That’s My Tattoo: a Poetic Conversation with Elisa Gabbert and Chris Tonelli

Elisa Gabbert and Chris Tonelli
Elisa Gabbert and Chris Tonelli

Elisa Gabbert and Chris Tonelli met in graduate school at Emerson College in 2002. This conversation took place over email between March and July of 2015. Topics discussed: The writing habit, notebooks, public transportation, clouds, Frank Gehry, being boring, the anxiety of influence, AWP, readings and performance, irony, failure, epiphany, and the “perfect poem.”

Chris Tonelli: I was recently thinking about what you said in your post a while back about our work since our first books: “We both used to be more verbose, more prolific, not just in language but in feeling. Now I think there’s evidence of writing as practice, versus writing as necessity. We’re older, more settled, more content … and the poetry now is more distilled, and more a form of philosophy than a series of bursts of emotion, masquerading as objective correlative.

I was trying to figure out why this dawned on me again and realized that it had to do with my recent thoughts on process/practice. I carry around this empty Moleskin in my back pocket and this tiny pen that fits into my shirt pocket that also goes largely unused. They’re pretty much security blankets these days. They are vestiges of a former practice—a grad school, pre-fatherhood practice—of just walking around thinking and feeling stuff and scribbling it down.

The act of writing, then, was pretty much sitting down with my laptop and transcribing and arranging/crafting those scribblings. Now I do virtually all of my writing at my laptop—invention/production of material and arranging/crafting. Very little of it takes place away from my desk these days. I attribute that to being a parent, having a j-o-b, and living in a city with a pretty entrenched car culture (not very many long walks or extended time on public transit). We can get into the pros & cons of all this, but I was wondering if this new kind of writing you point to has correlated to a new process/practice for you as well? And if so, what was it vs. what is it now?

Elisa Gabbert: Oh yes, this resonates with me, especially the point about walks—I actually go on walks *specifically* in order to get ideas for poems. There seems to be a narrow window of experience that allows me to get into the right headspace to start thinking in poetic lines. Walks are one of those spaces. Waiting for a train is good too, but I don’t experience that much anymore—even when I’m in Boston or New York, I’m usually either taking cabs or not alone when I’m on a train. Attending poetry readings also gets me to that headspace—not my own readings obviously, but listening to other people read poetry, I usually zone out during part of it and go into poetry mode. So I always make sure to have a notebook when I go for a walk or go to a poetry reading. But the walks have to be planned; it’s not like I’m walking with the sole intention of getting from point A to point B, I just wander in hopes of reaching the right level of low stimulation that gets my brain going without occupying me to such a degree that it precludes poetry. For example, if I listen to music, that’s often distracting enough that I won’t have any ideas.

On a side note, I think there’s something about walking and public transportation that satisfies a deep human need: the need to see other human faces without necessarily interacting with them. I love people-watching. I love being in a bar or at a museum because there are other people in the room, even if we don’t speak. Do you still have that longing for strangers? I wonder if poets can be divided into two camps: urban poets and nature poets. If so, I’d be an urban poet. I like clouds and everything, but not as much as I like strangers.  

CT: I guess I was actually an urban nature poet. Seeing a tree or bird in a city was somehow more striking than seeing it in a rural or natural setting … the woods or whatever. Like they were out of place, or they didn’t get the memo that the city wasn’t nature. Like they were refusing to retreat. But yeah … I agree. Something about being anonymous—in a city, on public transportation—and being with/around other anonymous people is … stimulating … jars the imagination … is a form of meditation. And it is something I just don’t engage in anymore. I feel it most starkly when I travel and briefly capture that feeling again—on a plane, walking around a city (familiar or unfamiliar), or even just hanging out in a friend’s house or apartment that isn’t mine. 

In any case, I’ve had to generate this feeling or this material differently. And in turn, that’s changed what is produced. It’s weird … because of this, it is more personal and meaningful to me, but I have far less confidence, when it comes to this newer work, that anyone else would want to read/hear it. 

EG: E.B White said, I love the city, I love the country, and for the same reasons. The city is part of the country.

I’ve come to treasure those travel interludes: the break in your usual routine, the kind of high you get from sleep deprivation and all that. Strategic longing. 

