David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Oindrila Mukherjee’s The Dream Builders, a debut novel that Kevin Wilson calls, “A marvel of a structure, built by a great talent.” Written from the perspectives of 10 different characters in a fictional city in contemporary India, The Dream Builders explores class divisions, gender roles, and stories of survival within a society that is constantly changing and becoming increasingly Americanized. Says Tiphanie Yanique, “Written from almost every angle imaginable, the novel demonstrates how each of us might be a hero in our own narratives while being the potential villain in someone else’s.” Adds Jericho Brown, “Mukherjee allows full life for these characters who are often real enough to remind us of ourselves, even as they betray one another. . . . Even as they betray themselves.” The Dream Builders is out now from Tin House. I’m excited to share today’s conversation with Gabrielle Bates for many reasons. For one, we are long-time peers as literary podcast hosts, Gabby as one of the co-hosts of the much-beloved show The Poet Salon. Also, because of Gabby’s long-standing dynamic presence in the poetry community in a way that feels very generous and nourishing to it, the way she celebrates poems, poets, and poetry very publicly and generatively, and of course, more than anything else, there are Gabby’s poems themselves as a poet whose poetry has an interesting relationship to story, and by extension, to time and with myth both inherited and forged, and perhaps most of all, the relationship she has and her poetry has to the image, how her poetry sees. In the book itself, there are the lines: “If I describe something, anything, long enough, language will lead me back to wanting it,” which hints at one way, among many others, about the mysteries of language in regards to the image for Gabby, the way her poetry with words alone creates images that endure in us, the reader, long after we’re finished reading, that haunt us and can’t themselves be captured by us in language even as they were produced by words. We talk about all of this today. We also talk about the way she composes and revises because she has a very unique relationship to her poems as a poet in the world with them, one that I think invites us into the process of their making and sometimes unmaking. In that spirit, Gabby has offered a couple different things for lucky new supporters. One is an advanced galley of her book, Judas Goat, that has been annotated by her where she shares thoughts, anecdotes, background, and gives some inside scoop into how they were written poem to poem, as well as two 30-minute poetry consultations. Also, since the last episode, poet Ama Codjoe has sent me several signed copies of her chapbook Blood of the Air. Not to mention the bonus audio archive which is rich in poetry material, whether Alice Oswald reading from The Book of Job and also reading a short ballad inspired by Anne Carson, Jorie Graham reading Robert creely, Nikky Finney reading from Lorraine Hansberry’s diaries, Rosmarie Waldrop and Claire Schwartz reading Edmond Jabès, Dionne Brand reading Canisia Lubrin, and Christina Sharpe and much more. This only scratches the surface of the possible things to choose when you join the Between the Covers community as a listener-supporter, including the possibility of becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving books months before they’re available to the general public. Every supporter gets a resource-rich email full of the discoveries I made while preparing for the conversation and pointing you to things referenced during it. Every supporter can help guide and shape the show by adding to the brainstorm of who to invite next. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Gabrielle Bates.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet, visual artist, editor, and podcast host Gabrielle Bates. Gabrielle Bates is originally from Birmingham, Alabama where she got her BA in creative writing from Auburn University followed by an MFA at the University of Washington in Seattle, which has been her home ever since. She is the former managing editor of The Seattle Review, a contributing editor for Poetry Northwest, a contributing editor for Bull City Press, serves as the social media manager for Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of the only bookstores in the country focusing exclusively on poetry. She volunteers as a poetry mentor through the Adroit teen mentorship program, has taught at the Hugo House in Seattle as well as through Seattle’s Writers in the Schools. She’s also co-host with the poets Dujie Tahat and Luther Hughes of the fantastic poetry-centric podcast The Poet Salon speaking to many of the most dynamic American poets today, whether Danez Smith, Jericho Brown, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, or our current US Poet Laureate, Ada Limón. Each guest appears for two episodes, a longer conversation about their own work and a shorter episode where they bring a poem by another to talk about with The Poet Salon hosts. A Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, Bates’s own poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, and Best of the Net among many other places. Bates’s work in image text includes her poetry comics which have appeared everywhere from Poetry Magazine to Poetry Northwest to the Black Warrior Review, as well as her visual reviews of other people’s work. From her visual review of Mary Ruefle’s Dunce to Franny Choi Soft Science. She’s here today to talk about her much-anticipated debut poetry collection, a finalist for the Bergman Prize as judged by Louise Glück entitled Judas Goat and out on January 24th with Tin House Books. Nicole Sealey says of Judas Goat, “I was once so terrified of my own contentment / I bit my shoulder / and drew blood,’ confesses a speaker in Gabrielle Bates’ stellar debut, Judas Goat, which thinks through our luck and lot with great humanity, grace, and precision. In disbelief, you’ll want to pinch yourself while reading . . . No need. Believe me, Judas Goat is just that good.” Rachel Edelman adds, “Judas Goat is ‘a world of intimate betrayal, interspecies interdependence, and the risks that desire necessitates.’” Finally, Aria Aber says of Judas Goat, “Gabrielle Bates announces herself as a poet of compassion, precision, and heartbreak in all its myriad ways–in Judas Goat, the poet studies and upends stories of suffering in both human and animal worlds. Radiating with the curiosity and wonder of a medieval painter, the poet’s refreshing voice creates a glistening world of religious, mythic, pagan, and modern images which interrogate the cruelties in our most intimate relationships: lovers, parents, landscapes, and gods. In poems that are both sharp and tender, she writes of effigies and little lambs, of chisels in the hands of mentors, of early marriages, of subway stations, of white ash and the ‘cold blood on the cock of god.’ And yet through all the layers of large and little violences emerges a speaker who believes in love, a voice that yearns for the mysterious otherwhere: ‘I am too dying/ of what I don’t know.’ I was stunned by this magnificent debut–here is the voice of a poet I will be reading again and again.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Gabrielle Bates.
Gabrielle Bates: Thank you, David. It feels incredibly surreal to be here on this show that has fed me in immeasurable ways over the years so thank you for having me.
DN: Yeah. I’ve been waiting for this moment too. There was a series at The Rumpus moderated by Patrycja Humienik called Before The First Book. That was a series of roundtable discussions with writers who didn’t yet have a book out. In the inaugural roundtable of that series a year and a half ago now, you described your own book in progress really well I think when you said, “Within the book I see a woman wrestling her various hauntings: the specter of sexual violence, anxieties around attachment and marital commitment, motherlessness, queerness, Biblical figures, education, her reliance on (and distrust of) the visual. What haunts the speaker of Judas Goat most is what she’s been taught, how she’s been trained.” Thinking of your self-assessment of the project back then 18 months ago, I wanted to start with the title of your collection Judas Goat, which I think in and of itself captures much of what I just quoted. Both Judas as a figure and goats as figure appear frequently in the book, both together and separately. But if we start with your interest in Judas, obviously it connects us to the Bible, which you mentioned in the roundtable, but it also connects us to mothers, stepmothers, surrogate mothers, and mother figures. It connects us to poetic lineages. It even connects us to goats. I remember long ago now way back in 2018 when I interviewed Eunsong Kim about her book The Gospel of Regicide, which is a judeocentric book, I remember you tweeted a picture of yourself with the book five years ago now saying how excited you were to read it because of the Judas theme. This is a long-standing interest. Enough so that it not only informs many poems but also I think rightfully makes it under the cover in the title. Let’s start with Judas, this enduring interest, and its various origins.
