The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, I.S. Jones speaks at length with Gabrielle Bates about mothers, publishing, the intersection of tenderness and violence, and the immaculate yet richly imperfect circle of love. Gabrielle Bates’s debut collection Judas Goat is forthcoming with Tin House in January 2023.
Judas Goat by Gabrielle Bates: Figures, Faith, & Tenderness
I.S. Jones: Having been in conversation with you through our own letters and intimate musings, 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?
Gabrielle Bates: Oh, they [my self-versions] grew skins and shed them in such slow and sneaky ways, I didn’t really notice them as they occurred. I’m a person who lives very much in the present, and I have a terrible memory, so occasionally it’s jarring to be confronted with a past version of myself, a previous way of thinking, believing, or relating—I appreciate, generally, the way poems can keep a sliver of a past self alive while also placing it in a separate container.
I graduated from college in 2013, and that’s the year I really started writing toward what would eventually become Judas Goat. I got married, moved away from the South, studied poetry much more rigorously, and found—through poetry-related endeavors—my very closest, dearest, beloved friends. My relationship to faith evolved. Both my grandmothers died. The biggest change, I’d say, that has occurred in me since 2013, among all this, and because of all this, is that I’ve learned, gradually, how to open myself up more vulnerably to love in various forms. Attachment does not come naturally to me, but I am learning bit by bit how to do it, and writing these poems, in which I attempt to reckon with the terrors and risks of relation on an intimate scale, has helped. It meant a lot when Aria Aber wrote in her blurb for the book: “through all the layers of large and little violences emerges a speaker who believes in love…” because I do, I do believe in it.
After I’d been actively revising the manuscript and sharing it with friends for about five years, I suspected I’d taken Judas Goat as far as I could take it on my own. Before that point, I’d hoped with a kind of pained, deranged desperation that it was done many times, but deep down I knew it wasn’t. Aria (I must shout her out again!) gave me some incredibly astute feedback on the manuscript in early 2021 about an element that might be missing, regarding the mother character, and I happened to receive that feedback on the first night of a week-long residency, so I was able to immediately spend several days drafting in the direction of that gap. Once that final piece was revised and placed into the manuscript, I felt Judas Goat was actually done done.
(That said: once I started working with my editor, we conducted several more revision rounds together, and I have been making edits up until the very last minute!)
Jones: My understanding is that at one point, there may have been an essay in the middle of this book..? In the process of ordering the book, what made you decide against an essay in the middle?
Bates: That was the final piece I drafted, when I was at the residency I just mentioned! It did start out as an essay. It was focused, primarily, on the work and legacy of the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly, interwoven with vignettes inspired by other mothering presences in my life (my birth mother, a stepmother, grandmothers). While I was drafting that essay, I received news that my maternal grandmother was hospitalized with brutal, shocking injuries, so that news entered the essay in real-time. There was a lot going on.
I tried the essay out in the middle of the manuscript because it felt like a sturdy choice, structurally, and because then it could serve as the literal heart or core of the book, a kind of womb. However, moving from poems to the essay and back again ended up feeling like too much of a jolt, ultimately; it broke the spell of the book in a way that wasn’t very rewarding. After talking with my editor, Alyssa Ogi, about it, I agreed to revise the essay into a long poem instead and move it to later in the book. There was a lot of cutting, a lot of re-arranging, and eventually—at last—it became the long poem “Mothers.” My hope is that it lets mother figures into the book as presences, rather than absences.
Jones: I have to be frank and say Alyssa Ogi is a legend for snatching your book up before anyone else because she saw your greatness and knew what a shame it would be not to acquire your first collection. In negotiating your contract with Tin House, when did you arrive at knowing that this was the best home for how you imagined your book would live in the world?
Bates: I have, if I may say so, pretty sharp instincts about where books belong, often, but Tin House was a toooootal surprise to me for Judas Goat! I’d never envisioned my book there. As far as I knew, there wasn’t even a way to submit poetry books to Tin House. At the time, they only took agented submissions, and I don’t have an agent (few poets do), and they don’t have a first book contest either, so Tin House wasn’t on my radar as a possibility. I’d adored the work of many of their poets for a long time (Morgan Parker, Hanif Abdurraqib, Tommy Pico, Bianca Stone, to name a few), but I had my eyes trained in other directions when it came to submitting.
Because I dared to believe my manuscript would eventually become a book one day, I set up a little pop-up form on my website, which people could fill out if they wanted to be informed when my first book became available. This led David Naimon to ask me if I’d acquired a secret book deal, and when I said no, we ended up chatting casually about various presses, and before I knew it, he was offering to reach out to Tin House and see if they’d be interested in considering the collection. It was a turn of events I did not see coming at ALL. And after that, things happened really fast: Alyssa Ogi reached out with the most thoughtful email, offering to read my manuscript, we got on a call to chat about potential revisions, and then Tin House made an offer. The ways the Tin House team has supported my book since that beginning has been beyond my wildest dreams. Of course, it would have been amazing to win a first-book contest, receive a foreword written by an epic poet, or get a castle stay in Italy (the way that Civitella residency calls to me in dreams, lol!), but I feel extremely lucky that I got to circumvent the contest lottery the way I did. Alyssa and everyone else at Tin House—their care every step of the way is flooring. I dream big as a rule, but even I had never dared to dream my first book would be cared for this way, with this sort of depth.
