Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Best-Smelling Cousin We've Got.
Elisa Gabbert explains what's wrong with "woman writer," and answers other questions, and I hope it's not some kind of latent anti-feminism that made me highlight the fact that she wears perfume in the title when I could also have highlighted what a freakin good poet she is.

COUSINS: I've followed a bit of the discussion on your blog recently about sexism. Do you identify yourself as a female writer first? Or simply a writer first and last? Or a female writer out of necessity? Were you to be asked to submit poems for an anthology of women writers, would you? Why or why not? Did you ever read that Candor discussion between Rachel Zucker and Sarah Manguso? Does what either says resonate with you? Would you be more Zucker or Manguso? Or someone/something else?

EG: Here’s how I feel about the phrase “woman writer.” I’m a woman, and I’m a writer; insofar as English syntax allows nouns to be used as modifiers, I’m a woman writer, by definition. I don’t know what else that phrase could mean. When someone denies that they’re a woman writer (while conceding that they are both a woman and a writer), it sounds like they are saying that a “woman writer” is inferior to a writer, which makes about as much sense to me as saying that a black dress is inferior to a dress, or an 18th century painting is inferior to a painting. “Woman,” like “black” or “18th century,” is just a factual description. I don’t see why adding a modifier to a noun, in this case, automatically creates an inferior category. When someone asks me if I’m a “woman writer” in a challenging way, as though it’s a category I could choose to be in or not, I find it very odd. What exactly does “woman writer” mean to everyone else? Why is it less than the sum of its parts?
So to answer the question of what I identify as first: It depends on the question. If someone asks what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer. If a form asks me to check M or F, I check F. I find this statement of Manguso’s a little hard to swallow: “In my mind my identity begins with Writer and Teacher; Woman is much further down the list.” So, if she woke up tomorrow and had lost her job(s), she would feel more alienated and stripped of her identity than if she woke up and discovered she was a man? I’ve been female longer than I’ve been a writer. I may say “I’m a writer” more often than I say “I’m a woman,” but that’s because the latter is generally so obvious.
I do identify with some of Manguso’s statements; like Manguso I am not a mother and don’t feel like an “egg-box.” I identify with this: “I am genuinely interested in the lives of mothers inasmuch as I am interested in the lives of people in general, but I’m separately fascinated by some mothers’ apparent conviction that nonmothers are shallow, that mothers suffer and feel more deeply than nonmothers.” However, I identify with Zucker in that I feel the fact of my body is inescapable. Whenever I leave my house, and often when I don’t, it is obvious that people are noticing my appearance: my gender, my race, my age, my build, how I’m dressed (a strong indicator of my economic status). I see no reason to pretend they don’t notice or that it doesn’t matter.
I wouldn’t object to being included in an anthology of women writers. For the most part, I think projects of that sort address an imbalance. More men are published than women in general poetry anthologies; more white writers are published than writers of color. I think anthologies of women writers or Hispanic writers or what have you are intended in the spirit of inclusion, not exclusion. I’d be suspicious of an anthology of men writers, or white writers, because the publishing market does not appear to disadvantage whites or men.

COUSINS: Something I love in your poems is how your lines undo themselves:

When the boredom hits, I hit the boredom like a glass door.

The man who pushed me pulls me up.

In "Ego of the Distance" (which is totally awesome): Sometimes the distance looks at me.

It reminds me of that John Ashbery line: So that meaning can begin and in doing so be undone. How important for you is meaning in poems? In your poems? In poems that you love by other writers? Do you love any poems because of what they mean?

