BY: J. Markowitz
The physicality of Mag Gabbert’s poetry and essays is dreamily overwhelming. We enter a twilight through the medium of a body—her body—which her craft makes so palpable that it could be our own. Via the sensations of her vulnerabilities, Gabbert delivers us to the liminal spaces between pleasure and shame, power and exploitation, existence and the body. She takes us to the edge of her mortality, because it is there that we are most aware of our own aliveness.
Mag Gabbert is clearly dedicated to the study of power in poetry. Her works are interested not only in the death of the body but also the destruction of a person which results from a societal context meant to disjoint and disfigure. Her works interrogate the insidious permeation of sociopolitical structures in the most minute moments of our lives, moments we may have dismissed if not for the frame of a poem. Yet, we are not suffocated or lost forever in the obfuscation of Gabbert’s twilight. Rather, Gabbert evokes darkness through its proximity to hope: to become aware that the shame was forced upon you following your abortion is to become aware that you can replace that shame with empowerment and love.
As intensely intellectual, erotic, darkly funny, and intimate in person as she is in her works of art, Gabbert makes true the aphorism that a poet’s work is a product of how the poet lives her life. This interview is an opportunity to understand her philosophy on what poetry is and can do—she has a PhD in creative writing and teaches it at the graduate level—and how she achieves this transcendental impact in her own writing.
The Coachella Review: What is the thread across your work that makes it identifiable as yours?
Mag Gabbert: I think that my poems have become more “identifiably mine” over just the past few years. Prior to that point, I wrote individual pieces that I was quite happy with, but I often stressed over the fact that—as a collection—my work didn’t feel very cohesive. I had my obsessions, like all writers do; for example, animals, sex, and adolescent memories. I had an interest in certain techniques, such as rendering layers of meaning through enjambment and diction. But aside from those things, my work was kind of all over the place. Every time I drafted a new poem that felt really strong, I would say to myself, Okay, this is how I’m going to write now. I’m going to do This Thing. And then suddenly all of the poems that I’d written before that point felt sort of irrelevant.
In retrospect, I think I was still just developing as a writer. I was still very influenced by the work of other poets; I was reading new things and trying on different hats. And I would say that’s an important process for any writer to go through. I don’t think we can really force ourselves into a particular “style,” because when we try to it can seem very derivative or gimmicky or redundant. You just have to keep working through the possibilities until some of them stick. For me, that process was super frustrating. It took a long time and required a lot of optimism.
Ultimately, I found my way into a more definitive voice by working on several series projects. Those gave me a thematic link to carry over into the next piece, and then the next, and so on. The most recent series I’ve been working on is one that I’ve called the “object project.” The parameters were initially very simple: each poem’s title would be a noun (just one word), and none of the pieces would use punctuation. I liked the idea of challenging myself to approach each noun/subject in a new and surprising way, and I liked the fact that, by giving up punctuation, I could increase each poem’s potential for ambiguity; layers of meaning would continue to manifest as the reader moved down the page, attempting to navigate syntactical units. I’ve often incorporated lines from other literary sources—like Shakespeare or Keats—into my object poems; other times I’ve researched the noun and brought in some of that source material. In these pieces, I’m always trying to play off of the tension that’s created when the poem shifts between general versus specific realms, or between public versus private, etc.
It’s been about two years since I wrote the first few object project poems (which were “Toilet” and “Donut”), and, surprisingly, the series is still going strong. Of course, I don’t know what my poems will look like five or ten years from now—and I do believe that I’m always learning as a writer, that my work never ceases to be malleable—but I have a sense that the object project is more than just a series for me. I believe it’s becoming part of what defines my voice and style, part of what characterizes my poetry as “mine.”
TCR: Is there anything in your life that would be off-limits for you to write about?
MG: Theoretically, no. I can think of two or three personal subjects that I haven’t yet discussed in my writing, but ultimately, I plan to. There’s no specific reason why I haven’t yet, other than the fact that I don’t write on assignment, so when I’m starting a new essay or poem, I usually just allow myself to dive into whatever topic seems most immediately interesting or inspiring to me at the time.
