Interview With Rossetti Broadside Prize Winner, Mag Gabbert
Interview conducted by American Literary Review Editors
Mag Gabbert is a poet who teaches creative writing at Southern Methodist University. She won American Literary Review’s inaugural Rossetti Broadside Prize for her poem, “America.” We asked Mag a few questions about her process writing “America.”
American Literary Review: Tell us about the process of writing “America” or what served as your inspiration?
Mag Gabbert: So, I first started thinking about parts of this poem as I was watching Ken Burns’s documentary series on the Roosevelts. I was attracted to Teddy’s, um, ruggedness?—how he was shot in the chest just prior to giving a speech but refused to postpone it, how he’d once insulted another New York assemblyman by saying he had “the spine of a chocolate eclair,” how he used to enjoy boxing in the White House until an injury left him blind in one eye (at which point he switched to martial arts), or how he’d burned his official presidential portrait because he didn’t like it, just to name a few examples. There are really too many made-for-TV facts to go into. But then I thought about my initial impulse of finding those qualities attractive, and about how that maybe speaks to certain “American” values that might be instilled in me, and about how that whole deal is actually kind of problematic, both privately and collectively. So I wanted to somehow address those things in a poem. I wanted to ask whether (and how) I might be participating in this American “ruggedness,” in this hypermasculinized culture, and whether I might also be helping to affirm and/or perpetuate it. [By the way, there are actually many—in my view—”valid” things to love about Teddy Roosevelt, too. But that’s a conversation for another day.]
ALR: How closely does the artist’s depiction resemble your own vision of the poem?
Mag Gabbert: Wow, interesting question. I guess to some degree I haven’t thought much about what it means to have a “vision of” a poem, like in a holistic sense. Of course we’re meant to have sensory experiences within poems, and those would often include visual imagery, but what does it mean to sort of translate the whole poem into a corresponding image!? I love that idea. It seems like a reversal of the process of writing an ekphrastic poem. Anyway, if I suppose if I did have any initial “vision of” the poem at all, it would have been the somewhat famous image of Teddy in his Rough Riders uniform, standing with his left hand on his hip in front of what looks like some kind of nature-based studio background. It was apparently taken the day before his 40th birthday—on October 26th, 1898—and it’s easy to find online. To me that’s the image that best captures the “essence” of Teddy, at least as I understand him, and it shows something of the American “ruggedness” I’d been thinking about. But, then again, what I love about Lindsay Lusby’s broadside design is that it actually was my first true, holistic “vision of” the poem. And when I saw it for the first time, the image somehow felt both surprising and inevitable, and that’s exactly what I look for in the endings of great poems, too.
ALR: What kinds of research feed your creative process—music, movies, non-literary texts, archival work, etc?
Mag Gabbert: Oh, I love to research stuff for poems. In fact I’ve kind of been mixing research and art my whole life—I remember checking out tons of books about spiders from the public library as a kid, for example, because I’d become obsessed with Australian funnel-web spiders, and I ultimately made a little illustrated zine about them (although I wouldn’t have known to call it a “zine” at the time). Or, for the poem “America,” after I’d watched the Ken Burns documentary series, I also ordered a published collection of Teddy’s personal letters, which I used to gather quotes. Some other research elements that I’ve used before would include lines from well-known, canonized texts like the King James Bible or Shakespeare’s The Tempest, interesting animal facts (which could be derived from websites or books or documentary movies or shows), cool science facts about stuff like fire and outer space, and/or historical research (again through various mediums) into time periods and events, like the Hindenburg crash or ancient Celtic solstice rituals. In general I’m just a very curious person, and I get fixated–obsessed?–with new subjects pretty easily. And even though I realize there are many great poems that don’t seem to incorporate any research at all, I do think a certain amount of curiosity, and a certain openness, are both somewhat essential to poetry.
Mag Gabbert holds a PhD in creative writing from Texas Tech University and an MFA from The University of California at Riverside. Her essays and poems have been published in 32 Poems, Waxwing, The Rumpus, Thrush, The Cortland Review, Phoebe, Birmingham Poetry Review, and many other journals. Mag teaches creative writing at Southern Methodist University and for Writing Workshops Dallas. She serves as the interviews editor for Underblong Journal.