June 28–July 4, 2021
Gabrielle Bates is a Southern writer currently living in Seattle, where she works for Open Books: A Poem Emporium and co-hosts the Poet Salon podcast. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review and Gulf Coast, among other journals, and her debut collection Judas Goat was recently named a finalist for the Bergman Prize. You can connect with her on Twitter @GabrielleBates. On Thursday, July 8, she will read online as part of the Brooklyn Poets Staff Picks reading series.
He didn’t want to tell me. He almost didn’t.
It was luck much more than gut that made me ask.
A beer opened an hour earlier than usual,
the desire for conversation. There was no sense in me
that he was in some sort of aftermath.
He said, when I asked, I had a bad day,
or, I had a weird day, I can’t remember.
I saw a dog, he said. I was on the train.
A man with a dog on a leash. The man ran and made it
but the dog hesitated outside, and the doors closed—
no, not on his neck—on the leash, trapping it.
The man was inside, and the dog was outside on the platform.
The button beside the door, ringed in light, blinked.
The man was shouting now, hitting the button,
all else silent, the befuddlement
of dog pulled along, the pace slow until it wasn’t.
The tunnel the train must pass through leaving the station
is a perfectly calibrated, unforgiving fit.
The dog had a color and a size I don’t know,
so it comes to me as legion.
Large. Small. Fur long, or short. White, or gray.
But the man always looks the same.
As I held him against me in our kitchen,
the moment sharpened my eyes. How easily
I could imagine a version of our lives
in which he kept all his suffering secret from me.
I saw the beer on the counter. I saw myself drink it.
When we went to bed, I stared at the back of his head
split between compassion and fury. My nails
gently scratching up his arm, up and down, up and down,
the blade without which the guillotine is nothing.
—Originally published in the Offing, September 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I was at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2019, working with the phenomenal Vievee Francis, and she called me out. I was doing a lot of dancing around in my poems, avoiding the scary heart of things, hoping no one would notice, but she did. Things don’t get by Vievee Francis. She sees. And thank god—so many poets have been freed by her seeing, I know, to make the kind of work they really need to be making. She knew I was expending a lot of energy trying to write pleasing, impressive poems, and she told me to go write a poem that was ugly and ferocious instead. “Risk clarity,” she said. It was a profound charge for me. I took my laptop to the back of the Little Theater, where it was dark and I could be alone, and I wrote the first draft of “The Dog.” I recorded myself reading it when it was done in a low whisper, and listening back to it gave me the kind of chills I’ve been chasing ever since: the chills that tell me I’ve gone to a new place in my work, unlocked a new courage, said something true. Since then, “The Dog” hasn’t gone through a ton of revision—little cuts and tweaks here and there. It came to me largely as it needed to be, having pressurized for a while, unwritten, waiting for permission.
What are you working on right now?
For a while I was drowning in an ocean of scraps, partial poems and lackluster drafts, but recently, thanks to a suggestion from Patrycja Humienik, who recently took a “duplex” workshop with Jericho Brown, I’ve been scavenging through that giant mess of text and pulling out interesting couplets, then arranging those couplets into fourteen-liners. The process has been revitalizing and slightly addictive. A whole series of sonnet-esque poems seems to be emerging, but I don’t know where they’re leading yet. Having finished the manuscript of my first poetry collection, Judas Goat, I feel free to write without thinking about how work does or doesn’t fit in a particular book.
What’s a good day for you?