GB: Let’s start with it. [laughter] I don’t remember exactly when my interest in the figure of Judas began but it has been with me a long time as you noted. I grew up reading the Bible a lot. I grew up a very earnest believer in God and the Christian God. As I started to wrestle with faith a little more, I guess I naturally gravitated to this figure who is a betrayer of Jesus and I became interested in some of the contradictions in him and around him. I remember it may have been 2015 or so, Natalie Diaz published a short piece on the Poetry Foundation blog that was somewhat about Judas horses and I know I was already interested in Judas as a figure and various animals who had been named after him at that time. I remember that piece giving me a kind of permission and excitement to pursue that more fully. In addition to probably thousands of other poets that this book is indebted to, it is definitely indebted to Natalie Diaz for that piece. She was one of the first poets whose books I ever read so she was already hugely important to me when that piece came out.
DN: You were part of another interview series whose concept I really loved also at Palette Poetry, a three-part interview series where each poet is interviewed before publication, during publication, and after publication. In part one I.S. Jones interviewing you, you talk about Judas in relation to your own relationship to Christianity and to obedience. You speak about your stepmother who you described as being in an abusive relationship with, who demonized your connection to your birth mother. But it’s complicated by the fact that she was also a Christian counselor, which you mentioned in this conversation. Your spontaneous feelings in this conversation about your birth mother you describe as adoration, enchantment, curiosity, love. All of these attractions you were having was being described to you by your stepmother as wrong. It seems like you yourself would be a Judas to one mother figure or another regardless of what you did. But I want to step back from this and think about questions of betrayal when we write our own stories that inevitably include other people in our lives, even benevolent people. I love how far right you are on social media around your questions and anxieties, in general but also specifically around this. I’m going to read a Twitter thread of yours that goes: “I wish I was capable of writing that encompasses the real complexity & tangle & range of my life experiences. For whatever reason I am doomed so far to only have language for the violent, the achy, the haunting, the severe. It feels so unfair to the beloveds in my life that again & again I can only write into nightmares & wounds, that basically every experience I render on the page is a dark, chilling experience. In my life, there is so much nuance, so much joy, so many other kinds of memory—What do you do when the writing you need to do—the only kind of writing you seem able to make live—hurts people you love? Seems like there’s no win-win approach, and I hate this.” Then in another tweet that I loved you say, “My family: We can’t wait to read & celebrate your book!!! Gonna buy 62540 copies!! My book: [nightmarish distortions of everyone in my life, depressing undercurrents of otherwise happy moments, decapitations, sacrilege, the word ‘pubic’…]” [laughter] Talk to us about obedience, sacrilege, betrayal in this light. How have you and how are you navigating these questions for you as a poet on the page but also for you as a person in the world?
GB: I love those questions and the way you described my childhood as being this choice between betraying this mother or betraying that mother. I’ve never put it myself so succinctly so I really appreciate that phrasing that you offered up. Of all the forms of betrayal that this book engages with explicitly, we have the Judas goat character animal who leads the sheep into slaughter, we have all these other forms of interpersonal betrayal, but behind all of that for me is that betrayal that I described in the tweet which is the betrayal of these very poems to my lived experience. I think something I’ve realized since I shared that tweet, which has brought me a great deal of comfort, is that this book is largely fictional. I think I’m in some ways a fiction writer stuck in a poet’s body and poems, people bring to them all these different expectations in terms of non-fiction and fiction and if you are pulling from your own experience in any way that’s recognizable, it’s largely assumed to be non-fictional. I think I fell for that idea myself and was really vexed by the distance between what I was seeing on the page and what I knew or assumed my lived experience to be. When I realized I was really writing fiction or something closer to a theatrical monologue or something that pulled from my experience but was not a one-to-one ratio of it and being able to frame it that way for other people too has been really helpful. It feels true, it’s not a lie that’s allowing me to get away with something. It really does feel like an imaginative fictional energy takes over when I’m writing, in the vast majority of cases, not always, just to share that in case anyone else is struggling with those sorts of feelings. I would love to say that this book was written for the beloveds in my life and particular family members or something but it’s just not the case when I look at this book. In some ways, it’s written for everyone but them, it’s written for strangers who might connect with it, who might need it written for some version of myself or it’s written for poetry.
DN: Yeah. Well, I’d love to hear the poem How Judas Died. But I want to first mention something that I’d like to talk about further after we hear the poem that I’ve never seen to this degree with any other writer. I’m really intrigued about it and I love it. I don’t know if this is a stretch but I was watching a reading by the poet Eleni Sikelianos and before she begins to read, she brings up this notion from science that was coined by two Chilean biologists in the 70s called autopoiesis, with poiesis meaning originally to make, and auto meaning self. Autopoiesis literally means self-making. But the concept in biology was a way to differentiate the living from the non-living. In other words, autopoiesis, in a sense, is life itself. But there’s a way I feel like your book is not only about self-making but your relationship to the book I think places us in the process of self-making over and over and over again even in what we’ve just mentioned that you’re in a roundtable for poets before their first book, which places us within a certain arc of time in relationship to the book-making, or the Palette Poetry series, the before talk, the during, and after publication talk. But you also make us aware almost every time I’ve listened to you introduce a poem or when I read a poem of yours in a magazine where you preface it or there’s an afterword, or on Twitter, we’re alerted that this is one of many versions of the poem. For instance, with this specific poem we’re going to hear, How Judas Died, when you read it at the Hugo House, you prefaced it by saying that it existed in two different published forms and you were reading a third version. On Twitter, you said you wrote a gazillion versions before the Gulf Coast magazine version. On your blog you say you are actively revising it for over two years and there were times you thought it would destroy you. Then you say, “I’ve even (full disclosure) continued revising it; in my manuscript it looks quite different from the version that appears here.” I want to talk about this very foregrounded public form of what I would call autopoiesis with you, but first, let us hear How Judas Died.
GB: Yeah, I’d be happy to read this one.