I also find that smaller moments—moments that wouldn’t normally be considered very dramatic or memorable—tend to carry the most weight in my writing. So, for example, in my essay “Love in Frequencies,” when I see my high school boyfriend kissing another girl, the focus of the scene isn’t really on the kiss, it’s on me. It’s on my body’s physical and psychological reaction to that event. In my view, it would have been less powerful to linger on a description of the other girl, or on the way the two of them embraced, or on what kind of kiss it was, you know? Even though those details might be more difficult for me to spend time thinking about, they require an emotional context that the reader just doesn’t have, so they wouldn’t translate as well. In the case of that scene, the reader isn’t meant to feel jealous of the other girl (and anyway they wouldn’t, because they don’t know her or my high school boyfriend, so they have no investment in who kisses who); instead, the reader should ideally relate to the experience of being me. They should be able to imagine what it would feel like if they saw someone who they did have an investment in kissing someone else. In a way, I guess that having this kind of focus as a writer makes it easier for me to approach very difficult and personal subject matter.
TCR: The Chilean poet Raul Zurita said (I’m paraphrasing) that poetry came out of a need to address our mortality. Do you agree with this? What do you think is the relationship between death or pain and poetry?
MG: Wow—I love this question. I could easily write a book-length response, haha. But I’ll try to keep my thoughts here somewhat concise. First, an anecdote: as an undergrad I studied with the poet Jenny Browne. She used to say, “Every poem is a political poem.” Personally, I think that’s true in the sense that we can never actually divorce our public selves from our private selves, that we can never really live or express ourselves apart from the sociopolitical systems that surround us. It’s true in the sense that there’s no such thing as an art that exists beyond or outside of politics—the very act of eschewing politics is political. But, I’m also not sure that most poets—at their very core—are trying to get at something political in their work. I think there are many poets who would like to step away from sociopolitical structures if it were possible to, who would like for their work to transcend beyond those boundaries even though it can’t. So, I often ask my students: “If you had to identify something that every poem is engaging with deep down, what would that thing be?” My answer has always been that every poem is a poem about death.
When I think about this subject, I think, primarily, about Federico García Lorca and his writings on the duende. For Lorca, the duende is a kind of life force that is born out of a work of art; it is, maybe, the truth of the art. Duende is the spirit within a piece of art that lives outside of and beyond the artist—it’s a spirit that sometimes legitimizes art—but it’s not created or defined by any specific technique or skill. Crucially, Lorca likens the interplay between the artist and the duende to a Spanish bullfight. In “Play and Theory of the Duende,” he writes:
It is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation. […] There are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no consolation. […] The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.
For me, this means that art must be born out of the realm of the flesh, not the spirit. Art must be sensory, it must be perceptive, it must be living. Because death can only be possible if and when we are alive. So then, how do we animate our art? We engage with life in its most temporal sense. We engage with the flesh, with decay, and with mortality.
Like most people who teach creative writing, I am constantly steering my students away from abstractions and other vague, conceptual forms of language. I explain that we can’t know what the qualities of concepts like “sadness” or “anger” or “passion” are within individual works of art unless we’re shown them. What is the texture of that particular sadness? What does this anger taste like? Concepts are so broad on their own that they end up meaning almost nothing to us. They explain what to feel, rather than causing us to feel it. Therefore, we can only truly relate to one another through our senses. Through the body. That’s how art can ultimately impact the reader and evoke some kind of response, whether it be emotional, or physical, etc. So, in order to do this, we have to bring in concrete language, like specific examples, visceral details, and concrete metaphors. As William Carlos Williams said: “No ideas but in things.”
I believe that Zurita and Lorca share this sense of art as an expression of our aliveness—and therefore as an expression of mortality. I also believe that some artists view art in an opposite way—as an expression of faith, for example. But that is a realm I can’t dwell in, because faith is dependent upon separation, invisibility, and abstraction. In order to have faith in something you have to lack the thing itself (because proof negates faith), and to me this is the antithesis of both art and life. Lorca wrote, “One must awaken the duende in the deepest habitations of the blood.” Meaning the body—which is linked with our mortality. It’s also interesting to me that Zurita and Lorca seem to share so much, not only in terms of their poetics, but in terms of their experiences. Both men were activists who became victims of their countries’ political upheaval—although, thankfully, Zurita ultimately survived. Both of them bore witness to a particular kind of suffering. When we suffer or when we witness suffering, it drives us closer to the rim of death; we become simultaneously more and less attached to our bodies. This is where the duende lives—right beside death, against the face of it, but not within it.
