Kay Gabriel is the author of A Queen in Bucks County (Nightboat, 2022), Kissing Other People or the House of Fame (Rosa Press, 2021; Nightboat, 2023), and she is the co-editor of We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics (Nightboat, 2020). She edits The Poetry Project Newsletter. Her writing has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Russian. She lives in Queens, New York.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in April I had the pleasure of talking with Kay Gabriel on the phone. I was calling from my apartment in Upper Manhattan and Gabriel was Downtown on the balcony of her office at the Poetry Project. While we chatted, the bells of the St. Marks Church went off, delicately framing our conversation. We spoke about the relationship between Gabriel’s two collections: Kissing Other People and The House of Fame and A Queen in Bucks County, how dreams are a public act, and how the practice of dream journaling is itself a social practice and social experiment.
Charlie Dale: A Queen in Bucks County is a surreal and evocative exploration of life in New York City—our current landscape in the first half, and a vivid walkthrough of the dreamscape in the second half. How did you decide you wanted the book to be split like this and what were your goals for the first and second halves of the book?
Kay Gabriel: It’s an interesting question. In a way, the title poem could have just been the book on its own. Then, as I was putting the manuscript together, I thought it would be really interesting to combine it with these other poems that I had written previously.
The book builds up to the journal poem, and one pattern that appears early on, perhaps in the first poem, but definitely in the second poem, “STOFFWECHSEL,” and in a series of shorter poems, is the use of dream imagery and dream composition for poetic composition. “STOFFWECHSEL,” which in German is Marx’s word for “social metabolism” that he uses to talk about the mutual transformation of people and the natural environment, provides a pattern for the rest of the book. Not all of the shorter poems that begin the collection are dream poems, although I think a lot of them borrow from the kind of looseness of language, the substitution of objects, and sublimation of energy and attachments—the various kinds of displacement and confusions and identity that the dreams are subject to.
There’s a building mechanism. You get the motif in a shortened, immediate way in some of those first poems, like “STOFFWECHSEL” and “Five Dollar Drive,” which, in a way, teach someone to read for the dream syntax, for what becomes unmediated, like the onslaught of the dream syntax in the title poem.
How do these two uneven halves relate to each other? That’s one answer.
The other is that Kissing Other People or The House of Fame is aggressively trying to work out a relationship to modernism, and doing that through twisting around in the ‘city poem,’ which is the site of a big modernist poem, walking through a city.
I’m not a fool. I don’t think it’s the 1920s. I know it’s the 21st century. But one thing that the poems are doing to organize a relationship to consciousness in history is passing through modernism. That’s true for the big journal dream poem, and it’s especially true for a couple of the shorter serial poems, especially “Goodnight, Rimbaud” and “Blind Item,” which is a denunciation of Stephen Ira. In a way the kind of opening, movement-heavy poem, “Year Zeros,” also sets the tone for this, by way of the city as a metonym for the kinds of social transformations that exist within it, and that are, or were, at the time of composition, rapidly rewriting forms of social consciousness, social relations.
The answer, I guess, to your question, what do these two uneven dynamics have to do with each other?
On the one hand, determining a setting, a pattern that can then be repeated, mediating a relationship to geographic space, other people, language, social relations, and political consciousness, through a kind of literary history, much of which is a literature of the city.
CD: My next question is more about this book in relation to A Queen in Bucks County. It’s my understanding that Kissing Other People and The House of Fame is a U.S. edition of a previously published Australian version and some time has passed since its first publication. So how would you say this book is in conversation with, or compliments, A Queen in Bucks County?
KG: One thing that’s notable is that I wrote the books at the same time. I wrote A Queen in Bucks County between 2017 and 2019. I started the title poem in Kissing Other People in April 2019. Many of the other poems I was writing during the first couple of years of working on A Queen in Bucks County. So, even though these projects are very different—they’re very different formally, they’re discursively kind of different—I was actually writing them at the same time. And, in a way, there’s a similar range of interests that animate both of them. For example, these series of questions that are really explicit in A Queen in Bucks County: “What kinds of sexual and gender subject positions are made possible in what kinds of social spaces?” and “What does direct address unleash for a particular kind of poetry?” One of those is a social question, and one of them is a formal question, and both of them are very much in the background of the writing that I did in Kissing Other People.
There’s this line that I write in A Queen in Bucks County: “Let’s say these are one and the same coin: a literature of the city, dicking around in the afterimage of modernism.” And that is the answer that I gave you, “What do the poems of walking through New York or traversing social space in New York in Kissing Other People have to do with the dreamscape poems?”
