TCR Talks with Mag Gabbert, Author of SEX DEPRESSION ANIMALS
By Dannah Elizabeth
In her first full-length poetry collection, SEX DEPRESSION ANIMALS, UC Riverside-Palm Desert alum Mag Gabbert explores the fragmented meanings of language. With striking imagery, she transports readers into a dreamy world where words might be mistaken, misused, or reduced. Drawing from etymological research, Mag Gabbert uses experience and associations to create new portraits of relationships and sex. Playfully weaving myths and research, she challenges readers to examine their own word histories. We spoke to Gabbert about the power of language, her journey to getting the collection published, and how the collection’s title came to be.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: How did the collection come about? What was the process of getting published? I know you were in a lot of contests and have been published a lot before.
MAG GABBERT: Yeah, good question. It was a long, unexpected process that in a way started during my time at UCR. There are just maybe two or three [poems] that I wrote during my time at UCR. One of them is “Baby”—that’s the one that immediately comes to mind. I had talked to [professors] Jill Essbaum and Matthew Zapruder about next steps if I should put a collection together and send it out. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t feel ready for that, so Matthew had a great idea, and told me, “I think you should apply for PhD programs in creative writing. You’d be a good fit, and you sound like you potentially want to teach.” I didn’t begin to put a collection together until my second year in my PhD program at Texas Tech. So that was the first year I started sending something out.
The first [book] title was I could go to sleep right now which I still love and want to use for something. Then the title was Blow. The title it has now actually began as a joke, to be honest. I had a conversation with friends, [and I said] I didn’t feel like any of the poems would make a good title. They were like, “Well, what is the book about? That would be a good way to decide what to call it.” So we were like, “sex, depression, animals,” and I was like, “Actually I’m going to call it that.” So fast forward, I sent all those versions out for about six years. During that time, I was editing. I would say in that six years, there were three complete overhauls, [making the collection] barely recognizable from the thing I was sending before. Obviously, I was incorporating a lot of new poems and phasing out poems that I felt didn’t represent my best work anymore. It was—I’m trying to remember an exact number—I think it was a semifinalist thirteen times and a finalist seven or eight times for a variety of contests. Then finally, on New Year’s Day 2022, I got a call from [editor] Kathy Fagan that it won the Charles B. Wheeler Prize, and I cried a lot.
TCR: I’m always curious how poetry collections are organized. Did you find it difficult to choose what order to put your poems in? You mentioned there were some you phased out because you wrote newer ones; were there any you wanted in the collection that didn’t fit anymore by the time you were getting it published?
MG: There was so much that went into the ordering when I was revising. As it currently stands, it has five sections in total; three really big body sections and two that kind of break it up…I did just have it in three sections, [without the] two short sections. They roughly represented those sections sex, depression, and animals for the poems. I thought that was working pretty okay. Then a friend suggested I make it six sections and repeat the cycle, so I tried that.
In the collection, there are a series of poems that deal with etymology, looking at the origins of a word and looking at the speaker’s experiences that somehow connect to that word. I had more of those poems; I had probably like six more and they were pretty good—good enough to be in the collection. Originally, they were all in the version with six sections. [Then], the editors at Sarabande Press asked to look at the collection to consider it. They were super wonderful and generous and they gave me feedback, which they definitely did not have to do. But when they ultimately declined the book, their biggest critique was there was a little too much overlap with themes and approach and stuff like that. That’s where I got the idea to take out a hunk of those etymology poems and take out those three sections, but then add a couple of short sections that would be totally different so that it wouldn’t all feel like the same type of material.
Ultimately, throughout the process of six years when I was sending it out, there would be times I would send it to as many places I could afford and [where I would] genuinely enjoy having my book published. So there would be times I would have my book out to ten or fifteen places and then I would do a radical revision. I would get kind of nervous, like, what if one of those places picks it up and they don’t want to do the changes I now have? So I got really lucky. It just happened that after I made these last big changes [resulting from] the feedback from Sarabande that I was like, This is the version that I’m happiest with. After sending it out for six years, I was like, I need to move. I had been writing poems that I knew weren’t going to fit into this collection anymore. I knew either someone was going to pick it up, or they wouldn’t, and that I [would] just have to write a new book.
TCR: I was thinking while you were talking about the third section “The Break-Up” and how that is one of the smaller sections in the book. I loved “The Break-Up,” and was wondering if you could talk more about that and the inspiration around that format?
