A Conversation with Gabrielle Bates
BY JAY AQUINAS THOMPSON
Gabrielle Bates is the author of Judas Goat (Tin House, 2023). A Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Ploughshares, and BAX: Best American Experimental Writing, among other journals and anthologies. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she currently lives in Seattle, where she works for Open Books: A Poem Emporium and—with Luther Hughes and Dujie Tahat—co-hosts the podcast The Poet Salon. You can find her on Twitter (@GabrielleBates) and IG (@gabrielle_bates_).
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The poems in Gabrielle Bates’s forthcoming first book live on the blade-edge between forebears Carl Phillips and Brigit Pegeen Kelly—intimate and intoxicated and charged with violence; rooted in scripture, wilderness, home spaces (Birmingham, where she was born, and Seattle, her current home), and the mythic worlds we construct to sustain or drive ourselves. Bates is a friend; we recorded our conversation over hot drinks outside on a sunny and mercifully smoke-free fall day in Seattle.
Jay Aquinas Thompson: So how does it feel to have this thing, this book, in front of you?
Gabrielle Bates: Oh my god. I feel like I’m at an inflection point—turning away from being the writer of this book to being a reader of it. In some ways, it feels like I’m headed towards more familiar terrain because I’ve always defined myself to myself and to others as a reader first; from early childhood on, that was a major way that I thought of myself, as a reader and a lover of books. And also it feels like I’m headed towards what the fuck is happening? Where am I?—Totally unmoored. Because while I’m the person who has read this book more times than anyone else in the world ever will, most days I feel like the person who understands the least about what it’s saying or doing. I used so many of my daydreams and nightmares and warped childhood feelings to make this book. And so, when I see these poems, I can’t extract them from that original context; it’s like a vapor swirling around the text. I’m so interested to talk with readers about what the book actually is, outside of that.
JAT: You’re receiving something—in a way that you didn’t have the opportunity to receive before—about the work. It’s a thing in the world that people are holding and making meaning out of. How do you feel like you changed in the process of writing this book and the process of shaping it?
GB: I’ve been saying that the earliest tendrils of what became this book took root around 2013, which by the time the book comes out will be ten years, which feels like a nice, neat number. I changed so much as a person over that much time, so this is a difficult question, because how have I not changed? This is a coming-of-age book in a lot of ways, as many first books are. Just the shift into adulthood is a major change.
JAT: One aspect of the book that most thrillingly pulled me forward is the tension between a formal balance that feels really scrupulous to me and then the themes in the poems of imbalance, need, hunger, loneliness, a reaching into a vacancy or a darkness. I wonder what, for you, is the relationship between formal poise and very jagged, rough, unbalanced material; searingly-hot material and the poise of a form that contains it.
GB: I’ve been thinking so much about temperature in poetry and in writing lately, particularly coldness.
JAT: “Cold for clean.” [note: the last line of GB’s poem “Garden” in Judas Goat]
GB: “Cold for clean,” yeah, which, like so many things, started out as an accidental recurrence in my work. I just kept noticing, particularly near the very end of poems, a coldness coming in, the word cold recurring … I find it interesting that this sensation feels attached to Birmingham, Alabama and the South, the place I come from, because no one thinks of that as a cold place, really. And yet when I reach back in my mind when I’m writing, it’s a very cold place to me. It’s a very wintry place. And so, in writing the poems, I think there was a drive towards chasing heat. But you asked about formal poise—I’ve been thinking a lot about my lifelong obsession with what I grew up calling the “fruit of the Spirit” of self-control, and being really drawn to visually neat shapes on the page, and how allowing myself to indulge in that neatness can, I hope, make more room for a very necessary wildness and weirdness and unruliness in terms of content, or in terms of the way thought is moving.
JAT: Is the metaphor like how a sense of control or harmony in the form permits the handling of material that otherwise would be too hot to pick up, or so cold it burns you on contact? Or is the metaphor more that poetic form is a trellis that the plant of the impulse needs to climb? And if that form weren’t there—if this sense of lineation, formal architecture, stanza shape weren’t there—the poem couldn’t reach where it needed to go?
