Interview // Not Some Side Trip: A Conversation with Beatrix Gates

by Jaimie Li | Senior Editor

From her home in Brooksville, Maine, poet and teacher Beatrix Gates speaks to the importance of relating poetry to life, weathering sudden strikes from the universe, and getting outside of one’s own comfort zone. The resulting interview, conducted in early May 2020, has been edited and condensed for clarity. This week, we are also publishing Gates’s poem “The Card, the Note, the Envelope” on our website.

I’m glad that I caught you at home! I wasn’t sure if you were parked outside of the Brooksville Town Hall to use the WiFi. I saw that you appeared in an article on CNN about how the lack of steady internet access in rural areas is making work from home very difficult, if not impossible.

It’s funny, I’ve become quite famous in town. I was outside today briefly and I heard voices down below and there were people gathering trash because it’s Brooksville volunteer road clean-up week, getting old cans out of the ditch. So I went down and said, “Thanks so much for doing this,” and she said, “Oh! Well! Thank you for everything you’re doing.” She’s on the board of the local library, where I taught Reading Poetry Together: Whitman, Oliver, and Harjo. No one ever forgets anything here, and so whatever you did or do gets multiplied. I’ve had previous lives here too, as a child, and my parents and grandparents had a place in the same county. Then, when I started Granite Press, I had the printing-poetry life as part of the women-in-print movement of lesbian writers and artists, publishing poetry by Joan Larkin and Grace Paley. So when people say “hi” in the parking lot somewhere, I never know what era I might be returning to. People still say to me, “Still got that print shop?” The thing closed in 1989.

That recalls your poem, desire lines, published earlier this year by Heidi Reszies at Artifact Press, where you say: “arrival and searching to place memories in my new old place.” I’ve been thinking a lot about community, and so much of your poetry makes me think of how we are brought together by difficulty.

It makes me happy that you’ve picked out the levels of community in desire lines. One very urban and one very rural, and in fact my life has had both strains, or both advantages, in it. Neither Maine or New York is easy to live in, but they’ve both been very powerful in my life and continue to be. As for coming full circle in terms of re-entering a book arts tradition with desire lines, I’m proud that the book is a hand bound, letterpress edition and that it engages with immigration, forced and chosen, and witnesses change on many levels.

Do you still, outside of this current moment when we’re sheltering in place, travel between rural and urban environments a lot in order to write?

I have stayed put since Friday the 13th, when I returned early in March from a planned San Francisco writing retreat and teaching in the Goddard College MFA. Or I would’ve been sheltering in place with my poet friend Truong Tran in San Francisco. Urban and rural—they’re forces. I’m going to make a parallel. With writing my poems, I’ve needed to push myself out into another form or voice, and in my life, I’ve needed push myself out of one environment into the next. Earlier in my life, I had times where I lost community for a couple of years as a teenager when I was ill, and I was between schools and between grades. I think that was a time when I was very isolated but had some kind of inner life developing that I didn’t yet realize would become important. It was rough. I had a couple of friends that stayed in touch with me, but when you’re a teenager and you get thrown out of one school and into the next, your friends don’t tend to follow.

How did this “in between” period in your teenage years connect you to poetry?

I had time alone and a need to find a way out. I grew up in Cambridge, MA, and my parents were not professors! But I’m telling you, there were so many bookstores in the sixties—Paperback Booksmith and used bookstores. I crawled around all of those bookstores; I looked in every poetry section in every single bookstore in Harvard Square. I looked at every book. Slowly, but surely, I found out: what are these books, who’s publishing them, and what are they writing. I studied the layout, the shape, the poems. In some bizarre way I gave myself a crash course in small presses and poetry without knowing it! I would just go sit on the floor in the Poetry sections. So, I found poetry partly accidentally. No, I won’t say accidentally. I had a desire to find something. And I found it on the blank page and poetry became my way out.

I had some encouragement, even from some unlikely sources, like a really hard-ass eighth grade teacher who was tremendously terrifying, but she responded very positively to one free composition, and said, Well, you didn’t quite succeed there, but this is really important and you need to keep doing it. From her, it was big. I mean, I remember everything about her. Do I remember everything about every other teacher from the seventh, eighth, ninth grade? Not exactly. But she’s imprinted in my mind, Mrs. Walcott. She really did something to me; she was very direct. She wasn’t dressing it up—she wasn’t saying, Oh how lovely, aren’t you brilliant. It was, This is really important. Keep doing it, and this could be a poem. And I was like, Oh, okay, so that’s what I’m doing. And then I started paying a whole lot of attention to poems. She had us memorizing Shakespeare and Keats in the eighth grade.

