Spotlight: Dobby Gibson

Interview by Sam Woodworth

Dobby Gibson is the author of two books of poetry. His first, Polar, was the winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award and published by Alice James Books in 2005. It was finalist for the year’s Minnesota Book Award. Skirmish, Gibson’s second book, came out in 2009 with Graywolf Press. Stephen Burt says of Gibson’s poetry, “This is a poet who is quirky and funny and idiosyncratic and unpredictable from line to line, and yet who does justice to daily experiences that we think of as normal and unremarkable. Experiences that are very widely shared and experiences that are, as his poetry shows quite remarkable and quite strange.” Dobby’s third book, It Becomes You, is slated for release in January 2013.

Dobby Gibson. Cowboy?

When I first met Dobby Gibson, it was brief and in passing at a sandwich shop. Then, when I met up with him for this interview, the re-meeting revealed a strange lapse in visual memory and author photographs. You see, his portrait on his first book of poems, Polar, is black and white. He is wearing a denim jacket and staring straight at the camera. He looks like a cowboy, like he just mended a fence and is leaning against that freshly sturdy fence. Probably right off camera, the Marlboro man is rearing back atop a horse. That’s the vibe anyway and that’s what I was expecting to see when meeting him again.

Gibson's "Self-Portrait in a Digital Mirror"

But that’s not really what he looks like. This caricature is much closer to reality.

And he, when we shook hands again, asked, “Didn’t you have a beard when we met?” No. “Oh. That’s what I was looking for. I thought you had a Walt-Whitman-beard.” If that’s how people remember me– with a glorious American mountain beard, rather than my actual ferret-fuzzed scraggly face– that’s fine with me.

Whitman... or Coldfront's Woodworth?

I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of Dobby’s newest book, It Becomes You, to be released by Graywolf Press in January of 2013. And while it’s a long way until the book hits the shelves, the collection is worthy of significant pre-publication buzz. A lot of his new poems seem to delve into the anxiety of constant shifts and re-creations of self. Maybe Dobby was a cowboy when he wrote Polar. I didn’t ask.

This is what I did ask and this is what Dobby said.

SW: Do you consider yourself a Minneapolis or Minnesota poet?

DG: Oh god. That’s your first question? I mean… am I a poet who lives in Minneapolis and Minnesota? Yes. But if that question means something else, like do I subscribe to a school or a regional aesthetic of some kind, the answer is no. I don’t think I get much say in how I get labeled, or if I get labeled at all, though. If you’re a poet and live in Brooklyn, are you regionalized as an Eastern Seaboard poet? Or a New England poet? Probably not, because you’re in the power seat of American literary culture — at least historically speaking. What really makes me resist the Minnesota label is it makes people think of someone who writes poems about canoeing in the Boundary Waters with their grandfather — the kinds of homey life lessons you can needlepoint onto a throw pillow, and that’s not the kind of poem I’m writing, please God.

In your upcoming book, It Becomes You, you have a poem titled “The Minneapolis Poem” which made me think of James Wright’s poem of the same name. Your poem mentions three poets (Berryman, Bly, Wright) people think of when you say “Minneapolis” and “Poet” in the same sentence.

I wrote that poem without even thinking about the James Wright poem. My poem, which is about a lot more than just Minneapolis, simply came out onto the page one day. I thought of the James Wright poem afterwards, which is a totally ridiculous poem — this litany of horrors. “God forbid that I should ever be buried in Minneapolis,” or whatever. I’d really like to hear Charlton Heston read that one. I titled my poem “The Minneapolis Poem” as a way to take back ownership of that idea, at least a tiny bit.

Well, what contemporary poets do you dig or influence your work, or you feel you’re in dialogue with?

Can I talk about non-contemporary poets?

Yeah.

The first two post-1901 poets I was introduced to were really Frank O’Hara and Wallace Stevens. To this day, they’re still the poles between which I feel my work sits. Somewhere. I go back to both of those poets on a regular basis. Among living poets, it’s hard to create a list. it’s constantly changing and vacillating, so any list is incomplete and instantly out of date.

I’ll tell you one recent book that totally blew me away is Sarah Manguso’s second book called Siste Viator (Four Way Books). I met her once and she told me she quit writing poetry. Now she’s writing memoir. That crushed me when I heard that. A couple of those poems were first published in Conduit, here locally.

When did you start writing poetry?

I was 26 and about halfway through the Indiana University MFA program, where I was an unexceptional fiction student.

What prompted you to try poetry?

I realized I was spending most of my time working on beginnings and endings — first and last paragraphs, even sentences. It finally dawned on me there was this other genre that would allow me to focus entirely on doing these things. One thing I liked immediately about writing poetry was the feeling that I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I’m happy to say I still get that feeling from it. Poetry is magical and totally preposterous.

But this is how dumb I was back then: I remember going to a fiction workshop at Cornelia Nixon’s house. She was married to Dean Young then. I was standing next to her, and looking at their living room bookshelves, and I said, “Wow, you have a lot of literary journals.” She pulled one off the shelf and put it in my hands and said, “It’s not a literary journal. These are all books of poetry.” It was so skinny! I had never seen such a thing.

In Skirmish you have a series of “Fortune” poems and in your new one you have a set of 40 Fortunes. Where did these come from?

It all started because my wife and I gave as a gift to her sister, the poet Karen Carcia, a set of Chinese fortune telling sticks. In order to tell a fortune, you had to use this booklet. The booklet sounded as if it had been written in Mandarin, translated into French, then maybe German, and eventually into English. The syntax was shattered. It was funny and beautiful. The night we gave Karen this gift we all started reading the book to one another. Immediately I thought, “God, I want to write a poem that sounds like that.” It’s really rare to hear a poem in future-tense. In fact, poems are almost always written, to an annoying degree, in this heightened present-tense. I’m guilty of that, too, so it was really refreshing to break out of that.