GB: Form feels like it comes simultaneously, or much later. For me, I find it incredibly difficult and unpleasurable to begin a poem with a notion of form. I tried so hard when I was in school, because I felt like that’s what a truly serious poet is able to do: to say, “I’m going to write a sonnet!” and then write a sonnet. For me, form is listening to the draft as it’s coming organically, or as it exists early on, and shaping it into a more intentional form from there; primarily, for me, this means pruning, snipping back. It feels a little bit like sculpture with a chisel. Not always, but usually.
JAT: Speaking of pruning, so many of these poems do feel cut to the quick, especially in their ending. How often, as you’re finishing a poem, do you find that you need to cut back to where the poem should actually end, versus writing to a certain point that you see out ahead of you that you’re struggling to reach?
GB: Yes, endings have long been my favorite part of poems. So much of my process is cutting back; I find it very pleasurable to see the shape of a poem getting sharper edges. I really love it. I know there’s a danger implicit in that too though. You can cut back too much, you can become unkind to yourself. But I see cutting as a form of humility, really; being willing to let anything go in service of what the poem wants to be and trying to really honor that more than whatever intention or hope I may have originally had for it. It’s funny as a mentor and a teacher how often I find myself thinking that my students in their drafts have written past the truest ending of their poems. It’s a go-to revision exercise for me, to re-consider both the beginning and the ending. Once I feel like I have a finished draft, I say, What happens if that last line is gone? What if that last sentence is gone? What does that look like? I find it really energizing. So often, cutting back is the right answer. I’ve heard people describe it as: we often need to write ourselves a ramp into the poem and a ramp out of the poem, and then we can kick those ramps off.
JAT: What happens in the silence after a poem ends?
GB: Everything. In Louise Glück’s essay “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”—and maybe I’m totally putting words in her mouth because I haven’t reread that piece in so long—she said something like, “I wish poems could be made entirely of silence.” I love thinking about poems as the ruins where silence gets to creep in and do its magic work. The silence at the end of a poem is akin to the silence at the end of each line, and that’s where eros is, that’s where the reader and the writer really meet, I think: where that echo is happening, that space where language just was.
JAT: Is eros there because the reader is left kind of gasping, in anticipation of the withdrawn touch?
GB: That’s perfect. Yes. I’m thinking too about triangulation as one heart of eros: there’s reader, there’s writer, and yes, the text itself can be the third thing. But I think the silence at the end of the poem, or at the end of the line, or surrounding the poem, is the true third thing: that necessary absence.
JAT: In your poem “This Is How Mud Is Made Again,” there’s a speaker straining up, imagining straining up like the lily she’s watching—straining to meet a touch. I think there’s something of that eros in the poems.
GB: Yeah. It’s all about straining and wrestling and in-between-ness.
JAT: I am so glad that we’ve talked about cutting away already, because I really want to talk about knives. In “Sabbath,” you write:
I’ve missed that arrowing of the—I
almost said soul—but it was the mind,
mostly, wasn’t it, that winnowed?
I love those lines. And I immediately started wrestling with them because, to me, many of these poems do have a winnowing soul. There are blades in the work: the blood-letting instrument, the penetrating chisel. And the poems are also preoccupied with dividing illusions from truth, or dividing repulsion from craving, dividing beauty from foulness, with an attention that feels similarly blade-edged. So I wonder what your thoughts are on this quality of noticing, or the haunting of that image through the poems.
GB: I remember one time we had coffee and you asked me if there was a primary image metaphor for my writing process, and I described it as a series of swinging blades I was running through, kind of like the gauntlet Lancelot runs through in that 90s movie First Knight. Do you remember?
JAT: [laughs] I remember.
GB: It goes back to what we were just talking about: the desire to get the truest, most distilled version of a thing. I feel like a blade is the closest concrete synonym for what I’m wielding. The blade is also a metaphor for feelings of division, a feeling of splitness between so many poles: the child and the adult, life and death. And it’s a symbol of menace. There’s such an atmosphere of menace in the book. Fear is a driving force, a demon to be wrestled with—blades just felt right.
