Khalisa Rea sat down with Gabrielle Bates, poet, podcast host, educator, gorgeous-picture taker, and all-around good person.
Formerly the managing editor of the Seattle Review and a contributing editor for Poetry Northwest, Gabrielle currently serves as the Social Media Manager of Open Books: A Poem Emporium, a contributing editor for Bull City Press, and a University of Washington teaching fellow. She also volunteers as a poetry mentor through the Adroit teen mentorship program and teaches occasionally as a spotlight author through Seattle’s Writers in the Schools (WITS). She co-hosts The Poet Salon podcast with Luther Hughes and Dujie Tahat.
Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, APR, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, Black Warrior Review, the Best of the Net anthology, and BAX: Best American Experimental Writing, and her poetry comics have been featured internationally in a variety of exhibitions, festivals, and conferences. Her first collection of poems, Judas Goat, was recently named a finalist for the Bergman Prize, judged by Louise Glück.
We think you’re hot; Do you get that a lot?
Let the record show I have laughed aloud. What a flattering and uncomfortable question! My friends and I tell each other we’re hot / cute / good looking pretty regularly, so in that sense, yes. But when it comes to random people out in the digital or corporeal worlds? No, I wouldn’t say it happens a lot. Occasionally though, for sure.
We think you’re smart; Do you get that too?
Growing up, “smart” was a massive part of my identity. To an embarrassing extent. I was obsessed with making perfect grades and got named “class genius” in my elementary school Who’s Who (my prize, a Rubix Cube). I read a ton and studied my ass off from an early age because I loved the attention being smart got me, and also partly because my dad told me at some point that if I wanted to go to college, I needed to get a full scholarship, and I really wanted to go to college. Looking back, I don’t think I was actually very smart—I was ambitious, obedient, anxious, and eager to please within the public school system in Alabama. But regardless, I was praised a lot for being smart, yes. I don’t remember anyone saying to me “You are smart,” exactly, but I definitely had the impression that I was regarded that way.
In your academic sectors?
I was in grad school, back in 2014-2016. Again, I don’t remember anyone telling me I was smart, but I never got the impression that my peers or professors thought I wasn’t smart. Young and ignorant in a lot of ways, for sure. But dumb? No. I was only 22-years old and I’d read only a handful of poetry books when I arrived at my grad school program, so I definitely didn’t think of myself as “smart” when it came to poetry—I was just excited to be a sponge and learn. I remember being praised in graduate school for being hard-working and for having “very little ego,” which I didn’t mind. Effort and humility one can, to a degree, control; intelligence you either have or you don’t. I prefer to focus on what I can control.
In what ways has your appearance affected your career and the way people perceive you, your agency and validity, and the way you navigate male-dominated spaces in the industry? Have you felt like you’ve had to prove yourself more- your intelligence/staying power, etc in the industry because of your perceived beauty?
I guess in some ways I’m the worst person to try and answer this, because I have very little idea how other people perceive me at any given moment—you’d have to ask them! As for how I navigate “male-dominated” spaces, I don’t feel like I spend much time in those. Here in Seattle, I work for a small independent bookstore that’s owned by a woman, and I have small, regular workshops with woman-identified poets. The vast majority of editors who reach out to me to solicit work are woman-identified too. I will say though, as I’ve begun to think over the last couple of years about where I might like my first collection of poems to end up, there are presses I’m not submitting to because my intuition has told me, from encounters here and there at conferences or readings, that the men who edit for those presses are not the kind I’d feel comfortable working with. Usually it’s an air of arrogance or unkindness that puts me off though, not any sort of overt sexual pass.
In an interview Morgan Parker told Rachel Zucker that not often enough people say her work is smart. Do you ever feel this way? That often beautiful artist/creators are called beautiful more than they are smart? Was there a specific moment that solidifies this for you?
I remember that moment in the interview well! I love that Commonplace episode! Morgan Parker is *incredibly* smart, and so damn funny. The word “smart” doesn’t get used much when it comes to my poems, as far as I know. The words I hear most often when it comes to descriptions of my work are probably “terrifying,” “dark,” “beguiling,” and “devastating”. I’m down with that, honestly. I don’t think of my work as “smart,” so it doesn’t bother me that other people don’t describe it that way. These days I’m more interested in a conveyance of imagery and emotion than I am in a transmission (or illusion) of intelligence. The only description that’s ever offended me was when an editor (in the course of rejecting my manuscript) called my poems “effervescent.” Effervescent!? He meant it as a compliment, but I took it to mean he hadn’t actually bothered to read my work.
Do you find when you tell people (primarily men) that you write full time, they react by patronizing or underestimating the validity of your work?
Oh, well I don’t tell people I write full time. I tell them I’m a writer who works part-time for a small, independent bookstore and that I juggle various editing gigs and teaching gigs (and sometimes I’ll shout-out the podcast I co-host). Usually people just want to know what I write (journalism? fiction?) or whether or not I’ve published a book. It’s true that I’m very lucky to get to spend a lot of my time writing, and I proudly put my occupation as “writer” on some forms, but when it comes to the “What do you do?” question, I usually rattle off a list of part-time hustles and passion projects. People were much more patronizing back when I was still in school, when they’d ask what I was studying and I’d say “poetry.” They were like: “Oh, you poor thing” or “Well good luck making any money with that.”
Have there been times in business meetings, phone calls, interviews, academic spaces, etc where you’ve had to assert yourself more or speak up more because you were talked over or your comment disregarded? How did you handle that situation?
I’ve often wondered if my voice comes out at a frequency that gets lost easily among other sounds. It’s been a life-long journey for me, learning to project so that I can be heard. In general, in group settings, I prefer to let others speak first, no matter their gender; I hear them out, and then I contribute, in as few words as possible. There is a sort of timer that begins in my head when I’m talking in front of others, an alarm that tells me to shut up with increasing fervor the longer I speak. I’m still working on learning how to speak with endurance, over that internal clock.
What advice would you give young women entering the business?
In general, I’d say: Shoot your shot. So many woman-identified folks say no to themselves when it comes to their creative dreams. Throw it out there! Give yourself that chance, even if you think it’s likely to not work out. Let someone else say no. Also, gather some people close to you who will celebrate your successes, whose successes you can feel good about celebrating too. Oh, and before you send an email to anyone, scan it for apologies and ask yourself: Is this apology absolutely necessary? Have I actually caused someone harm, for which I need to own up, or am I just apologizing for no good reason? Then delete accordingly.