The Rumpus Interview with Elisa Gabbert


Back in May of 2014, I reached out to author Elisa Gabbert and pitched a possible interview. We had followed (and still follow) each other on Twitter for some time, one of those online acquaintanceships where we routinely “favorite” the other person’s tweets. To me, this signified like minds, or at least minds on similar wavelengths.

I once wrote that Twitter is a “literary marketplace” and an “intangible library.” This is, I think, the least boring way of describing “literary Twitter,” that wing of the social network where Gabbert and I inhabit. Here, books, stories, essays, ideas, and grievances are exchanged, but perhaps that’s oversimplifying things. Gabbert is more adept in honoring and preserving the complex within a small space.

“Luck is a skill,” writes Gabbert, “as is beauty, intelligence—all things you’re born with. It can almost ruin you, the belief that you can choose.” Twitter, by design, was made for Gabbert’s economical use of words, space—a hallmark of a true poet—without diving into the maudlin, or the banal. An idea’s complexity is often eschewed in the construction of a tweet, yet Gabbert’s tweets, much like her poetry and prose, utilize the white space, the silence inherent in the limitation of 140 characters, to say what needs to be said—by not saying (or tweeting) it at all.

In this interview, Gabbert discusses, among other things, the National Review’s response to her column on white male writers and publishing, Twitter and social media for writers, racism and sexism in publishing, Drake, and the movie Love, Actually. Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable and The French Exit. Recent poems and essays have appeared in Jubilat, Threepenny Review, The Smart Set, and at The Butter. Her monthly writing advice column, “The Blunt Instrument,” appears on Electric Literature. Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.


The Rumpus: We’ve been planning this interview/conversation for a year now. Did you ever think it would happen? Am I that flaky?

Elisa Gabbert: Yes, you’re that flaky. I gave you 60/40 odds, about. I’m glad we’re finally doing it!

Rumpus: Do you remember how we even crossed paths on Twitter? I’m thinking you said something snarky and witty and it got retweeted into my timeline. Maybe it was the other way around (I doubt it).

Gabbert: I’m not sure; that was years ago. Didn’t you kind of disappear from Twitter for a while, then come back in force? Maybe we connected up through [the author and former Rumpus Essays Editor] Roxane Gay? It would be cool if Twitter would remind you how long you’ve been following someone, the tweet that caused you to follow, etc.

Rumpus: I did kind of disappear for a while. Long story. I suspect it was Roxane but it could’ve easily been anyone. Twitter can certainly use those features, but they have a few more pressing issues. Any thoughts on Twitter’s handling of trolls and abusive behavior?

Gabbert: There are some great recommendations in here. Note the last suggestion: “diversify Twitter’s leadership.” Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly white and male. It’s unfortunate that the features that make Twitter so great (its openness) make it so easy to abuse. In a way, the “better” someone is at Twitter, the more likely they are to get fed up and leave, since a big platform comes with more exposure and more opportunities for abuse. I don’t know how people like Roxane do it. I wouldn’t wish that many followers on anybody.

Rumpus: My sense is that, as writers, particularly those of us who write essays online and delve into “cultural criticism,” we spend much of our time on Twitter having to instantaneously speak to people regarding our work. In all, maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Then again, I can see how exhausting it would be to have thousands of people demand your time and attention, as if they have a right to demand anything.

Gabbert: It’s a weird kind of audience entitlement. Like, you took some of my attention, so now you have to pay attention to me.

Rumpus: I think it’s more about access. I imagine people would’ve had much to say to Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe if, in the 1960s, they had instantaneous access to writers. The wall of “distance” separating writer and reader is gone, forever.

Gabbert: Yes, but there’s an upside to it as well. You can actually befriend writers you admire. I was in high school when I read The Giant’s House (Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel). Now she’s read one of my books! It’s insane!

Rumpus: What was your initial thought to the National Review commenting on your column on white male poets over at Electric Literature, in which you wrote, in part, that the literary community “no longer accepts the white male perspective as default” ?