JAT: This makes me think about the question of the time in which the poem happens. I think about a poem like “Impermanent” or a poem like “Effigy,” poems that are cutting, in the sense of the sort of action they perform. Is the poet’s cutting consciousness retrospective? Or is it about giving voice to something that this speaker actually had, even in this moment of childhood, this moment of vulnerability, this moment of fear?
GB: Very much a reaching back, I think. In the particular moments that those poems imagine toward, to the extent that they imagine toward lived moments and are not totally imagined, there was no sense of the language to describe or contend in the moment. So the act of writing the poem was a kind of reaching back.
JAT: Or of retrospective defense, retrospective armor.
GB: Yes. Absolutely. Poetry provides a way for me to go back in time and have a weapon for the fight; there are moments in my childhood, in particular, where this time-traveling aspect has felt important to me.
JAT: Another small image in the book that I love is of the doe grinding up limbs from the new cherry tree in her teeth. I wonder what the poems envy, or fear, or are drawn to about wildness, wild creatures, wild spaces.
GB: I mentioned my obsession with self-control earlier. I think when I was younger I thought a certain kind of self-control was possible, and so I was chasing it with everything I had—I was praying towards it, and I was an athlete—but I also had this motor tic disorder that was plaguing me and forcing me to make a bunch of physical motions that hurt. And the more I tried to control my body, the less I could. That was such a mindfuck. At some point, among all my failed attempts at total self-control, I became really envious of the opposite of self-control—envious of the ability to be reckless and daring and take risks without self-consciousness. I ached to be free of politeness, the performance of goodness. Something like that.
JAT: So the wild creature is one that’s free from questions of self-consciousness or of a need for self-dominance or self-mastery.
GB: I think it’s more about the difference between wild and domesticated, in that I’m so haunted by the ways I’ve been trained and educated, and I can never know myself outside of those structures and pressures, many of which conscript young people into the service of ideas and ways of living that seem immoral to me. And it’s so hard to disentangle one’s—whatever a “true” conscience is—from the ways that we’ve been trained from early childhood on, whatever our context was. So much of this book is me grappling with that haunting. And I gravitated to this idea of domesticated animals versus wild animals as a sort of proxy, I think, for that haunting, with the “Judas goat” as the ultimate example: a creature that has been trained to literally lead other animals to slaughter.
JAT: That ties into another theme that ran, like a bright red river of blood, through this book: atonement and betrayal. Or: betrayal, and then the attempts—halting, self-judging, reluctant, hopeful—to make right. The image of the broken off, bloody horn; the Judas goat just chilling in the grass. Or the speaker in “Illusion,” watching others walking over a bridge they’d believed burned; she says “that kind of reward / requires sacrifice.” I would love to hear you think a little bit about why those themes compel your poetic imagination. Christianity? Fairy tales? Childhood trauma?
GB: Yes, those three things! [laughs] I think so much of my life now is trying to see, from that childhood context of being a Christian in the Deep South, what values are there that I still want to be in service to, and to what extent, and how. This speaker, like me, very much wants to do right and is wondering how, and is trying to listen in many different directions for what feels like the truest path. I keep coming back to certain virtues. And so many of them have come up in this conversation already: humility, self-control, courage. Thinking through how I was taught to define and approach these virtues, and how I want to approach them now, is a major reckoning. Atonement and betrayal are all wrapped up in those things, because to betray a religion is sometimes to atone to yourself, and vice versa. To be true to yourself is sometimes to risk betraying others. Our ability to betray those we love haunts me, and I’m grateful for art as a way to illustrate and examine that kind of fear.
JAT: What this makes me think about too, Gabby, is the role of poetic apostrophe. There are parents, lovers, stepparents, uninvited sexters, traveling companions, friends in the poems. Who are you speaking to, when you speak through the voice of the poem to a person in your life?
GB: It’s very much an act of imagination in the vast majority of cases, more than I feel like I’m actually addressing that figure in the piece. It’s definitely an imaginative move that enables something that feels more intimate and interesting to me. There’s just something magic that happens in a poem that is directed to an individual of some kind! I don’t know how to say it beyond that. I often think of the poem as a space where I can try out different forms of speaking and conversation in relation to other human beings, because I’ve long felt very insecure about speaking verbally, out loud, in the moment. I think that’s one reason I’m a writer.
