“Once we know the future,
the past is changed.”
Elisa Gabbert talks with NER staff reader Jessica Gigot about form and time in poetry, the difficulty of achieving surprise, and “the end of knowledge.” Her poems “Historians of the Future” and “Bright & Distant Objects” are featured in NER 41.3.
Jessica Gigot: Your poems in the most recent issue of NER are structurally similar. Are these from a larger body of work that you are working on currently, and how are these poems in conversation with each other?
Elisa Gabbert: Yes, these two pieces are from my current manuscript in progress, which I’ve been working on for the past two years or so. I tend to choose a form and then work within it for a while, because already having some constraints in mind when I come to the page is a kind of shortcut—there’s less to figure out! These particular poems are all composed in a long prose line, with breaks after each line, so sentences are acting as stanzas; the poems tend to riff on a theme or concept or, in some cases, less a subject-matter theme than a simple motif of language, some repeating phrase (like “it’s almost” or “kind of”) which doesn’t have a lot of content on its own but becomes almost a musical motif; I like the effect of foregrounding that connective language that you usually glide over. Others are more overtly about the old standard poetic themes like time and death (these two certainly are).
JG: In “Historians of the Future” you write, “Once we know the future, the past is changed.” This is an astonishing line! It also seems to be a turning point in the poem where the narrator transitions to a more confessional, almost regretful, voice. Can you elaborate on this line?
EG: Oh, thank you for saying so—I’m proud of this line. I hope this doesn’t get me in trouble (with the law?), but I’ve actually written it twice—it’s part of a sentence in an essay I wrote about the impossible time of novels, about how we lose access to the past in the “purity” it seemed to have when it was present; the effects warp the causes. There are certain ideas that seem so central to my work that I keep coming back to them, and sometimes they occur in the exact same language, but in a new context. Here, you’re very right about the turn—I wanted to break the pattern of this … almost sterile, academic list of “facts” which are peculiar and interesting but not particularly personal. I like when a poem suddenly makes you raise your eyebrows.
JG: The poem “Bright & Distant Objects” grapples with death and presence and “The feeling of pure, empty remembering.” The dichotomy between feeling and knowing, mind and body, seems central and also unresolved in this poem. As a reader, I felt I was being asked to continue this line of questioning in my own life. Was that an intentional goal of the poem?
EG: There was a feeling I kept having for a while, related to presque vu, which is the opposite of déjà vu, the “tip of the tongue” feeling when you know you know something but just can’t bring it fully to mind. But in my case I wasn’t even sure what I was trying to remember; I didn’t even know if I knew it. An uncanny, rather maddening feeling, which reminds me a little of the mood of a dream lingering even after you’ve forgotten the details of the dream. So, yes, I was in part trying to capture that feeling of unsettled, almost unsafe uncertainty.
JG: I appreciate how these poems interweave scientific observations, that span from psychology to astronomy, with personal revelation and inquiry. In general, how does science influence your writing and are there specific resources (journals, magazine, books, news) that inform your work?
EG: Science and philosophy both influence my poetry strongly—I’m attracted to encounters with the unknown and the inconceivable. Sometimes I randomly run across facts or ideas in my general reading or in the news, and collect them in a notebook; sometimes I deliberately seek out information on a promising topic. Wikipedia is good inspiration because it’s immediately available, effectively infinite, and questionably accurate! I love the mysterious voice from nowhere that emerges from Wikipedia. But even “real science,” a lot of it, feels almost like fringe science, because it’s so theoretical. I read somewhere recently, and I don’t know if this is true or not, that we’ve made very little progress in the science of physics in the past fifty years, that “experiments in the foundations of physics past the 1970s have only confirmed the already existing theories. None found evidence of anything beyond what we already know.” That in itself is fascinating to me, like we’ve come to the end of knowledge—not all possible knowledge, but maybe what we’re capable of obtaining.
JG: Your latest collection of essays, The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, came out this August. How do you split your writing time between prose and poetry? What can you accomplish in poetry that is harder to do in prose? Do you have a preferred form?
EG: I think essays, for me, are a way of processing information, whereas poetry is more about preserving information in a semi-unprocessed state, preserving the feeling of the idea before I understand it. (This is not to say that my essays ever reach some final state of understanding, but they go further than poems do!) It’s somewhat a question of distance versus immediacy, but even if an essay is more distant and a poem more immediate, I like to modulate those effects in both forms. I tend to switch back and forth; after writing a lot of essays I miss writing poetry—I miss the things poetry allows for, like making assertions that I don’t necessarily believe. (Now I’m contradicting myself, but there’s a sense in which a poetry persona creates more distance than nonfiction!) Also, my prose tends to get more attention, and a different kind of attention, and sometimes I actually want less attention.
JG: What poets have you discovered recently? How has their work affected your own writing?
EG: Earlier this year I read Daniel Poppick’s collection Fear of Description and really loved the long prose pieces in it, especially. I’m very interested in how poets decide to move the poem forward; more so than in fiction or typical nonfiction, there’s a kind of dizzying openness between lines in poetry, a feeling that the poet could say anything next—but obviously you don’t want to just string together pure non sequiturs. This book seemed to foreground those decisions, the propulsions, in a very compelling way. Basically what I’ve been thinking about a lot is the importance, and the difficulty, of achieving authentic surprise.
JG: We are living in uncertain times right now—politically, socially and environmentally. What role does poetry play for you in this historic moment? Have your investigations into time and the “eternal now” been helpful to you amidst all of this turmoil?
EG: The poetry that helps me most feels very philosophical. I don’t know that it helps me permanently, but just connecting with another mind in the darkness can get me through a moment, can make me feel momentarily stronger or just … shadowed in my pain, like there’s some mind out there, even in the past, running parallel to my suffering or lostness. This year, poems by Khadijah Queen and Rilke have helped me in this way. Of course, art that brings a moment of joy or delight or distraction is welcome too.
Elisa Gabbert’s collections of poetry, essays, and criticism include The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays (FSG, 2020), The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018), L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean, 2016), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013), and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2018). Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, the New York Review of Books, A Public Space, American Poetry Review, Paris Review Daily, Guernica, and elsewhere.
Jessica Gigot, who reads poetry manuscripts for NER, is a poet, farmer, teacher and musician. She has a small farm in Bow, WA called Harmony Fields that makes artisan sheep cheese and grows organic herbs. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour, will be released in November 2020 by Wandering Aengus Press. She also teaches writing classes at Hugo House.