Q&A with Poetry Contributor Mag Gabbert

Mag Gabbert is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Texas Tech University, and she previously received an MFA from The University of California at Riverside. Her essays and poems have been published or are forthcoming in journals including 32 Poems, Cleaver Magazine, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, PhoebeSugar House Review, and Birmingham Poetry Review, among other venues. Mag also serves as an associate editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. For more information, please visit maggabbert.com.

Her poem "Dark Matter" will appear in the Winter 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 14, for special savings and discounts.


Did the scope of "Dark Matter" change during different drafts? What was the initial inspiration?

I remember the experience that led me to write this poem very vividly. I was driving and listening to a show on NPR about early detection methods for breast cancer, and at one point the show’s host interviewed an oncologist; she asked him questions like: what does a tumor feel like in breast tissue, and, what are doctors looking for when they review a mammogram x-ray?

During that time my stepmother was dying of breast cancer, and my best friend was awaiting the results of a biopsy, so this subject had been on my mind and felt especially important to me. I couldn’t figure out how to write about it, though, until I found myself listening to that interview. The oncologist said that sometimes locating a tumor can be like searching for balloons inside a cloud, and that image really stuck with me. I knew it belonged in a poem.

With regard to the piece’s scope, I tend to find that my poems will take shape in one of two ways. Most of the time I’ll toil over revisions for weeks—if not months—and this usually affects the overall scope of the piece pretty drastically. I would say eighty-five percent of my poems are written that way. But then, every so often, I’ll draft a piece that feels almost fully-formed from the beginning, and that was the kind of experience I had writing “Dark Matter.” The progression of the narrative and the images remain basically intact from the first draft. The only changes I ultimately made were to omit a few words, adjust some of my choices in diction, and expand the form of the piece physically.

I noticed that you use punctuation consistently and correctly throughout the poem. Is this characteristic of your writing or do you sometimes use punctuation loosely or not at all? Either way, why?

You’ve asked this question at a humorous time, incidentally. Up until about last April, I’d always used regular and “correct” punctuation. My feeling was (and is) that it’s best to use conventional punctuation unless there’s a function or an intention behind not doing so. In other words, I want the form to compliment the content of my poems, and vice versa. But, I also really value duplicity and ambiguity. I like to play with the destabilizing and explosive potential that is latent within language.

So, recently, I’ve begun writing poems without any punctuation at all. I think eschewing punctuation can add an exciting element of tension to a poem, because the reader must continually reset as he or she searches for the syntactic unit. This is the kind of tension that Ellen Bryan Voigt describes as a tapestry, wherein the reader is torn between the desire to read horizontally (i.e. syntactically), or vertically, as the verse would dictate.

I think you can see that I’m starting to veer away from punctuation in “Dark Matter.” In the third stanza, for example, I say “Then you declare / feeling nothing, joking / I’m dark and empty,” and there is this sense of ambiguity regarding whether the “joke” is about feeling nothing (instead of a tumor), or about the speaker being dark and empty (in a figurative, humorous sense). I could have added a period after the word “joking,” or I could have added the word “that,” and either of those moves would have clarified the referent. But, I eventually chose neither one because that precipice, the teetering spot in our perception between despair and joy, is what the poem is ultimately about. It’s also interesting that the poem then unfurls as a single sentence, because it seems again to gesture toward a more fluid syntactical mode.

I would add that I do sometimes still write poems with punctuation; but, for me, it’s typically all or nothing.

In what ways have the communities you are or have been involved in (your PhD, MFA, or otherwise) helped shape you as a writer?

Firstly, I think these communities have granted me the permission to leave my work open, to accept complexity as an alternative to resolution, and of course this applies both to my writing and to my life. When I first started writing, I believed (as many new writers do) that the key to a powerful ending was to suddenly wrap things up neatly, to really say something that collapsed the whole piece together. I thought I needed to slam the door, or drop the mic, so to speak. But, while I was working on my MFA at UC Riverside, I had some really formative conversations and experiences that helped open my eyes to the nuance in everything, and to the importance of that. My new friends and mentors brought this universe of context to their thinking; they saw how every image and narrative and cadence really engaged with or reflected something else—another work they’d read, another experience they’d had, another historical situation, another line, and so on. So, once I saw how those writers conceptualized their own worlds, I wanted to emulate that perspective. I wanted my pieces to end with someone kicking the door open, or picking the mic up for once.

I also feel like the conversations I have with my peers now help me to shape my intentions as a writer; what am I ultimately trying to say, or what is the effect that I want my work to have upon the reader? For me, the answers to these questions are always changing because they reflect my evolving values as a person. I have to decide which subjects I want to lift up, and know whether my voice and position as a writer would allow me to accomplish that. I also have to see and acknowledge when it’s best to let others speak.

What do you do when you are low on writing material?

There are a few methods I’ll use to generate new material when I’m running low. First, I like to keep a running “note” on my phone. When I’m out in the world and see something that strikes me, or have an experience that I know I might want to write about, I’ll jot down a description or some lines that I can return to. Then, once the material finds its way into a draft, I’ll delete it from the note so it doesn’t get too cluttered. Sometimes mining my old drafts for material can work that way, too. I have plenty of pieces from college and my MFA that never made it past my own computer, but I’ll often find an image or a few lines that are worth salvaging.
Another tactic I’ve really enjoyed is to come up with a project of some kind, and this also usually results in multiple pieces. For example, I’m currently working on what I’m calling “the object project,” which involves writing a series of poems that are named after domestic household items. So far I have poems titled “Toilet,” “Donut,” “Bush,” “Snow Globe,” “Balcony,” and so on. I’ve also started to branch out a little bit and write about some less domestic (and less inanimate) things, like “Toucan” and “America.” I find it fun and challenging to explore how each poem might manifest differently; each one could end up engaging either more or less with the “object” for which it’s named.
Of course, when all else fails, I just read more. I’ll very often read a piece and think, wow, I love what the poet did with this evolving metaphor, for example, and my next step is to then try to apply that technique to my own work. By the time my poem is finished, the technique will have been adapted to suit my unique subject matter and voice, so it feels very much like it’s my own.