Jones: So much of this book situates itself between tenderness and violence. This is evident throughout Judas Goat but “The Dog” sets the emotional tone: “A man with the dog on a leash. The man ran and made it but the dog hesitated outside, and the door closed—no, not on his neck, on the leash trapping it.” The book begins and ends with the speaker’s love, as seen in the final poem “Anniversary.” There is a mother/daughter relationship which I see as another vessel for this intersection of tenderness and violence. Why did “The Dog” feel like the best poem to set the tone as opposed to “Effigy,” or “Little Lamb,” or even “How Judas Died?”
Bates: It was so difficult to know where to put “The Dog” in the book. I resisted putting it first for a long time because it’s just so intense, and I didn’t want to scare readers away. But ultimately, the poem just wouldn’t fit anywhere else. It’s the kind of poem that makes a lot of people need to stop and take a breath afterward, before reading on, so we made it a preface, set off by itself, to build in that break. The only other option was to put it at the very end of the book, but that didn’t feel true to the overall arc, which wanted to end in a more hopeful place. It felt more right to end the book on an homage, after all that winter, to spring.
Jones: I want to talk more about the book’s title and what I see as its companion poems. Yes, the titular poems, but also all the poems that make direct and indirect references to the Biblical. From the title, we know that a Judas goat is a “goat that leads sheep to slaughter as its own life is spared.” “We, of our ends, are perhaps all this oblivious: one goat / trained to live with the sheep, neck-bell jingling / in and out of the slaughterhouse. To the goat, / the shackling pen is no more than another human room.” In “How Judas Died:” “It was after dark, it was day; and on the other side of the world, / a soldier’s ear in the street, severed from the mind, could listen properly to dust.” In “Sabbath:” “I knew God listened. And I knew where to aim. / All the time, every second. I lacked / but with aim.” In “Conversation with Mary:” “What was the tenor of your joy then // Choiceless // Did it hurt // forever // Did you feel rewarded //I hallelujah I assented // How did it feel // Cold blood on the cock of God.” In all of these poems is the act of listening by bearing witness, which one can argue is the same—to listen is to bear witness. How did the goat and Judas become one of the many guiding figures of the book? Were these Biblical landmarks, of sorts, staples from the book’s inception?
Bates: Poetry, like prayer, is speaking and listening at the same time. At least that’s how I experience it. And I love thinking about the relationship of listening to bearing witness. In many Christian contexts, to “witness” is to speak—to share a story of how God saved you, with the hopes of encouraging others to join or stay in a faith community, something like that. But there is also the notion of sight there, too; sound and image are linked, in the notion of witness, in a way that feels, well, poetic to me. Poetry being this art form that blends the ghosts of all other art forms together (music, visual art, cinema, dance…).
I think I became obsessed with Judas as a figure, and with animals that are given versions of his name, because I was grappling with my own relationship to Christianity and obedience, and in questioning certain practices and beliefs, I wondered if I was betraying God, but also if I was, perhaps, betraying a false version of God, in search of the real one. I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere but growing up I had an abusive stepmother who was a Christian counselor, and so while faith added beauty and depth to my childhood and adolescence, certainly, it was also wrapped up with a lot of anxiety and alienation from my body. In my early twenties, it felt necessary to write poems that felt fairly, brazenly sacrilegious, in some ways, to free myself from—or enact a hoped-for freedom from— the harmful aspects of that religious influence on my conscience, my relationships, my life. There are other reasons the Judas goat is a symbol of resonance for me, in both the context of the book and my lived experience outside of the book, but this is a major one.
Jones: Speaking more towards the mother figure that pervades so much of Judas Goat, I noticed the mother first mentioned in “Effigy:” “I almost didn’t recognize her / shape against the sun, but she waved and said my name. / I carry her on my back now.” The relationship translates as one of duty, love, yes, and one tainted with an almost resentment. In this also, the speaker draws their voice from the poets Linda Gregg and Brigit Pegeen Kelly who also seem like mother-like figures. This is evident in the poems “Mothers” and “I Asked // I Got”: “for a mother to be honest: // Sharon Olds / Lucille Clifton / Brigit (is it OK if I call you…).” More than a wound or a source of fraught nostalgia, what is the mother figure to the speaker?
Bates: 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.
In fairytales, the mother is almost always dead, and the frightening, instructive adventures and misadventures of children take place in the realm of her absence. Judas Goat offers versions of that fairytale trope, but the situation in the book, when it comes to the mother figure’s absence, is more complicated.