I think you’re wrong (sorry) to be less confident in your more mature material/output. I feel that both of us have shed a lot of the special effects” of poetry—like our poems have gotten, I don’t know, more Brechtian? I think it’s OK to evoke a theater metaphor here, since you’ve written poems inspired by Noh theater, and I just finished a book of poems based on a character in a rather Brechtian play. Anyway, I love special effects, but not all poems need them or want for them. Still, I understand the insecurity, because I’ve felt it too. When I was writing the Judy poems, I consciously avoided too much poetic “showing off,” because the character isn’t a poet. But that’s kind of scary. Like your ideas are naked. Poem as anxiety dream.

I’m curious, have your reading habits changed as your writing style has (are you seeking out writers who are closer to your current style), or are you reading the same poets and types of poetry you always were?

CT: I feel like everything’s strategic these days. And no need to apologize when disagreeing with my self-loathing.

In a lot of ways, our poems seem to be delivering the same material, but without the poem-y vehicle. Which is not to say we aren’t paying attention to the things that make them poems (prosody, form, or whatever). 

You know that Frank Gehry building on MIT’s campus? I used to kind of revere it because it was an imaginative wake-up call … it seemed to be telling the other buildings “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS!!!” But it’s got a lot of problems … it leaks, etc., and MIT is suing as a result (or at least that’s the mythology/urban legend of the building). And in general, I’m less impressed by things, like you mentioned, that are showing off. I want a balance of aesthetically imaginative, sure, but actually functional as well. I think I’m just more aware of my time and other people’s time and all of our relative unimportance. 

I have definitely narrowed my reading. I would say I try to pretty much exclusively read poets I’m jealous of … people doing a similar type of thing, but better. People whose writing has elements that I’d like to at least attempt or even just be indirectly influenced by.

What about you … are you reading differently? As a result of your different process/product? Or vice versa? Do you read other genres more or less? Also, I was wondering if this change carries through other arts/aesthetics … I remember having arguments over fashion, etc.

EG: Oh wow, I hadn’t heard that about the Gehry building! Symbolic. I think it’s probably useful to go through a period of liking “fuck you” buildings or the equivalent in poetry, but like you, I’m less impressed by fuck-you gestures for their own sake than I used to be. 

Last year I went through a period of “reader’s block” where I struggled to focus on and finish ANYTHING, not just books but even, like, internet articles. It was weird. I broke through it and have been reading really ravenously ever since, but almost exclusively novels and various nonfiction (some lyric essay, some hybrid fictive memoir stuff, plus science and math writing) and almost no poetry. I haven’t read a full book of poetry in probably five to six months. I obviously haven’t given up on it, I just haven’t been in the mood. It’s weird. Does that ever happen to you? I feel like I need to be in a certain open kind of mindset to read poetry or I’ll just resent it. Anyway, back when I WAS reading poetry, I would say that I did lean toward poets that I want to write more like. I was reading Graham Foust and Alice Notley and John Ashbery and trying to learn to get my mind to think in lines like their lines. But if it had any effect, it’ll show up years from now. The manuscript I just finished is nothing like them really. 

What arguments did we have over fashion? Remind me.

CT: I’m not sure I’ve read a poetry book cover to cover in a while (though I might have), but pretty much all I read is poetry. I start writing at 5-5:30am and for the first 15-30 minutes I read … like poetry calisthenics. Doesn’t necessarily mean books. Could be a journal that just came out, an interview or recording someone just posted. At night, I read pretty much exclusively fiction/nonfiction … we have a book club book every month at So & So Books, so I do my best to get through at least some of the book. Luckily the guy I own the store with reads all of the books.

My fashion theory was/is plain Jane/blank slate and you seemed to be like, QUIT BEING SO BOR-ING DUDE!

That’s interesting about Foust/Ashbery/Notley … what do you see as a through line in those three? Or are you trying to learn different things from each? What answer do you give (especially non-poets) when they ask you who you write like?

EG: Well, I’ve come around to a certain level of respect for boring. 

At least in the books I was reading (To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems, Culture of One), there’s a leap that happens, or maybe it’s not a leap but a twist; basically the line/thought zags off in this unexpected direction, or doubles back on itself … I can come up with all kinds of metaphors involving movement and direction. But the effect is torque and surprise, and the trick is to let the poem be constantly surprising without the movements feeling just random and arbitrary. And of course Ashbery is pretty much the master of that, of shockingly well-chosen and -arranged randomness. It’s like when you’re falling asleep and you move into this half-waking, half-dream state. How do I go into a semi–dream state in the poem?

