Before the First Book: A Roundtable Discussion
Gabrielle Bates, I. S. Jones, and Erin Marie Lynch are three emerging poets who have transformed my writing life. Their work is also connected—by threads of hunger, loneliness, and reclamation. I am moved by the distinct way each of these women engage with place and pose critical questions through their poems about inherited traditions, sexuality and sexual violence, and familial archives.
Below, I talk with these brilliant poets about their writing rituals, creative dreams, fears, as well as their respective first book projects. In a rare pre-first-book glimpse, Gabrielle, Itiola, and Erin share their thinking and creative processes.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Gabrielle Bates: The mornings are my richest time, creatively, when I find it most possible to focus. My makeshift standing desk faces the courtyard of my apartment building, and the first thing I do each morning is take my coffee there and open the blinds. Sometimes I light a beeswax candle, to signal to myself that this is a time for creative work only.
Lately I’ve been turning on my new desk lamp, which is banker-style and made of stained glass with a red-eyed dragonfly embedded in it. I’ve often felt like a dragonfly, for better or for worse, flitting from image to image, thought to thought, book project to book project, finishing little. I’m trying to hold more grace for that natural inclination and to stop berating myself for not being more of a burrower. There are a couple of scents I keep at my desk, too, for when I need grounding: one is a cypress misting spray a friend brings me back from Japan every year; the other is a Ziploc bag of cherry ribbon pipe tobacco.
I. S. Jones: I didn’t always know this about myself, but my writing rituals change with the seasons. In the fall/winter, I write in my morning pages journal, then read an essay or two, switch to a book of poems, and read before I begin to write. In the spring/summer, I sit by the window and wait for sunrise, I write in my morning pages journal for twenty minutes or so, and then flip through a stack of books before I begin.
I love writing most at night. When I was younger, my house was a tough environment to live in. I admire the stillness of the night, the quiet. My mother once told me “Respectable women don’t go out at night” and then the night was sacred to me. The world was asleep, and no one knew what I was doing. I was free.
Erin Marie Lynch: I have a note-taking app called Bear that I use every day, all the time. It syncs between my phone and my computer, and I use it to write down everything: grocery lists, reminders, scraps of language, ideas for poems and stories, notes during my academic classes, quotes from my reading. As a PhD student, I have been trying to dissolve the boundaries between my scholarship and my creative work. Keeping many kinds of thought next to one another in my notes allows them to bleed together.
I also love that, unlike a Word document, Bear has no page demarcations. When working on a poem, I can stretch a single note out to fill the entire monitor. I’m interested in what happens formally when I can free myself from the artificial borders of the digital “page,” which has become so standardized now that word processing programs are ubiquitous.
What helps you sustain and nourish your writing?
Bates: What stimulates me most consistently to write poems is simple: reading other peoples’. That, or talking with friends about the poems that haunt, melt, or beguile us. I collect images seen and imagined in my journal, which nourishes me.
Jones: In the before times, my answer was being an active person in the world. Summer is my favorite season because I feel a part of the world most—the lush, green world opening with cicadas chirping; the gossip of the morning birds; my feet pressed into the soil at long last unburdened by snow. It’s the natural world but also the secret intimate world of my friendships.
I am relearning to trust people again, which after a certain age, I admit is extremely difficult. Yet I have a soft corner of the world where I have my peace. And of course, a warm cup of blood orange tea, a copy of Blessing the Boats or Crush or what I am reading that week. With the ongoing pandemic, I’ve found it difficult to focus on a book of poems, but on and off I’ve been reading Soho by Richard Scott.
Lynch: I work best when attempting to piece together amassed, fragmented materials. My early teachers were all narrative poets, and for a long time I tried to write poems in a linear way, discretely, from beginning to end. Eventually, I realized that this method neither worked for me nor excited me. As a writer and artist, I am most drawn to the process of weaving together seemingly disparate details, images, forms, and pieces of language (Rilke’s “ill-matched threads”). It sustains my writing to follow this natural impulse.
