The second “Voices” interviewee is Gabrielle Bates, whom I met through Hugo House in Seattle. She is involved in poetry in multiple ways: As a writer, an editor, and a book seller. Read one of her visual poems at Poetry Magazine and find out more about her on her website.
How did you get interested in writing?
Reading. I’ve been obsessed with novels from as far back as I can remember. At some point, I realized that more than story and character, what I was reading for was language and description, and eventually, thanks to a great teacher in college, I realized poetry was the island I’d been steering my boat towards the whole time. I still try to write novels (I’m determined!), but poetry is definitely my more natural inclination.
What is the appeal of visual poetry to you?
I love the playfulness of the process. The exploratory trial-and-error of juxtaposing text and images is absurdly fun. Plus, it allows me to combine two of my favorite things: drawing and poetry.
You work in the poetry book store Open Books. Can you describe a typical day there?
I’m working less hours in the brick-and-mortar store these days and more behind-the-scenes on my laptop, but when I’m in the store, I typically start by acquainting myself with all the new books. I photograph them; I read a few poems. Tweeting out quotes from new books is one of my favorite parts about my job because it gives me an excuse to do what I love (which is read great contemporary poetry!). Other than that, it’s chatting with customers when they come in, making sure they know their way around the store, pulling recommendations off the shelves, gussying up our in-store displays, coordinating with authors who are coming to the store to give readings, event promotion… There’s a lot that goes on!
You also serve as an editor for a poetry magazine. How do you select the submissions?
I read poem submissions for Poetry Northwest, and I recently came back on board to help out with the Seattle Review after about a year away, so I’m reading poems for them now too. Because each journal has its own unique personality and niche (Seattle Review, for example, only publishes long poems, ten pages or more in length), I read a little differently for each, but ultimately I’m looking to be surprised. I’m looking for an aliveness and heat to the words and movements. I’m also looking for a thoughtful interplay of content and form.
You’ve already won several prizes. What is their importance in literature today?
Recently, I was awared an Artist Trust grant. The value of that particular “prize” was emotional and financial. Writing of any kind can be a lonely process, and it’s easy to get down on yourself. Winning a prize gives a boost of validation. With the Artist Trust grant, I felt energized by knowing that people saw something of value in what I was making. Financially, the grant has freed me up to enter contests (fees for book contests are usually about $25 a pop) and fellowships (those entry fees can be up to $85!). I’m also putting some of that money towards the costs of traveling to AWP, which is a giant yearly writers conference.
The prize system plays a big role in the poetry world at large right now. Sadly, I think of winning a book prize as one of the only ways to get published and have a book out there that people will actually read. What’s most problematic to me about this is that, again, those fees are steep. The system actively works against poets who don’t have that kind of money to throw around.