It’s funny about influence, I sort of willed some of my main influences into being. It took a long time for Anne Carson’s work to trickle up into mine, but I see the influence as really being there now. Unfortunately my poems are probably getting less Stevens-y in the process of getting more Carson-y. If I could choose my perfect mix of influences (funny how you can’t!) I’d want to write in a mix of Stevens, Ashbery, and the Eliot of Prufrock. WTF, right? I want to write like old white men? How do you describe your poetry to others?

CT: I often worry if I should fight harder against my acceptance of boring. Like, to stave off death.

It’s weird how hard of a question that is … at least for me. Maybe I should write a review of my new stuff as a way of figuring that out. Maybe the reason I haven’t is an inherent fear that I would pan myself.

Bronk always comes to mind when I think of my own writing, at least in terms of subject matter … thought. Oppen for form. Armantrout for distillation of language. Parra for irreverence. And Corman to bridge the last two? 

But I wouldn’t say these are influences exactly, and in some cases, I haven’t read these poets exhaustively. In each case, I developed an aspect of my own work and then scoured the landscape for like-minds. Like, in the AWP of the mind, we’re silently nodding as we pass one another, rather than hanging out at the same table or going out after and reading together.

Speaking of AWP, and since it is coming up in a couple of weeks, is it worth talking about that?

EG: I almost never read poets exhaustively. I think this is one of the selling points of poetry, for me, anyway: it encourages dabbling and sampling. 

I am not going to AWP this year, but we can talk about it in the abstract? The AWP of the mind? 

CT: First of all I’m super sad that you’re not going to AWP. Boooooo!

And we don’t have to talk about it. Maybe your not going says all we need to say. As a publisher I sort of have to go, and that’s the most interesting part for me … the fact that I feel like I have to. While there are other venues for us to sell books, there is not an alternative to this. And yet, while I pay for 100% of it (I’m not sure the actual total cost, but I’d venture it is close to a mortgage or rent check), I really only access 10% of it. MAYBE a panel or two. And of course the bookfair. It’s just bizarre that the majority of the events we go to have nothing to do with AWP … or not the part we pay for at least. In the AWP of the mind, the entire thing is the 10% of the conference we actually access and the off-site events.

What went into your decision not to go?

EG: I basically just didn’t have a compelling reason TO go this year. I don’t have a new book out and I’m not on any panels. I’m not looking for a publisher so I don’t need to network. I’ll miss seeing all the people I usually see at AWP, but a) it’s an expensive way to see people and b) it’s a really unsatisfying, inefficient way to see them too. Of course now that it’s approaching I’m feeling some pangs; I did have to turn down a few offers to read or participate in off-site events that sounded fun. 

This all opens some questions about the business side of poetry. AWP is gross and overwhelming but occasionally still sometimes sublime. I think we, as poets, subject ourselves to stuff like mass readings—which so often turn into a hostage situation—partly out of a sense of obligation but also in part because we’re hoping for that one-out-of-ten or -twenty experience that is really transcendent, the great reading we think about for weeks. John [Cotter] compares going to readings to going to church, and that feels really right to me: the combination of duty mixed in with genuine community and, rarely, moments of pure insight. 

CT: Translation: I already went into crushing debt to meet you people … I don’t need to accrue any more over you. 

Yeah … the best parts of AWP are the non-AWP things … off-site readings, seeing friends. But as a publisher, we want to represent our authors well … and the audience is just too large to ignore. 

What would get you to go to a conference-type-thing (the theoretical competition for AWP), even without the things you mention going to conferences for … having a new book out, looking to find a publisher, being on a panel. What if the content were good … would you go as an audience/community member? What if the panels were actually of interest and the issues being discussed relevant to you and your experience? What if it weren’t so expensive?

I think John nails it … that’s a great comparison. Though I’d like to think the percentage is better than one in ten or one in twenty.

EG: I’d want a much, much smaller and more focused and edited lineup of speakers and readers. I’d want more pressure on EVERY panelist to bring their A game. Part of what I hate about AWP is that there is, inevitably, good stuff, but a very very high chance of missing it, due to so many overlapping events and a lot of people half-or-less-assing their way through it. I often feel like I went to the wrong thing. But even then, it would need to be not too costly, and I’m not sure I could ever justify going every year. I’m not giving up on AWP forever, though. Next year it’s in LA, and I love LA. 