Rumpus: What is a creative dream that scares you?
Bates: My desire to write a novel—my oldest, most persistent creative dream—scares me. It scares me that I have such a strong desire to write in a genre for which I don’t feel I have any sort of natural gift. It scares me that I might never have anything of value to share, even after all these hours and years of trying. Mostly what scares me is the idea that time, effort, and desire might not be enough. I recently heard Anthony Doerr say something like, So much of writing is forgiving yourself for dead ends.
Another creative dream that scares me is my desire to work, one day, in film. What scares me most about this is that I have zero experience with it, so the learning curve will be steep, and compared to writing, it’s a much more expensive and collaborative endeavor. I like to think that after I publish a book or two (assuming I’m able to do that!) I might pivot towards experimenting with film, either by adapting something I’ve already written for the screen or by embarking on totally new collaborations.
Jones: I have small fears that are creativity-oriented, which I try not to give too much energy to, but I think it’s maybe not living long enough to see my creative dreams come to life. I want to launch a series, I want to get funding for my yearly workshop, I want to have a residency space for artists seeking asylum and I hope to be alive for it.
Lynch: Finally submitting this manuscript to editors.
Is there an idea about being a writer/artist that you’ve let go of, that you used to believe? Or, an idea about being a writer/artist that you’ve come to believe more strongly?
Bates: I used to really want to be a fucked-up genius artist. I wanted to grow into a kind of elusive, broken, brilliant author who was married only to her artistic obsessions. My first step in letting go of that idea was admitting the fact that I’m not a “genius.” The second step was admitting I love people (as much as they disappoint and exhaust me) and that being in community is a nonnegotiable part of my life as an artist.
The idea that a real artist’s life should be consumed by struggle, misery, and loneliness at all times is (as Berger points out in Ways of Seeing, which I was just rereading) a Western European stereotype of artists that doesn’t exist in other cultures. I’d like to continue exerting pressure on that stereotype the way I would any violent ideology manifesting itself in my life. These days I’m embracing the sexiness of stability, health, and human connection.
Jones: I used to believe you always had to be “visible” doing writerly things to be considered a serious writer, which is something with maturity I am grateful to let go of. Some of my best writing has come when I give myself rest and relieve myself from the burden of having to prove my worth. What I have come to believe more seriously is the importance of letting oneself experiment and play on the page. Mary Ruefle talks about this briefly in Madness, Rack, and Honey:
[…] young poets recognize this to be one of the most important lessons they can learn: if you have any idea for a poem, an exact grid of intent, you are on the wrong path, a dead-end alley, at the top of a cliff you haven’t even climbed. This is a lesson that can only be learned by trial and error.
Too much direction undoes delight and wonder.
Lynch: I have resigned myself to the fact that I don’t actually write better when I’m sad.
I. S. Jones
What can you share about your current projects?
Bates: I’m working on my first poetry collection, titled Judas Goat, and a novel draft (fine, I’ll be honest: several) and dreaming up ideas for my second poetry collection. Among all these books-in-progress, scattered about, I’m making hybrid visual and textual pieces, poetry comics, illustrated interviews, and visual book reviews.
My friend Rachel Edelman told me recently that Judas Goat is “a world of intimate betrayal, interspecies interdependence, and the risks that desire necessitates,” and I love that; I think it’s true. The earliest poems in the manuscript were written eight years ago, and the most recent one was written last week. I keep thinking the collection is almost done and then I think, No, these poems aren’t doing enough; I’ve barely scratched the surface of the topic; the order’s all wrong, etc.
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.
I thought my first book would be more overtly about my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and the American South I come from more generally, but reckoning with public histories and place on the page requires skills I’m only slowly acquiring. I believe the second manuscript I’m dreaming up will be more explicitly Southern (and I’m really excited for the day when Judas Goat and I loosen our mutual grip on each other, so I can turn my attention there more fully).
Jones: My forthcoming chapbook, Spells of My Name, was selected by Newfound for their Emerging Poets Chapbook Series back in December. The news was startling to wake up to because I didn’t think the chapbook would be placed anywhere. It felt like a miracle happened while I was in the midst of a lot of grieving.