Auden says Yeats was hurt into poetry by Ireland, and I think, perhaps, I was hurt into poetry, to some extent, by the stepmother I mentioned earlier, by the ways she demonized my birth mother and kept us apart as much as possible. When I was a child, I didn’t have a lexicon for this—I also didn’t have siblings to witness or co-process with me—all I knew was that something was very twisted up. I loved my birth mother and was enchanted by aspects of the life she’d chosen to pursue as an artist, but I was being told the adoration I felt for her was wrong, that it should be replaced by feelings of fear, caution, pity. In writing my first book, I found it rewarding to reckon with that childhood experience and the imaginings it spawned, to create characters who could inhabit, dramatize, or dismantle various aspects of it.
Jones: The speaker throughout Judas Goat is often mining their memories to make language around their sexuality, which first appears in “Intro To Theater.” Throughout the book, the speaker’s sexuality teeters between delight and what feels forbidden, with inspiration drawn from Sharon Olds. Is your own sexuality a space of further exploration in your work or are you still making language around it?
Bates: I’ll start by saying I grew up feeling soooooooOOooooo much shame around sexuality, generally. To harbor sexual desire at all—and to want to be desired—represented, to me, complete spiritual failure. I used to pray fervently for God to take sexual desire and vanity away from me, and then I grew increasingly terrified that, to answer my prayers, God would send a man to throw acid on my face or cause me to be disfigured in a car wreck—! I stayed up entire nights when I was 16 years old imagining these sorts of horrible things happening to me and trying to frame them as blessings. Also, I thought sex was for a man and a woman in the context of marriage, period, and yet there I was, coming apart at the seams, having all these elaborate sexual fantasies involving girls as well as boys…I felt completely depraved.
Later, when I became friends with people who talked openly about bisexuality and I finally admitted to myself that this applied to me, I immediately segued into a different kind of shame silence. Part of me felt that, as a woman who’d married a man at a young age, for me to be vocal about my queerness would, somehow, harm queerness? It reminds me of Sharon Olds’ poem “The Worst Thing.” In finally articulating that fear, I could see it was a pretty foolish one, but I really felt it for a long time. People have helped me see the value of visibility around this, but I still have questions about my role in queer spaces, for sure, and I’m still learning so much about the gloriously varied range that is sexuality, in general. I have a feeling I will continue to explore that aspect of the human experience in my writing, but I’m moving away from unpacking sexual fears and threats of violence, towards an exploration of sexuality on the page that feels less menaced, and more life-giving. At least I hope so.
Jones: Judas Goat concluding on “Anniversary” is such a skillful choice because it creates a less obvious full circle moment (it reminds of the line from Jericho Brown’s The Tradition: “I begin with love, hoping to end there”) and because it’s a deeply satisfying end to a book carrying such heavy things. The speaker’s great love appears throughout the book, notably in “The Dog,” “The Lucky Ones,” “In the Dream in Which I Am a Widow,” and “Anniversary.” Meditating on the final line of the book, “When I said he hammered the ring to make it fit, / I mean the ring fits.” It reads as an affirmation and assurance of this love, one that pushes back against the opening lines of “The Lucky Ones:” “I am warned against marrying / early love.” How is the speaker changed by love from the first poem to the end?
Bates: Thank you so much for this question (for all of these questions!), Itiola. The fact that you—a poet whose own poems inspire me so much—have spent time thinking so deeply about this collection is more of a gift to me than you could ever know. Before this interview ends, I just want to make sure I say that.
I hoped for the book’s structure to feel, once you reached that final poem, something like the ring image in “Anniversary:” an imperfect circle, one that goes all the way around and then some, extending further. A symbol of perfection filtered through reality, made grotesque. The image of the ring with an overbite is an echo, for me, of the leashed collar in the opening poem “The Dog:” both objects connote an attachment—devotion, trust, interdependence—between beings. At the beginning of the book, the circle image is a site of trauma; it tethers across a power imbalance and has grave consequences. But by the end of the book, the circle image is a site of tenderness. The risks of attachment are deemed, not only worth accepting, but worth celebrating, and the speaker is awake to more than just the possibility of harm. By the end, while all the same dangers exist, and she has not forgotten them, the vigilance and severity of her gaze has begun to thaw; there is wonder available to her—awe, softness, even joy.
Gabrielle Bates is the author of Judas Goat (Tin House, 2023), listed by Vulture as one of the most anticipated books of winter. A Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, Bates’s poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Ploughshares, and American Poetry Review, among other journals. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she currently lives in Seattle, where she works for Open Books: A Poem Emporium and—with Luther Hughes and Dujie Tahat—co-hosts the podcast The Poet Salon. You can find her online at www.gabriellebat.es, on Twitter (@GabrielleBates), and on Instagram (@gabrielle_bates_).