Gabrielle Bates on Interiority and Indebtedness to the Image

Gabrielle Bates’ debut poetry collection, Judas Goat, is one of those books that really reminds me why I love poetry. It offers a careful study of relationships, religion, womanhood, and the South. While it’s full of violence and suffering among both animals and humans, there is also so much tenderness.

On my first read, I was consumed with the arresting and often brutal images throughout the collection that linger long after putting the book down – for me, it was particularly “The Dog” and “When Her Second Horn, the Only Horn She Has Left.” As I continued sitting with the poems, though, I found myself focusing on their exploration of intimacy, the quiet moments split wide for readers to witness: “When we went to bed, I stared at the back of his head / split between compassion and fury” (“The Dog”) and “my father woke me with a hair dryer / under the covers; sheets lofted like a lung” (“Should the First Calf of Winter Be White, You’re Going to Hate”).

These pieces are expansive, sure, and sharp, reflecting the messiness of life without being messy at all. The line I keep coming back to is from “Dear Birmingham”: “What I have wanted most / is many lives. One for each longing, / round and separate.”

Gabrielle Bates is the author of Judas Goat, named by Vulture and the Chicago Review of Books as a “must-read” book of 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 American Poetry Review, among other journals and anthologies. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she currently lives in Seattle, where she helps out at Open Books: A Poem Emporium and — with Luther Hughes and Dujie Tahat — co-hosts the podcast The Poet Salon.

What has been the best part of this debut publishing experience so far? Have there been any surprises?

I thought that, because I’ve seen and celebrated so many others’ book launches over the years, that I would be prepared for releasing my own book into the world, but the journey has been full of surprises! One of the best parts, for me, has been hearing from people who plan to teach the book in their classes; knowing Judas Goat will be read closely and discussed in that sort of context, where I first fell in love with contemporary poetry books, means so much to me.

What kinds of poems, if any, didn’t make it in this book? How did you narrow it down?

Ha! A million poems didn’t make it into the book. I followed my intuition, culling and cutting at various points, starting in about 2016, feeling my way. I wanted each poem in the book to be a world in its own right, almost like a greatest hits album, so that each individual piece would reward someone’s attention if they flipped right to it, but I also wanted this to be a book that would feel like a journey, start to finish. It was difficult to merge these two goals, but I did the best I could. My incredible editor at Tin House, Alyssa Ogi, helped immensely in the final stages. 

What is the timespan of the poems in this collection? What’s one of the earliest and one of the most recent pieces you wrote? Have you noticed any shifts in poetic obsession or habits over this time period?

The earliest poems I wrote that actually made it into the final version of the book started when I was in school at the University of Washington studying poetry in 2014. I wrote first drafts of “Judas Goat” there, as well as “How Judas Died,” “Should the First Calf of Winter Be White, You’re Going to Hate,” “The Animals We Are,” “Ice / / Tithes,” and “Anniversary.” But I continued to revise many of these for many years after those first drafts, so they ultimately overlap, in their creation, with many of the later poems. The final pieces I drafted for the book were “Mothers,” “When Her Second Horn, the Only Horn She Has Left,” and “The Lucky Ones,” I think. I’d like to say I can see a shift occurring, when I compare those two groupings of poems, but the more I look, the more I see an endurance of themes and a continued indebtedness to the image.

I loved “[Who Hasn’t Lain in a Yard with Boys]” – could you talk about the inspiration and writing/revision process for it?

I remember I started drafting “[Who Hasn’t Lain in a Yard with Boys]” in my head when I was on a run in Vermont near the end of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference one summer. There’s something about the intense proximity to other writers’ brilliance, combined with the breakneck pace of my work as a work-study fellow, that pressurized. I was afraid of men at that point in my life — even the men I felt safe around, I didn’t feel safe around — and I lived on hyper-alert, imagining horrible things all the time. It was a really terrible way to move through the world. I’m grateful that, in general, I don’t go through the world like that anymore. I think writing the poems for Judas Goat gave me a container for that fear outside of myself.

“Conversation with Mary” was another of my favorites. It feels raw and honest in a way many discussions of Mary and the “responsibilities” or requirements of women are not. The piece is stark but resonant, and it feels like the white space gives room for the speaker (and the reader) to really sit with the ways motherhood and womanhood can be violent and dehumanizing. Mothers are recurring figures in this collection – could you talk about the ways this piece is in conversation with some of the other representations of motherhood in the book?

Thank you so much for this reading of the poem! I really appreciate you attending to it in this way.