And then, after my rough period and a surgery, I went to an experimental school in 1966 called Simon’s Rock. It’s run by Bard now. It’s the last two years of high school and first two years of college in one system, the idea being that kids were ready to do more, earlier. One of the people there was Jean Valentine, an incredible poet, who has won many awards now, but at the time, she was working as a secretary, and someone clued me in that she wrote poems. In fact, they gave her some of my poems, and I was not happy because they just did it. Which turned out to be great. So, the first person that I ever spoke to about my poems was Jean Valentine! I mean, unbelievable. I have those poems with her little pencil marks on them. I’d never had anyone make little pencil marks and ask questions. We’d sit together and talk about poems and I just couldn’t believe it. That we could spend this time . . . it was just like going to heaven.

Then Jean was let go—they never let her teach because they were too stupid—but in any event, she was let go, and the next year she won the Yale Younger Poets Award for Dream Barker. But I stayed in touch with her and also, two of my favorite teachers, who were lesbians and fired for being lesbians. I loved them all, great teachers, and they were very important, the people who really supported and nurtured me. But even though I lost those particular people at that school in that moment, I had my poetry by then. And I held onto it. And then I got into more politics, organizing about the teachers getting fired. But I had the poetry and I was like, I’m not letting go of it. So that was great.

Sounds like Jean Valentine and her work were major influences on you!

Jean is all about mystery. A lot of her poems are short. Sometimes they’re in a series, but they’re short and just take you somewhere else. So mysterious and intimate, always touching a deep place and you don’t even know what’s happened to you. So, her approach to poems is like, the poems are there, and you’re discovering a poem. It’s not about you. The poem’s there. And you’re being taken there and you’ve gotta go. You’ve gotta go and find it. It’s not about you projecting, this poem is about blah blah. She wouldn’t put it that way. It’s not that way. That’s not what you’re doing. You’re investigating. And you’re finding language for something that exists. I was in awe of how carefully she listened, always ready to enjoy the poem at hand, giving it room to breathe. So, I just consider it a major miracle that I happened to meet Jean Valentine when I was sixteen years old.

That’s a huge gift. Thank you for getting very specific and honoring the community that raised you. Where did you go next?

After going to college and starting Granite Press in Western Massachusetts, I moved to Maine with it. There were a lot of people here in the mid-seventies: radical people, lesbians, gay men, back-to-the-landers. Things were hopping everywhere! Under every rock, something was happening. I was involved in a writing group and running writing workshops at a rural retreat center, Hardscrabble Hill, started by three friends. One is award-winning poet, Rosa Lane, who lives in California and Maine today. Rosa and I both went to Sarah Lawrence, and we invited our teachers Grace Paley, Jean Valentine, and Jane Cooper as the guests for the retreats over long weekends. We were doing all kinds of stuff, and then, it wasn’t enough.

At the same time, I was feeling that I had a sudden strike from the universe: both of my parents died within 9 months of each other, both of cancer, and I was thrown out into the universe differently. I decided, I could be next. You know, you have that feeling when you go through something like that and ask, What do I need to do? And I decided to go to graduate school, anywhere, even New York City. I went there and studied with Jean again all these years later. I was thirty, and I learned huge amounts. I got way into New York and it changed my life. I met many people, and it wasn’t fast because New York is slow to get into. And then once you’re into it, you kind of never get out. I learned a lot—from Grace Paley, Eva Kollisch, and a posse of Jewish women activists who brought me into a circle of women and LGBTQ writers, artists, and workers all involved in nonviolent direct action: the Women’s Pentagon Action, the Central American Solidarity movement, and it was the same period with the burgeoning Lesbian Herstory Archives. It was just remarkable and terrific and that pushed the poems. For example, Grace taught me you could have dialogue in poems. The poems before that were lyrical poems—and I love lyrical poems, there’s nothing the matter there—it’s just the things that I began writing about required a different form.And now I’m juxtaposing narrative, lyric and dialogue in hybrid form.

