Today, Vrzhu Bullets of Love presents an interview with Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney. They have two books of collaborative poems out, Something Really Wonderful from Dancing Girl Press, and That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness from Otoliths.
About That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, Mark Wallace says that it’s “Just more entertaining than poems are supposed to be. And I'm not using the word 'entertaining' as some kind of sly putdown either. These poems have more human interaction going on in a couple of lines than many writers manage in a couple of books. The linguistic energy and, really, virtuosity, can be stunning. These are poems that know what people are like when they're around people.”
Elisa Gabbert holds degrees from Rice University and Emerson College. She lives in Boston and is a poetry editor of Absent. She is the author of the chapbooks Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007) and My Fear of X (Kitchen Press, forthcoming). Her poems have been published in Colorado Review, Pleiades, Eleven Eleven, Meridian, Washington Square, LIT, Cannibal, and other journals.
Kathleen Rooney is an editor of Rose Metal Press and the author of Reading with Oprah (University of Arkansas, 2005). Her collection Oneiromance (an epithalamion) won the Gatewood Prize and is forthcoming from Switchback Books. Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Ninth Letter, and Western Humanities Review, and her poems have appeared in Quarterly West, Court Green, and Harvard Review.
Although the interview took place by email, picture us sitting in an outdoor café in the Mission district of San Francisco, on Valencia street. The weather is in the mid-60’s, no humidity, and there’s a light breeze. There’s a scent of citrus and bougainvillea in the air.
VRZHU: So. Why collaborate on writing poems? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
ELISA GABBERT: One advantage is that we get to write about things and in ways that we don't get to alone – both in the sense that we feel "allowed" to do things we wouldn't otherwise and that the process of collaboration presents different opportunities. We make room in our collaborations for wackier subjects, a sillier voice, stupider lines. The point of course is not to be stupid, but there's a freedom in the process, maybe because neither of us is wholly accountable (and because readers can't assume that the speaker in the poem is the author, since there is more than one author), and that freedom creates unexpected results. Unexpectedly good, when it works. We write pretty much every day, but we always allow ourselves to fail.
Another advantage is that it keeps us producing when we're in our own respective writing slumps. (Though I'm not sure Kathy actually has slumps.) Even when I can't seem to eke out a poem on my own, I can write with Kathy because she's doing half the work – I don't have to be brilliant all at once, I only have to write the next line to keep it going.
The disadvantages are the same as with solo writing, I think – the tendency to get into a rut, write the same poem over and over. Starting to manufacture surprise rather than really surprise each other/yourselves. I guess a potential disadvantage is to cannibalize your solo career, but I don't think either of us has experienced that.
KATHLEEN ROONEY: I think what Elisa said is pretty thorough, but briefly, to answer the "why collaborate" question, I guess that one answer, in addition to "because we are friends and it's fun" is that collaboration is really almost its own separate form, and we both had a desire to try our hand at it. We are definitely writing short pieces that mostly have line breaks, so they are, technically "poems," but it's almost as though we are writing in a separate, discrete genre with its own rules and conventions, which leads kind of nicely into your next question.
VRZHU: What ground rules, procedures or constraints did you use in your collaboration?
KATHLEEN ROONEY: One freedom that collaboration has given us thanks to its constraints is actually freedom from total freedom. Sometimes, being able to sit down and just write whatever you want can be daunting if not impossible, and having some rules or regulations—self-imposed or otherwise—to bump up against and react to can be extremely generative. Virtually every time we set out to write a poem, before we put even one word on the page (or in our case, in the email), we decide together on either an established—a villanelle, an exquisite corpse, a pantoum (which we recently tried and learned we largely suck at), a quatorzain, a beautiful outlaw, etc.—or an invented—a backwards, an inside-out, a pearl/peril, a mad lib, etc.—form. This helps us have at least some focus or direction to help rein in or coherently shape some of the wackiness/silliness that Elisa mentioned earlier.