[Gabrielle Bates reads a poem called How Judas Died]
DN: We’ve been listening to Gabrielle Bates read from Judas Goat. Returning to self-making, when I think back to your self-description of the book, what haunts the speaker of Judas Goat most is what she’s been taught and how she’s been trained, how this book feels like a journey of repositioning yourself in relation to the tradition and culture you grew up in, in relation to God, in relation to family, or if not you, the speaker of this book. I think of all of this when I think about your public persona in relation to artmaking, how the versioning feels like it creates a sense of time, of new skins, and skins being shed. Not just in the many ways I’ve mentioned but it comes up over and over again, probably produced by an encounter with the work itself too, like when I.S. Jones says in her interview with you, “I know that Judas Goat took roughly 10 years to write. How many versions of yourself moved through this book? When did you know the book was done?” Or when Strawberries was published in The New Yorker, you wrote about your initial enthusiasm for the poem when you first wrote it and then doubting it when you were showing it to several poets who liked it but didn’t feel blown away or it didn’t seem to you that they were blown away. You nevertheless suggested cuts, read it in front of audiences, finally realized you’d revised it in a way that gutted it, that removed its heart, and you started to both despise the poem and despise yourself for thinking it was your best poem. So you withdrew it, pulled it out of the manuscript that we are now discussing. A friend convinces you to put the poem back in the manuscript and then The New Yorker accepts the poem, you having forgotten to withdraw it and a submission that’s old enough that it’s an earlier version before a lot of the surgery has happened. Perhaps in a similar spirit, you published a poem ownership in a magazine called Midst, whose concept and premise is to show how a writer composes, edits, cuts, and pastes in real-time to watch your process of writing and editing on the screen. One person writing about watching you compose ownership notices how you leave all the previous versions at the bottom of the page. These examples only scratch the surface of what I could name, which could be almost every poem I think all the way up until last week when you mentioned to me all the meaningful changes that have happened between the advanced galleys and the final book that we now have. Somehow I connect this to a gesture within the poems themselves around what I would call in this case, and maybe it’s a stretch, autopoiesis, around you saying the speaker in the book is grappling with what they’ve been taught and how they’ve been trained. I wondered if that is a connection for you between the way you stand in relation to these different versions of yourself and to different versions of your poems in the world and the way the poems might enact a certain type of self-making happening in time.
GB: When writing is going well for me, it feels much less like building and much more like excavating. There’s this idea throughout the book of blades, knives, and sharp tools that are cutting away and I think that is really central to my practice. I think it is probably related to some belief, whether I’ve examined it or not, about the self and how there might be some truer self if I can just get at it, if I can cut away all the parts that shouldn’t be there, sculpture as carving as opposed to building up clay. Hearing you name all those different versions of things, that’s reminding me of how important publishing poems and journals was as a revision tool for me. As I was working towards this book, there was a way that I saw my work in a new way and could make what felt to me like necessary revisions after that point. It’s really interesting now with the book coming out, it was one poem in particular that was in the pipeline at a journal for a long time and so it’s just now coming out so I can’t make any changes to the version in the book. All I can think about is this one cut that I want to make in it, and I’m not going to mention it. [laughter] But I think in good ways and bad ways, I’m never considering my work finished and I’m always interested in making little changes if it feels like it makes the poem more resonant, more interesting, or more alive in some way. I do sometimes cut away too much and need to go back. Maybe that’s why I keep all the previous versions at the bottom of a document when I’m working on a poem, although I very rarely, maybe never actually go back and look at the older ones. But I will make changes that make it the same as one that’s already existed in the past. I think it’s Reginald Shepherd that has an amazing quote about how he feels like he only exists in his poems. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for me but I do think it’s a really interesting idea that there is a self that is made that gets to live through poems and only through poems.
DN: Well, thinking about how one has been trained and then thinking about how the book partially emerges from engaging with Christianity and obedience, when I think of obedience and disobedience, of course, we think of Judas but we also think of goats. Goats are notoriously disobedient. Whereas shepherds protect sheep from their environment, goat herders protect the environment from their goats.
GB: [Laughs] I love that distinction.
DN: And perhaps one of the reasons they’re associated with the Devil and the satanic is that they don’t obey. They aren’t like sheep, like a flock. I know this is only one possible reason goats run through your poems, and again, find themselves on the cover, but tell us about some of the reasons for you about the attraction to goats. This book isn’t Judas horse, it’s not connected to the Natalie Diaz reference.
GB: I think the Judas goat in particular first captivated me through its relationship to slaughter and slaughterhouses in particular because when I was about eight years old, my mom bought this building which had been an abandoned slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in downtown Birmingham. I was like Alice in Wonderland as a child wandering through this incredible, scary but amazing building. It was five stories and there were the blood drains on the floor and these smokers and just dust on everything. It was this magical room where the windows had been broken and all these pigeons were in there and just flurrying around flooded with light. I don’t know, I was totally enchanted by this building. When I was staying with my mom for the weekends, we would stay there and she worked there. Her photography studio was in there. Slaughter and slaughterhouses were a part of my childhood imagination and so when I learned about this goat that was trained to leave the sheep into the slaughterhouse, I just got really interested in that. Then goats in general, what is it about them? I know you think about goats too, the scapegoat, scapegoats, and their pupils, which they’re not the only animals with this kind of pupil that’s designed to see the horizon that looks like this amazing bar. There’s something about their eyes that captivates me and I’m someone who’s very interested in the eye, looking, and imagery. Goats. [laughter] Goats, you can tell me if I’m wrong about this but the Hebrew word for goat combines all these really fascinating paradoxes if I’m remembering correctly, it comes from a word that means something like luck, astral signs, or constellations and also betrayal and cutting. They’re such fascinating creatures and they’re associated with the sacred in terms of being sacrificed and they’re so demonized throughout history. There are so many myths about them that they’ll eat anything. They’re actually really picky eaters.
DN: Oh, really? Are they really picky eaters?
GB: I believe so, yeah.
DN: Oh, weird.
GB: Pickier than a lot of other animals.
DN: Let’s hear Judas Goat and also When Her Second Horn, The Only Horn She Has Left as a setup for a question from another.
[Gabrielle Bates reads from Judas Goat]
GB: Okay. Then, I don’t think I’ve ever read this one.
[Gabrielle Bates reads a poem called When Her Second Horn, The Only Horn She Has Left]
DN: We’ve been listening to Gabrielle Bates reading from Judas Goat. Okay, so we have a question for you from someone else.
Carl Phillips: Hi, Gabby. It’s Carl Phillips. Congratulations on Judas Goat. I have a question for you. What if I said that your poem When Her Second Horn, The Only Horn She Has Left—which I can’t stop rereading—what if I said it feels simultaneously like an ars poetica and a crime of passion? What if?