JAT: An attempt to achieve a kind of coherence or depth or exploration or courage that’s harder in the moment?
GB: Yes, it’s a safer space to try things out. You know, speaking of control—you have some control in the poem. You never have to share that conversation with anyone. You can say things that you’re too cowardly to say otherwise, you can say things to find out if you really believe them, you can say things you don’t believe and see how it feels. It’s an arena where the risks feel both really high and much lower.
JAT: I wonder what you learned from other poets as you were writing these poems. What is a way that mentors, peers, folks whose art happened at a great distance from your life, folks with whom you sort of share a creative life—how they were with you as you were writing these poems? How do you see them in this work now?
GB: Probably every book I read and loved over the course of writing Judas Goat entered the book in some way. I’m very aware of the unintentional permeability of reading and writing. Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song was huge for me early on, as I think many people know. Also, I had several ongoing workshops with small groups of women, which went on for years—we’d meet almost every week—and seeing the sorts of risks they were taking on the page, and the sorts of questions they were asking, and hearing their reactions to my work—all those conversations are in the DNA of this book in so many ways that I couldn’t even articulate. But I do feel it. This book, these poems, are touched by so many people. My hunger to read and be in conversation with other poets throughout the book is huge. Who do you clock the most, in terms of influence? Because I feel like you might be in a more clear-eyed space to see it and notice it.
JAT: I absolutely felt the sense, as in Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, and The Orchard, too, of the poet being taken and shaken by her material; the haunting image, the image stalking toward the poet, and the poet retreating, even as she calls the image to a greater life. There’s that kind of tension here. The way Carl Phillips’s poems formally suggest a desiring body governed by a restless, meaning-making, hesitating, recursive mind, I see in this work too, in its interplay between image and line, in your forms. The sense of hunger for relief I feel in Satan Says by Sharon Olds, I saw in there, too: the poem as a kind of clearing away, or letting go of an almost unbearable burden, coming right to the edge of what it’s possible to even talk about. And then a sense of relief after. Those are all, for me, presences as I was reading.
GB: Those are such aspirational people for me to even be lying at the feet of, thank you! Yes, those three writers are absolutely north stars for me. I’ve studied, very intentionally, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s work. Sharon Olds, I’ve read and been in awe of, which, of course, is a form of being influenced. And Carl Phillips too. I’ve been immersed in his work over the years. He was one of the earliest poets I knew of, actually, because he was judging the Yale first book prize. And Richard Siken’s Crush, which was the first book of contemporary poetry that blew everything open for me, was a Yale book (though Glück selected that one). It’s funny, I just picked up Carl’s book of essays, Coin of the Realm, this morning, in anticipation of his new essay collection that’s coming out. I was flipping through it and loving how he talks about the fairytale as a seductive form that uses delight and fear to instruct. There are so many aspects of his work I respect so deeply. I hope there is some kindredness between myself and these poets, in a nascent way, at least.
JAT: I think there’s also something tutelary about Carl Phillips’s understanding of poetic risk in your work. He’s like, You really have to push right out into some edges of things that frighten you if your work is going to leave you somewhere new and leave the reader somewhere new.
GB: Yes! I learn so much from his trust in his own intellect, and his willingness to make an argument, to make a claim about something. This isn’t to say that he thinks he knows everything and is always right, but he has a willingness to speak from a place of some authority, which feels really scary to me and also really necessary sometimes. I do play in the book with making claims, while also hoping to acknowledge mystery and uncertainty.
JAT: What do you think about reading your own work out loud to a crowd? Terrifying thought, exhilarating thought? And do you have poems in here that you especially enjoy bringing to an audience, or especially love in their oral existence?