Only very rarely do we set out to just write a poem in which we proceed with no obstacles or rules from line to line to line until we pronounce the poem "done." And even in the occasional instances where we do proceed that way, neither of us, individually, is truly "free" to write whatever or however we want; there is always the knowledge that our own line or lines will inevitably be interrupted/ subverted/sabotaged by the line or lines of the other author. But this built-in, predestined, co-authorial frustration seems to have been good for both the poems we write collaboratively, and the ones we do solo in that it has caused us to be more open to happy accidents and surprises in our writing, and it has helped liberate us from being attached to habits or phrases that we might otherwise treat as too precious. Put another way, I guess because we are always either intentionally or unintentionally killing each others' so-called darlings, collaborating has helped us behave more murderously toward our own, which has led us both in new directions.
In a way, it's like we're playing Foosball, but against each other as opposed to on the same team. One of us kicks the ball one way and the other kicks it back at another crazy angle and so on until we exhaust that round and reach some kind of goal. We score a point—it doesn't matter for who—and then we do it all again. It's very playful, but it's also very serious; we are both determined to try to make good poetry, but also to have fun doing it, and to not be afraid if we don't end up with a "winner" (to sort of confuse and beat the metaphor even further) every time.
VRZHU: Ah, thanks very much. You've already answered my next two questions. It's interesting. Elisa, you talked about the freedom (in a good way) that collaboration gives you as writer, that the other writer is a spark to get and keep you going. And Kathleen, you talked about how the collaboration also throws a frame around (restrains/contains in a good way) your writing—maybe that the collaborator takes the role (of part) of the revision process for you. It sounds like you two are a good match. So, with that, can you each tell me a little bit about y'all's book, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness? What were you expecting when you started, and how (if they did) did your expectations change? How did the other person surprise you? And how would you describe the resulting book?
ELISA GABBERT: We didn't really set out to write a book. We just started writing to see what would happen. I think the first thing I got excited enough about to try to publish was our quatrains – we wrote pages and pages of them. Some we tried to write word by word as we'd heard Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman had done, but we did better when one of us would write the first and third lines, at the same time, and then the other would complete it by writing the second and fourth. Some of these are in the book. My favorite poem we've ever written is one of these (the one that starts "Say your prayers, princess…") which we considered as a title for our chapbook.
Anyway, we just kept trying different approaches until we got bored with one and moved onto another, and eventually we realized we had enough material to put together a book, even if we only used our favorite poems, a fraction of the number we'd actually written. And by this time we'd placed a lot of the individual poems in magazines, so it didn't seem impossible. We came up with a "short" list of our favorite 60 or so poems and started playing with order. (Later, when the pub date got pushed back, we ended up adding another 30 or so newer pieces.)
I would describe the book as kind of a romp. I personally can't read our poems without cracking up, so I hope readers find them funny too. But I think there's "heart" and intellect behind them too. It's not an arc-based book—you can open to any page and just read the poem that's there. It might even be best that way. Like listening to iTunes on random. Other adjectives I'd throw at it—youthful, obsessive, nostalgic. Insane. Voluptuous. (In a way we never could be.)
KATHLEEN ROONEY: To add to the adjectives that have been tossed out there, I'd add "Tiny." One of the reasons this book is so successful (to us anyway—the reviews have yet to pour in) is because, as Elisa said, we didn't set out with any grandiose notions or master plans. We started small, and in a way, this is a book that really owns its essential tiny-ness.
We did not set out telling ourselves, "Okay, this shit is going to be major"; we were more like, "Let's do our best and see what happens." As a result of this acceptance of the value of being in some sense "minor," I think we were able, when the time came, to put together a book that adds up nicely to something unified and pleasing as a whole.
To digress a bit and talk about the title of the book, it's from the Theodor Storm poem "At the Desk," which goes, in its entirety:
I spent the entire day in official details;
And it almost pulled me down like the others:
I felt that tiny insane voluptuousness,
Getting this done, finally finishing that.
This is a book that pays a lot of attention to detail, and I think that in addition to obsessive, you could say these poems also feel a little compulsive, probably in some part due to the fact that we fire our emails back and forth in little bursts almost all day every day, usually during the working week. In the hope that our respective employers aren't reading this, I'll admit that we do a lot of our writing while we are actually "At the Desk" working our 9-to-5s. And I can't speak for Elisa here necessarily, but I think that the fun of having these poems to write on top of our day-to-day "official" work gives us a necessary feeling of "tiny insane voluptuousness" to get us through our sometimes boring gainful employment. Sometimes (a lot of times?) at office jobs, activity gets confused with productivity; you have to spend some of your eight requisite hours "looking busy" so it's satisfying to get some truly productive poetry-work done in addition to office tasks and meetings. It's a pleasant, giddy, intoxicating feeling that we hope translates to the reader.