MG: I would love to. It’s basically a long poem in sections that is doing a unique form of self-erasure, essentially so each section begins with a sentence then performs a series of erasures on that sentence to create a new kind of progression. I didn’t know how many I would be able to write because obviously they’re a little bit tricky. I wound up writing like twenty-five sections. I knew I wanted to have some of them in my full-length collection, but I also started to send it out as a chapbook. That too is going to be published next October; it was selected by Kaveh Akbar for the Baltic Writing Residency Chapbook Award. So people who enjoy “The Breakup” can look for a big hunky book of these sections.
I have two versions of the writer me. One version writes what I guess I call my “real” poems that are oftentimes experience-driven and maybe not as interested in traditional form, though I do play with some traditional forms throughout the book. But then, especially when I am really drowning with work or whatever the case may be, sometimes it’s hard to access that brain space. I still want to be writing and still want to be challenging myself in new creative ways. So the way I like to view that is finding some kind of project that feels less serious or [where] the stakes are lower. Maybe [it] feels a little more like a puzzle than I would normally want a poem’s process to be like. Like my first chapbook, Minml Poems, is a weird puzzle-type project, but also different. I’ve always liked erasures and wanted to play in this particular way in using a single sentence. To my knowledge, no one has used that form before. I just liked how surreal the things would become because you can’t predict how it will go; you’re just using the language available to you. I would just get totally obsessed with them for a while and come up with words that had lots of words inside them. It was something I could do at the end of my day when I totally felt spent.
TCR: Do you sit down with an idea or do you wait for inspiration to strike? Do you have a routine?
MG: My process has evolved over the last fifteen years, which I guess is when I started to get more serious about writing poetry and started sending out work. I am driven by research [and] curiosity. I’ll usually be making notes on specific subjects that I just think would be cool to include or engage with in a poem. The way that manifested in SEX DEPRESSION ANIMALS, I called it “The Object Project,” so every poem in that collection has a title that is a single noun or a thing, or, in some cases, a concept. I would do a bunch of research on something related to the title, like for the poem, “America,” it was Teddy Roosevelt. Or with the poem, “Dolphin,” I would make a bunch of notes and think about interesting ways that these facts might weave themselves into something. And I would also do something Jill taught when I was at UCR, which is just get inside the language of that topic and discover words and diction that I might’ve not used. Maybe it works in a really cool multiplicity or duality. I would then combine my notes and take my research to see how that might somehow spark a memory or some kind of associative thing.
I would try to build [on the poems] like that. It would be this ebb and flow of research elements and also what they inspire in terms of narrative and personal experience. I’m definitely still very research driven but I am no longer doing “The Object Project,” so I am no longer starting with a title. I do start with a subject or a loose subject with which I want to begin. That often doesn’t become the title of the poem. My process is very fragmented and it kind of has to be. I teach four graduate courses a semester and do a bunch of events and committee work for my department. So throughout the times when I am ultra-busy, I’m gonna be keeping notes of a few lines or an image or whatever sticks with me from my day-to-day experience. I do that research process. As soon as I have a break from school, I try to unplug and go off the grid. I take whatever notes and research I’ve accumulated from daily life and try to build a number of pieces from those.
TCR: I love the description of your collection on your book cover, which says you “recast the traumas of [your] adolescence while charting new paths towards linguistic and bodily autonomy.” Your poems are very personal and intimate. Can you talk about the power of language and writing in the service of reclaiming truths about yourself and your past?
MG: It’s such a weird process because on the one hand I don’t really subscribe to the idea that writing is always therapeutic. Like, therapy is therapeutic, and people should pursue that as well. The process of writing for me, like other people who do MFA programs, is more art- and innovation-driven. At the same time, there is a kind of fulfillment in being able to manipulate a narrative. I don’t think all the poems in my collection are putting the speaker suddenly in happy situations. It’s kind of a bummer book in a lot of ways.
But there is something about the agency involved in making it yours and deciding exactly how the reader gets to consume that story. For me, there’s a lot of power in that. I do think, as cheesy as it sounds, language itself is a kind of power. That’s what drove me to look so deeply at the etymology of different words. For example, misogyny comes into play in the actual roots of our language. You see that in the erasure poem, “Girl,” which is essentially from an academic article published in an academic journal on the etymology of this word. The erasure just highlights all of these what we would consider negative or demeaning, sexist, belittling associations. That process of just being able to face your own story and to force yourself to engage with it has been really fulfilling to me. Or to use a term Emily Rapp Black used when I studied nonfiction with her at UCR, “cathartic.” It’s not necessarily healing. The goal is not to create a happy ending by any means, because you need complexity, realism and nuance. But, from this miserable time, I have something to show for it that I made. That’s a really cool, good feeling.