GB: Wow. I can’t believe Carl Phillips has read my book. That’s wild. Wow, an ars poetica and a crime of passion. I think that feels very accurate. It’s funny, it’s reminding me, there was this time when I was having a lot of trouble titling poems and I would just title everything ars poetica because it always fits and it’s funny that I don’t actually have a poem titled ars poetica because it was a working title for so many things. I wrote this poem, if I remember correctly, near the end of working on this book when this recurring image motif symbol of the goat had emerged and it felt like time to look at it more directly and really try to think about what it meant to me, what it was doing, how it was functioning. I wanted to write myself to the end of this book not chronologically but just go as deep as I could, think as rigorously as I could before I said goodbye to it, and started focusing on other things. This poem came out of that energy. It does feel like an ars poetica in some ways. Also, this poem about the dangers of my poetics, we’ve talked about the relentless revising, the cutting back, the cutting back, the excavation, and the risks of that is that it can become violent in a way and can be unkind to the self, to the world, to the symbols themselves, maybe even to language itself. It’s a poem where I see myself pushing that idea to an extreme, dramatized limit. I wasn’t thinking about this but when I look at the poem now, I see this idea of the punctum being enacted very literally, so thinking about Barthes’ idea of the punctum in Camera Lucida. Is that what it is?
GB: Which is this moment in a photo that pierces the viewer. In this poem, we have the speaker’s eye being literally pierced by the subject she’s looking at and trying to understand. I see her trying to get to a layer of truth that may or may not even be there and causing harm in the process. It’s funny, this poem when it was published, I don’t remember a lot of people really engaging with it so I had this idea that would be this very quiet poem in the book that no one would ever mention and it’s really exciting to me to get a question about it.
DN: I love this poem.
GB: It makes so much sense that it would be Carl Phillips who would ask about it because he’s so wonderfully not like other people and I think he gets some enjoyment out of being drawn to things that others would ignore.
DN: Well, when I think about goats, disobedience, and betrayal in relation to your mom and your stepmom, I also think of it in relationship to your mother figures or surrogate figures which are present in this book also, the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who I want to talk about more fully later, but in your conversation with Mike Sakasegawa for Mike Sakasegawa’s podcast Keep The Channel Open where the two of you focused on Kelly’s goat-centric poem, Song, you mentioned how the word tragedy literally means an ancient Greek goat song. Because I knew Kelly loomed large in this manuscript and because I knew image loomed large in your manuscript, so much so that the book is literally dedicated to the image, I decided to attend and listen to a lecture that Roger Reeves gave at Warren Wilson MFA program called (Troubling) Image and the Poetic Statement, which involves a close reading of Kelly’s poem The Dragon. But before I share what I learned when I took this class to see what you think, I’d love to hear why the book is dedicated to the image, especially knowing that you were involved in the image text of poetry comics that you’ve done visual or graphic interviews, that you have an interest in the future of possibly pursuing film. But I’m curious what the image means for you within a more recognizably text-based poetic space in a book that only has words or “only has words,” so much so that you would dedicate poems made of words to the image as you have.
GB: I mentioned earlier that I would have loved for this book to be dedicated to people in my life but that just didn’t feel honest. Something I’ve learned in putting this first book into the world is that you’re asked for your dedication quite late in the process, it’s one of the last things that my editor asked me for and so I was really able to think about it a lot. This was the dedication that felt most true to me. I think this book is written for the image, whatever that means. I’m learning all the time, and probably for the rest of my life, about what that might mean. But I’m really interested in the image as a kind of concrete and graspable surrogate for the ineffable for these things that we can’t transmit as an experience to other people. So many poets so much smarter than me have talked about this. Jorie Graham talks about this. The filmmaker Tarkovsky, who I’m into, talks about this. Carl Phillips himself has written so eloquently and gorgeously about this idea so there’s nothing new here. But the idea of an image as a kind of anchor that then allows us to travel further both in our own thinking about the world and also travel further in terms of our connection to other human beings, I find it absolutely magical that language can create, in another person’s mind, a sensory experience, another person’s body a sensory experience. Images feel to me, at this point in my life, like what allows that magic to happen. I feel so grateful for the image as it’s conveyed in text versus how it’s conveyed in other ways. I think because I feel so much freedom, yes, the imagery might be fainter in some ways but there’s a freedom of the access in creating them that I am really obsessed by, interested in, and indebted to.
DN: Is that line at the end of Judas Goat “I too am dying of what I don’t know,” somehow I connect that to your interest in the image.
DN: In a way maybe I should change that because I’m questioning myself because before, I was thinking the image is doing something that is outside of language but it also sounds like you see it as something that’s produced by language in another.
GB: Yeah. I see the end of that poem as being a statement of being haunted by the unknown and brushing up against a limit for sure, which feels related to the image, the image being a kind of limit and being what allows us to exceed certain limits. There are so many paradoxes involved in poetry and one of them that over the course of this book that I was thinking about a lot is that paradox of imagery that by traveling through something really specific in particular and concrete and describing its surfaces, really that that’s what allows us to puncture through to a depth and that abstraction.
DN: Well, in Roger Reeves’ lecture, he talks about his interest in troubling the image and he clarifies what he means by trouble. He means trouble in the sense of the song Wade In The Water with the lines “Wade In The Water. God’s gonna trouble the water.” Then he connects it to aporia or what he calls metaphysical indeterminacy and doubt, which is interesting because when I talked with Daniel Mendelsohn, he characterized aporia as the lack of a clear path forward and the confusion of not knowing how to move and the feelings that come with that. Reeves then walks us through three approaches to the image historically and philosophically. He starts with Pound’s imagism, then moves to surrealism, and then to Bly’s idea of the deep image as a preface to then look at Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem and he talks about how Bly stated that the poetry we have now is a poetry without the image, that what Pound called the image was, in his view, merely a picture, that Pound’s imagism for Bly was really picturism. Bly says, “An image and a picture differ in that the image, being the natural speech of the imagination, can not be drawn from or inserted back into the real world. It is an animal native to the imagination. Like Bonnefoy’s ‘interior sea lighted by turning eagles,’ it cannot be seen in real life. A picture, on the other hand, is drawn from the objective ‘real’ world.” Reeves then goes on to do a reading line by line of Kelly’s poem The Dragon. What he notes over and over again is how she returns to the same image, that really the first line about bees leaving a juniper tree, you could say that’s all that happens in the poem but she returns to the image, making the image something that accretes with time and revisitation. The bees, the second time, are as large as melons. Then the third time, the melons are orange. But only step by step. Roger asserts for himself that images are not static and arrested but moving through time. All of this reminds me of your work, of reading your book and I wondered what further thought about images this might provoke for you hearing me just summarize a very, very smart talk by him, by a poet that’s very important to you.
