Dobby Gibson Q&A

January 13, 2020
Dobby Gibson on the similarities of writing poetry and branded content for Land O'Lakes.

“Work and poetry keep me whole by functioning independently. Like my colleagues who run marathons or woodwork or whatever, I need something outside of my job to give me fuller access to my humanity.”

I admire that you’re open to using humor and irreverence in your poetry. I think of “Elegy For Abe Vigoda” in your most recent collection, where you were “administered Vigoda by slow drip.” And the line “the gods in robes worried about Resting God Face.” Does humor come naturally when you write poetry? Did you have to learn to trust its value?

The voice in my poetry is simply a more constructed version of my IRL voice, so I suppose the humor does come naturally. But I work on the humor a lot in revision, which is when the real poem gets written. I often need the humor in my poems to be sharper and drier, or it needs to come out. The humor has to be in service of something larger than a laugh. I tend to write poems that are both funny and deadly serious, because that’s how I experience the world. Smash your thumb with a hammer: Do you curse or laugh? For me, it’s usually both.

I love your titles in the new book, such as “The Impossibility of Sending You a Postcard from Mumbai” and “Poem For An Antique Korean Fishing Bobber.” How often do you start with the title?

It can go either way. A title can be a prompt—even a dare. An outrageous title can be generative when it functions as a straitjacket I have to escape. Other times, I’ll finish a poem and title it after the fact. I have notebooks full of titles I’ll never use. I’m interested in the different roles that titles perform, as billboards, apologies, riddles, and so on. The book Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams is a good one for title fans. It’s a book of very short stories where each title appears at the bottom of the page, after the story. The effect is original.

You spent many years as head of content at Hanley Wood and are now building the employer brand at Land O’Lakes. How does your poetry background help you with your work?

It’s easier to see how work and poetry keep me whole by functioning independently. Like my colleagues who run marathons or woodwork or whatever, I need something outside of my job to give me fuller access to my humanity. At the same time, poetry requires its own escape. It’s hard to write a good poem! I can get obsessed with poetry, and that can feel unhealthy. People would probably be surprised how competitive and sometimes ruthless the poetry world can be. It’s been professionalized in a very American way, with competitions and financial prizes and even an annual trade show, where poets parade around a hotel in Tampa, or wherever, wearing ID lanyards. I try to keep that stuff at arm’s length. I like coming into work and being around people with interests, obsessions and abilities totally unlike my own.

You dash your poems with Minnesota references, from restaurants closing at 9 to the joy of walking out on a lake to an exploration of what cold wants. How important is a sense of place in your poetry?

I make art using whatever is at hand, including place. I wrote probably half of my new book while I was living in Texas. While writing those poems, I felt the withering heat, the sweeping landscape, and the slower drip of time in a material kind of way that was very exciting.

I loved your poem about how we all belong to our own music in the universe, which creates a form of weather. Do your own words impact you similarly as the writer as they do as a reader?

I love words! Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “abyss.” which I just used in a poem. It comes from the Greek for “without bottom.” I like its sinister hiss. I also like the word “abysmal.” The meanest cat I ever knew was my friend’s Abyssinian. My point, if I have one, is that words have layers of meanings and associations, built up over time, like tree rings.

Your work reminds me of George Saunders as you have similar beating hearts on the page. Who are some of your favorite authors?

Well that’s an awfully nice compliment! My favorite authors, like my favorite Spotify playlist, is always changing. Here are a few books I’ve read recently that really knocked me out: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, the wonderfully odd novel Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggey, Homie by Danez Smith, and Safe Houses I Have Known by Steve Healey, poems about his coming to terms with his father’s history as a CIA spy.

What is a typical day like for you at Land O’Lakes? 

I’ve only been here six months, so I’m not sure what typical is yet. The cool thing about my role is I get to work across the organization, so one day I might be embedded with Communications, on another I’m collaborating with HR, or an agency vendor. Right now, I’m co-lead on the launch of our new Careers website, built atop a CRM platform, which will be fantastic for both Land O’Lakes and job seekers. It’s a project that comes with a certain kind of pressure and excitement that I feel somewhat addicted to.

You manage the company’s employer brand strategy and digital channels across the company in support of talent acquisition. That sounds like a huge job. Are you someone who gets energized with broad strategic challenges or do you like tinkering under the hood and piecing together solutions? Or both?

I’m happiest collaborating with teams, as I do now, to come up with big ideas, and then building the things that bring those ideas to life. I’m not as interested in pure hands-on operations. I’d rather move on to the next strategic challenge.

You are unique as a poet as you are also well-versed in such things as SEO-enriched writing. Do you find similar creative satisfactions in both? Are poetry and business content creatively closer than we might think?

A neurologist would probably say they both activate the exact same cranial lobe, but I see a clear distinction. Marketers start with an end goal in mind—a creative brief!—and use their creativity to attempt to achieve a predefined objective on a budget and a deadline. Poets are using creativity to travel as deeply into the unknown as possible. It’s the difference between Katie Ledecky and Jacque Cousteau.

Are you at work on your next book?

I’m always writing poems, but I will avoid calling my poems a book for as long as possible. Because if I’m “just” writing poems, the stakes feel lower, and the sense of play and possibility much higher. Once I call it a book, there are expectations, responsibilities, and consequences—all things that poets should try and avoid!

Author photo courtesy of Zoe Prinds-Flash.