Elisa Gabbert lives and writes in Denver, CO. Recently, Black Ocean released her second book, The Self Unstable; Birds LLC published her first book, The French Exit, four years ago. She is an avid blogger, tweeter (Is that a word? IDFK.), and contributor to Open Letters Monthly.
Although The Self Unstable was published mere weeks ago, it’s already garnered much critical praise. The New Yorker listed the collection as one of their Best Book of 2013, calling it one of “the most intelligent and most intriguing” releases of the calendar year. Likewise, it has appeared on various “Year’s Best” lists at The Poetry Foundation, HTMLGiant, and elsewhere.
Last week, Gabbert agreed to answer some questions for me–via email–about her new book.
The marketing copy for your second book, The Self Unstable, calls the writing in this collection “lyric essays.” I hoped you could address the concept of genre designation: what makes the texts in The Self Unstable “lyric essays,” as opposed to prose poems, or just plain-old “poems” for that matter? To your mind, what is the purpose of genre designations? What benefits and disadvantages does labeling a piece of writing in this manner provide for both the writer and the reader? Does categorizing The Self Unstable as a collection of “lyric essays” demand that the audience approach the book differently? How so?
I think in the case of The Self Unstable the genre distinction is almost arbitrary. You could call them prose poems or just poems if you wanted to and I wouldn’t say you were wrong, but I do think it’s pretty clearly a hybrid text. In some ways the pieces are like essays and in some ways they’re like poems. They touch on other genres too – Zen koans, aphorism, etc. So I guess you could say the genre is unstable.
From the outset, Black Ocean was interested in marketing the book as prose, and there are a couple of reasons that I agreed to that. One, Bluets by Maggie Nelson is one of the books that inspired me to write a book like this, and Wave calls Bluets lyric essay even though they’re primarily a poetry press. Two, I was interested to see if the prose designation would widen the readership and/or, as you say, change the way people read it. I think it’s too early to say if it has or will.
Regardless of where it’s shelved at the library, I expect some readers to say, “What the hell, these aren’t essays” or “What the hell, these aren’t poems.” My hope is that readers either don’t worry about that too much, or are interested in engaging with how the form “subverts” or “interrogates” the idea of the lyric poem or the idea of the lyric essay. I hope it works on both levels.
I’m glad you mention “Zen koans” in your previous answer because your book concludes with a prose block that states: “Koans are used to provoke ‘the great doubt’” (83). The internet tells me that a koan derives from the practice of Zen Buddhism and is “a brief paradoxical statement or question used a discipline in meditation.” It would appear that the writing in The Self Unstable embodies or appropriates these characteristics. Could you tell me a bit about how you originally encountered this form; likewise, what compelled you to employ it in your own writing? How did the use of it alter your writing or challenge you to re-conceive the manner in which you compose and/or think? In your own words, what is “the great doubt” of our contemporary era?
My college boyfriend used to have a book of Zen koans, which he found more amusing than profound I think, and it was our bathroom reading for a while. I am not a Buddhist, and I went many years without thinking of koans at all, but as I was working on the pieces in this book, I found I wanted them to function as koans, meaning that they are designed to provoke contemplation, not to be taken as absolute truths in themselves. And further I found (this is probably weird) that I wanted to structure the book so that it would make good bathroom reading. In other words, I wanted it to be the kind of book that you can pick up, open at random, and read a few pages, then go back to whatever you were doing. You don’t have to read them in order, and they’re easily re-readable. Like a book to be read in interludes, a little lite pseudo-philosophy. (All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy.)
That line you quote is, if I remember correctly, lifted verbatim from the Wikipedia page on koans, which of course may be different now. I have no idea what “the great doubt” is in Buddhist terms but what a great fucking phrase. For me, “the great doubt” is what happens when you suddenly stop playing the game – all the little rules we need to follow to exist in society, all the logistical distractions of contemporary life – and say, “Wait … WHAT IS THE POINT of all this?” Why anyone would want to encourage more confrontations with the absurd, I don’t know, but I suppose that’s what I’m doing here. Or if not provoking those moments, at least thinking about them.
You open The Self Unstable with the question: “What is the self?” Then, you offer a concept of the self that aligns itself with constructivist thought: “You wanted a life of cause, but it was all effects”; moments later, you forward a proposition that promotes essentialism: “Luck is a skill, as is beauty, intelligence–all things you’re born with” (3). As both a person and a writer, how do you negotiate these ideas of the self that appear to be in opposition to one another? What are your expectations—or, at least, desires—for a reader when they encounter such a paradox in your writing?
I remember reading recently that cognitive dissonance is overstated as a phenomenon, that people can hold all kinds of contradictory beliefs and experience no dissonance whatsoever. Certainly I think it’s almost impossible, if not completely impossible, to have a coherent experience of the self, considering that you have to use your selfhood to form that concept – it’s like trying to look at your own eye or taste your own tongue. Here’s another analogy – you know when people take a bunch of different photos of the Eiffel Tower from different angles and then use it to build a collage that depicts the whole tower, because when you’re close to the tower, you can’t get it all in one frame? A book about the self is similar, in that you can’t get a complete picture of it in one view or from one angle. I think that’s part of why it makes sense to label The Self Unstable as an essay – which of course etymologically means “attempt.” This is an attempt to get a grasp on the ungraspable. And I suppose I assume readers will be intimately familiar with the paradox because they are selves themselves.
