of banal regurgitations that might creep up in formal education. But there’s a nice contradiction; amid her anti-intellectualism, she relies significantly on formalism. There is a lot of speedy, associative back-and-forth, but there’s also an abundance of villanelles, tritinas and ghazals, even a cento. Our heroine has an unreserved flare for modern slang, pop culture references, and playful commentary on the business of poetry. In fact, the title That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness is a slice of poetic commentary, a neatly ironic reference to another line of “collaborative poetry”: a Robert Bly translation of Theodor Storm, one that can only be described as vintage Bly, almost absurdly romantic.
The jokey Bly reference is emblematic of how wholly ironic this book is. Early on, our poet remarks that “somehow bad drama is worse than bad comedy.” Some items in this book border on the latter, but do so knowingly. Take for example the constant impulse to rhyme:
Yet the leader of the rabbits was
making a racket, disappearing over
the ridge in a blaze-orange jacket.
There’s a whole history of forced rhymes that “work” because the poet or songwriter delights in his ability to find and link like-sounding language (think hip-hop, think Woody Guthrie and the folk tradition that predetermined him). Yet these moments of play are quick, associative distractions from various personal issues the poet encounters. For one, she has always had to obey authority figures:
                                             …Authority
figure, biblical allusions are the hobgoblin
of gregarious gasbags, frantic last gasps of your brand
of blowhard. Coming home in a body bag
is not what I got this bod all jacked to do. Can’t you
accept my pacifist vows? One more kapow
& I’m through being Officer Dirty Little Secret.
If one is to defy someone purely on the basis of the fact that that person is an “authority figure,” then what does one do if one succeeds, and overthrows the powerful? Regardless of their virtues, they are to become an “authority figure” and, by definition, should be resisted by the next generation. Our poet anticipates this transition: “The word monster comes from the Latin to show. / If you don’t believe me, you might have a problem with trust.”
This coming-of-age quality resists being rote or sentimental because it’s completely unabashed, unhinged. This narrator is like Allen Ginsberg’s narrator in “America”; she indicts the Established Order as a means of exposing her own weaknesses. She propels herself into adulthood in the most American way possible: goes to college, makes friends, makes sloppy decisions, learns about herself from them. “Temp” offers some cloudy intoxication:
           …I can’t breathe in here. Are those
the hands of an angel holding my hair?
Throwing up, I think, it’s just like me to think
this is so unlike me, this thick upheaval.
Forget the puns for a moment and you see a person—one person, not two—growing older, testing her own limits, seeing if the image she’s projected of herself lo these many years is in fact the person she is growing into: a college graduate taught with great cliché to write what she knows while wondering (perhaps with an eye on the job market) if she knows anything at all.
If her business of choice didn’t turn out be as glamorous as it could’ve been, neither did her love life. The poet often addresses her partner; in “Second Person Omnipotent,” he’s likened to (or is) one of those odd Renaissance Faire aficionados:
Ever since you bought those pantaloons
it’s King Richard’s Feste this, Renaissance
Faire that. Can’t we stay home? I’m sick of
jousting. Any time you go to a spectacle,
you expect to be “slayed.” This willingness,
nay, desperateness to be impressed,
your notorious sense of wonder has long
been one of the world’s greatest blunders.
Playful, virulent. In “What Happens in Vegas,” we even learn that someone is “in serious recovery / from the breakup of the century.” But if relationships aren’t quite perfect, that’s okay. The book also offers what I’ll call a tongue-in-cheek Sex and the City aesthetic (I say this as a person who despises the show). Talking with girlfriends about relationships and sex is as good, if not better, than assorted attempts at meaningful, long-term relationships. Sadness is replaced with nostalgic sass:
                                …Misty looks bombed
& Crystal’s passed out in the unisex restroom.
A fitting name, really, since we’ve all had sex
in that funky little lovesexy wreck of a room.
Some people will hate this kind of talk, which is fine, but I think if they do, they misunderstand satire. This book catalogues the mutation—not destruction—of idealism. This is an important distinction. While I love Cate Marvin’s book Fragment of the Head of a Queen, I’ve always hated a rhetorical question issued as part of the “summary” on the back of the book: “What are we to do when experience hands our idealism back to us in pieces?” I think anyone who grows up thinking they’ll someday wear a sparkling gown and glass slippers probably deserves to get blindsided. The poet behind Voluptuousness treats disappointment with perspective, as though there are far greater evils in the world.
Which leads to the important point that the book’s formal bent and slangy girl-talk bent would be for naught if no for its fatalistic bent. The quotes I’ve presented so far should give you a good sense for the tone and play of Voluptuousness, but leave out an important element: the surety of death, of nothing, of how empty ambition can be, even as a war on death. “The Day After the Day After Tomorrow” is emblematic of how play (the poem’s title puns a movie title) can be counter-balanced by our most elemental fears:
                                    …I never asked to be a hero,
friends, but since when have we gotten what we want?
I know there was something I wanted to do before the end,
but I forgot. Tell mother I loved her. The sky is green.
And earlier, in “Lucid Villanelle,” we see this balance again: “& I’ll never die b/c this is a dream.” Yes, even people who say “LOL” and “b/c” will die someday. “Tritinal w/ DTHWSH” has a morbidity all its own:
A death wish is a normal wish
for the girl who’s done everything. I wish
I could fill the blanks of every if-then
scenario w/ surprise. But life, friends,
upends all wishes & dies—see you then.
The poets are in such accord that you forget it’s a collaboration; the poets are single cells on alternate sides of the brain; the poems are the point, not the process. “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” writes ironist Thom Yorke. You still have to pay the bills. In the final poem, our poet wraps up every loose end and resists her childish rebellion:
Tiny hearts all over my c.v. led me
to a lovely unemployment. I say:
Let the kids do what they’re gonna—
that’s the only way they’ll learn.
I miss it already, all the kissing
of my youth, the days of yore.
Forget what I’ve said before. This is
all I’ve got. There isn’t any more.
She indicts the authority figure; she’s also ready to make some concessions; it’s the stuff of growing up in America.

If Ford is right and collaborative poetry is “intellectual sport,” I think that most collaborative poetry is more like the Home Run Derby than it is a real game; all pomp and workout, little at stake (pardon the baseball reference; the MLB Home Run Derby just took place a few miles from my home). And Rooney and Gabbert have a good bit of fun. The poem titles, for example, are often funny (“Dark Days With the Dark Knight”), sometimes annoying (“Abercrombie Addresses Fitch”), and always enthusiastic (“Baby, Oh No!”)—yet I have hunch that each knows what it is doing. You might argue that the slang and references will soon be outmoded and irrelevant, that looking back, this book might look like little more than two pals goofing off with way too much free-association and forced rhyme. Fair enough. But a book that’s able to simultaneously accept and reject the Established Order of its own medium is not a common thing. - John Deming

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