After graduating, and because I wanted Granite Press to publish women poets, I published Grace’s first book of poems, Leaning Forward, and her poem “On the Fourth Floor” is a good example of using dialogue shouted down four flights. It’s obvious when you read literature through time, but for me, that wasn’t possible before. It wasn’t my way of imagining. I had to learn to do dialogue in writing about a violent incident. I had to have a narrative that was very direct. I had to have conversation, and it was very scary because it was a new thing, juxtaposing elements when I didn’t know, can I do this? So, it took me my whole graduate degree to write that poem, but I wrote “Deadly Weapon” from In the Open, and it’s about being shot in a homophobic incident, which is referred to in my later hybrid piece, “For Orlando: Make Beautiful in Maine” echoing LGBTQ violence after the Pulse nightclub shooting.

It was the first time I’d ever done that: pulling people from different times and voices in my head and letting them speak and be elements in a poem. I learned from that, so later when I wrote “Seeking Tenderness,” for Matthew Shepard, I used the same method. I did research on what different people said and did around Matthew Shepherd’s murder. And I didn’t want it to just be one voice. I wanted other people from all around the scene. The idea of having stories that have many sides that come in and move across time and involve your own experience and memories and who knows what—that you allow this permutation is hugely important. But all those different ways of speaking have come through learning that I have to push myself out there in ways I may not be comfortable. And that means subject matter as well as approach. That’s always a question, it’s not like, oh yeah, I’m going to do such and such. Who wants to write the same poem all the time?

Speaking of bringing different voices into dialogue within a poem, you’ve said that hybrid is a “place where juxtaposition could really hammer and sing.” How do you juxtapose different voices when you are writing about an atrocity?

After Matthew Shepard’s murder, Bill Sullivan, publisher of Painted Leaf put together an anthology Blood & Tears, Poems for Matthew Shepard, now available from University of Wisconsin, and we had a couple weeks to write something. For the poem, “Seeking Tenderness,” I did something I’d never done before that moment. I got on my computer and started looking up stories. I printed it all out and spread it out over my studio. One of the attackers was Aaron, and there was a story about his mother—her husband pushing her head through a TV screen. She’d go to the bar, get drunk every night, and she wandered out in a light jacket into the Wyoming winter, to her death. It was so intense. I couldn’t just stick her story in there. Aaron had to have a presence before that. I began to put it together almost like a play with different voices. Some of them I imagined into, like the girls, the girlfriends looking at Matthew’s shoes. I did see that they had taken them. What did those girls they see? “ . . . what to do with Matthew’s size 6, / black patent-leather shoes . . . / the shoes gleamed in the trailer’s corridor. / And what would Aaron say / if Kristen admitted she wanted to try them on? / . . . but the black patent-leather shoes glistened, / strange and magnetic like a city, a place she’d never walked, / full of dark mirrors where she could look in / and one minute see the great night sky / and the next, laugh at their small distorted faces leaning over/ to study the faggot’s favorite shoes / trying to figure out whether to ditch them or not.” It’s all bound up, and I worked on getting the facts and weaving in the consequence, layering metaphor and dialogue.

At the end of the poem, I didn’t want Matthew to be alone. Around the time of his murder, there were two other events: one was the murder of two women, two lesbians, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, in Eastern Oregon, and the other was the murder of James Byrd, the black man who was dragged behind a truck in Jasper, Texas until he died. These atrocities involving an older black man and two women who were together . . . I wanted the parallel to be there to acknowledge that we’re not just talking about one thing. We’re talking about a level of homophobia and racism that permeates and it is everywhere.

In “For Orlando: Make Beautiful in Maine,” I write about wanting to take a chainsaw to the giant flagpole at a megachurch nearby—the place has since failed by the way! I wanted to have anger there, for sure. Like my friend in that poem says, forty fucking years, naming his long-lived activism. That’s really important to me, having grounding in real stuff. Always, it’s important. By the very end of “Seeking Tenderness,” I wanted to show that Matthew has a lot to give and is willing to give. That desire ends the poem. “He will fly because he is hungry / for it, the beautiful mouth of the sky / taking in all he has to give, the tenderness / of beating wings all around him.” It doesn’t mean he’s not cut off, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it’s actually really important, to follow the desire to express what you have to give. And that’s kind of where it’s at, you know. No matter what happens.