Speaking of reading series—you run one! And have for years. How do you continue to stay engaged with that? How do you find new people to read in it? Are you going to keep doing it … forever? 

CT: Ha … I’ve been thinking about that “forever” part recently. No. The series is at about reading #83, so I’m thinking maybe I’ll make it to 100 and then stop. That puts the last reading in September 2016. That’ll be 10 years of running the series. Maybe it’ll end with a flourish … some big weekend-long festival or something. But I’m ready to be an audience member. 

Two things keep me interested: 1. the desire to provide whatever community I’m in with a poetry option and 2. reinventing things—the venue, the format, etc. Right now I host the reading at CAM Raleigh, and the readers have the option of engaging with whatever exhibit is up at the time of their reading. This gets the audience up and moving around the museum a bit and makes the evening feel more interactive and performative. And through the readings there, I’ve met some local artists, so I’m thinking the last iteration of the series will be more spontaneous and collaborative and involve the local Raleigh arts community.

I know you have some pretty critical theories about readings/reading series…have you read at or attended any novel poetry events recently? Is there some ideal you have in your head about what a poetry performance should entail?

EG: First of all, I think readings should be limited to two people. Yes, two! When there are three readers, I inevitably zone out during one of the readings. Ditto for four readers. Get up to five readers, and I’ll zone out during two. And so on. I think poetry needs some space around it. It requires intense concentration, and when you hear some really good poetry you want to have a chance to think about it, maybe talk about it with whoever you’re with. You don’t want to immediately be plunged into more intensity that’s going to overwrite what you just heard. Too many readings in a row end up canceling each other out. I also think most poets should read for less time. Again, you need to focus pretty hard to get something out of poetry, especially when you can’t look at it on the page, go back and re-read, etc. During long readings I always zone out, because poetry makes me think, so my mind starts wandering. 

In terms of the performance itself, my favorite readers really PERFORM. They don’t seem embarrassed by their own work or the fact that they have to say the words out loud. They don’t act like it’s the first time they’ve ever read the poems. My favorite readers could be mistaken for actors delivering a monologue (see Mark Leidner or HR Hegnauer) or stand-up comedians (Sommer Browning) or maybe a medium channeling a ghost (Matthew Klane).

I actually wanted to write a manifesto called “POETRY NEEDS SPACE” after AWP one year, thanks to some super annoying crowded reading where I got obnoxiously shushed by a bunch of people for whisper-talking to Matt Rasmussen about how much, and why, we liked one of the readings. Like holy shit, what is the point of art if we don’t get to respond to it? Don’t you people go get pie after a movie?

CT: I like how you defined perform … basically, be confident, prepared, and embody your work. 

It sounds like when you say readings should feature two readers, you’re not necessarily saying that they should read for more time than if the line-up had three or four readers, right? So two readers for 15 mins or less? I think maybe I feel self-conscious as a host if someone travels from far away and the whole thing is over in 30 mins … like it needs to be a more substantial event. But maybe dinner before and drinks/coffee after does that just as much as a longer reading might.

I agree … I think readings should be less precious. Like if your reading can’t stand up to whatever minor distractions—be it whispering or ambient bar noise—you should own the room a little more. And I think readings should build in the “pie.” Have a plan for meeting up before and going out after. Not so that the social overshadows the poetic, but so that readers and audience members and hosts can interact.

How do you approach readings these days? Do you say no to readings more now than you used to?

EG: I never say no to readings, unless they are out of town and I’m not offered any money. But I say yes to pretty much every local reading. I don’t want to turn down the opportunity to find new readers. I would only say no to a reading if I really hated the series or the host, which luckily doesn’t come up very often. 

CT: I think the thing I like most about your poetry (and your friendship) is your awareness that we and the things we love (people, poetry, etc.) are flawed and/or ridiculous/absurd. But that that is ok. And maybe even makes the love more sustainable, if a bit less romantic. I can’t tell if that’s what draws us to these things—maybe we are attracted to inherently flawed things. Or are we so inherently flawed that we find ways to ruin what we love.