Gabbert: Fear. Seriously. It wasn’t a thought so much as an autonomic reaction. I had to get on a plane that day, and I anticipated landing and checking my phone to find my inbox flooded with death threats. But people who read the National Review would apparently rather talk amongst themselves. A friend (a white male!) read the comments for me and reported, “The comments on your piece are obviously terrible, but they are nothing compared to the cesspool of horrors that is the comments to the National Review article.” Anyway, once I realized that I wasn’t going to have to shut down my Twitter account, I relaxed. Being an enemy of the nut-job far-right feels kind of good.

Rumpus: You sent me a draft of the column before you published it, and I gave my opinion on it (the column was spot on, and it still is). I feel a little culpable though. Maybe I could’ve given better advice? Is there anything you think you could’ve done differently?

Gabbert: No way. I stand behind my advice. I think it’s (so, so) telling that I’ve never seen anyone react angrily to the advice that women/POC should submit more and pitch more—but look at the insane amount of ire I inspired by suggesting that white men slightly modify their behavior. (And in the direction of less work! Not more work!) Of course, of course—of course it’s on us to conform to the system that oppresses us.

Rumpus: I don’t believe for a minute in the assertions that white men submitting less work would, somehow, impact or diminish art. I think feelings were hurt, and they reacted in kind, but maybe I’m missing something. Why do you think you received such vitriol?

Gabbert: There’s a very large contingent of people that have bought into a narrative about threat from the left. They (the people in power) have spun it around so they’re the underdogs, and the things they deserve and have worked hard for are being taken away from them. It’s a bullshit narrative! But of course people want to believe that anything they do have is deserved. It’s very difficult for people to accept the idea of privilege, or even luck.

Here’s the thing. I expect this crap from the right wing. But I think a lot of white guys who actually identify as liberal have internalized this same threatened thinking, so you get people saying “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a racist bone in my body, but isn’t it actually racist to treat white men differently based just on their race?” And my answer would be no, it’s not. That is not a problem at all. That’s a complete misunderstanding of what “racism” is, of the nature of the problem we’re trying to solve. It’s based on an assumption that “racism” or prejudice based on race is bad for everybody, but the fact is, prejudice helps white people. Prejudice makes it easier for white people to get jobs and get into college and less likely to get arrested or murdered by cops. Again, some white people (women too, I admit) are very reluctant to face this fact.

Rumpus: Personally, I think some white people (all white people?) are keenly aware of how racism works in their favor. That’s why it’s so exhausting, and perhaps futile, for me, a person of color, to keep pointing it out.

Gabbert: As Adalena Kavanagh recently pointed out in conversation, they might only subconsciously be aware of it, but that’s enough to want to maintain the status quo.

Rumpus: I tweeted recently that at some point, online literature has to intersect with humanity. Meaning that there are serious issues around sex and race that haunt online literature, yet it seems difficult to engage in any kind of open dialogue. Not really a question, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Gabbert: Yeah, it’s hard to talk about this stuff. We all want to be on “the right side,” but nobody wants to think too hard. (A good liberal just LOVES consensus, since you can agree without having to add anything.) But then, when someone does speak up and say something that is remotely controversial (which it would have to be, to be useful at all), they get attacked from all sides. So I totally understand why many people would rather just avoid politics online. It sucks, but I get the sense that things are getting better, at least on the scale of like, decades.

Rumpus: I’m inclined to ask “how do we fix all of this?” but perhaps the better question to ask, is online literature salvageable? Is it even worth saving? Literature is a malleable art, as is the act of publishing, so maybe we look for new ways of doing things?

Gabbert: Did you listen to the Marc Maron podcast with President Obama? He said something like, “If you don’t think things are getting better, you weren’t a black man alive forty years ago.” I’m inclined to think things are getting better. It seems like newer magazines are more likely to be truly “diverse” than old print stalwarts like the LRB. And online literature is cheaper than print, so it makes sense. Fewer gatekeepers. So I would say yes, worth saving.

Rumpus: I enjoyed the podcast. It reminded me of why I voted for him back in 2008. The comment he made, the one you reference, was all the more potent because he pivoted back to racism, specifically its continued existence and manifestation (if I recall, this is when he used the N-word). Yes, newer magazines are more likely to be diverse, but relative to times when there were NO people of color on mastheads. There’s still an element of exclusion, to put it mildly.

