Elisa Gabbert is a poet, editor, and collaborator extraordinaire. From “Smoking Villanelle,” written with Kathleen Rooney:
The situation was not without charm
but I’d never, ever do it again.
There must be a better way to stay warm
than running a lighter up & down my arm,
which is dry as a bone & matchstick thin.
One situation that’s not without charm
is a ritual bonfire—there’s not any harm
in a little pagan frenzy now & then.
12th Street: I love your collaborations with Kathleen Rooney. Whenever I come across your two names in a contributors list I rush to that poem. How did you find each other? Can you tell us about the process of making a poem together? Who gets to title it?
Elisa Gabbert: Thank you! Kathy and I met in grad school (at Emerson in Boston). We always had similar sensibilities; we’d often jinx each other by making the same joke at the same time. The winter after we graduated, and shortly after I read Nice Hat. Thanks. (by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer), I visited Kathy and her lovely husband Martin in Provincetown and suggested we try collaborating. We’ve been at it ever since, over two years now. It all happens over email: we’re both in front of computers a lot, so we write almost every day. Generally we go line by line, but we’ve tried many different forms and methods, e.g. writing from the bottom up or the inside out; leaving blanks in lines, Mad Libs style, for the other to fill in, etc. Whoever comes up with the best title first wins. When we’re stumped, Martin and/or my BF John (both tip-top writers) are often helpful in the title department.
12th Street: You’re one of the editors of Absent, an online literary magazine, and you have also worked with/at Ploughshares. What does this trend towards online publishing mean for print mags? What are the perks and pains of working for each?
EG: “In this day and age” I think it’s really important for print mags to have a strong online presence. Ploughshares has a very extensive website with archives going way back, an online submission system, and so on, but if a magazine can’t manage all that, the staff should at the very least present up-to-date info on the latest issue and submission guidelines. I think submissions are definitely heading in the online direction, which I applaud. I see no reason to waste all that paper, worry about stuff getting lost in the mail, submitters forgetting their SASE and so on. Embrace the web or be left behind. That said, print isn’t dead yet; print mags still offer things that online mags can’t. There’s a satisfaction to having something to hold and own and blah blah. Plus, for those who give a shit, and they number many, print publications are still more prestigious.
Along similar lines, I think online journals work best when they take full advantage of the online medium and offer things that print can’t. Take the format of No Tell Motel, with a new poem going up every weekday. That delivery model couldn’t happen in print; online journals can operate outside the “issue” model.
One of the benefits of reading for Absent over Ploughshares is that it’s relatively new and unknown, so there are far fewer submissions. Ploughshares is completely overwhelmed with submissions; not only is it difficult for our staff to keep up, but we have to pass on wonderful work all the time (not to mention slog through boatloads of less-than-wonderful work).
The disadvantage with Absent is more personal responsibility—fewer higher-ups to blame if things go wrong or quality is not high. Nothing is on auto-pilot at this stage. Our latest issue has been delayed by many problems, including editorial changes. It’s also tough to find a great web designer who will work for free. We have one, but he also teaches and has personal projects—we’re all busy and scattered across time zones.
12th Street: I think it’s safe to say we both like bringing pop culture into our poetry. Do you think it’s possible to go too far? Is there some subject, some term, some Internet acronym, anything, that really doesn’t belong in poetry?
EG: Nothing doesn’t belong in poetry. Poetry is a manifestation of thought, and anything we think about can go in a poem. Is it possible to go too far? Well, it’s possible to fail. One can fail in many ways. But sometimes the way to avoid failure is to go farther.
I like pop culture and lingo and brands in poems because they serve as a time stamp, like old photos sometimes have. I like when poems date themselves. Only we know what it’s like to live now.
Kathy and I do save most of our OMGBBQ’s for our collaborations vs. our solo work. We allow ourselves more freedom (and stupidity) there.
12th Street: What are you reading?
EG: I recently finished Hit Wave by Jon Leon, Poker by Tomaz Salamun, National Anthem by Kevin Prufer, and, in non-poetry, In Defense of Food and How Fiction Works. I especially recommend Hit Wave—it’s unlike any poetry I’ve read.
12th Street: What are you currently working on?
EG: Kathy and I are writing a lot, per usual—original stuff as well as translations of the French poet Max Jacob. As for solo work, I’ve been polishing a full-length manuscript and sending it out a little and obsessing about it. It’s a first-book kind of manuscript, not a concept book, so it’s hard to know which poems to include and leave out, how to determine order and so on. Also trying to figure out what to do next. I’ve been in kind of a writing lull and feeling restless in general and could really use some new project or source of inspiration … I want a ping-pong table. Maybe I’ll get depressed—that’s always good for poems. I’m also working on my running stamina, my tomato sauce, and my fall wardrobe.