The connections that your characters have with one another in your work feel akin to the connections that you have with the people in your life.

That’s so interesting. You know, some of it is my time in the LGBTQ community, one of my families; some of it is among artists and poets, people of every persuasion and looking to get out there and hear other talking voices; some of it is a need to tell, need to find, which, I never really let go of. You know, you and I are lucky. We have something. We may be frustrated we didn’t get that thing right, in the writing, but we have something we do. It’s our job to do.

This need to connect, it’s really very much a survival thing in terms of dealing with the world. And there are a lot of ways to handle that, being a writer, but it’s part of the survival of your soul, your utterance and not some side trip.

You’ve spoken about always setting a new challenge for yourself. What are you working on now?

I’m figuring out how to write this long poem on the astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt. I had a beautiful month-long research grant from the Huntington Library last year, and have a lot of information that is astronomical and data driven and there’s very little personal correspondence from her. I am inhabiting the people around her like the other scientists, the big wigs, some of the guys who are very interesting actually and not all what you might think. They’re all weird in their own way. And she’s not totally invisible either; she’s visible at some points, not at others, it’s just complicated. So, I’ve been allowing myself this way of entering the task. If I look too hard, I can’t see her, and yet she’s all over. Meanwhile, I’m stubbornand I’m finding out whatever it is about her that has pulled me in. I’m trying on different personas to do it. I’m learning from my friends who are playwrights, and what they do across time. I’m letting myself do stuff like that and not worrying about it. Years ago, I needed to find out that I could have dialogue in poetry; now I’m letting these characters come in, because I need to let it be way out before I reel it back in again.

I’ve taken a writing workshop with a playwright who once upon a time took a class with me at NYU called Poetry for Playwrights that studied works of Muriel Rukeyser, Emily Dickinson and Pablo Neruda. Her class throws me into different ways of looking and being, again, pushed out. Another friend, another poet, suggested this workshop to me. At first, I was like, I don’t want to be in a workshop, I do workshops all the time! I was crabby. But then my friend said, well, how do you know? So, I looked into it and it turned out that she was a student of Maria Irene Fornés, the Cuban playwright whose work I admire. We write in the workshop; it’s generative. I don’t question it. I just go do it. This last week, there was a prompt where we were supposed to go to a location, and I found myself at a location that was, like, solid green and turquoise blue, like a flattened painting of a bucolic landscape. But it had no shapes, no hills, no waves, just like an Alex Katz painting. And I was like, well, this is not interesting, what the fuck? It was there, and it was there some more, so I was like, okay, it’s there, I’m here, what would produce a landscape like this? Instead of thinking, where are the rocks, where are the trees, I thought, what would do this? What if I was moving really fast above the earth? And then I started to fly with it as if I was on this trip, moving very fast above the earth through the universe. And it was really cool! I got to ask bigger questions which was the kind of stuff Leavitt might ask herself.

I live with an engineer, and I’ve learned that they imagine whole worlds into data. What we imagine into words, they imagine into data. It’s like entering a different medium.

Yes! I was entering into a different medium. I asked myself, what would create this? and then, okay, speed. That’s the thing when you become willing to explore. Fornés says you need curiosity. Then you go somewhere else! And you really have to push yourself out of the way sometimes.

Hearing that you’re still always on the edge of your own comfort zone right now when you’re creating—I get very excited by that.

Yes, it’s important to make it new. When I hear people talk like this, I get excited too. There was a very cool documentary about Maria Irene Fornés, The Rest I Make Up, that you can find on Women Make Movies. Parts were filmed near the end of her life and she was losing her memory. It’s really inspiring because there’s always this curiosity. She’s just kind of great. So, I love hearing from others. And I need it, no question. And taking care…this is such an important time to take care in any way that you need to. Some days are easier than others and that’s just how it is. But the forces at work demand that we do our work, and there are these things that are really unsure. As an artist, it’s not new to me. There are years that get grisly, years that are okay. I’m not going to tell you I don’t worry about that, supporting myself, but I just try to allow the writing to imagine, put things together and do the next right thing. Talking with others, and hearing more helps us all, and I try not get into a twist.

Jaimie Li is a Senior Editor at Poetry Northwest.

Cover photo: C. Stetson, May 2020.