TCR: So exploring the meaning behind words and mishearing words, when you write poetry or poems about words, did you find yourself tinkering with exact words? What was that revision process like?
MG: Yeah, wow, so I’m big with tinkering with individual words. It’s funny, because my journey as a poet started when I was undergrad, which is when I really started to discover contemporary poetry and began to have this dream of doing it. At that time, in many ways I was just totally immature, which is how a lot of us are when we come to it. Like a lot of people, I struggled with revising. I would kind of get hung up on that high when you finish a first draft and you’re like, “Hell, yeah! I did it!” And sometimes you can prevent yourself from going back after that. But then you have to go back with fresh eyes and see it for what it is. Ideally, the more you read and the more you study and learn about your craft, the more objectively you can see it and how it doesn’t meet a [desired] standard. When asked for recommendation letters to apply to MFA programs, my mentor at the time, Jenny Brown, who is a wonderful poet here in Texas, was like, “Yeah, I’ll write you one, but I don’t think you’ll get in because you don’t revise.” That was a big wakeup moment for me.
I went from being that person to the person [I am] right now—I have either three or four drafts of in-progress poems that I have been working on for at least a couple of months. All of them have a single word that is in red text and it’s been several weeks of just working on that word. I can’t send [a poem] out until I’ve hit that correct word. I have a list under that word of other possible words. Usually when I find the right one, I know it immediately. Occasionally, it’s like, let me go back and read all these possibilities. I toil with that a lot. You also picked up on the mishearing and missed things in the collection, like misremembering words. I’m really interested in how those mistakes reveal a kind of truth… In the same way inside of words, whether it’s from breaking them into different words or their history, the underneath part is a kind of truth.
I’m always paying attention to little mistakes in daily life because I just find it so revealing. It easily presents itself as metaphorically valuable. I guess the key is to always find a new way to come at it so it doesn’t become gimmicky. When I was writing about some of the poems in the collections for my PhD dissertation, I talked about it as being hallucinatory rather than surreal. It’s not that everything is a sort of fantasy, it’s that things are just a little bit off. What you see isn’t exactly what is there, and [there is] that play of what constitutes reality or authority. I find it interesting and fun to explore especially through the vehicle of talking about language itself.
TCR: Last question. What is something you will never stop writing about?
MG: That’s a really good question. My second collection is starting to take form at this point. I haven’t sent it out yet, but the title, at least for now, is Why on Earth? It has a surprising number of poems—like forty poems—in it. As I am moving into this territory… you know how you get so focused on a project, you don’t really know what’s on the other side of that for you as an artist? Sometimes the fear is that nothing is on the other side of that.
What I guess I’m discovering is the thing that drives me now is considerations of eros. Which is in some ways a cliché poet thing to explore, but I never get tired of reading it in other people’s work. It’s like saying I’m interested in nature or death. It’s very much a part of the human condition. Poets are always going to write about these things.
But I think I am intrigued by eros as a form of desire that is always just beyond reach, and how, when you actually tame that desire, oftentimes it’s not your desire anymore. I see that playing out in my own life because it’s just a place where I have so much curiosity and so much interest, whereas some of the other big topics you might categorize as subject matter of poetry are not as curiosity-inspired for me. So it drives me to research various things. It drives me to new subject matter that I can incorporate that I wouldn’t otherwise have [looked into]. It’s also, frankly, not the most depressing topic. It’s a deeply complex topic and it’s not always happy.
At the same time, for example, another big thematic thread for me when I think about SEX DEPRESSION ANIMALS is shame. A lot of those poems either directly or indirectly explore moments of experiencing shame or where it comes from. I don’t want to dwell in that forever. I don’t want that to be what drives me as an artist, but I can get behind the exploration of why we can never be satisfied. Maybe I mean that sexually, but also in every way, with our want for the world. Our capacity to want grows and shrinks with our ability and resources, and that really fascinates me. I find it pleasant to explore how other artists have engaged with this topic in the past. Part of stumbling over talking about the topic is me still working out what eros is. I suspect I’ll always be engaging with it to some degree. But I don’t know if it will always be a defining thing in the way it is in my first two books. Maybe though, maybe that will be a signature thing.
Dannah Elizabeth is a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles, CA. She is pursuing an MFA in screenwriting at University of California – Riverside. She co-runs the production company Sad Girl Productions, which is based in Denver, CO.