“A stranger to myself”: A Conversation with Dobby Gibson

Dobby Gibson is the author of Little Glass Planet; Polar, which won the Alice James Award; Skirmish; and It Becomes You. His poetry has appeared in Fence, New England Review, and Ploughshares, among others. He lives in St. Paul.


Bianca Glinskas: Hello, Dobby! Let me start by saying Little Glass Planet entranced me; these poems contain small worlds, or, riffing off the title, tiny planets; these poems, these tiny planets, are intricately crafted and intelligently designed, a series of ephemeral universes summoned by the speaker and animated into orbit by the reader.

Thank you for writing and sharing your wonderful work and for allowing me the privilege of picking your brain a bit about its inner workings.

Dobby Gibson: Thank you for your thoughtful reading of the book. I hope it didn’t subject you to too many rotational g-forces. I’m remembering the time I rode the Incredible Hulk roller coaster in Orlando, Florida, on a co-worker’s dare.

BG: Not at all! It has been a thrilling ride, but not the type that overwhelms or sickens you, like that Hulk roller coaster. Reading your work was a stirring experience. Now, let’s dive in!

The collection’s opening poem “Dear Reader” artfully describes the unique dynamic between poet-speaker and reader, what you refer to as a “fugitive intimacy”. Several poems in Little Glass Planer directly address the reader, shattering the fourth wall. It seems clear that you write with the audience actively in your mind. Can you talk a bit more about how your relationship with an imagined audience influences your writing? What hopes do you have for the reception of Little Glass Planet?

DG: I’m glad you used the adjective “imagined.” Unless you’re freestyling in front of a crowd, audience is a construct. Writing a poem is like singing in the shower. Or maybe speaking into a telephone and being unsure who, if anyone, is on the other end of the line. It’s an intensely private act that risks the public. That private-public tension is a source of its power.

Many possibilities coexist: No one is listening, and I’m singing to a version of myself. Or a broken, delayed transmission is reaching one or more people. Maybe it’s only the dead or unborn. Maybe the entire world is in some way “listening,” in the sense that our poems are now being data-scraped by Google, the NSA, Vladimir Putin, and Jeff Bezos. All these possibilities, among others, flicker in and out of view.

One of the things I wanted to do in this book was to briefly hold up that mysterious poet-poem-reader prism to the light and see what gets refracted when it’s out in the open. For the possible reader, I had the thought this transparency would be inviting—that it would be disarming. The book begins and ends with these gestures.

BG: Your perspective here is powerful. Writing for an imagined, internally constructed audience, is indeed an act of vulnerability. You must, in a way, disarm yourself, before disarming others.

The familiar is made to feel unusual, the unusual familiar, in many of these pieces. For instance, take the opening lines from “Prayer for November”:

Brazen angels, stubborn saboteurs
send us a sign.

Silent priests of the coat check,
cherubs of every appetite, all the powers of ten,
if we can believe in you, we can believe again.

Or, take, for instance, “What the Cold Wants” (a piece that gave me goosebumps), which personifies the cold, personifying part of the temperature spectrum in a discussion of its character. The poem begins: “Generally, what the cold wants / is ridiculous. The problem with the cold / is that is comes from more of it. / It’s divisible only by one and itself. The cold is not invited to many weddings.”

How do such peculiar and particular premises come to you; when do you recognize an idea has poetry-potential?

DG: Not every thought that comes to mind is poem-worthy, but the mere act of being open to the possibility is a kind of poetry, I think—if we’re defining poetry as a deeper attention to the world.

“What the Cold Wants” occurred to me on a terribly cold day in Minneapolis. It must have been -10F. In a failed attempt to entertain my eight-year-old daughter, I was fake-pounding my fists on the windows while shouting, “What do you want from us, cold?” in an overly dramatic Sylvester Stallone accent. It was a horrible dad joke, one of many that day, no doubt, but in making it I heard the prompt for a poem. What would happen if I answered such a vapid rhetorical question? I wondered.

A lot of times I don’t know if a line or a broader idea is any good until I write the poem and put it to the test. Even if a line or idea fails to catch, I’m always learning something by writing, and I’m generally happy to be writing on some level, even if I’m writing badly, as it’s such a pleasure and privilege to slip into that being-more-present mindset.