The other answer is that they are both books where the stage of the thought is extremely social. The thought doesn’t take place in isolation from people. These are both super chatty, super…I won’t say conceptual, but they’re super kibitz-y books that have a lot to say. They have a lot of opinions. The place where that thinking happens is with other people in very intensely paced social encounters. It is also kind of a thesis about collective thought and collective language.
Thus, there’s a relationship between the basic thesis of A Queen in Bucks County, which involves the profound positioning of the self in relation to other people—that could be a sexual relation, it could be a political relation, it could be antagonistic, and it could be intimate, or it could be something collective and shared. I think there’s real sinew that ties that to the main thesis of Kissing Other People, which is that dreaming is a social, not private, act, and, therefore, the language of the symptom, the language of repression, is not a private language.
Despite the classic language of psychoanalysis used to describe dreams and narrative and dream syntax, none of that actually is private or atomized, it is all intensely shared. I think that that proposes some coordinates in which it is possible to understand how these two very formally different books could have happened at the same time. Incidentally, just because it’s interesting, I was also writing these books instead of writing my dissertation. I just have to be honest about that.
CD: I love that. Sometimes our best writing occurs when we’re supposed to be writing something else. Thank you for getting into that. I feel like that helped me get a picture of how these texts exist in relation to each other and it was also quite a shock to hear that they were written at the same time, but also not.
KG: Chronologically, I had written much, but not all, of Queen of Bucks County by the time I started journaling the dreams that are in Kissing Other People. I wrote the poem, “The Names of Famous Beaches,” while in Danez Smith’s workshop at the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Writers, which was also the workshop where I realized that this massive dream journal I’d been keeping at that point for five months was already a poem. So actually it’s quite sinuously connected in that sense.
CD: Can you speak a little more about that? What was this process of going from what initially started as dream journaling to the realization that this was a poem?
KG: I had become very interested in keeping a journal as a kind of regular writing practice. In a way, this is just a Bernadette Mayer thesis that thinking is already writing, language is already writing.
Mayer has this series of journal experiments, and they’re a way to produce material for writing, but also to shake people out of a theory and practice of composition that suggests that poetry is the finessing of language into short, tidy episodes of significant experience. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but it’s not how I write.
The journal prompts are a way to almost recognize that any language is dignified enough, and any experience is dignified enough, to have some kind of compelling relationship to poetry, whatever poetry is. So, I started to become very interested in this. In particular, I read and reviewed this book by Stacy Szymaszek called A Year From Today, which was published by Nightboat in the spring of 2019. While I wrote the review I was getting the thought of it, and as a result of that I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna start, I’m gonna just try this out and see what it’s like.”
One thing that I found was that by starting to journal my dreams I remembered them more and more intensely. So it actually kind of did have the effect of like, you change a kind of constraint on language, you change language itself. You change a kind of constraint on language, you change a certain pattern of consciousness, a pattern of memory itself. So that was already an interesting cognitive experiment.
But I didn’t know what it was aside from just something I would do. And even though I’m not writing a book with my dreams now, it remains something that I do. I journal my dreams with a great fixation. And it remains to be an interesting writing prompt.
For Danez’s workshop, something we had to do on the Friday of the weeklong workshop was to take into account the writing we had done over the course of the week in a CAConrad-style ritual: you write a ritual that is supposed to produce a poem and then you write a poem that comes out of that. Somehow, one thing that resulted from this is that I realized that all of these dreams that I had been writing down actually summed together into a serial poem and that with only a little massaging, I could put those together and that would already be interesting.
It wouldn’t require great interpretation, or great exegesis, or great handwringing—the dreams themselves were not just interesting imagery, or primary material. And they weren’t just like clay for a sculpture; the dream syntax itself was already really interesting. In fact, I realized that disturbing it by massaging it into other sentences would actually be way less interesting. And that was the almost formal realization that I had in the middle of this workshop that produced the first four pages.
The final stage of this was when Suzanne Goldenberg invited me to read for her Crush series that happens at Woodbine, which is a community space in Ridgewood, Queens. That was November 2019 and I didn’t have anything to read that was new. And I feel very keenly the almost tyrannical New York poetry rule, that every time you read you have to read something new. So, I was looking around for something that I would have to offer that wasn’t poems that my friends had already heard before. And I found the start of this thing from Danez’s workshop, and then I just started writing my words in it and then had the realization, “This could be like a year-long project, which means it’s not done, I’m starting it.” I have this other really big book effectively on my hands that I almost just wrote without noticing it, but I wrote it. And like the writer Rainer Diana Hamilton suggests, I wrote it in my sleep, you know? And that was the final piece that allowed the form to become clear to me.