VRZHU: Elisa, I love the idea of reading this book in shuffle mode, though I think the book also hangs together. I don’t know about you but I sometimes get a wee bit tired of the “arc, arc, arc” that seems to be the current paradigm for poetry books. Kathleen, you speak the truth about anyone who is in the “writes, but doesn’t teach” category. Or maybe it applies to writers who teach, too. I don’t know.
You’ve mentioned a little how your working together has leaked into your own writing process (being a little more merciless with your solo poems) but can say anything else about how your own process and poems have been affected? Or are the collaborative poems and your solo poems in different compartments? And has this changed how you look at putting together poems with each other, or putting together a book?
KATHLEEN ROONEY: I think that putting together this book and putting together the chapbook Something Really Wonderful were helpful to me in that Elisa has an excellent sense of order and resonance. I found (and still find) myself continually impressed by decisions she made (and makes) in terms of which poems should go next to which others and so forth. Even when we are doing something as simple as assembling submissions for literary journals or deciding on our lineup of poems to do for a reading, I learn a lot from her sensibility about what should go with what, and what will create the most pleasing grouping. Elisa, what's your secret?
ELISA GABBERT: Aw, thanks, Kath. I wish I knew the secret—I'm actually finding it extremely difficult to order my solo collection. It may be that I can more easily apply my editorial eye to the collabs because I have a little more distance on them. I think I'd do a better job ordering a stranger's collection than my own. Or ordering an anthology—like I'm really good at making mix tapes.
To reciprocate on the learning-from-each-other thing, Kathy has a knack for incorporating bizarre but all-too-true details from actual life and/or little-known facts in poems, and I like the knick-knacky, lived-in texture it lends. It's something I've tried to emulate without imitating.
Also, I've noticed that my writing process has slowed down in the past year or so. I used to write a poem pretty much in one go, and lately I tend to collect a few sticky thoughts and phrases and let them gradually coalesce into something larger and connected (in ways I didn't necessarily foresee) over a few days or weeks. I hadn't thought of this as related to collaboration until now, but maybe it is. Maybe it's partially something that's bleeding over from our line-by-line method, which has a kind of strobe effect that slows the creation of the poem. And since the poem is coming from more than one head, you don't always know what it's "about" until it's over. Same thing when you're not writing in real time.
VRZHU: Since I have you here, what are you each liking in poetry at the moment? What are your recent poetry crushes? What are the old standbys you go back to? And how about outside the world of left-margined writing, who’s stuff is exciting you these days?
ELISA GABBERT: My most recent poetry crush is Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Lately whenever I think something is going to be too "avant" for me I end up really liking it; conversely more "traditional" books have been leaving me cold – like I can evaluate the poems as good or bad but there's not much else to think about. To put it another way, if someone asks me about a book I've just read, I like to be able to put more energy into describing the form/process of the book than its success or failure, which counts but is ultimately less interesting. Some recent reads that fell into this category for me: Human Resources by Rachel Zolf, The Men by Lisa Robertson, I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone by Anna Moschovakis.
Sadly, perhaps, my own writing probably more resembles that of the dead men than the living women.
I used to read mostly novels and a little poetry, and I've flipped ratios in the past several years, but I'm usually at least trying to read a novel. Right now it's The Blood Oranges by John Hawkes, which is weird and lovely. The last great novel I read was Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison.
KATHLEEN ROONEY: My most recent and ongoing poetry crush is Kate Greenstreet. I've liked her poetry and her blog for a while now, but I've gotten to meet her at a couple of readings she's done here in Chicago, and now I am an even bigger fan than before. I'm kind of fascinated by the idea that seems to captivate the popular imagination (or some segment of it) about how Genius Artists have the tendency to be/are entitled to behave like huge, insensitive/socially inept jerks. Kate Greenstreet is living proof that a person can be a really brilliant poet and a really funny, humble, and gracious person. Of course, I know that there are lots and lots of other examples that also prove this, but I was taken by how genuine and nice she is, both when she's reading and when she isn't. She's excellent at promoting herself and her work (through touring in particular) without seeming like a sleazy self-promoter.