For example, you say, Poetry fails as art … The more you charge for it, the more worthless it seems.” I like how your definition of art implies a market, but that if one does not value an art market, or values art outside of a market, then this can actual be a compliment to poetry. I find comfort in lines where you expose the impossibility of being human in our culture. It seems utterly and despairingly hopeless, but also comic and freeing: Hobbies, for adults, are advanced forms of indirect consumerism. Kids have no money, so they play games like ‘House’ and ‘School’ evoking settings they will later resent. Awareness is the great human problem; most endings are ruined by knowing they are.” I love this idea of pleasure/leisure mixed with the impossibility of actually feeling and experiencing those things. Hangovers worsen as we age, but our tolerance does not decrease accordingly. File this under design concerns, system-level.”

EG: Thank you so much, Chris! Utterly and despairingly hopeless, but also comic and freeing is definitely one of my favorite tones in art. Did you read Ben Lerner’s recent essay in the LRB? He says even poets hate poetry because the actual poem in the world is always a failure when measured against the ideal of the poem in your mind. (I feel like you could say the same about novels or paintings, though.) I’m drawn, perhaps, to poetry that is aware of its own failures, but keeps going anyway. Life is meaningless, but you still seek out meaning. 

I think in your poetry, there has always been a kind of darkness—doubt might be the best way to describe it, a kind of persistent philosophical pessimism—that mingles with humor and that’s why I’m attracted to it. That darkness seems intensified in your more recent work, distilled down. Like in Murderer (from Increment): In the dark / I am a murderer / not murdering.” I love those lines. So real, so fucking dark! But the poem is not without irony: The lawn has my house / surrounded. I don’t think irony detracts at all from sincerity. In fact, I take people/art that is never ironic LESS seriously. 

CT: Oh, Plato (Uh Oh, Plutonium!). But to be honest, I’m not sure I agree with Ben in that regard. And maybe this isn’t something I should admit, but I have poems that are perfect to me. Or rather, they perfectly accomplish what they set out to accomplish. Granted, I probably don’t have the highest of ambitions for my poems, so that’s not all that hard to achieve, but I definitely have a handful I’m perfectly satisfied with/by. And I never thought to really think that way until Emily [Kendal Frey] asked me one time if I had any perfect poems. At the time I thought, Clearly not…if you have to ask, but then a few came to mind that always sustain me all the way through (keeping in mind that all the way through for me is like six lines max … apparently I suffer from premature transcendence). You certainly have oodles of poems that do the same thing for me (“The Dream Before Love Ends,” “Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin,” “Ornithological Blogpoem,” etc.), but for you … do you have any poems you find perfect?

EG: I never really thought about it that way, but I guess I could call a few of my poems perfect in that, like you say, I am perfectly satisfied by how they came out. (Maybe it was easier with the blogpoems to achieve perfection because of the rules built in; a few perfectly meet my invented standard for blogpoem.) I remember once in a workshop Gail Mazur said of Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota: It’s a perfect poem. I didn’t really know exactly what that meant, but I’ve thought about it for years: What is a perfect poem? Is my favorite poem a perfect poem? (My favorite poem is “Depression Before Spring.”) Do you have a favorite poem? 

CT: The Wright poem Gail mentioned is always in my head …I have wasted my life… as is Rilke’s You must change your life, from Archaic Torso of Apollo. But they’ve also kind of ruined me. Mundane experience, details describing it and possibly some thoughts springing from it, and then BIG FINISH! For many years, and maybe even still, only big finishes would come to me. No poems. Just the endings. But I guess that’s why they stick with me, the element of surprise and the physical reaction that such surprises evoke—something that I wrote embarrassingly about in my Emerson application. What about the Stevens poem does it for you?

EG: Same here with those lines! Always always! I think of them as universal endings—the poems that come before them almost don’t matter, you could just stick those lines on the end of any old poem and it would be great. I used to be in the habit of writing very ta-da endings too, but have finally gotten away from it, partially by writing books that are more like one book-length poem. 

I think the Stevens poem perfectly epitomizes, for me, poetic meaning: meaning without meaning, meaning you understand without understanding. The ending slays me: No queen comes in slipper green. I don’t know what it means, but that’s my tattoo. (I don’t have any tattoos.)

Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (forthcoming from Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean), and The French Exit (Birds, LLC). She currently lives in Denver.

Chris Tonelli works in the Libraries at North Carolina State and co-owns So & So Books in downtown Raleigh, where he lives with his wife, Allison, and their two kids, Miles and Vera. He is a founding editor of the independent poetry press Birds, LLC, and he curates the So & So Series and edits So & So Magazine. He is the author of five chapbooks and a full-length collection, The Trees Around (Birds, LLC).

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