Elisa Gabbert didn't know she would be living through a global pandemic when she sat down to write The Unreality of Memory (FSG/released Aug. 11), her latest essay collection, which takes great interest in how people live through disasters and process their experiences. But the book, which the poet and essayist began in 2016, could not be more timely. Gabbert spoke with PW about what it was like to research some of the most harrowing moments in human history, what she's learned about pandemics, how poetry leaks into her prose, and more.
What is it like to have a book preoccupied with disasters and memory come out in the midst of numerous disasters across the world: rapidly worsening climate change, a flailing U.S. presidency, increasing fascist populism worldwide, flaring tensions between the world's major powers, ongoing humanitarian crises in such countries as Yemen and Venezuela, the recent decimation of Beirut, and, of course, a global pandemic?
Well, I’m glad we still have books. Some days it’s hard for me to believe that anyone would want to read about disasters during a disaster, but multiple people have told me they found the book “oddly comforting”—which is exactly how I often felt when reading about the Black Death, or, even better, the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, a mysterious sudden global warming period 55 million years ago. Reading about history and especially deep geologic time can provide a kind of momentary psychic relief from all the suffering of the present. And my hope is that it somehow helps us think through the present into the future, though I wish I knew how to fix these problems. I wish I knew how to save the post office or end voter suppression.
This collection deals with major historical moments and trends and massive collective reactions to them, but also examines very personal experiences and intimate responses from both you and your loved ones. How did you strike a balance between these two magnitudes, and how did you find a way to weave them all together?
Though I wouldn’t call this a book of personal essays, the essay as a form is inherently personal—a record of how I’m processing time and material through my particular perspective, this singular, subjective consciousness. When I’m working on an essay I experience a heightened consciousness: I notice what I’m noticing, I think about how I’m thinking. My approach as a writer has always been to make this stuff explicit, like the essayist (me) is there in the essay, almost as a character, doing this research, changing her mind. But I also get sick of myself, so my essays are rarely strictly personal.
Your essay "The Great Mortality" is about plagues and pandemics throughout the ages—it even quotes Anthony Fauci and mentions attempts to predict the next pandemic on the level of the flu of 1918. What kind of lessons did you learn from studying thousands of years of human attempts to cope with illnesses their doctors barely understood? How does it feel to return to that essay now?
Here’s a fun fact: my last pass edits were due in April, after lockdown had started. There was some question of whether I should update that essay with a mention of Covid-19. But how could I, really? What could I say about a pandemic that was still just beginning to unfold? Instead, I decided to annotate each essay with the year of composition. I wrote “The Great Mortality” in 2018; I wanted it to be clear to readers why there was no mention of the current pandemic.
You might think I was more prepared for the coronavirus than the average person, but I can’t say I was! Back in January or February, I remember my friend Sarah sending me links about the outbreaks in China and asking if I was worried. I’m embarrassed to say I was pretty cavalier; I think I said “We’ve lived through flu panics before.” I did exactly what everyone always does: I told myself the big disaster wouldn’t (or couldn’t) actually happen to me.
During the research process for this collection, did you have to balance researching these grim topics with lighter fare? What was your reading process like at the time?
I really loved doing the research for this book, and the truth is that being surrounded by library books, even if the books were about Hiroshima and Chernobyl, made me happy—I was just so interested in learning more about these things, I would fall into flow. But once the book was done I absolutely needed a break. I went back to reading lots of novels and poetry and writing literary criticism. I think the only essay I wrote last year that was research-based was about hair metal.
This is your second collection of essays. Around the occasion of your first, The Word Pretty, you told Read It Forward "I didn’t really start off thinking about writing a book of essays at all." What made you decide to write a second? And does it come from a creative impulse similar to the one that drives your poetry?
I didn’t set out to write my first essay collection because I didn’t have a sense that anyone wanted to read my prose. But what I discovered was actually a lot more people wanted to read my prose than wanted to read my poetry. I don’t think this is because my poetry sucks (though who am I to say), I think it’s just that prose forms have a much wider audience. (Mary Ruefle, a poet whose essays are really popular, has said that poetry is private but prose is public; prose is public language.) So certain things that I had thought of as not really for me, as a writer—things like having an agent, writing a book proposal—suddenly seemed like maybe they could be for me. But I am still writing poems, and poetry is a very different way of communicating. In my nonfiction I really am trying to tell the truth, but poetry is closer to fiction; it’s more like creating a speculative reality that the ideas can live in.
What are some ways writing poetry informs your essay writing that surprised you when you recognized them, and vice versa?
I really care about the tiny details of language and punctuation in both prose and poetry, and I really care about the sound of my sentences, the rhythm of the paragraph—I love the paragraph in isolation, the way it can feel like a prose poem, self-contained. I also like to think about what can be left out—poetry depends more on gaps, but the essay can make use of gaps as well. There’s an essay in The Word Pretty where I write about what I call “invisible transitions,” a kind of maneuver where the leap between two paragraphs or ideas is a little opaque, where you kind of spontaneously appear at point B rather than seeing a clear path from point A.
The morning after the 2016 presidential election, you tweeted: "Life goes on, but at greatly reduced quality and not for as long." Relatedly, you end the collection’s second essay, "Doomsday Pattern," with "I feel this way all the time now. Nothing is safe. Everything's fine." Nearly four years later, do you feel the same way?
In 2016, it felt like we were on the brink of disaster; now I’d say we’re over the brink. Of course, things were already very bad then, but the devastation of the pandemic is just overwhelming. If you think about it too much you’ll never stop screaming. So I guess you could say I do feel the same: the only way to get through time alive is to spend a lot of it pretending that everything’s fine.