EG: Primary importance. Complete importance. It seems to me that everything you can talk about in a poem (the language, the lines, the syntax, the “music,” etc.) adds up to its meaning.
I’m most interested in poems that foreground ideas, versus sound or meter or image or _____. (There are a lot of ways for poems to do that, without just dropping ideas in overtly, though I’m not against that as a rule.) Maybe to me the meaning in idea-based poetry is more … meaning-y? Has more meaningness?
That said, there are poems I love although, or because, I don’t understand them. I think I believe that trite cliché that you can’t paraphrase poetry. I was talking about this with some writers on Twitter recently. I think translation is necessary, but there is something in every text that can’t be translated. The poetry I’m most attracted to seems challenging to translate (see Cesar Vallejo). The meaning is so tied up in the specificity of the language and its arrangement; you can’t extract the meaning completely and port it over to another language and another syntax; those elements are part of the meaning.
COUSINS: Would you talk a little bit about why you called the series "Blog"? Do those poems follow a poetics of blogging? Or did you have something else in mind?
EG: I wrote the blogpoems one April for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month). I think initially I was sort of mocking the idea of speed-writing a poem to then post on your blog, but from the first day, the exercise of speed-writing a poem for a blog became very fertile and interesting territory. I liked working under those limitations. I wanted the poems to feel free and immediate, as you said, and I wanted them to fit neatly in the space of a blog post, to be sort of easily digestible, since people read blogs differently than they read poems on paper. And, since I had to write one every day, I considered anything and everything as fair game for material. I couldn’t only write about the big stuff or the beautiful stuff; there was no way I’d write 30 big, “important” poems in one month. So I often started with an insignificant or silly idea and tried to push it until it became an interesting poem. It was like an intellectual challenge, to make a poem out of anything, without it all feeling like an empty gimmick.
COUSINS: Tennis. It's the sport of poets, right?

EG: Do you think so? I don’t know why I have an affinity for racket sports. I like racquetball and ping pong too. I think I like how much of the skill is in the return. I could never beat my brother at ping pong; he just has a stronger shot. But I have a really good return. It’s rare that I can force him to make an error, but I can win points by consistently hanging in until he screws up of his own accord.
If the writer-reader dynamic is anything like a game of tennis, I hope I’m my brother in this analogy.
COUSINS: In the AWP magazine this month, there's an interview with Marie Howe, and she's talking about jobs for writers... "How do you find a job that doesn't drain the essential energies that you bring to participate in the creative act? ... How do you nourish those energies and live in life?" Could I pass these questions on to you?
EG: It’s a difficult balance to achieve … I work as a writer, so in some sense, my job does drain those energies. After reading and writing all day, I don’t always want to deal with more words when I get home, or sit in front of a computer. At the same time, it’s kind of amazing to get paid for something I actually like doing, and it’s surprising how endlessly renewing the need/desire to write is.
I admire writers that don’t work as writers or teachers of writing. I think it’s good to leave the insulated bubble of the writing world from time to time. It enriches your writing and, you know, your life. I often think back fondly to college when my social group was a lot more diverse in almost every way. Sometimes, hanging around writers all the time, I feel like we’re not learning anything from each other. (Assignment!: Talk to a physicist or an architect or a doctor this week. They’ve read just as much as you, but totally different words.)
Wow, that wasn’t what you asked at all, was it? I guess my point is, one can be a writer and not focus on writing all the time. I used to work as a copyeditor, and while the job wasn’t wildly fulfilling, it did free up my creative energy to direct completely toward writing. There are rare individuals with boundless energy, but for others, it often comes down to a choice between dream job and dream writing-life. I think I’ve settled on a compromise between the dreams.
COUSINS: Would you name 2-3 of your literary cousins, dead and alive?
EG: My first cousins are my alive-and-well “community,” poets I feel really close to on both a personal and artistic level. I’ve got a bunch of these. Chris Tonelli, Kathleen Rooney, Sam Starkweather, and Heather Green, to name just a few. Second and third living cousins would be poets I don’t know personally, or only know a little, but feel some kinship with artistically. I wrote a blog post once about the Netflix algorithm and said I thought people who liked Heather Christle’s poetry would like mine too. Who else would I put in that category? Maybe Matthew Rohrer.
Among the dead, I feel an especial kinship with Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, and Frank O’Hara.
Anne Carson and Mary Jo Bang would be a cool as honorary aunts.
COUSINS: And, to complicate that question, since you are a perfume aficionado, if these idols were perfumes, which scents would they be?
EG: That is a tough question. I’ll just do a few. Anne Carson would be something very intellectual, classical, and androgynous, like Mitsouko or Cuir de Lancome … John Berryman would need a reckless scent, dangerous but with a sense of humor. Kouros, perhaps? My friend Kathy would be a smart, snappy feminine like Lolita Lempicka.