I’m sure that Zurita must have his own relationship with Lorca’s theories, too. In Lorca’s “Play and Theory of the Duende,” which he first delivered as a lecture in 1933, he said, “The duende, then, is a power, not a work.” I can’t help but connect that notion to something Zurita said later, in 2014, while being interviewed by Daniel Borzutzky: “I keep believing in an art, in a poetry whose main principle is a force. A force.”
TCR: Your recently published poem, “Bush,” plots the affronts made by a patriarchal society against a girl coming of age and her reliving of these experiences through her younger sisters. Can you talk about how you wrote this poem? Did these disparate moments come to you all at once or had you worked on the poem over time as the memories surfaced? Were they based on your own experiences or were a composite compiled from various women?
MG: For the most part, I would say that any of my memories involving sex—including losing my virginity—are always and already somehow connected to my abortion, if that makes sense. I guess that’s part of what the poem is about, really: the fact that the physical experience of having an abortion, combined with society’s reaction to it, have created an atmosphere wherein I cannot separate sex from shame. I am often ashamed to even discuss my shame with the people I’m closest to, such as my sisters, for example. In general, I have a very hard time engaging with these subjects beyond the confines of my writing, because within it I get to shape the narrative. I get to choose what is shown and what isn’t. Often—as I’ve noted previously—I may choose details that I know will be particularly impactful for my reader, but I’ll also leave some things that are more painful for me personally out, especially if they’re less likely to translate into a relatable sensory experience. The Latin word artificium, which means “craftmanship, art, and craftiness,” is also the root of our English word artifice. The trick within art—the magic or illusion within it—is that we get to transform our experiences. We get to rebuild them.
Overall, the relationship I’ve described between pleasure and shame has been one of my most constant struggles, even as I actively push against it and continue to celebrate my body as well as other temporal, sensory pleasures. So, I didn’t have to spend much time compiling these moments, really; the sonogram and the man outside of the clinic are part of the central narrative of that day, of my abortion. The other moments—asking for the pill, losing my virginity, and even the births of my sisters—are all interwoven with that day in my mind. As you may have read in my essay “Happy Birthday,” my abortion took place on one of my sisters’ birthdays (although she was just a toddler at the time). So, yeah; these are all moments that I’ve never been able to forget or compartmentalize, as much as I sometimes would’ve liked to. Because of that, I was able to draft this poem pretty quickly—like within a day—and my revisions, which I would typically spend about a month or so working on, were in this case mainly focused on smaller changes to the syntax and diction.
One additional thing that I want to address here, just because it feels very relevant to this moment in poetry and to society at large, is that I think it’s important to approach composite renderings, collective speakers or experiences, and/or poetic personas with a huge amount of thoughtfulness, caution, and attention to complexity. I don’t make use of personas within my work, just as a matter of personal taste; but, if I did, I would err on the side of taking on a very specific persona, like Elvis or my mother or Cleopatra or Voldemort. I think that anytime you try to use a more generic speaker, one that represents a collective group rather than a unique individual, you’re likely to end up with something problematic. There are plenty of exceptions, I’m sure. But, for me, I would never presume to speak for all women, even though I’m a woman. I would never presume to speak for all women who’ve had an abortion. And I guess, even if I’d constructed the poem as a collage of specific experiences that other women had shared with me, I would still feel as though I was trying to capture and/or speak for something collective—due to my use of the lyrical “I,” my first-person speaker. Of course, speaking for a collective group that you’re not a part of is even more troublesome; I could write a much longer and more detailed response regarding that topic, but I think this simple rule from the poet Solmaz Sharif is a good place to start: “if you’ve never grieved in that voice, don’t write in that voice.”
TCR: Further on “Bush,” you were working on a collection of “object poems.” Was “Bush” one of these, and, if so, was it meant to be a play on the objectification of women?