I realized this chapbook is about my father and I—me, the black fawn, him, the hunter that keeps chase—when I wrote the poem “My Therapist Asks, ‘Is The Hunter in Your Dreams Your Father?’” It’s a small book about fathers. A book about survival, how the oppressed create language for survival. It’s about names, naming things as an act of reclamation, lineage, and my relationship with both my countries of origin. Language, of course, is a deep connective tissue throughout.
I have a full-length manuscript in progress that reimagines Cain and Abel as sisters. My sister and I used to live together in Queens, and that’s where the poems began. Our relationship is healing after all these years, very slowly, but at the time it was a painful environment for both of us. Left alone, we tore each other apart. When I first began this project, I was full of rage and the poems were a vehicle for me to let my anger down gently and hopefully for good. I first wrote the poem “Cain,” which was published in the inaugural issue of The Matador Review, and I thought it would be the only one, but I kept coming back again and again. I began to see the scope of the book more clearly. This book is about the intimate lives of young girls—the secret pacts we make, what we hide from our parents, how we posture and want to be women with hips, how we spend our days in the tall grass hiding from womanhood, the blood that eventually arrives to mark the end of girlhood.
I didn’t think I was going to write a whole book of Cain and Abel poems, but the poems kept returning to me, asking me new things, demanding things of me. It was Patricia Smith who had to say, “Baby, you’re writing a book.” This book is about my faith and enduring questions to God. Through Cain and Abel, I am able to negotiate both my devotion and confusion.
Lynch: My current manuscript, Feeling for the Frame, loosely navigates hunger as a destructive and catalyzing force. In it, I examine my personal experiences with anorexia and bulimia alongside the broader context of my Dakota ancestors’ experiences with starvation during and after the so-called “Dakota Uprising” of the 1860s. Within the book, hunger is imagined as a tool of genocide and of self-destruction; I am interested in the micro- and macro- aftermath of these forms of violence. Alongside hunger as material reality, I am also interested in the metaphorical hunger to know and understand the past—what Derrida terms a “compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive”—and how that hunger compels toward thought and action.
The project began several years ago as a series of confessional poems, working through my experiences with anorexia and bulimia. I started out writing poems about anorexia, which is the more culturally palatable, prettier eating disorder. Over time, however, I became more interested in bulimia—it’s gross, unsexy, and much more rarely depicted in art, literature, or media.
Around this same time, I moved back to the Pacific Northwest from Texas and began spending more time with my mother’s family, who are Dakota from Standing Rock. My grandfather would sit with me after dinner and tell story after story about his childhood, our family’s past, and our tribal history. Simultaneously, in my own research I was learning more about my family’s history, including specifics of the forced death march which brought my great-great-grandmother, Elisabeth, from Minnesota to Standing Rock. I was struck by the pervasive historical silencing of the Dakota genocide, as well as the dearth of written accounts of the experience from a Dakota perspective.
I felt a pull to piece together Elisabeth’s story and began writing poems placing what I knew of her alongside historical documents and details uncovered in my own research. It took a long time for me to reach a place of confidence. I felt fearful and unworthy, constrained by a pervasive feeling of cultural/geographic disconnection from tribal identity as well as by the underlying awareness of my own whiteness. This fear, which I still carry, has propelled me toward a useful sense of responsibility: I work hard not to speak beyond my own understanding. But I had to learn to balance this responsibility with a responsibility to relate the stories and experiences of my family. I have been attempting to release fear, lean into the shortcomings of my perspective and gaps in my knowledge, and rest in what Cherokee writer Diane Glancy calls “adjacency as position.”
For a long time, I thought these two poetic strands would become separate manuscripts. Eventually, I jumbled all the poems together into a single Word document and began to flesh out the intimacies between them. More connections emerged: generational trauma and its psychological effects, religion as binding and constricting, the mutability of memory. Many of the archival materials and family photographs that I found during my research made their way into the manuscript. Now I am at the point of rearranging poems and filling in the book’s gaps.
