Elisa Gabbert is the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010) and The Self Unstable (forthcoming from Black Ocean in 2013). Her poems, prose, and collaborations have recently appeared in journals including Another Chicago Magazine, Conduit, Court Green, Notre Dame Review, Salt Hill, and Sentence. She blogs at http://thefrenchexit.blogspot.com.
Her poem "After the Piano" appears in Issue Forty of The Collagist.
Here, Elisa Gabbert speaks with interviewer Melissa Goodrich about pianos, what Chuck Norris has to say, lineation, and vacancy.
1. How did you begin writing “After the Piano”?
I can’t remember exactly what my point of entry was. I know that I started writing it in my head at a Perfume Genius show on Broadway in Denver. That’s the setting for the poem, insofar as it has a setting outside my head. At the time, I was thinking a lot about the minute differences in circumstance that can produce happiness one day and existential despair the next. I do really have a friend named Tina (the poet Tina Brown Celona) and she really did tell me that things change. I suppose I started writing the poem from the beginning, but bits and pieces of the lines had been gestating for a couple of weeks I think – I am obsessed with paraphrasing “You must change your life” – and the “hanging suspended”/“like a blade” metaphor is actually lifted from a poem I wrote many years ago, a persona poem told from the perspective of a rapist.
2. How do you hope your line/stanza breaks are working? In lines like “my brother loves me//but he doesn’t miss me,” for instance, do you intend for the stanza break to be a cliff, a waiting period, delusion, silence, a reckoning?
I always try to think more about lines as lines, as units, rather than focusing on the “breaks,” which makes it seem like the end of the line has some monopoly on poetic meaning. That said, I think the element of surprise, to quote Chuck Norris, can and often should play a part in the structure of a lineated poem. A line break can force you to linger a little longer on a word or phrase, slowing down the anticipatory reading we do when reading prose. If it’s too much of a cliff-hanger or bait-and-switch, it can get gimmicky; you want the break to cause some semantic blooming, some expanded resonance, but not to feel all, “See what I did there?” In any case, when lines work, it doesn’t seem like someone labored over the breaks; it feels like the lines reveal a pattern of thought, the rhythm of the thoughts. (Also, I kind of like the idea of a break as a moment of silence, like each line ending is a little death.)
3. What role does absence play in your poetry, in your titles? A whole piano seems removed from the room in this piece, grooves in the carpet, chord held and diminishing : “hanging suspended on the chord//like a blade,” before the piece even begins. Does absence play a different kind of white-space-role for you? How do you hope your readers grapple with vacancy?
“A whole piano seems removed” is a beautiful way to think about writing. Mention a piano in a poem and the reader is forced to confront the absence of piano! I don’t believe in “No ideas but in things” (ideas are things!), but things in poems create things in your mind and those stand in contrast to the “actual” things outside your mind, and I like that doubling/shadowing. (Poetry makes nothing happen my ass.) I don’t think of this absence as white space. Thought space is clear and in color at the same time. Anyway, you’ve discovered something in the poem I didn’t realize was there – the poem ends up being about absence (“the difference between something and nothing,” the missing brother), but I wasn’t conscious of the way the missing piano sort of primes you to the idea of vacancy.
4. What have you been reading recently?
This weekend I read Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, a German Christmas novella, and a chapbook in manuscript form by Jeff Alessandrelli. And the January issue of Food & Wine. Before that, the last novel I read was Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, and the last poetry book I read was Nervous Device by Catherine Wagner.
5. Is this piece part of a series, or have you other projects blossoming, finishing, unfurling undone?
For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a prose manuscript (maybe prose poems, maybe poetry-essay hybrids, maybe koans, IDK). In that time I’ve only written a handful of poems in lines, and this is one of them. You know what I said about lines revealing patterns of thought? I guess I’ve gotten out of the habit of thinking in lines. Instead I am thinking in sentences.