CD: That makes sense. That answers part of the question I had, but the part of my question that remains is, how did you decide to put them in reverse chronological order?
KG: So that decision came to me because I wanted to avoid a reading of the poem whereby the kind of linear drive of it on the page would seem to produce, teleologically so to speak, an understanding that the event that happened had to happen as it did. This ended up being like, for what it’s worth, I think kind of a canny choice because the end of the poem was the start of the pandemic.
People, for all kinds of reasons, had been treating catastrophism as a structure of narrating events such that various kinds of great cataclysms were inevitably falling into place, this kind of real bullshit apocalypticism that you couldn’t get away from. Frankly, in the U.S., in the years while Trump was president, liberals loved this shit. This sense of real failure to understand why bad things were happening the way that they did. I’m not trying to say the best way to confront this bad figment of ideology is to write a really weird form of a poem about it. But I did want it to be the case that when people were reading this poem in the middle of all this shit, they weren’t experiencing a sense of events, like events of great social significance happening, as if they were the only thing that could have happened. It is the case that you, in various ways, can feel at different points in the poem, history, like moments of elevated significance, flowing through it or being metabolized in a kind of dreamscape, so I feel comfortable about this choice. And not trying to give this too much significance, but being aware of a relationship between any narration of the passage of time and the kind of big collective narration of how things happen and why things happen how they do.
CD: And you could have just mixed all of the little dream parts up to do that, but something about putting it backward really messes with that sense of linear time differently.
KG: Yeah. I think there’s something interesting about the retreat, the effect that you get at retreating into the past. Why not tell a story that way, I guess?
CD: Speaking of the title poem again, I noticed there was a lack of punctuation. As a reader, that helped me have this experience of interpreting the dreams in distinct ways as I read it differently. What was your thought process around this craft choice?
KG: The thing that I often tell my students about punctuation and lineation is these are ways of modulating a reader’s pace. So, it’s actually about the tempo of the poem. And yes, there are the nice sensual effects or syntactic effects that it introduces, some provocative ambiguity, such that the sentence is loosely spilling all over the page, and you just get to lie down there and wiggle around with it.
There’s a kind of literary quality or literary history to having relaxed punctuation. It passes through Mayer. It passes through O’Hara in a different way. It passes through Baraka, whose poems after his lyric period push forward with his kind of punctuated force. But really, that wasn’t so much what I was thinking of, although I think it’s sort of variously metabolized somehow in the background.
I do very keenly think punctuation and lineation set the tempo of the poem. Is someone taking a breath? Do they experience a kind of breathlessness? Do they experience a kind of rapidity? If so, are they caught up in that? Are they rushing headlong with the poem? Are they slowing down and picking it apart? I think there’s a level of breathlessness that you get with the title poem. Especially within each of the dream stanzas you’re kind of propelled along. That’s an effect that I was interested in amplifying.
CD: I got that as I was reading. I think it also mirrors that urgency of waking up and remembering a dream all in one go.
KG: Yeah. Which I think is neat as well.
CD: Coming back to this idea of “dreaming as a social, not private, act,” how did this thesis guide your writing?
KG: I really want to emphasize that there’s an entire tradition of theory about psychic life. And it’s specifically about dreaming that renders it immediately private. Your symptom is your symptom, right? And you can work through it, you can obviously interpret it, but it ultimately is related to you and only you.
And well, I think from a therapeutic perspective, that’s certainly true. What’s interesting to me is the intensely social nature of dreams, and dream language, including practices around dreaming that I think excluded from this, or like a blind spot, so to speak, within this.
I’m fascinated by the fact that when people have dreams about each other, they feel intensely compelled to share, “Oh, you were in my dream last night.” On the one hand, that has to do with the dreamer having a series of attachments and transferences such that people stand in for other people and experiences.
If you’re being an orthodox Freudian about it, that’s your wish fulfillment. That’s your fantasy. And at the same time, there’s this social compulsion to tell, and then when you do that, it feels like you’re letting somebody in on this libidinally-charged secret. Which in a way you are: you’re having an intense attachment, positive or negative. And the libidinal charge is really important here. There’s this extraordinary intimacy to sharing your dreams with someone, so extraordinary that you know, there’s this bullshit craft idea that you’re not supposed to write dream poems. It’s kind of like that “tell a dream, lose a reader” crap that I never learned firsthand because I don’t have an MFA.
But, in a way, there’s something kind of interesting about the intimacy of dreaming. Because it involves other people, it is personal to you and somebody else, and there’s something kind of interesting in how keenly felt this intimacy is within poetry that it appears on the level of prohibition. That’s one thing. The other is that there’s something quite remarkable in the collective nature of displacement or substitution that takes place in a dream representation or dream syntax.