GB: Oh, I love that so much. I can’t believe I haven’t seen that talk, or if I have, it’s been so many years that I’ve forgotten and I can’t wait to listen to it either for the first time or the sixth. [laughter] Yes, oh, that brings so many more thoughts about the image to mind. It’s reminding me of this amazing poem by the poet Rick Barot called The Wooden Overcoat that touches on this idea of the difference between an image and the detail. An image I think can’t be one-sided. An image is where a kind of real and unreal meet. An image has layers of depth and resonance that a picture like you named might not or in detail might not. An image is a portal. I’m also thinking about the amazing conversation you had with Alice Oswald where this idea of the poem as an animal came up. It may have been in reference to Ted Hughes or it may have been her idea but I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s such a fascinating idea,” because I disagreed with it immediately and yet the idea of a poem as a living thing feels very true to me. I’m interested in that difference. Why does it feel so untrue to me to think of a poem as an animal but very true for me to think of it as something living that can be killed, that has a kind of skin, a personality, and all these things? It’s fascinating. I don’t have an answer for it but it’s something that your question reminded me of.
DN: To connect this back to Carl Phillips’s suggestion that When Her Second Horn, The Only Horn She Has Left is your ars poetica, in Rogers’ talk when he encounters a line about light in Kelly’s poem, he says something like—and I say something like because I’m not remembering this exactly—but he says something like, “Whenever a poet mentions light, they’re telling you something about their poetics around the image or their philosophy around how the poem sees.” I think this is true for you around eyes. The first sentence of that poem When Her Second Horn, The Only Horn She Has Left goes through the white and copper-topped tunnel of my eye and enters the basket of bone, we are no chimera the ancients ever dreamed.” To me, there is no better image in the book to describe your relationship to them. I think you’ve already spoken into that with the idea of the punctum. But I also think of the review of your book by Dani Janae for Autostraddle that reviewed called Judas Goat Made Me Start Writing Again where they say, “The image, the horn through the eye, is jarring and elastic. It stretches around your brain and becomes the only thing you can see, a fixation. Judas Goat is full of these images, of this language that makes you want to look away while pulling you closer.” I wondered if you stood with Carl, Dani, and myself on team “horn through the eye,” if horn through the eye somehow is capturing something about the book that’s vital, not just to that poem, and also I would love it if we could hear that poem again a second time after since we’ve discussed it a little bit and then also Self-Portrait as Provincial.
GB: Hmm, yes, absolutely. I have to share this quote from Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space which I have written down beside me. I don’t have it memorized, I’m not that fancy but it says, “We want to see and yet we are afraid to see. This is the perceptible threshold of all knowledge.” I don’t know if that’s true or not but I am really interested in that idea. Hearing your description and unpacking of that particular moment and then thinking about this poem as an ars poetica, I think that is a driving idea or a kind of poetics that I’m exploring in the book, this desire and fear meeting in looking at an image.
[Gabrielle Bates reads a poem called When Her Second Horn, The Only Horn She Has Left]
[Gabrielle Bates reads a poem called Self-Portrait as Provincial]
DN: We’ve been listening to Gabrielle Bates read from Judas Goat. There’s a way that this “pierced eye, making a chimera no ancient has ever dreamed” connects you to Kelly in my mind. When Paisley Rekdal was on The Poet Salon, she herself picked a Kelly poem for her second appearance, Black Swan. She talks about how Kelly’s work feels like it engages with myth while also not seeming to engage with an identifiable one. That somehow it feels pre-Christian and Christian, and ultimately creates a personal mythology which I feel like is also a good description of elements of Judas Goat. There is a way in which I feel like I’m participating in a mythology but not one that I can fully identify and not one that’s stably Christian, and certainly has lots of pagan or pre-Christian elements. I guess I would say that even though Rekdal says that Kelly has stolen the goat, that the goat is hers, [laughter] that no one else can do the goat, that you have in fact done the goat, in your own way, I know I keep connecting you to Kelly, which you do yourself, I don’t want to suggest at all that your poems are derivative or somehow in the shadow of hers but you do feel like—and I think you’ve said this as much—that you’re in a kindred relationship to some of her aesthetics and questions I think. When talking about Kelly’s poem Song, again with Mike Sakasegawa, you say that the ways you feel connected to Kelly include engagement with animals, religiosity, the juxtaposition of childhood and adulthood, and you describe her book as, “Haunted by mortality, by cruelty, by the shadow that comes along with the heart,” which again I feel like we need to conjure Kelly to blurb your book with these words. [laughter] But I want to propose a different connection that relates to what Suzi Garcia said for Lambda Literary’s most anticipated releases when she picked your book as a most anticipated release. She said, “These poems are voiced storytelling at its best.” When I was in conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop, there was this brilliant essay by Ryan Ruby at Poetry Foundation called Mind the Gaps where he looked at Waldrop’s work and at what the prose poem asks us around the definition of poetry since it challenges the definition. He brings up the notion of Jeff Dolven, that perhaps poetry is distinctive with regards to its relationship to time. That poetry is the art form that strives toward instantaneity. But when I think of voiced storytelling, which also harkens back to you talking earlier about fiction and you being a fiction writer trapped in a poet’s body, I feel like your poetry has a relationship with time that is different than this notion of all at onceness. I think again of Roger Reeves showing how Kelly returns and adds to the image, and the image is moving through time. I think about you saying in the Palette Poetry interview, “This book is, from my perspective at least, so much about the stories we tell ourselves and others to make sense of the world. The ways these stories help us survive and also the ways they circulate pain. Faith traditions, fairytales, superstitions—the characters in Judas Goat are often engaging with these things, living out versions of them.” I guess I wanted to hear what that brings up for you, this notion of voiced storytelling and your relationship I guess to narrative as a poet within poems.
GB: Oh, so many things I’d love to respond to there. The first is I do feel so indebted to Brigit Pegeen Kelly and I have always sensed a kind of kindredness with her, and I do feel like our poems are very different. Some people have gone to Kelly’s work backwards through mine and been really surprised to find how different they are just because of how much I talk about her and cite her as an influence, so I appreciate you bringing her into the space. I’d talk in that Keep the Channel Open podcast interview that I did about what a private person she was, so I always feel really complicated feelings talking about her and attaching myself to her. I didn’t know her personally at all. It’s entirely possible that she would really hate me talking about her so much like that. It’s a very real possibility that vexes me a little bit, so I’m just to name that discomfort. I think it’s an important discomfort. I also love thinking about this relationship to time in poems. Someone was just saying on Twitter today, maybe it was a Charles Simic quote.
DN: I saw that too.
GB: Yeah, about how the goal of a lyric poem is to stop time.
DN: Yeah. “The secret goal of lyric poetry is to stop time.”
GB: Yes. Oh, I love that idea. I think there is a way that a lot of the poems I’m writing are interested in moving through time as you say and changing, then looking at the distance between two different points in time which I suppose could be a kind of stillness and stopping time but for me, it feels very much in motion. It’s a way of moving more freely in general.
DN: Before we leave Kelly, since we’re talking about narrative of prose, of art that is engaged with the unscrolling of time, like so many things we know about versions, versioning, and autopoiesis with this book, you’ve also talked about how the middle of this book at one point was to be prose, it was to be an essay which is now a long poem called Mothers, and that centers Kelly as one of the figures in this book. I would be curious to hear about the essay, the prose that was once at the center of Judas Goat, both why it became a poem and how it became a poem.