BG: Being a poet myself, this absolutely resonates. The other day, as I was walking to work at the bookstore down the block, I witnessed the steeple of an old, grand and abandoned brick church get beheaded, stained glass shards falling alongside dead leaves and raindrops. I had one thought: this is begging to be a poem. It began to take shape in my mind in that very instant. As you said, this potential poem gave a glow to everything, pulling me even more so into that moment. The idea of it being a beheading gave a strange element of horror and humor.

There is variety and depth to the humor in your writing. Dynamic social, cultural, and political commentary is embedded throughout, addressing complex ideas like the government, consumerism, interpersonal relationships and more, all of which recur throughout. Let’s look at “Ode to the Future. The parting final thought, in particular, strips down the poem’s emotion to reveal the point beneath, delivered point blank:

so let’s make America a set of problems
we can admit exists again, and still have the will
to solve, we can get better at being alive,
you can learn a lot from being around horses,
you have to let the fury melt away
and stand in the sun.

How do you view and comprehend the role of literary arts within contemporary politics and culture? What is the role of humor in political poems?

DG: I’m glad you see the humor in my poems. The drier and sneakier the humor, the sharper its blade, I think, especially in a mediated environment algorithmically designed to make us routinely lose our composure.

You’re asking a question I think about a lot, and that thinking usually bounces off Milosz’s famous poem “Dedication”:

What is a poetry that does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment

I feel powerless relative to the magnitude of what’s going on right now. A poem isn’t going to wrestle an assault rifle out of the hands of the next enraged white man or stop Greenland’s ice sheet from melting. But I still maintain my faith in poetry’s ability to neutralize the language of bureaucracies, resist the blathering of the mediascape, and help us reclaim the dream spaces in which we can be free to become our better selves.

There is a sticker on my fridge courtesy of the poet Jill Jupen that reads, “Poems are dangerous,” and I believe this to be true. It’s why Plato was so invested in banishing the poets from civilization. It’s why Republicans are always trying to defund the NEA despite its minuscule budget. Poetry is the wellspring of the imagination and the critical mind, and true negative capability will always be a threat to dogmatism and extreme ideologies of any kind.

But this is my thinking on a good day. On a not good day, I’m not nearly so sanguine or defiant.

BG: Beautifully said; I agree wholeheartedly. Poetry is not a power tool; it can’t rip a broken building down, but it is a powerful tool. With it, maybe we can repair and renovate the one we have now, if only until the bulldozer comes.

In “Drone” you use a competition of listing and repetition with an enchanting effect. One of my favorite stanzas, specifically the sixth, reads:

Everybody crossing their eyes sees the figure eight
Everybody’s a satellite
Everyone becomes that star
Everybody dance everybody get out

What part or force within you thinks, crafts, and creates these moments, a marriage of metaphor and abstraction?

DG: I often feel like a stranger to myself. Poetry helps me to feel less so. I’m trying to remain as open as possible to using whatever material is available to me to make a poem: an everyday event, an association from my subconscious, found language on a billboard, a dream fragment, whatever. I’m generally less interested in where anything comes from than I am in whether I’m listening to my own experience in the right way, and whether I might be able to make something out of what I’m hearing.

BG: I don’t think you are alone in that thought. I knew it was perhaps an impossible inquiry as I asked. Still, I find it useful at least to wonder and consider the origins of one’s own artwork.

In “Fall In,” in a moment of direct address, you write of readers’ knee-jerk tendency to ask authors what they mean by this or that:

I’m not going to turn this upside down
so you can see
the answers in the margins

Since your work contains more contemporary writing—more imaginative and abstract moments—which may cause uncertainty, confusion, and a craving for clarity for some, I want to ask about the relationship between interpreted meaning and intended meaning. Where does the authority of meaning reside? Is it with the reader? Is it with the writer? Is there a right or wrong answer?

DG: I’d argue that I have far less authority over my own work than any reader does. In fact, I’m trying to maintain as little control over the work when I’m writing it as I can. In general, the more I follow language into the unknown, and the less I follow my own intentions, the better the result.

I don’t write poems to deliver take-aways—like “growing old is hard” or “racism is bad”—I write poems to discover something I couldn’t have possibly known before I started writing, and then come as close as I can to finally saying it. I can’t say there is a wrong way to read my poems any more than there is a wrong way to listen to a choir or look at a sculpture in a park.

BG: I think that your surrender of the controlled reception of the readers’ experience reiterates and empowers the readers’ experience, reception and perceptions of a work.