Gabbert: Yes, it’s still really bad. It’s not just that black writers, for example, aren’t published enough. We fuck them over from the very beginning by making it so hard for them to get a good education. So there aren’t as many black writers as there could/should be, just as there aren’t as many women in the upper tiers of the sciences.

Rumpus: In the vein of your latest book The Self Unstable, do you think there’s room or space for more aphoristic prose to be published? The appeal of your book, to me, was the airy structure of each piece. More koan than essay. It has changed my own approach to writing prose.

Gabbert: Thank you! I love aphorisms. And I love airy prose. I feel like more lyrical, fragmented, nonlinear essays are a way for readers to access what’s great about poetry without getting hung up on the poetry part (lines).

Rumpus: Teju Cole called The Self Unstable “a wonderful surprise. It was the most intelligent and most intriguing thing I’ve read in a while, moving between lyric poetry, aphorism, and memoir, and with thoughts worth stealing on just about every page.”

What was the thinking behind the use of the aphoristic style? In a way, I thought it created more distance between the “I” in the pieces and the reader, if that makes sense, making the project much more compelling than either a straight memoir/essay collection or a book of poetry.

Gabbert: When I first starting writing the pieces, there was almost no “I” in them. It was quite dry and impersonal. I was basically trying to weave the kinds of sentences/thoughts that you would normally find in prose into something more like poetry. (The reason being that I was going through a period where I just wasn’t thinking in “lines.”) But as the collection started to come together, I felt compelled to add more “I” back in, maybe because the “subject” of the book was emerging as the self, the I.

If you look at Wallace Stevens’s Adagia, he’s doing this aphoristic thing but most of the aphorisms are about poetry (e.g. “Poetry is not personal”). Most of the lines are just assertions that we can assume are his own thoughts or beliefs, but he occasionally prefaces one with a phrase like “I believe” or “I don’t think” which paradoxically looks like a marker of doubt. Anyway I guess I decided I liked the contrast of these generalities about selfhood against the specific details of my particular self.

Rumpus: You don’t have to explain or break down the following passage from The Self Unstable, but I’m curious to know what you think about it now, at this moment, as you read it.

Don’t just be yourself—build your personal brand. The self is unstable. It might not be found by the search engines. It might be rejected. The self regenerates every five or six days. A consistent brand, a coherent self. Consider the interface, testing for usability. Even crows have a sense of self, and the accompanying self-esteem, self-loathing. The crow is self-reflexive, self-defeating. How dejected is the crow.

Gabbert: This was one of the first pieces I wrote for the manuscript (and the source of the title, obviously). An example of the tone one reviewer called “cold and oppressive.” He didn’t mean it in a complimentary way, but I kind of take it as such. The pieces I wrote later aren’t nearly as cold. Some of the language in here came from my job. I had just started working in marketing. Another interesting thing here is that it feels to me like it could just as easily be in lines, like I wasn’t really quite working in prose yet.

Rumpus: In a recent essay with The Smart Set, on the topic of aphorisms as essays, you wrote, “Twitter has made my poetry more aphoristic. Formally, it’s a platform ideally suited to the aphorism; in fact aphorisms should be quite a bit less than 140 characters.” Would you describe your tweets as aphoristic? Have they become more aphoristic over time?

Gabbert: Some of my tweets are aphoristic, absolutely. Like “Aphorisms are essays,” the tweet that I turned into the title of that essay. But when I scroll through my timeline they’re mostly not aphoristic. They’re mostly jokes, observations, half-ironic complaints. The easiest way to categorize them outside of just “tweets” is “thoughts.” I usually don’t tweet when there’s someone in the room I can just tell my thoughts to. I compulsively tweet when I’m alone.

Rumpus: We’ve talked about this once or twice on Twitter, but is there a scenario where tweets can replace blog posts? I ask this knowing you just updated your blog, and knowing I hadn’t updated my blog in months.

Gabbert: Yes! I almost never blog anymore! Blogging used to be, for me, a lazy way of writing an essay. But Twitter is an even lazier way of writing an essay! So now I usually either just tweet or write the fucking essay. I use my blog now mostly as a reference to other things, or for lists I want to be able to easily find and link to.

Rumpus: Same. My blog is more or less a hub for all of my writer/editor work that appears elsewhere. At least that’s the theory, should I keep my site updated. Websites in general seem a little antiquated, or less important, since a site’s content can make its way to social media. Are there sites you regularly visit? Do you get your content/news from social media?