When I was writing the Fortunes in Skirmish, I was trying to write poems that both looked and felt like that mistranslated booklet, or my memory of the booklet, anyway. Karen took the booklet with her, but the sound of it was still in my head.

[ASIDE: Dobby and I were having this conversation over lunch at One-on-One in Minneapolis. It was at this point that Casey Peterson and Marisa Atkinson of Graywolf Press, Dobby's publisher, entered the cafe for lunch and waved to us and said hello.

"Hey, this is an official interview," Dobby said to the distractors. "Just kidding."  

"They're always ruining things," I said.

"Are they?" Dobby shook his fist in their direction. "You’re holding me back from greatness!" The interview continued…]

There are fortunes in this new book, but I am done with that.

With the fortunes?

I think so. I don’t want to become “the fortune-telling poet.” I’ve already told Jeff Shotts [Poetry Editor at Graywolf Press] that I’m terrified I’ve become the Carnac the Magnificent of poetry. In the new book, I was interested in fortune one-liners. People kept calling the Skirmish Fortune poems “fortune-cookie poems” even though they were much longer than that. So I thought, okay, maybe I’ll try to write fortune-cookie fortunes that simultaneously work as one-line poems and also in sequence, together, as a single poem. It feels like a nice little palette cleanser in the new book. My other poems are so thick and jumpy, especially the title poem, I think it helps the book to have a brief section in the middle that’s more breezy and second generation New-York-School fun, like Charles North’s lineups or something.

I am a big fan of this poet, James Richardson. He writes wonderful aphorisms. Observational aphorisms, mostly. There’s definitely an aphoristic tendency to a lot of my work. I love making blanket declarations that hopefully expose the odd in the everyday. Aphorism has really gotten into my bloodstream to a degree.

In It Becomes You, the book builds momentum with its various themes and recurring imagery and ideas throughout the poems and concludes with kind of an exclamation point— the long title poem. Can you tell me about how you put a book together?

I can never think in terms of a book when I’m writing. I can’t even think in terms of a poem. How could anyone believe they were capable of writing even one decent poem? It’s absurd. So for as long as possible, it’s just writing to me. Things like poems and books are just byproducts of sitting down and playing around with language. I eventually look into my folder and realize, wow, if I throw away the 20 worst poems here, I might have a book. I can’t remember when I wrote that final poem, but I didn’t write it last. I wrote it somewhere in the middle. There did come a point when I could see what the shape of the book was, and it was clear to me that “It Becomes You” was the long final poem. I feel I might be working up to a book-length poem. I feel like that’s maybe what I’ve got in me next. It was really pleasurable to stretch out like that and not have any boundaries.

What was the inclination in that poem for the sporadic indentations? They’re not always, but often feel like domestic asides.

I guess that is true. That was instinctual, I suppose. I knew I couldn’t just have this monotonous ribbon of a poem. There had to be a place for the reader to pause, step-out and step back in. It ended up being like a rhythm track to the poem. It allowed the poem to reset itself. For a while I thought of those lines as a chorus. I don’t know if it is another voice or if it’s the same voice having a second thought or contradicting itself.

How about the contemporary political or economic asides that are beginning to pop-up in your poetry?

I wanted to open myself up to that. Everything that has been happening around me— around all of us— is almost entirely driven by macroeconomics, which is something that I might not have in the past thought to write about or even allowed to enter into my poetry. I find it interesting, I was saying this to Jeff Shotts the other day, so many poets write about race, or class, or environmental devastation, but awfully few write about economics at a macro level, which is arguably the larger driver of all of those other things. Maybe that’s changed a little with the Occupy movement, I don’t know. One example I can think of is Ron Slate who wrote a book a couple years ago that was largely about currency trading. When I was writing that final poem, “It Becomes You,” I was interested in satirizing some of the absurd language that lies behind things like the Citizens United decision and so-called quantitative easing. It’s no accident that particular term sounds so gentle and poetic. It’s a whitewash. So many of Wall Street’s crimes start with obfuscations of language. Before they can rob us, they have to confuse us.

I feel like your poetry favors content over sound, but occasionally there are times when words chime or play-off of one another and it pops out. How conscious are you about sound when writing?

Yeah, sometimes there is no better reason to use a word than for what it sounds like. I did a lot of sound-play in that poem “The Gentle Reader Asks the Poet, ‘Where Do You Get the Ideas for Your Poems?’” That poem was written not long after a reading in Santa Cruz. The audience was made up of one-half wealthy, dot-com housewives and one-half burn-outs who washed-up from the beach in their dirty windbreakers. One woman was sitting in the middle of the audience in these gigantic sunglasses. She never took them off during the reading, and she was staring right at me. It was really nerve-wracking. The host opened up the reading to questions afterwards, and this woman raised her hand and asked, “Do you know any wolves?” She was dead serious, probably 60 years old. It was fantastic. I said, “I don’t, but I have a dog and his name is Hoagie.” And she nodded as if that was exactly what she needed to hear. She gave the microphone back to the moderator. I should have written a poem about wolves, but instead I wrote a poem about the most banal question you can be asked at a reading.

I’ve always felt the urge to ask this one banal question during an interview, so let me try it out. If you were interviewing yourself, what’s one question you would ask yourself?

What are you doing with your life? You’re a grown man writing poems. Don’t you think you should stop and do something practical with your life? Volunteer at a pet hospital? I would be a cruel interview to myself, Sam. you don’t want to uncork this.