A Conversation With Elisa Gabbert About “Normal Distance”  – Chicago Review of Books


Mostly written during the last several years, the poems in Normal Distance, Elisa Gabbert’s highly-anticipated new collection, speak to the disjunctive nature of our times. Yet the juxtaposition of the philosophical and quotidian, often playfully rendered, belies the dexterity involved in crafting these striking poems. Also a well-regarded critic and essayist, Gabbert’s charming, inquisitive mind is on display in all her work, and these poems often sparked a kind of mental hyperlinking, sending one down personal rabbit holes of impressions and memories. 

There is a distinct “riffiness” to these pieces, indicative of the sonic aspects of the lines—a kind of syncopation of recitation—and the recurrences of certain words and themes in different contexts underscores both the physical nature of language and how meaning can shift so easily in different contexts. This heightens the open-endedness of the work, untethers it from a specific space and time, and makes the collection eminently re-readable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“If you order hot tea in a restaurant, I automatically think you’re not very fun.”

Mandana Chaffa

So, let me start off by admitting: I have been known to order hot tea in a restaurant. I hope this isn’t a bad omen.

Elisa Gabbert

Not at all, but tip your server! 

Mandana Chaffa

After reading Normal Distance several times, I’m hard-pressed not to just talk about each poem at length, the inside baseball of the craft, and it’s a credit to the collection that it offers both the familiarity and intimacy of that kind of ongoing conversation. How and when did it come about? Did individual poems start to suggest a collection, or did you start with a theme or overarching contemplation?

Elisa Gabbert

I started writing these poems as performance pieces. I’d written a sad little book called L’Heure Bleue, and what usually happens with a book of poems is that by the time it’s published and I’m doing readings to promote it, I’m thoroughly sick of all the poems. That book also wasn’t as funny as my previous book, and it can be a little uncomfortable to read in front of a quiet room. So I wrote some funnier pieces to break up the mood. I wasn’t necessarily intending to try to publish them, at first—they were just these lists of thematically connected one-liners, and I wouldn’t even read them the same way each time. I would skip around and riff a little bit. But eventually someone asked me if I had any poems they could consider for publication, so I started polishing them up so they work on the page. Once I’d formalized a few of them, I realized I could write a book that way. The poems in the book are much more shaped and intentional than what I started with, but I tried to retain a sense of “riffiness” through revision—I kind of want the lines to have a feeling like, “This just occurred to me, just now.”

Mandana Chaffa

In your terrific collection of essays, The Word Pretty, you wrote: “when I was seven or eight, I confessed to my mother that I couldn’t stop narrating my life back to myself; I thought it meant I was crazy. No, she said, it means you’re a writer…that layer of language, like running commentary between my direct experience and the external record of it.” That narration is threaded through these poems, though one understands that the “I” is not entirely you. Would you talk about your use of first person in these poems, how narration works for you as a poet versus with your essays?

Elisa Gabbert

Some people claim that humans think in language. There’s even a theory that part of the reason we don’t form many memories before we’re five or six is because we can’t read yet, we’re not adept enough with language, so we can’t narrate our memories back to ourselves and encode them that way. I don’t think I always think in language, though. My thoughts are often more abstract than that. But when my thoughts do arrive in language, I always want to write them down or get them out somehow. If there’s someone in the room I can say them out loud, but if not, I’ll want to write them in a notebook or put them on Twitter (my public notebook) or otherwise make the language external. 

A poem often starts with some little bit of language, a sudden thought that I have to get out of my mind and do something with. There’s a lot of freedom in the space of the poem to do almost anything with that thought. My essays don’t really begin the same way, they tend to begin with an interest, an obsession, some vaguer, unfinished idea. And I arrive at the language of the essay more slowly over time. In both forms, I tend to be there—I the writer, as a presence, a character—but the I in my essays is closer to the “real” me. In a poem, I the character can make assertions that I the writer don’t necessarily believe.

“All my imagined futures have turned into memories.

Today, there’s more past than yesterday. But is there any less future?”

Mandana Chaffa

You excavate themes that are universally resonant in our times, especially your multi-lensed investigation of temporality. The epigraph from Louise Glück’s “Landscape” is a telling introduction: “I lived in the present, which was that part of the future you could see.” Living in the present though, with our rabbit brains running through fields and into holes, isn’t easy. How does poetry serve that aim (or does it)? As a student of linguistics, how do you feel language clarifies or obscures our (limited) human perspectives?

Elisa Gabbert

I like that poetry demands slow reading and deeply focused attention, and that despite your intense focus, you can’t ever fully “understand” the poem. The meaning of a poem, a good poem anyway, is always partially elusive, like an object too big to see all at once. It’s like how they say you don’t really have to maintain perfect thoughtlessness or mindfulness or serenity to get benefits from meditation; just sitting there, even if you’re frustrated the whole time, changes your mind in some way that has effects when you’re no longer meditating. Poems are like that, they are a little bit frustrating, if your desire is to understand them completely. It’s good to be a little unsatisfied that way. It’s like flirting! Flirting is probably good for marriage, and not understanding poems makes you smarter. 

“As I get older, I feel less confident, because less self-deceiving.

I sometimes have the feeling that everything in the future is inevitable, yet I have to experience the events as if they weren’t.”

Mandana Chaffa

As a woman of a certain age—I use this nonsensical descriptive, knowing that we’re all of a certain age, which is entirely uncertain as it shifts eternally—I felt deeply how these poems speak to our fragmented yet hyper-connected times. From the first poem, it’s clear that the confidence of the collection is partially from that vantage point, perhaps one that provides one as much past as future. 