In the opening prose block of the “Transcending the Body” section of The Self Unstable, you write: “Transcending the body sounds a little ’80s to me, not to mention flaky and paranormal. Even avatars have gender” (19). The statement got me thinking about a recent post at Harriet by the poet Tyrone Williams that’s subtitled “Posthumanism and Poetry.” He begins his article by referencing N. Katherine Hayles’ concept of the posthuman, which is “the disappearance of the liberal humanist subject to the distribution of human desire and will through digital technology.” As poet who tweets and blogs frequently (i.e. uses “digital technology”), how has your online presence/persona altered or informed the ways in which you approach the concepts of self and subjectivity, as well as the “poet” moniker?
I used to think a lot about post-humanism. For years I truly believed that within our lifetimes we’d hit the so-called “singularity” and become immortal via digitization. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not that I don’t think it’s theoretically possible to upload the self (in fact I think it’s possible that we’re all already living in some kind of digital simulation); it’s that I’m less confident we’ll get there before we all blow each other up or die off in some kind of mass plague.
But getting to your question: I think it’s interesting that having an online presence (in my case, on my blog and Twitter in particular) creates an automatic archive of both your experience and your own description of that experience. And what’s continually surprising to me, when I dig back through that archive and re-read things I’ve written in the past, is how consistent it feels. So either my true self is more consistent from the outside than it feels from the inside, or the online persona I’ve unknowingly crafted through language is very consistent. So I’ll read something that I wrote four years ago and be struck that I could have easily said the same thing yesterday. Another early line in the book: “The self regenerates every five or six days.” This is a reference to cell regeneration, the idea that after some amount of time your body literally does not consist of any of the same cells that it used to, but somehow your selfhood persists. For me, my digital traces are a very concrete illustration of that persistence, much more so than, say, photographs, because my body seems to change more over the years than my personality.
The notion that The Self Unstable is a “collage” pieced together by different perspectives and “angles” reminds me a bit of Benjamin and Adorno’s concept of the “constellation.” But it seems as though statements such as “All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy” and “Whatever you do, don’t start thinking about thinking” (10) express a certain antagonism toward—or at least skepticism about—philosophy. Given that large portions of The Self Unstable obliquely (or directly, depending on your viewpoint) engage ontology, epistemology, and phenomenology, I hoped you could a speak to what seems to be your (or your book’s) conflicted relationship with/to that discourse.
It’s not true antagonism – I actually love philosophy and think poetry and philosophy are deeply entwined. In fact I’ve blogged about how philosophical poets tend to be my favorite poets. When I say something like “All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy” or “All philosophers are armchair philosophers” I mean that you don’t really need accreditation to be a philosopher. It’s like being a poet in that way, all you have to do to qualify is sit down and write some poetry. And a lot of philosophy turns out to be bullshit, but for that matter, most “science” historically has turned out to be bullshit. It’s still interesting, in that philosophy shows you the history of thinking. I’d love to be placed in a continuum with Benjamin and Adorno as opposed to, say, Stevens and Berryman. Why not?
Returning to one of your previous answers, I like that you think of The Self Unstable as a possible bathroom read, as I’m a strident advocate of them, generally speaking. Of course, my bathroom reads tend to be “Collected” poetry books; this way I can engage with a specific poet every day over the course of 6-8 months. What are some of your favorite and/or current bathroom reads? Why?
We subscribe to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and Harper’s, and those tend to end up in the bathroom, but I don’t spend enough time in there to really get into long articles like that. For me a poem is about the right size for a bathroom session, so I throw literary journals in there, in particular contributor’s copies, because otherwise I never seem to get around to reading them. Currently you’d find issues of Crazyhorse and Denver Quarterly in among the other periodicals. I also sometimes use this space to peruse catalogues, like Dean and Deluca, and that can be pleasantly meditative.
Speaking of continuum, how do you think The Self Unstable engages, speaks, or reacts to your first collection The French Exit; likewise, how does it relate to whatever you’re writing nowadays? This second part of the question, obviously, begs the question: what are you currently working on?
I think writers tend to have a few subjects they obsess over, and my big subjects are present in both The French Exit and The Self Unstable – stuff like time and memory and meaning and death. But the form/approach is very different in The Self Unstable; aside from the fact that it’s organized into untitled prose blocks, versus titled, lineated verse poems, it’s also more idea-driven, whereas The French Exit is, I think, basically driven by emotion. That change is probably a result of the way my life has changed since I wrote the poems in my first book; I spend more of my waking hours working (at my day job) so I need to impose more structure in order to get meaningful amounts of creative writing done. When I was younger I was more naturally prolific, but now it helps me to contribute slowly and in small chunks to a longer “project.” Also, my life (ironically) got more stable so I think the move to more contemplative reflection is a result of having fewer spikes of intense emotion.
All that said I’m back to writing in lineated verse. I recently acted in a production of The Designated Mourner, a play by Wallace Shawn, and I’m currently writing a series of poems in the voice of Judy, the character I portrayed. It’s really too early to say how they relate to the other books but I’m sure my usual obsessions will find their way in, despite the filter of the character.