GB: I wanted to write about Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poetry and the impact that it’s had on me just to honor her poetics and her legacy, and think through all these complicated ideas and relationships to mother figures, both in my life and in the book. I wrote this essay. I’m not an essayist, so it was very much out of my wheelhouse. That’s one reason it ultimately became a poem, is just I don’t have the skills in that department I think. Also, it was just really jarring to move from meaning-making and movement that the poems were doing into a very different mode and then back again. It felt like it broke the spell. I very much wanted this book to feel like a spell. Related to some discomfort about maybe divulging aspects of Kelly’s life that she wouldn’t want anyone talking about, I ended up cutting it back a lot, then embracing more of a poetic and imaginative back-and-forth movement. I also just really love lines. [laughs] I really love the multiplicity of meaning that a line affords us. It’s a way of allowing the language to live multiple lives, so “Why would I not do that if I could?” was my thinking too. It’s something that draws me to poetry. It’s something I adore about it that prose can’t really do. Although I do, when I’m reading a novel or something, sometimes I’ll find what feels like lines within sentences which is a really pleasurable way of reading for me. But working with my editor Alyssa, she gently helped me see that the essay was not serving in the middle, so I really revised it into a poem at her encouragement as I’m remembering correctly. [laughs]
DN: You’ve talked in many places about a long-standing desire to write a novel. Is that going to be broken out in the lines and made into an epic poem?
GB: I don’t think so. I think I was really starved for poetry without knowing it for a long time, then when I found poetry, I just went nuts with it and it became my entire life. I was reading it ravenously, writing it ravenously, selling it and working in a bookstore that sells it, and studying it. I think I’ve hit a kind of saturation and I don’t know how much of that are the difficulties of these years of the pandemic. I don’t know how much of it is having this book coming out in the world is inviting me to a necessary pause. The kind of thinking and feeling that poetry invites us to do is very overwhelming for me now. There’s something really comforting about prose. I know that wasn’t true for me in the last 10 years necessarily. I’ve always been reading novels, loving novels, attempting to write novels but it isn’t until now that I’m really being drawn to that way of writing in a way that feels like that’s where my creative energy is really going, not just this goal, not just this idea that I love novels and would love to write one. Poetry is locking me out in an interesting way. I think Elisa Gabbert writes about this a little bit, of how one has to have a mind of poetry, and sometimes the mind is different. I wouldn’t say I’m taking a break from poetry right now but I’ve slowed my role significantly when it comes to reading it and writing it. I’m excited by the possibilities of prose, even as I remain in love with lineation.
DN: In a conversation that’s going to air after our conversation that I have with a horror writer, we talk about psychogeography, not only the idea that our behavior is influenced by place but also possibly that place is haunted by the things that have happened on it which might also influence our behavior. I want to talk about your book in relation to place and in relationship to being haunted by place, and by origins but also about the possibility that place itself is haunted. But before we do, I was hoping we could hear Dear Birmingham and Effigy.
[Gabrielle Bates reads a poem called Dear Birmingham and Effigy]
DN: We’ve been listening to Gabrielle Bates read from Judas Goat. Okay, we have another question for you.
Patrycja Humienik: Hi, Gabby. It’s Patrycja. I am so moved by Judas Goat. It’s a book that is instantly felt and rewards the reader with each subsequent read. Congratulations on this brilliant debut. I just know I’ll be returning to it again and again. As for my question, when you spoke about this book back before it was picked up by Tin House for my Before The First Book mini-series at The Rumpus back in 2021, you mentioned what you’d originally thought your first book would more overtly reckon with, the American South and your hometown of Birmingham, and you said that, “Reckoning with public histories and place on the page requires skills I’m only slowly acquiring.” Now that you’re bringing Judas Goat into the world, I wanted to return to this question of engaging with public histories. I wonder what is most challenging for you as a poet when engaging with place and what is changing, if anything, about how you write and research since finishing your first book. Thank you.
GB: I highly recommend being friends with really brilliant and kind other writers. I just want to throw that out there. What a beautiful question. I’ll start to answer by saying that I have this massive document on my computer of all of these scraps of history about Alabama and about Birmingham, and ideas for possible poems or engagements with that that are always brewing and every once in a while, I will make an attempt to work with that material. I’ve been really enjoying the psychic space that having this book under contract opened up for me in my creative life, was like knowing that this book was going to become an object in the world, that was going to happen, answered this question that I’d been asking myself for so many years of, “Will it ever happen? Will it ever happen? Will I ever publish a book?” I’ve loved the freedom, now that I’m outside of this particular project, to reevaluate and read the types of books that I wasn’t reading before. I’ve been reading a lot more non-fiction, things that feel less explicitly engaged with a certain creative project. It’s been really enjoyable just not to try to be producing anything really. I think I’ve learned about myself that if I try to go after a project directly, it’s never going to happen anyway. So if I want to write a book that’s really more explicitly engaged with the South, with Alabama, with Birmingham, I think I’m going to have to trick myself into it, misdirect in a way, then allow all of that research, and thinking to enter as they will or won’t. I know many writers think about this idea but that is still something I would love to do. I had originally envisioned my first book as being very much like a deep south sci-fi situation which would feel somewhat novelistic in some ways but also would be very much doing what poetry does but I couldn’t just go after that book. The writing felt really hollow to me. I’ll continue to take the poems that come as they come and chase the life where the life leads. I can have all sorts of ideas for what I’d like to write about but at the end of the day, I’m just going to have to go with what if anything I can make live.
DN: Well, you have another tweet of yours that goes, “When our lives inevitably intertwine with the lives of other human beings, over whom we hold, due to some structural hierarchy, a degree of power, what are loving, ethical ways to write into those relationships, I wonder? Are there any?” I have no idea what power relation you were thinking of when you tweeted this but I thought of this tweet when Patrycja quoted you about wanting to be able to write more into the American South and not yet feeling like you had the tools or language, and also thinking of your writing about Maggie Nelson’s book On Freedom where you say, “I know writers can’t always control where their obsessions or scholarly interests take them, but the absence of substantive discussion about incarceration or literal policing in a book called On Freedom by an American writer in 2021 felt palpable to me,” or when you were writing about Lucille Clifton saying, “I believe, as Jericho Brown points out in his essay ‘Love the Masters,’ all art is political in that it either supports or critiques the status quo. Because we are all raced beings, whether we consider ourselves to be or not, all our poems are in conversation with racial issues. I tend to read and write every poem, whether it mentions race explicitly or not, through this lens.” It made me wonder, when you say you don’t have the tools to write the types of poems you’d like to write about the American South but you’re moving that way, if part of this was a question of writing about race or not. I’m imagining that it was but you don’t say as much either in the tweet or in your response today or in your writing in the discussion on the roundtable. But am I wrong to think that might be part of it given your engagement with race in these other places?