I was going through some old family photos after my grandmother died, and I found some of me as a really young kid — maybe four — dressed up as Mary for a nativity scene in my grandmother’s living room. Apparently, according to my dad, this was not something I was forced or even encouraged to do; it was my idea. From an early age, as a kid who believed really fervently in God and lived in a very Christian context, I imprinted on Mary as a young woman who was special and chosen. I also wanted to be special and chosen by God, to be worthy of entrusting with an important role in the narrative, but I started having all these nightmares that God had impregnated me in my sleep, and I did not feel blessed. Pregnancy as a process, and mothering as a responsibility, have always really terrified me, though I used to assume, when I lived in Alabama, that I would do it anyway.

The pandemic and the last several years of disaster after disaster have really changed my relationship to reading and writing. Would you say that’s true for you as well? I read in an interview with The Massachusetts Review that you found it difficult to read during the pandemic – is there a particular book (or podcast or routine) that pulled you out of that period?

Oh my gosh, YES. My relationship to reading has changed immensely in the last couple of years! Poetry remains incredibly difficult for me to read; I hate to admit this, as a poet, but it’s the truth. Sometimes it’s actually painful for me to read poems. Sometimes I try to open a book of poems and my brain just shuts down, refuses to go there. I think that, in the pre-plague era, poetry offered me a necessary respite from the exterior, superficial world; it gave me a way to access an intense interior realm I needed in order to feel alive. Now my life feels like one big intense interiority, so when I read poems, it’s like cutting past the quick. I’m too vulnerable to it, too tender.

The layered thinking and feeling poems invite me to do is often overwhelming, or else it doesn’t make me feel anything at all, so I’ve been gravitating more to nonfiction, books I suppose fall under the category of theory, which isn’t a genre I’ve ever really studied or been drawn to before. I’ve enjoyed diving into classics like Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. With these sorts of books, I’m able to engage with poetry at a pleasurable, tolerable distance.

What do you most love about the South? Are there any details that you miss about living in Alabama? For example, when I moved away for college, I missed the smell of the Tennessee River as I drove with the windows down along the bend of the river on the way to my childhood home.

Oh, the smell of the river! I love that detail. One of the things I love most about Alabama are its waters, for sure: Alabama has the most aquatic biodiversity in the country, and it has so many miles of underground rivers. I feel like I can sense that water moving, when I’m there, even when I can’t see it. All that life in the water. It breaks my heart that the rivers aren’t protected, of course, and how polluted and ravaged they are by the increase of manufacturing, but… I’ll try to stay on track with the positives.

When I’m in Seattle, I often miss the warmer, friendlier culture of Birmingham, the way people will meet your eyes and acknowledge your existence when you pass them on the street, the ways people joke and greet and share anecdotes and blessings with each other in public. I love driving by fields in Alabama, in the warmer months, all that green. I love and miss Saw’s BBQ sauce, honeysuckle, going for runs with my mom, spotting hawks off the back porch with my dad, moving through memories and ghosts of my former selves, all of that.

As an expert interviewer, what is a question you would ask if you were interviewing yourself? Or, put another way, is there anything you’d like to talk about that you don’t often get to in interviews?

I’m no expert, but I appreciate this characterization! It’s very kind. I suppose I might be intrigued, were I interviewing myself, by my recurring interest in film. I’ve said here and there that I have the desire to get involved in filmmaking in some way, so maybe I would ask myself if there were any film projects in the works. And the answer would be: Yes!

I’m collaborating with my mom right now on a short film adaptation of one of my poems (“The Bridge”). She’s a photographer by trade, and I’ve been on the other side of her lens many times before, but this is the first time I’ve really felt like an active collaborator in the process. I’m excited to see what the film becomes! In my book, which explores a lot of fairytale tropes, the mother figures are often absent, erased, and haunting, so it feels really meaningful to get to collaborate with my actual mom, who is so creative and passionate, on this iteration of one of the poems.

I’m drawn to “the poetic image” in all art forms — film, photos, drawing, sculpture — and I’ve experimented with all of these forms now, in relationship to poetry, but something always, ultimately, brings me back to the image as it’s rendered in language alone. There’s a freedom to it that just can’t be, in my experience, replicated anywhere else. I tend to use experimentation in other visual mediums (poetry comics, for example) as a way of achieving a temporary distance from text-based poetry, so that I can return with a fresh appreciation for its possibilities.

Thanks so much, Gabrielle, for talking with me, and for bringing Judas Goat into the world!

Judas Goat
By Gabrielle Bates
Tin House
January 24, 2023