MG: It’s funny (in a kind of dark way, which I guess is on brand for me), but I hadn’t really thought about the connection between my object project poems and objectification in a broader sense until very recently. As I mentioned earlier, initially I was just using the noun titles as a starting point, as a sort of challenge or prompt. I wanted to force myself out of my old linguistic habits, out of my old recurring themes and subjects, and instead start with a subject that I knew would not ultimately turn out to be the thing the poem is “about.” I’m a planner, and poems don’t work well when they’re planned too rigidly. They become like riddles. It reminds me of something Matthew Zapruder said once during a workshop at UCR when I was an MFA student (I wish I’d written it down, because I mention it to my students all the time these days, but I’ll have to paraphrase). He said something like: amateur poets will write about something that can be easily reduced or explained in an overly obscure, veiled, or “clever” way; seasoned poets will write about that which cannot truly be expressed or explained in the most clear and direct way possible. So, the “objects” gave me something to tackle directly. Something that would hopefully lead me to the deeper, unsayable subject—a subject that I couldn’t uncover except by writing my way into it.
But, yeah. Objectification is also there (haha). In fact, I think it’s there in multiple iterations. One would be the sense in which our society objectifies women, which is definitely a recurring theme within my work. When we objectify women we not only dehumanize them, but we make them inanimate. Inanimate things are defined by their lack of perception. So, of course, this resonates with me because it speaks again to my values as a poet and person—I value the sensory, physical world. I value the flesh. I value the vehicle of my body, because for all I know without it I am nothing. Yet, this leads me to the second way that my poems might engage with objectification. Here’s how Dictionary.com defines the word objectify: “to present as an object, especially of sight, touch, or other physical sense; [to] make objective; [to] externalize.” So, even though a person or thing becomes senseless by being objectified, they’re also made into an object for the senses. They become somehow more tangible, more concrete. I like the tension this manifests within my work; that, even as my poems seek to condemn objectification, they also seek to objectify. I don’t know what to make of that, really. Maybe it’s a kind of power play. Or, maybe it just says something about our human complexity.
TCR: In “Happy Birthday” you talked about how, as a young person, you were interested in sex not as a means of affirmation from others but rather as actualization of self and a connection to the divine. Can sex ever be experienced apart from power exchange?
MG: My answer is no, and I would say that seems pretty universally true; but, for me, the pleasure is often in the exchange of power. It’s in that intersection of power, which is an affirmation of the self and perhaps a connection to the divine. I’m sure that many people might recall this quote on the topic: “Everything in human life is really about sex, except sex. Sex is about power” (it’s often attributed to Oscar Wilde, but the earliest recorded usage is actually from a 1995 interview with the fiction writer Michael Cunningham—whose short story, “White Angel,” I love). I’ve written about this subject before, however, and the source I’ve always felt most drawn to is The Double Flame, by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Here’s a very brief excerpt from some of my previous writing (my dissertation prospectus), which clarifies some of my thoughts on the connection between sex and divinity:
[In The Double Flame,] Paz situates love—and particularly eroticism—on a plane that is equal and parallel to the divine. He writes,
“Every great historic religion has given rise, on its margins or at its very heart, to sects, movements, rites, and liturgies in which the flesh and sex are paths to divinity. It could not be otherwise: eroticism is first and foremost a thirst for otherness. And the supernatural is the supreme otherness” (15, original emphasis). Paz also takes care to emphasize the powerful and mysterious capabilities of eroticism when it is wielded by humans, not only by the divine entities they are seeking: “…humans look at themselves in the mirror of universal animal copulation, and as they imitate it, they transform it and their own sexuality” (10, emphasis added). Here, Eros manifests as more than just a vehicle through which to approximate the divine. For Paz, Eros in itself is divine; it allows humans to inhabit the divine.
Having said all of that, I do think we can manipulate sexual power dynamics to an extent. I think it’s possible to adjust our engagement with those (given the right circumstances), if that makes sense. But we can never completely divorce ourselves from power, because, again, our identities and our survival depend upon the sociopolitical structures we inhabit. In America, our physical bodies have been politicized—except maybe in the case of some straight white men, which in itself is a political identity. So every sexual act is in some sense a political act, an engagement with power.
TCR: In your essay “Sleeping with the lights on” you say “I conjure up myths for myself… because without my myths I am nothing. Without my myths I’m a girl in her mid-twenties moving closer to death just like everybody else, and maybe closer to being an unremarkable life lived.” This is raw and honest and I think a sentiment we all experience but don’t readily admit. Do you think we also create myths about those close to us; for example, do you create myths about your father, mother, or grandmother? How do you think this myth-making affects our relationships and formulations of identity?
