Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The French Exit - An Interview with Elisa Gabbert
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.
The French Exit is available from BirdsLLC