Erin Marie Lynch
What books, records, films, visual art, is your work in conversation with?
Bates: The texts Judas Goat is in conversation with most overtly are religious ones, the Torah and the Bible, particularly the figures and stories of Mary, Adam, Judas, and Jacob (the guy who wrestles the angel). I’ve written a lot of poems—none of which have made it into the manuscript yet—about the apocryphal figure Judith, a widow who ends a war by seducing the attacking general and then cutting off his head. There are also a few allusions to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Most of the intertextual conversations are happening in quiet, invisible ways. For example, I wrote my poem “Carousel” after reading C.D. Wright for the first time; though there’s no direct allusion made to her or her work in that poem, something about her spirit will always be there. I feel very in conversation with Brigit Pegeen Kelly in this project, too, and Linda Gregg. Women who died before I could meet them, but whose work touches something deep in me, particularly through their use of imagery and story. I invite them to haunt me.
My poem “In the Dream in Which I Am a Widow” describes a fountain statue I love that’s in Madrid’s El Retiro Park. Of all the visual arts, the form I’ve engaged with most in my poems is sculpture, particularly sculptures that live outdoors, touched by the weather, in the American South and in Western Europe. James Drake’s scrap-iron statue of lunging dogs and Frank Fleming’s ram-man in Birmingham, Rodin’s Gates of Hell in Paris, the Borghese Gardens in Rome, the Gardens of Bomarzo in Lisbon—all these sculptures and spaces are sparks.
Jones: Films are all over the place in terms of inspiration. My full-length manuscript has two playlists; one is a soundtrack and the other a score. With movies, I always love the score most, and when I write I can only listen to instrumental music. I love the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, notably the movement “Golden Butterflies.” The full-length also is in conversation with the artwork of Shawn Theodore.
Lynch: I am inspired by many writers whose work falls under the umbrella of documentary poetics: Muriel Rukeyser, Solmaz Sharif, Layli Long Soldier, Philip Metres, M. NourbeSe Philip, and many others. Susan Briante’s recent Defacing the Monument is great and speaks to many of the above artists.
I am excited by young poets working to preserve, piece together, and imagine their familial archives while grappling with their own disconnection and dislocation. Two recent books in this vein I loved were Claire Meuschke’s Upend and Abigail Chabitnoy’s How to Dress a Fish.
On eating disorders, I am inspired by the work of performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, the film Superstar by Todd Haynes, Simone Weil (and what she termed “fasting”), Glück’s “Dedication to Hunger,” and Julia Kristeva’s “The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.”
Dakota scholar Waziyatawin Angela Wilson’s writing on the Dakota Forced Removal and Death March of 1862 is informative and devastating. Dian Million (Tanana Athabascan) wrote an essay called “Felt Theory” that transformed my views on storytelling and scholarship. Tina Campt’s work on listening to images gave me a framework for my encounters with family photographs. And I return to The Sacred Hoop by Paula Gunn Allen on a monthly basis.
Gabrielle Bates lives in Seattle, where she works for Open Books: A Poem Emporium and co-hosts the podcast The Poet Salon. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and The Offing. She is originally from Birmingham, Alabama.
I. S. Jones is a queer American Nigerian poet and music journalist. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, Washington Square Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hobart, The Rumpus, The Offing, Shade Literary Arts and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at UW–Madison where she awarded the Kemper K. Knapp University Fellowship and the Hoffman-Hall Emerging Artist Fellowship.
Erin Marie Lynch‘s writing has appeared in journals such as New England Review, Gulf Coast, Narrative, and DIAGRAM, while her performance and video work has been featured at a variety of exhibitions and festivals. Born and raised in Oregon, she is a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Currently, she is a PhD student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.
Photograph of Gabrielle Bates by Gabrielle Bates. Photograph of I. S. Jones by Nicholas Nichols. Photograph of Erin Marie Lynch by Josephine Jones.