Gabbert: There are a few stray blogs I visit regularly, but I use Feedly (an RSS reader) rather than actually visiting them. Aside from that I pretty much just wait for Twitter to surface interesting stuff. But there are times that I want to read something interesting and nothing is surfacing that appeals and at those times I wish I had a go-to aggregator site. Google Reader was ideal for this, because you could build a little community and people would share the best stuff.

Rumpus: Any essays you’ve read recently that grabbed your attention?

Gabbert: The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits is packaged as a diary but feels more like a book of short essays than a memoir. I really, really loved it.

Rumpus: How about books or specific writers? Any that you find yourself returning to over the years?

Gabbert: I always want to re-read this one article David Foster Wallace wrote for Harper’s years ago, about how dictionaries are made, but I never have, though I know I have the magazine buried somewhere. I rarely re-read books in full. I did revisit Joan Didion last year, after reading Play Is As It Lays and not really loving it. I prefer both their nonfiction to their fiction. The essay collections I’ve recommended most in the past few years are probably Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle and My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum. Both poets! And I prefer Ruefle’s essays to her poetry! (I haven’t read much of Koestenbaum’s poetry.)

I just finished I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell a couple of weeks ago and loved that too. It’s one of those collections that gets better as it goes, which I cherish. I hate when collections are front-loaded. Russell’s writing is kind of staggeringly good. You get the feeling that it would have been published anyway even if it was only half as good. It’s a little Didion-esque, actually, and also reminded me of Ben Lerner, with a dash of DFW (but much less show-offy).

Rumpus: Drake has a new beard and Rihanna has given the world a video for “BBHMM.” I need to know your thoughts on both of these facts.

Gabbert: I tweeted recently “I think I might not know who Drake is” so that’s probably all you need to know about the first part of your question. I just watched the “explicit” version of the Rihanna video (Eric Roberts cameo!!!). Look, I don’t really “keep up with music.” Every now and then when I’m traveling for work and in a hotel I watch MTV in the mornings while I’m getting ready. As far as I can tell early morning is the only time they show actual music videos anymore.

My reaction is just uncritical fascination. It’s like culture porn. I feel anthropological towards it, but also like I’m being experimented on, like pop music has been engineered at a VERY ADVANCED LEVEL so I can’t not like it; they found some kind of loophole. I don’t feel the same way about Hollywood movies at all. Movies are easy for me to hate. Pop music I’m just like, whatever, gimme. But again, I don’t keep up. I drink the free Coke at work but I don’t buy it at home.

Rumpus: Why the difference between movies and pop music? Hollywood hasn’t found that same loophole?

Gabbert: People are intuitively better at judging music than movies. It seems to me like most people have no idea what is good/bad in film. Audience response as mass hysteria.

Rumpus: What are your next/upcoming projects?

Gabbert: I finished a book of poetry earlier this year, which will be published next year by Black Ocean. It’s a book of persona poems in the voice of a character from a Wallace Shawn play. Since finishing that, I’ve kind of been taking a hiatus from poetry, not writing or reading it. I would really like to do a collection of essays next, but that feels a ways off from coming together.

Rumpus: To close, I’ve picked one of your recent tweets semi-randomly. You tweeted “Unrequited love that turns out to be requited love is the most beautiful kind of love.” I agree completely. Where did this come from, if you don’t mind me asking?

Gabbert: It came from teen movies. I was thinking that part of the enduring appeal of teen movies for adults is that the romances usually entail this kind of flip. The object of your affection either secretly loved you back all along or, by the end of the movie, they fall in love with you or “realize” they love you. It’s the complete subversion of your despair that is so powerful.

And that kind of thing really did happen in high school, because kids aren’t very in touch with their emotions. It’s not as plausible in adult settings. That didn’t stop Love, Actually from using it in like four or five of the storylines of course. Love, Actually is like a cross between a teen movie and a GAP commercial.

Mensah Demary is associate web editor for Catapult, and editor of Specter Magazine. A music columnist for Electric Literature, he is also the curator and host of LIT: A Music & Reading Series. Mensah Demary lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. More from this author →