Elisa Gabbert is a poet and essayist whose most recent book, The Self Unstable (Black Ocean), is a vibrant humming meditation on how we make our selves out of stories, data, and suggestion. Gabbert works in the tradition of the selfie, if we can agree that the tradition extends back beyond Dürer (we can). Her gaze is steady into a mirror that isn't convex so much as simply vexed by what it's looking at. As Teju Cole said, The Self Unstable has "thoughts worth stealing on just about every page." We emailed back and forth over the course of a few weeks, interrupted briefly by the Great Atlanta Two-Inch Snow Disaster of 2014. She writes frequently at The French Exit, and she seems to (joyously!) always be on Twitter at @egabbert.
Do you want to be loved or misunderstood?
"The more you love someone, the less you like them." We are gruesome up close. Still, I pick love. (Also, false dichotomy. I want to be misunderstood by posterity.)
And clearly no one would rather be liked than loved, right? Or would you rather be liked now, at a distance, and loved later, in gruesome proximity?
I'd say it's a plus-minus calculation you make with individual people. You can get certain individuals to love you more but at the expense of how much they like you. You have to make optimizations. Liking doesn't always lead to love, of course. Some players just exit the game.
Does this work for readers too? I'm asking because The Self Unstable feels both very contemporary (like-y), and working within a long tradition of existential examination (love-y), which is a delicate trick to pull off.
I think it works in the sense that readers tend to "crush" on writers initially, but intense examination of the work alters that relationship. My husband wrote his master's thesis on Anthony Burgess and by the end of it he didn't respect Burgess less, but he certainly liked him less. This may be why I'm not much of a completist as a reader; I tend to try save a lot of work by my favorite writers unread, maybe so I can get to it on my desert island/death bed.
(snow storm interlude)
Well, that was crazy. ANYWAYS, you might take the homeopathic approach to great writers because you're, you know, busy. You work outside of academia as a content marketing manager (right?), and a lot of the language in this book seems to begin in an industry seminar and then swerve into Francis Ponge. Do you consciously look for the poetic in this new everyday, or are you just soaking in it so much that it's become second nature?
I wasn't sure how to answer this, which I guess suggests that it's largely an unconscious, soaking-in-it situation. The form of the book, at least, was a conscious decision: When I started doing copywriting in the corporate world, I found it very difficult to transition (in my "free time") back to writing in lines, so I found a way to make the kind of thoughts that I usually turn into poems into prose instead.
Do you think that's part of the reason why Black Ocean, your publisher, has gone out of its way to describe this as a book of essays? It meets all the the criteria, such as there is, for prose poetry, but that's not what you're calling it. Shorter: How are these essays?
I think "prose poetry" as a category has a much looser definition than "poetry" or "essay," but the book is actually qualified as lyric essay, not "essays"; I think the book is just as much one long lyric essay or, if you prefer, a series of "micro-essays," as it is "prose poems." But who cares? Definitively, they're in prose. After that it's a judgment call. They're a little poetic to be essays but they're a little essayistic to be poems. I really don't care what you call them as long as people find them interesting, provocative, etc.
I found myself reading it as one essay, or really as a series of related pensées exploring the boundaries of self and other. Does it feel to you like we're in a particularly rich time to explore how we make identities, how we decide these boundaries?
I'm reluctant to make claims that imply we've reached some kind of pinnacle of human insight or understanding, like "progress" has made us more self-aware or introspective than our forebears. But possibly yes; possibly advances have highlighted how many of our experiences are constructed illusions. (Continuity of the self, continuity of time.) But if so, maybe to our detriment. I don't think we're "designed" to process all the information we have access to. It's why I don't like reading the news. What am I supposed to do with all this suffering?
Transform it into art to distort its effect?
I suppose that's what we do. They just keep cranking out more news though.
I'm probably the last person that could be accused of having anything like "pluck," but there are things besides art one can do to work against the tide of shitty news, right?
Are you suggesting I become a hero?
What makes an essay "lyric"?
The farther it veers away from prototypical ("five-paragraph," "inverted pyramid") essays, the more "lyric" it is. In terms of poetry "lyric" just means that you're expressing emotions, but I don't think that's enough to qualify an essay as "lyric." In my mind it's more that formally, in its gestures, it resembles poetry -- more associative leaps, less linear structure.
I find that for a lot of people one of the hardest things about lyrics, essays or otherwise, is that they leave so much up to their readers -- either readers "get" them or they don't. And if you don't get it, if the associative leaps don't conjure anything in your mind, then whose fault is it?
Both parties are at fault most of the time -- readers can be very lazy but then writers can be too. In general, though, it takes longer to write a poem or an essay than it does to read it, so I think readers should be generous and give the writer the benefit of the doubt. With some writers, the leaps themselves are pleasurable, even if they feel somewhat arbitrary. I'm thinking of extreme parataxis as in My Life by Lyn Hejinian or Ron Silliman's poetry. But you can't force people who don't "get" that stuff to like it. I don't particularly enjoy jazz.
In Mary Ruefle's "Lectures I Will Never Give," she says, "My gender (female) has had absolutely no influence on my writing; it has had an enormous influence on my life. In my writing I think of myself as a poet, that is, in my writing my gender is poet, while in my life I think of myself as a woman, I have lived my life as a woman, a woman's life. In my writing, gender becomes genre." Does gender become genre in your writing, or is it something else?
First, let me say that I really love that book of essays. I also find the idea of gender as genre intriguing. However, she loses me here: "My gender (female) has had absolutely no influence on my writing; it has had an enormous influence on my life." How could something affect your life and not your writing? Your writing is part of your life; it's not a space outside life. Being a woman affects my life and my writing as much as all my other salient demographic data: I'm a human, I'm white, I'm American, I'm educated, I was born at this point in history, etc. Along similar lines, I never understand when people try to cut off discussions or analysis or critique around writing and culture with remarks like "Come on guys, let's get back to the real work," where "real work" is the writing. But writing comes out of life; you can't write anything interesting in an isolation tank. Experience, thought, talk all feed into the work and are thus part of the work. You can't extricate writing from life.