GB: Oh, no, yeah, you’re not wrong at all. I think growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, which is internationally infamous as the site of violence against Black people by people motivated by these myths of White supremacy, that history is very much alive and I was very aware of it growing up from an early age and White supremacy as this evil in the world that I did not want to support at all and in any way, so I have lots of questions of how I can do the most good in the world and in my work, and not wanting to do harm and wanting to take risks. There are all of these energies that come together and meet there. In several of those quotes you cited, it was definitely questions of race and power dynamics inherent in that. Maybe in the tweet, I was thinking more about power dynamics of just being a writer, being the one in control of a narrative than writing about maybe versions of other human beings in your life when they aren’t getting to speak in that space. In general, I get really overwhelmed and I don’t have a great brain for thinking at things on a really large scale level. My brain is always trying to bring things down to the intimate, to the concrete particular that I possibly can. My desire to reckon with these really big, structural, political, historical things feels like it’s just ramming up against my limits and my natural aesthetic inclinations. I think I just have to trust for now that I will engage with it as I can. I don’t have to be and I could never be the only writer engaging with anything, and trusting that there are people who have the skills and the passions to write the books I can fantasize about writing and then I can write the books that I can write and support, and do the work I can off the page where it often feels more intuitive to me how to be of service to these ideas that I’m passionate about and to people who are suffering.
DN: Well, in this last poem you read, Effigy, the effigy of the speaker’s mother and the speaker wanting her mother’s blood ringed out of her, armed with a knife to defend herself, presumably against her mother, seeing her mother’s electrified tongue but then waking with her mother’s tongue in her own mouth, that interpenetration of identity like the horn piercing the eye, part of what makes this book so great is that we have the self-making, the autopoiesis, this attempt to individuate but also this almost cosmic pull back to origins simultaneously, you can’t get the blood out. That the tongue that you speak with isn’t entirely your tongue. You could think of it or I could think of it as mythic in the way that Le Guin said, “All true journey is return,” but there’s also, I almost feel like, a horror aspect to it as well in the book. But a struggle between journey and return enacted almost as a story in this book is one of my favorite things about the book. It takes place also as we see in your New Yorker poem Strawberries and in many other poems in relation to sexual desire and sexual violence or the possibility of violence looming like an atmosphere. That there’s always a potential tipping point between Eros and violation. The climate of misogyny feels like it’s part of the psychogeography of the place you conjure for us. The atmosphere of the book includes this threat. These questions of identity as a woman within this atmosphere are also questions around sexual orientation, around normative expectations around partners and commitment, and questions not just around mothers but whether the speaker would want to be a mother. I guess I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss this aspect of the book which is an important throughline in the book. I was hoping maybe you’d speak a little bit into it for us, this question of journeying and origins, and self-individuation in relationship to intimacy, this intimacy that as we see, like with the trembling with the ram and the goat but also the mother’s tongue has a terrifying aspect to it.
GB: One of the many things that haunts me that found its way into this book as an atmosphere is the ways that white women have been used and allowed themselves to be used as an excuse for really horrific violence against Black people all over the country that I think we often associate that history with the South and I definitely grew up thinking of it as a Southern horror, histories of lynching in particular. At some point, that haunting became attached to the haunting of being someone who, by disposition and how I was raised, was really obsessed with ideas of spiritual purity, I thought that a kind of goodness and purity, not from a racial standpoint but from a spiritual standpoint, was something attainable if I could only work hard enough at it, pray enough about it, and whatnot. When I realized or admitted the myth of that idea, I think there was a way that we got all these just damaging myths of purity to come together. They’re really terrifying and it can be really difficult to peel them away or try to see clearly through them. I think that’s an idea that’s haunting this whole book for sure.
DN: Another power differential I wanted to talk about is the one between humans and animals including goats but beyond goats, particularly because so many of the animals in the book are domesticated animals, not all of them, but there are dogs, cats, sheep, lamb, pig, and rabbit but there’s also many others, bear, deer, squirrel, yellowjackets, ants, fish, owls, snakes, spiders, an ancient tortoise, eel. But before we talk about animals, which are as present or, in some cases, more present than the human, I’d love to hear the poem The Dog, yet another poem that comes with a story about it. It’s a poem that is set apart from the rest of the collection that we encounter before the epigraph page, alongside no other poems, and you’ve spoken about, you’ve narrativized about this poem outside of the collection and why it ends up here. You also have a story of studying under Vievee Francis, her calling you out at Bread Loaf, that we’d love to hear, that led to this poem. If you could talk about The Dog in relationship to that workshop but also then The Dog in relationship to the collection and why you wanted it to be the first thing we encounter and apart from everything else.
GB: I was at The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference one summer and I was in Vievee Francis’ workshop, and she really saw through me and saw through a lot of students, we would talk about this, how we had been seen and called into a truer relationship with our subjects in various ways by her. I think she’s just an incredible teacher and poet. It was such a short amount of time that we were all together in Vermont, workshopping poems together but the impact that she’s had on me and on so many other poets is just absolutely profound. The things she said to me that led to this poem, in particular, were about daring to be ugly and ferocious, and even mean in a poem, also to risk clarity, whatever that might mean, and also to stop trying to impress other people but particularly certain male mentors that I may have had because there is this side of me that is a star student, I like to please the people with authority over me by disposition and that’s something that I was really trying to get away from in this book. She helped me really get away from it I think. [laughs] I was in Vermont, I was in this writing workshop with Vievee and she gave me the assignment to write an ugly and ferocious poem. I went off and I wrote the first draft of The Dog which hasn’t changed very much since that original draft, which is rare for me as we know now, [laughs] although I have tinkered with it here and there.
DN: And tell us where it is too.
GB: Oh, yeah. It was so difficult to know where to put this poem because it is very intense I would say. I personally often need a little bit of a break after reading it, a bit of a breath, a bit of space, so I thought readers might also appreciate that. It felt like it either had to be first or it had to be last. It didn’t feel right for it to be last because there’s something in its severity that doesn’t feel true to the emotional arc of a book as a whole, which is reaching for a more nuanced and tender kind of love. This felt like a brutal starting point for the book that we would then depart from. People would read it and they’d know what they were in for in some ways in terms of themes and a kind of intensity that I thought might be good to foreground.