I also love the poetry of Carol Guess, whose latest book, a collection of prose poems called Tinderbox Lawn, Abby and I are publishing later this fall on Rose Metal Press. That's probably an obvious statement, because we wouldn't publish it if we didn't love it, but still. I'm with you in that I don't like to think that every single book of poems needs to arc, arc, arc (I like collections that are just collections of disparate, or loosely related poems), but her book is appealing to us in that each of the poems stands on its own while also working together to tell a mysterious, romantic, disturbing story.
Other contemporary poets whose books I've enjoyed lately and have kept coming back to and thinking about are Cate Marvin and Christian Hawkey. My old (which is to say, dead) stand-bys that I habitually revisit are John Berryman and Weldon Kees, among others. And Elisa and I have been translating Max Jacob lately, so we keep returning to his work.
As for prose, I can't get enough personal/lyric essays (I read Michael Ventura's "A Dance Among Ruins" a couple months ago and I can't forget it), and lately I've been on a Nelson Algren kick. I just finished his book-length essay Chicago: City on the Make and am now in the middle of his novel The Man with the Golden Arm. Algren said "Literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity." I don't necessarily think all literature needs to challenge the "legal apparatus" as overtly as his did, but I like that he thought that, and that he embodied these values—or tried to—in everything he wrote. I like it when people do what they say, I guess.
VRZHU: Great shout-outs, Elisa and Kathleen, thanks. And, again, I’m struck by the complementarities of your work together and its influence on you: Elisa with your mad manuscripting skillz and Kathy with your bizarre-alltootrue-actual-little-known tchotchke/tapas/meze/dim sum, enrichment program for poems. Ok, here’s the penultimate question:
Would each of you fill in the blanks to the following phrase: “….to forge in the smithy of my _____ the uncreated ________ of my ______.”
ELISA GABBERT: "….to forge in the smithy of my psyche the uncreated corpus of my body."
KATHLEEN ROONEY: "….to forge in the smithy of my basement the uncreated resolution of my carbon footprint."
VRZHU: And here's the last question: If you had to have a small animal attached to your forearm, what small animal would it be?
ELISA GABBERT: WTF, I recently wrote a poem about my recurring dreams of having vicious small dogs attached to my forearms. It definitely wouldn't be a dog. I'm going to go with starfish.
Thanks so much Michael, this was fun and I learned about myself, too.
KATHLEEN ROONEY: I want to say seahorse because they are one of the coolest creatures I can think of (the males bear the young!) and they also seem small enough to make the situation you’re describing seem manageable, but that would be cruel since I do not live underwater, and the seahorse would probably “drown” in the atmosphere. So, um, butterfly.
VRZHU: And thanks and vente props to you both.
* * * *
About Otoliths: The intention is for Otoliths to appear quarterly, to contain a variety of what can be loosely described as e-things, that is, anything that can be translated (visually at this stage) to an electronic platform. If it moves, we won't shoot at it.
The publishing arm of Otoliths began as print editions of the e-zine Otoliths, but has since expanded to include books & chapbooks by authors associated with the journal. It brings out both text & visual poetry by some of the most exciting writers in the contemporary scene. For further information, contact the editor, Mark Young.
c/o Mark Young
8 Kennedy St
About dancing girl press publications:
dancing girl press, an indie publisher & art studio, was founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of women poets and artists through chapbooks, journals, book arts projects, and anthologies. Spawned by the online zine wicked alice, dgp seeks to publish work that bridges the gaps between schools and poetic techniques--work that's fresh, innovative, and exciting. The press has published over 30 titles by emerging women poets and creates handmade limited editions of 100 or so of each title. Our books are available via our website, at select independent bookstores, and through author readings.
Also a purveyor of paper, ephemera, and vintage-inspired arts and crafts, our studio space hosts readings, discussions, and workshops related to poetics, publishing, DIY, and books arts.
editor: Kristy Bowen
production assistant: Rebecca Bowen