What do you have to say to readers who find poetry too inaccessible or abstract?

DG: I don’t believe the poems in this book to be particularly abstract. I guess I don’t know how to be more direct than writing a poem called “Poem for an Antique Korean Fishing Bobber” that is literally a poem addressed to a small glass orb that lives on a shelf in my house.

Different poems ask different things of readers. The “Live. Laugh. Love.” poster at Target requires one set of tools from a reader. Terrance Hayes’s new book requires a different set. I would say: Try and avoid thinking about meaning as a fixed destination you’re supposed to arrive at. There isn’t an answer hidden inside the poem in invisible ink. Read the book Why Poetry? by Matthew Zapruder. It does an amazing job of helping us all let our guard down around poetry.

The poet Kevin Young says there’s no such thing as not-liking poetry. It would be as ridiculous as saying “I don’t like music.” What people are saying when they say they don’t like poetry is they haven’t found the right poetry for them. Maybe it’s not mine. That’s okay. It will be right here waiting for them if they change their mind.

BG: This is what I have been saying to friends and family who say, “Poetry isn’t my thing.” It is ridiculous, preposterous, and impossible. Hopefully we have better tools in the future for readers to access and navigate the contemporary literary landscape to find work which resonates for them, perhaps a recommendation service application which would essentially combination between a Pandora and Goodreads.

There are several bold moments in LGP which pointetly refer to your own writing and its intentions, an ars poetica of sorts, such as this one from “Trace”:

I didn’t write this

to “express my feelings,”
though I hope you will be

the same people relieved
to discover it doesn’t require

a skeleton key.
It’s a little space

opening up language,
full of permission.

How would you describe classify yourself as a writer? Can you speak to how you conceptualize your own writing and work? How do you self-identify as a poet? 

DG:  It depends on the day. How about “emerging poet”?

It makes me very uncomfortable to identify myself as a poet. It seems like an impossible title to claim. I avoid bringing it up. Many years ago, a coworker found out I was a poet and said, “You’re a poet! Wow, you must find that very relaxing.” As if being a poet meant lots of bubble baths and lavender-scented candles. I still haven’t recovered from this.

BG: When I share that I’m poet, I often feel incredibly vulnerable, almost as if I were “coming out of the closet.” Of course it isn’t even remotely the same; on some level it feels embarrassing sharing this truth, an act of baring myself to another. In another respect, it feels incredibly bold to prescribe this label to oneself, as if it makes it more real and in doing so asks something significant of me. I wrote poetry for nearly a decade before identifying myself as a poet publicly.

There is a hypnotizing effect achieved through your tactful selection and assemblage of items and images; these transform on the page into allegory and extended metaphor, the vehicles for the works’ themes and meaning. Your unique poetic voice finds abstraction within the accessible, an astonishing style welding juxtaposing concepts with astounding results. Through this bent lens, the personal and universal blur together in a language of symbols and metaphors.

How do these poems, meditations of metaphor, first take shape in your head, appear on the page, and eventually take their final form? In other words, what do your creative thinking, drafting, and revision processes typically look like?

DG: It’s hard to know what to say about this. While I was writing these poems, I was thinking about Yuji Agematsu’s art, which is featured on the cover. Agematsu calls these constructions ZIPs. He tends to make one ZIP each day, using material found on his walks and errands around New York City, and using the plastic sleeves from cigarette packs. When displayed in a gallery, the ZIPs are lined up on clear shelves in rows, taking the form of a calendar—or a poem, depending on how you look at them.

I was instantly attracted by the strange vocabulary of Agematsu’s ZIPs. I was also interested in the ways in which these art objects were so inseparable from his lived practice. I read everything I could find about Agematsu. At times I felt as if he were explaining my own poetics back to me. There’s the daily attentiveness and seriality. There’s chance operation, but also constructed-ness. There’s the personal and social. I continue to find companionship in Agematsu’s commitment to being an artist in the middle of the humdrum workaday world, outside of sanctioned, institutionalized spaces, like academic environments. I believe that to be quietly radical.


Author photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash.



Bianca Glinskas

Bianca Glinskas hails from sunny SoCal where she studied English Education and Creative Writing at Cal State Long Beach. She's an emerging poet with plans to obtain an MFA. Her literary journalism appears on The Adroit Journal, Drizzle Review, Harriet Blog (Poetry Foundation), OnDenver, and elsewhere.

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