A really good day for me involves waking up early without an alarm, French press coffee, sunlight splashing my desk, a wild garden outside the window, writing for a few uninterrupted hours, a run while listening to a podcast, reading or editing outside, the sound of the neighbor baby babbling, deep breaths, vermouth on ice with a slice of orange, good TV, reading a novel until I fall asleep.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Home for me will always be the Southern landscape I was born into, deciduous and vine-wrapped, all that humidity and green. But home is also my apartment in Seattle, where I’ve spent so much time in the last year due to the pandemic, and my relationships with other writers here in this city, which are so dear to me. Home is also all the places I dream toward, whether I’ve ever lived there or not. Like self, home is mysterious, always moving—rooted to the physical realm in some ways, and yet entirely separate from it in others.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
The last time I was in Brooklyn, en route to a writing conference in Vermont, I spent the night on a bunked bed in a photographer’s storage closet. I’d never met the photographer before, but I knew he was related to Walt Whitman somehow, and he took photos of a lot of poets, so I figured if he murdered me, it would at least make for an interesting story.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
Living in community with other people who write and read poetry is sacred to me. Those relationships, more than anything else, I often feel, give joy and meaning to my life. I met some of my most beloved poet friends outside of school or any sort of institutional affiliation by hosting poet get-togethers at Open Books: A Poem Emporium, talking with folks at readings, and just being on Twitter. I’ve also made wonderful poet friends and acquaintances through more institutionalized settings: universities, conferences, fellowships. Publishing and reading poems has also been a way I’ve come into community with other poets; mutual fangirling has a way of blossoming into an ongoing connection. Being in dialogue and orbit is crucial to me.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Jason Koo (mastermind behind Brooklyn Poets!) pushes me to think in new ways about long poems, voice, vulnerability and humor, in ways I’m really grateful for. I don’t know Angel Nafis and Shira Erlichman personally, but they’re inspirations for me for sure; I love their humor, big-spiritedness, in-love-ness—with each other, with friends, with language, with the world’s gnarly complexity. So many of the poets who are important to me have lived in Brooklyn at one point or another! It feels foolish even to start listing, because the list goes on forever.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I had a professor in college, Keetje Kuipers, who saw something of value in my poems. I had no intention of studying poetry at that time (I thought I wanted to write nonfiction, and poetry was just a class I had to take to fulfill the creative writing degree). Keetje pointed out the weird images I was using and told me they were interesting. I started babysitting for her when she taught graduate classes, and while her infant daughter slept on my chest, I would read the poetry books she had lying around her house. This was my first encounter with contemporary poetry collections. I remember I read Ellen Bryant Voigt and Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Keetje has been incredibly supportive of me and my work over the years, ever since that time. It’s rare, sadly, to find a teacher who has the time, energy and desire to be in contact with a student in that sort of long-term manner.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
The pandemic has broken my brain a bit, when it comes to reading. Lately all I’ve been able to do is reread some of my favorite novels. Right now I’m on my third read of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. When it comes to poetry collections, I’ve read many good ones, but the ones that really knocked my socks off in recent(ish) memory are Aria Aber’s Hard Damage, Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage and Tommye Blount’s Fantasia for the Man in Blue.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’d really like to do a deep dive into the work of June Jordan. The collected poems, the prose, the letters, all of it. I thought I might do it this summer, but my brain doesn’t feel up for the task.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
It just depends! My favorite way to read a poetry book is in one sitting, preferably outside in the sun or in a cute date-like setting at a restaurant or bar. I like to romance my books. Not every poetry book can be read that way though, of course; some require more time, breaks. Lately I’ve been abandoning a lot of books without finishing them. It takes a special book, these days, to grab and sustain my attention all the way to the end. Before I go to sleep at night, I almost always read fiction. I have to keep my brain distracted and immersed in another world right up until the time it tips to sleep; otherwise, no matter how exhausted I am, I’m up all night thinking.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Over the years I’ve gathered a lot of research about Alabama (indigenous and invasive species, historical figures and moments, names of gay bars, so many random things) which I’d like to figure out a way to engage with in poems. So far I haven’t been able to find a way into that material that feels right, so I just keep gathering and waiting and trying again.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Oh god, so many places. Cafés, bars. On a blanket in grass. In museums. On the bus while it’s raining, or on a train when it’s sunny. While submerged in a hotel bathtub. On a terrace, at the beach, on my dad’s back porch, at Whiteley Center on San Juan Island, at airport tables. On other peoples’ couches, while petting their cats.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love walking around Brooklyn, all over, and listening.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this Acqua di Sale perfume sample I scored for $10,
And what I pour honey over, which you might taste. I raise an empty glass
For everything I once believed could revive me as good as loving you.
There was a time in my early twenties when I was watching The Cruise a lot. I love that scene when Timothy Levitch is standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, unleashing a long, eloquent tirade about all his enemies (“To Josh: Your narcissism … is mediocre” gets me every time). I don’t know if that answers the question.