MG: I’m glad that you ask this question. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever done much myth-making when it comes to other people, perhaps because the myths were often made for me. Back when my dad still smoked crack, for example, my grandparents (his parents) would always watch me during his custody time. I often felt very sad when he wasn’t around, and every time I asked my Gran where he was, she would say, “he’s off exploring mountains.” It was a euphemism, of course—not intended to draw an interesting comparison, as most metaphors are, but to soften the blow. Mostly, the function of the euphemism is to lie; sometimes to others, sometimes to the self. Even as a little kid, I didn’t think it was very realistic that my dad would be off somewhere exploring mountains, but I was given no reason to believe he would be anywhere else.
This is the other side of myth-making, I think. It’s a tool that can be both empowering and harmful (just look at the fringes of every religion, for example). What I learned from the “mountain myth” was that my dad had chosen to be elsewhere, that he had something better going on and didn’t feel like spending time with me. I also learned that I was supposed to love and idolize him anyway. I believe the conditioning of that mindset continues to affect me, even now. It continues to shape the expectations I have within my relationships and the extent to which I value myself. So, because I don’t want to perpetuate that negative impact by lying to myself or others, I try to limit my myth-making to the page, to a place where it becomes self-aware and transparent and empowering.
TCR: Is there a book or author that influenced your writing and your willingness to write candidly about sex and desire, as you did in your poem “Toilet” or essay “Happy Birthday”?
MG: Good question! I think that kind of influence often flies beneath the radar, at least for me. I’m more ready to say, Oh, I love what this writer is doing in terms of style and technique and I want to figure out how to emulate that; I don’t often consider whether a text might also grant me permission to tackle certain subjects—or, if I do, I don’t do so consciously. But yes, now that I think of it, I could list quite a few writers and books that have influenced my willingness to write [somewhat] openly about sex and desire.
In the realm of poetry, I would say that one of my earliest and strongest influences was Sharon Olds—especially her first collection, Satan Says. Dorothea Lasky is another major influence, and not just because of her engagement with sex and the body. She’s one of the three poets I return to most often, in a general sense (the other two would be Mary Ruefle and Sylvia Plath). I especially treasure Lasky’s third collection, Thunderbird. And Chen Chen is another poet who’s had an immeasurable impact on my writing; partly because of his work, and partly because of our friendship and conversations about poetry. I’ve become much more willing to not only tackle such difficult subjects, but to do so with joyfulness, or with embarrassment, or with humor. I can allow those images or details to be infused with some of the speaker’s emotions, and I would say I owe that development to Chen. Other favorite poets who write about sex and/or the body would include Melissa Stein, Sarah Galvin, Rigoberto González, Brenda Shaughnessy, George David Clark, Franny Choi, and Daisy Fried.
As far as nonfiction goes, I love pretty much anything by Sarah Manguso (in fact, I love both her poetry and nonfiction; Siste Viator and The Two Kinds of Decay are among my favorites). I also think of Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Sarah Viren, and Lia Purpura, just to name a few. I like nonfiction that addresses the writer’s relationship with the body, not just writing about sex and desire specifically. Another example that comes to mind is Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, which is one of my absolute favorite memoirs. That book taught me about the ways that our bodies might reflect us, and (more importantly) the ways that it doesn’t. I love how Grealy engages with the body as a changing and temporal thing. But what I find most interesting about my nonfiction influences overall, is that beyond just teaching me how to write about these topics (and/or granting me the permission to do so), they’ve also taught me where and how to draw the line. These writers and texts have taught me about ownership. They remind me that ultimately I own both my body and my story.
Mag Gabbert holds a PhD in creative writing from Texas Tech University and an MFA from the University of California at Riverside. Her essays and poems have been published or are forthcoming in journals including 32 Poems, Stirring, The Rumpus, The Boiler Journal, Phoebe,Anomaly, Birmingham Poetry Review, and many others. Mag teaches creative writing for the Graduate Department of Liberal Studies at Southern Methodist University and for Writing Workshops Dallas; she serves as an associate editor for Iron Horse Literary Review and for Underblong Journal. For more information, please visit maggabbert.com.
J. Markowitz writes fiction and nonfiction and is a contributor to The Coachella Review. Being queer and living in NYC has been formative to their development as a writer. They often feel like an outsider seeing the world in strange ways and are humbled every day to observe fellow New Yorkers deal with their own experiences of otherness. They have a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park, and are now pursuing a Masters in Fine Art, Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside. Follow them on instagram @june_moon.