GB: I have a vexed relationship to reading my work out loud. In the past, it has often been an extraordinarily painful experience for me, to be honest. I feel like these poems are written for a voice that only exists in the mind, or on the visual space of the page, and when I translate them into the physical voice that I have, the instrument I was given, it ruins something about them in a way that’s very difficult for me. I’ve tried so many things to try to push through that barrier and get around it, to make the poem’s voice and my voice feel like they’re in service of each other, like they’re honoring each other. I just haven’t been able to do it. I’ve begun to make peace with this: that my poetry will exist differently in the air, out loud with people. And yes, it might not feel like the truest or most powerful form of the poems to me, but it is offering something of value. I’ve been trying to unpack my negative feelings around reading my work aloud, and I’m wondering if it has anything to do with the way I tried very hard to expunge my accent at an early age, and the extent to which I succeeded in doing that, and now cannot undo it. Hearing my poems in the voice I have now, which has an artificiality baked into it, maybe it feels counter to what these poems are trying to pursue? Or maybe it just feels too vulnerable, like the poems themselves pushed me to the most vulnerable place I felt I could go, and then to stand in front of people in my body and hear the poems out loud reaching to those other people is pushing me past that brink.
JAT: You’re actually falling off of the edge.
GB: Yes, I’m actually falling. Maybe this is true, maybe it’s not true, but these are my thoughts as they exist now. And obviously it’s an important thing to think about as this book starts to enter the world! I’m very lucky to be scheduling readings around the country. Thankfully I love and find it really nourishing to be around other people who write and love poems, and so if I can make my book tour less about my readings and more about meeting and talking with other people about poetry, then that will get me through. And who knows? Maybe I’ll develop a new relationship with my work out loud. There’s a new kind of distance that exists between me and these poems. In the past, I’ve been reading poems not from a book. So maybe there will be something really different about this experience. I don’t know yet.
JAT: Right. In some ways, the experience of reading out loud is like, let’s share an experience of this thing, this way of making meaning and being in the world that we all love. Here’s my contribution to the conversation. Or maybe, Here’s a thing that I went through and I survived. I don’t need to stand on the edge anymore because this is me on the edge. I’m offering you the experience of what it was like.
GB: Yeah, and to bring everything back to humility, being okay with who I am, and the voice I have now, and letting go of any sort of voice envy for the ways other people perform their work, trusting instead that what I have is offering something, even if I can’t see it. For so long I internalized that idea that poetry lives most, always, out loud in the breath—this is an idea we hear, poetry’s roots as an oral form. And so I felt like such a failure because my poems didn’t live most in that oral form. I’m letting go of viewing that aspect of my poetry through the lens of failure. It’s OK if my poems live their truest lives on the page, in silence.
JAT: Who are you reading and loving right now?
GB: I’m in a different place with reading right now than usual. In late summer I dove into a lot of nonfiction and theory for the first time in my life. I loved reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, Barthes’s Lover’s Discourse, Bachelard’s Poetics of Space: older, thinkier books that are all in conversation with the erotic and the image and intimacy. I’ve also been slowly working my way through the new, forthcoming translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Stephanie McCarter. Those sorts of texts are feeding me lately. In terms of contemporary poetry, I’m spending a lot of time with Luther Hughes’s A Shiver in the Leaves because it just came out, and he’s such a dear beloved friend, and I adore his work and his thinking on the page. Otherwise, it’s been difficult for me to read a lot of poetry collections lately, if I’m honest. I’m finding it physically and emotionally painful to read a lot of poems back to back. I’m a raw nerve afterwards, and it makes it really hard to go about my life. It’s weird. I’ve never been tender to this debilitating extent before. I don’t know what’s happening to me. Have you ever been through a phase like that, where the intensity of poetry is just too much?
JAT: It’s never happened to me before. That feeling hits me more often with music; sometimes I’m like, I know this is a part of life, but I can’t hold this part of life right now. I’m also pretty much somehow constitutionally unable to read novels right now. I’ve told myself that probably the reason is just that Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I finished two months ago, was too good; I can’t read anything after that. But is there any last thing? What do you want to say about Judas Goat that you haven’t gotten to say yet?
GB: I feel like we’ve covered so much! I’m feeling sufficiently excavated.
JAT: Should we close the container?
GB: Yeah, let’s close the container.