In a way, dreams are continuations of significant events that you undergo with other people. Therefore, they are also a way of thinking creatively and writing creatively about those events. And in this poem what is it? It’s organizing and partying and research, which were the activities I was doing the year I wrote the poem. Those two things are the most intensely social things that become a feature of the dream world and the dream language. And from that perspective, the thinking and language of the dreams are a continuation of a conversation that happened in waking life. This is also why it feels like some of the compulsion is there to share it. The phrase that I’ve been using lately is mouthing collective language. And that’s kind of something that’s sitting with me right now.
Robin D. G. Kelley, in his book Freedom Dreams—which is a remarkable book about the aesthetics of the Black radical tradition—has a chapter on surrealism, and a short passage on what he calls the revolution of the mind. He says that the intellectual tradition of all of the great and even essential philosophies of social transformation, all these theories and practices—Marxism is one that he obviously personally works within—have not accounted for a “revolution of the mind.” By that he means that the total liberatory transformation of society would require and result in a liberatory transformation of language and consciousness. And that’s a really interesting thesis.
You could say that is the main point of connection between the material struggles over power and resources that are really obviously political, and the somewhat more cultural, more social struggles over the aesthetic dimensions of how people recognize and relate to each other and express a mutual, self-regarded understanding that you could say is related to what we would call queer and trans liberation.
Kelley’s thesis about the revolution of the mind, which he puts for really good reason within the context of a particular kind of Black tradition of surrealism, is a powerful call to people who are in all kinds of ways thinking about liberatory trajectories out of a very miserable and immiserated world. One of those is also the rich tradition of thinking about gender and sexual liberation. Of course, none of these are separable from each other even if they happen at different moments.
I’m not trying to dignify my own work too much or be arrogant about what I think is the significance of writing a weird book of poems. I don’t want to be mistaken that way. Writing a weird book of poems is just writing a weird book of poems. What is interesting to me about the kinds of looseness and pliability, the libidinal charge and the rearrangement—productive, fertile, disorienting, bewildering, and enlivening rearrangement of the world—that you get in its dream mirror and its dream representation, is related to this project of a radical transformation of language and thought.
In a way that slackens a little bit, some of the tyrannical need to empirically represent the world as it currently is, which I think can be quite keenly felt within poetry, sometimes deadens language and imagination. I would say that the political tradition that Kelly is drawing on feels very animating and is one reason why when I drew on all the language that I did, I thought, “this is not just a representation of one person’s weird atomized diary. There is a reason to share it.” And not just for me, but when anybody shares their journals.
CD: As a reader, the experience of reading the title poem was a glorious journey exploring the meaning of life and the chaotic possibility of dreams. What do you believe we can pull from this practice of dream tracking and mapping? How has it changed your writing practice and your experience as a person or poet?
KG: From a writing perspective, I remain interested in the journaled syntax of the dream. The raw form of it while I wrote it down, is very close to what appears in the poem. And I think that’s interesting. This is a thesis of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, that narrating the dream is the first layer of repression. To put the dream into language is already a repression that makes it possible to tell the dream. The thing that is constitutively unsaid in language is the thing that makes language possible.
Lacan says that the unconscious is structured like a language, right? If the unconscious is structured like a language, well, you can be too literal about it and ask what kind of speech is possible in that language. Rainer Diana Hamilton argues vigorously that “dreaming is writing,” which is, in a sense, also a Bernadette Mayer thesis. There’s something that’s kind of interesting there. People often ask me: “You write these dream poems, so are you interested in lucid dreaming?”
I mean that’s just a kind of a cultural fixation. And my answer is no, not at all. I am not at all interested in controlling the dream. I want to be driven around by my symptom. I am interested in the furnishing of narrative and material that I believe myself to have very little control over. That, to me, is an interesting displacement of the sense of a keenly-honed, tightly-controlled, authorial self. And that is a writing practice I am interested in even though the writing that I have done since is much more crafted than a lot of Kissing Other People. I’m writing a novel right now that has a different relationship to the unsaid. As I continue to journal dreams and write from them, the particular strangeness of that first repressive layer of narrating or writing a recording remains compelling and interesting to me.
The variation that I’ll introduce here is that I have this other book of dream poems, or one big poem that is composed out of my dreams, and it’s called Perverts. It’s a manuscript. It hasn’t been published yet. It contains my dreams and the dreams of my friends, and it’s a very long poem. That is an inversion of the writing practice that I use for Kissing Other People. What if I follow through with this and realize, oh, my friends and I are having a dream together? The poems are what suture these different experiences. This, I believe, is a way of following the principle that dreaming is a collective writing process.