Elisa Gabbert

I was writing these poems during the Trump years, as I turned forty, and through the first year of the pandemic […] they were definitely a way of processing fear and uncertainty, life and death anxiety, a heightened awareness of the suffering all around me and the suffering to come. It’s not that I haven’t tried to process those things through my prose as well, but poetry is sometimes a more useful method. It’s more indirect. Like dreaming, or prayer.

Mandana Chaffa

No surprise to anyone, I’m thrilled to see more poetry criticism in mainstream publications, and you’re such a strong supporter of the genre. How much does exercising that muscle inform your own poetic work, and vice versa? Do you find that working in one genre—essays, let’s say—precludes writing poems?

Elisa Gabbert

I don’t think I’m using my critic brain when I’m writing a poem. There’s something more intuitive or even unconscious driving much of the decision making. But I do try to bring that intuitive energy, that trust in gaps and unknowing, to my essays as well. In prose there is more of a temptation to explain every step of your thinking, but I think readers want a little room to move around in a text, to make their own connections and not be spoken to like children. 

Mandana Chaffa

In The New York Times you wrote: “Each time I return to it [poetry], I’ve read a lot of other poems in the interim, which change and expand my reading. But I’ve also done more living, so I understand more about suffering myself. Pain is a kind of wisdom, maybe. As I age, I’m making the poem better.” Having written as many books as you have, how does that blank page appear to you now? How has your relationship with writing—and writing about writing—continued to shift and evolve? 

Elisa Gabbert

That quote was actually about reading poetry, but nonetheless—I find I enjoy writing about writing more and more. I just love reading and writing so much, they are really the great experiences of my life, so reading about reading and writing about writing (or reading about writing and writing about reading) are extra joyous. I never worry that I’m going to run out of things to write about, because I can always read more books. 

“It’s almost like there should be different words for “boring because simple” and “boring because complex.” 

“Boring because complex” isn’t actually boring, it can just be mistaken for boring, the way a hangover can be mistaken for guilt.

[…]

You could also call “boring because complex” interesting-boring (boring in an interesting way) or slow-interesting (interesting, but at a pace that sometimes resembles boredom).

All good poetry is slow-interesting.”

See Also


Mandana Chaffa 

Boredom is one of the repetitive themes in this collection, and in life, too, certainly. I was thinking about what boredom means to us now compared to my childhood in the Stone Age, and what it is to sit with that feeling, with ourselves. Is boredom that present moment evoked in the collection’s epigraph? Do we get bored because we can’t be in the moment without being drawn to past or future?

Elisa Gabbert

I’ve been talking about this a lot recently—I think I don’t get bored anymore. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic or turning forty, because they happened around the same time, but in the past few years I haven’t really been bored in any kind of extended way. I might be bored by a book or a movie or Instagram or whatever, but when I am, I just stop looking at it. It’s such an easy problem to solve. I can’t remember the last time I felt bored the way I used to feel bored as a kid, or in my twenties, when I felt trapped somewhere. I think I’m so aware now of how short my life is, and I’m so busy all the time with work and other life obligations, that any interlude I might feel boredom during just becomes an opportunity to think my thoughts, a chance to process all this life.

“Distance is a kind of time, which means distance is also a kind of money.”

Mandana Chaffa

Temporality is another thing you explore to great effect, and unsurprisingly, these poems feel essentially timeless, or perhaps firmly in the present moment. They often read like contemporary koans; I know you studied cognitive science along with linguistics, but how does philosophy, formal or otherwise, enter into your work?

Elisa Gabbert

Poetry and philosophy are tightly intertwined for me. They’re both ways of thinking through the great questions—great questions being those questions that can never be answered, only asked again and again. And I love philosophers in their more off-the-cuff moments, in essays or interviews that are more conversational and less rigorous than published papers—or someone like Cioran in his aphoristic mode. A great philosophical aphorism in isolation is indistinguishable from poetry. 

Mandana Chaffa

So, I can’t resist. Let’s talk inside baseball. I love your syntactical approach to this collection, Elisa. You often serve up assertively punctuated lines—a veritable garden that embraces both structure, and a compelling openness. Reading these poems aloud, the question marks, the commas, alter breath and voice, and in combination with the brevity of some of the statements, provide a forward momentum that’s exciting. 

Elisa Gabbert

When I’m punctuating my writing I’m often trying to match the look on the page to the sound in my head—almost like a musical score for reading. So a comma may be there to indicate an important pause, or I may leave out commas that a copyeditor would want to insert because I want the clauses to tumble out without any pauses. Or I may use a semicolon to indicate a more intimate connection between two sentences, like a door between hotel rooms. Perhaps not every reader pays attention to those tiny distinctions, but they matter to me both as a writer and as a reader. 

Mandana Chaffa

Couple this with stanzas that are often just a sentence long, thoughtfully connected to each other—and cunningly accretive to other poems. These connections and the sense of conversation—or perhaps the intimacy of internal dialogue—belies the careful thought you’ve clearly put into its assemblage. Would you talk about that as well, as well as how you balance all of these aspects that embody what a poem is, and does?

Elisa Gabbert

I love a strong voice in writing, when it feels like the writer, through the writing, is a real person trying to communicate. And I’m better at writing than talking, so part of what I love about writing is creating an effect that feels talky and personal and yet is also perfected, pristine, in a way my speech never is, and semi-permanent, and therefore the effect is repeatable and reproducible. I think poems as a whole are hard to hold in your head, but there’s an overall effect, and usually a line or two especially, that you can carry away like a talisman. 


POETRY
Normal Distance
By Elisa Gabbert
Soft Skull
Published September 13, 2022



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