[Gabrielle Bates reads a poem called The Dog]
DN: We’ve been listening to Gabrielle Bates read from Judas Goat. Right after this poem, we get the Linda Gregg epigraph, “The body goes into such raptures of obedience.” Of course, we think of the notion of a Judas Goat, also a goat as you said that deceptively leads sheep to slaughter on behalf of humans, so in a way, the goat is being scapegoated I think as a Judas with us behind it all, so in a way the ultimate Judas. I think of the Book of Matthew, I don’t know if that came into your collection as well, at the end times, all the nations will be gathered and the Messiah will separate people to one side or another, like a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats, so the sheep can inherit the Kingdom that’s been prepared for them, so that the obedient will be rewarded and this notion that the goats can hide in the sheep, and need to be rooted out. But it feels like we’re the gods in these poems in relation to the animals and also Judas in relationship to these animals. The Poetry Foundation review suggests that the collection wonders about how an animal’s gaze becomes a mirror, which I loved, and it quotes several lines from the book, “You won’t be the first to be disturbed by what you / find, or don’t in a bovine’s eyes,” and “Eurydice swims across the black / watery surface of a rabbit’s eye.” Again, returning to our image-making organ, but here where the eye is being seen rather than seeing, I don’t know if it’s a mirror but we’re looking at the seeing eye. But I was hoping maybe you could talk to us about why this collection has as many animals as humans. It also makes this relation much like the interpersonal human relations fraught with power and violence. What are the animating questions? You’ve mentioned your mother’s slaughterhouse. I don’t know what you felt. I don’t know if that was cool or terrifying when you went there with the blood drains on the floor.
GB: Mostly very cool.
DN: Yeah, but it feels like there’s a question or questions about the human.
GB: It’s funny. A few days ago, I read for the first time John Berger’s essay Why Look at Animals and it felt so shocking to me that I hadn’t read it before because it seemed so Judas goat-y in terms of why I look at animals and breaking down what animals see when they look at us and when our eyes meet. As for why I’m so drawn to animals in the book, I think I’ve just always been really interested in and enchanted by animals. Many children are, but yeah, I don’t know if I, more than others, was obsessed but I did have a phase when I was in the first grade where I made it my project to try to convince other people that I could turn into an animal. I have a slightly pointed ear, so I would say that I could turn into a cat. [laughs] This is all just to say I’m thinking about origins and those sorts of things. An obsession and interest in animals has been with me for a very long time and it continues. I also have no real desire to “own” an animal. I have no pets. I don’t want a pet. I love being around animals and thinking about them and looking at them but there’s something really, not to keep using the word haunting over and over again, but there’s something haunting to me about domestication as an idea, and being responsible for another being on the one hand and having the potential to harm it on accident or not. I think I felt growing up like I was being domesticated in these ways that they’re just like culturally, as a White girl in the South and a very Christian and overall very conservative context and being a person who was eager to please, who wanted to be the star student, I just felt like this crucial part of me was being destroyed and suppressed in these really horrible ways. Maybe I attached to animals a freedom from that, this idea of a wildness that I did not feel was accessible to me that could be accessed by certain types of animals. Maybe I felt a kindredness with domesticated animals because I myself felt domesticated in those ways. I’m not sure. As a source of imagery, just to bring us back to the image, nothing can really compete with the animal for me. There is something original, in terms of thinking about origins, about the image of an animal and they are so often in a kind of motion. We talked earlier about the relationship between the image and time, and image and motion and I think unless the animal is dead, which sometimes they are in my poems, they at least have the capacity for movement. They were once moving even if they aren’t now. There’s something of that potential energy that I feel, even when it’s in language on a page.
DN: Well, we have another question, this time from your editor.
Alyssa Ogi: Hi, Gabby. Hi, David. It’s Alyssa. I really appreciate the chance to ask a question because I miss getting to talk to Gabby about the content of poetry. By the end of the production journey with Judas Goat, we’re talking a lot about printer files and upcoming book events but really the best was when we were digging into the poems together. Anyway, my question has to do with place. So much of this collection is really tangled in the roots of Alabama and the South, from imagery to diction decisions, and Gabby, we had conversations about geography during the editing process but you’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost 10 years now if I’m doing my math right, and I’m just curious if and how you see it permeating your newer writing. I’m thinking about how the newest poem to the collection, Mothers, mentions the sliver of the Pacific visible in the periphery. How is it coming into view for you? Do you find yourself addressing this region in a different tone or voice than you do the South? Okay, thanks. I’ll see you both soon.
GB: I love how she phrased tangled in the roots. What a beautiful question. I think distance is really necessary for the kind of image-making that I’m interested in, which makes me wonder if I won’t really be able to write into images of the Pacific Northwest until I’m somewhere else. This becomes the type of origin I’m reaching back to in my imagination and my mind because when something’s very close and physically present, that’s paradoxically very difficult for me to see with the poetry organ that I’m using as opposed to my physiological eye but I don’t know because there are ways that the Pacific Northwest Flora and Fauna moments enter Judas Goat but I almost have to pretend like I’m not here in order to write them, in order to see them with the kind of layered depth that I’m interested in. Otherwise, it all just feels too surface-level.
DN: Maybe it’s the imagism versus picturism.
GB: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely that. Yes, it feels very much like a picture. I remember describing my experience of living in Seattle to someone in my first few years of moving here where I really felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground here. I really felt like I was living in a kind of screensaver. Part of it was just the beauty, the novel beauty of this landscape to me coming from the south which has its own gorgeousness of course. But it was just so new to me and I didn’t have a personal history here, and I didn’t know much of a collective history here, so it all felt like this big surface that I couldn’t really access or even really feel myself to exist in. That idea in and of itself could be really interesting to try to write into but in the poetics, I was engaging in writing Judas Goat. I just couldn’t really do it. But in terms of the places that my writing has felt engaged with since completing this book, I’ve been writing a lot more towards the places I can enter through certain pieces of visual art, particularly some that I saw when I was teaching in Rome last summer. I seem to be avoiding writing about or into Seattle directly. [laughter] I’m enchanted by all the other places which makes me think that wherever my home base is, wherever my apartment is, I’m just not going to be able to really write about that or I’m not going to be interested in writing about it until I’m not rooted there anymore.
DN: Well, in the spirit of Aria Aber’s blurb that says, “And yet through all the layers of large and little violences emerges a speaker who believes in love, a voice that yearns for the mysterious otherwhere,” let’s go out with two more poems. I’m thinking Salmon, just to make a nod to the Northwest and one of the most recent poems you wrote for the book, The Lucky Ones.
[Gabrielle Bates reads a poem called Salmon]
[Gabrielle Bates reads a poem called The Lucky Ones]
DN: Gabrielle Bates, thank you for being on Between the Covers.
GB: Thank you so much for having me, David. I could never describe what an honor this is to me.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Gabrielle Bates about her debut poetry collection from Tin House, Judas Goat. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Gabrielle Bates’ work at gabriellebat.es. Gabby is offering an annotated advanced galley of Judas Goat for one new supporter as well as two 30-minute poetry consultations for two new supporters. These generous contributions join collectibles from everyone from Ama Codjoe to Ursula K. Le Guin to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, the bonus audio archive, the Tin House early readership subscription, or receiving a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. In addition, every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the robust supplementary resources with each conversation. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogi in the Book Division, Alice Evelyn Yang in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the Summer and Winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.