Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 21, 2014
Authors Among Us
Beatrix Gates blurs the line between life and art
by Anne Berleant
Beatrix Gates sits at her kitchen table in Brooksville and muses on the act and art of writing. “I think what happens first is something grabs me, a topic, an image…a dream. The important thing is to follow up on what captures your attention. I start there and then I explore.”
In her most recent book of poems, Dos—a slender volume published as a chapbook but with the weight of something more—the title poem begins with a painting, “all black, volcanic curling inside the core.”
“The poem starts with that entrance [into the painting] and falls into the spaces,” Gates says. Over 18 pages, the poem explores the “relationship between two people over time” with the “concrete personal histories that overlap and extend.”
As a teacher, Gates tells her students to “write down enough to go back and be able to remember.” This is exactly what she did with Dos, writing “many short snatches, which I kept putting into a folder without looking at them.” Years later, after the relationship ended, “I looked in the folder and saw, somewhat to my surprise, that a lot of the story was there…I had followed my own advice, thank god.”
She adds, “It takes time to look at what you have and say, ‘Here’s something that’s alive.’”
Dos, published this year by Finishing Line Press, is Gates’ fifth published collection. She also has edited anthologies, translated Spanish poets and founded the Granite Press out of “the old canning factory building” in Penobscot, publishing works including poetry by Grace Paley and a bilingual anthology by Central American women poets in 1987.
The press ran for 13 years, closing in 1989 after more than two years’ entanglement with an IRS audit. “Some of the [Central American] poets were members of the Nicaraguan government,” she said. The book, IXOK AMAR.GO: Central American Women Poets for Peace, sold out within a few months, but Gates wasn’t able to print a second edition. “I could not tie up funds I needed to pay my accountant,” she says. Gates ended up winning the IRS audit, but by that time, “I was teaching.”
Now a professor in the low-residency MFA program at Goddard College in Washington, and a teacher of humanities and creative writing at Maine Maritime Academy, Gates has taught literature and writing at Colby and Hampshire colleges, NYU and City University of New York. She also works as a freelance editor on memoirs, novels and nonfiction. “I’ve never done any advertising, but I’ve always had people show up,” she says. “It pays the mortgage.”
On this August day, Gates was up before dawn, writing. “When I’m teaching, I’m thinking about my students…what’s happening in their work and what’s not. I can’t be focused on mine because I’m focused on theirs.”
“If it sounds like I get up every day at 4, I don’t,” she adds. “If I know I have time, I’ll write for a week, then go back. It’s like jumping in and out of a pond.”
A Maine poet and publisher
Gates moved to Brooksville in 2011, after visiting and living for stretches of time in Maine over her whole life. Her grandparents bought the lighthouse keepers house on Hancock Point over 100 years ago, and family members “followed,” she says. She spent two full summers as the village’s librarian in the 1970s, before moving to the Blue Hill Peninsula, partly because “there was more going on,” but also to find a home for her printing equipment. She found that home in the old canning factory owned by the Larson family, who gave her space in the garage.
“First I had to clear hundreds of pallets,” she recalls. “It was freezing. I had a gas heater but I didn’t have walls. It was rough for a while.” She built an enclosed space where she could live and run Granite Press, taking on printing jobs—menus, broadsides—while also publishing books.
In 1981, after both of her parents died in the space of nine months, Gates enrolled in graduate school, earning a master’s degree in Fine Arts and Creative Writing. “I thought I could be next. [The deaths] had that effect. I reevaluated.”
After earning her degree, Gates expanded Granite Press “to get more poetry in the world.” She split her time between New York City and the Peninsula. “I was always returning to Maine in different ways,” she says, spending parts of the early 2000s “camping out” in a trailer in Sedgwick and around the Peninsula.
For three months she lived in Deer Isle, while working on the opera The Singing Bridge, which premiered at the Stonington Opera House in 2005. The title comes from the old steel bridge that had joined Hancock and Sullivan and the story takes place Downeast in the 1940s and 1950s. To write the libretto, Gates conducted interviews, did research and “was thrown back in the area in a big way. It really pulled me in,” she said.
In 2005, after selling 10 acres of land in Sedgwick, she bought her small house in Brooksville, spending two months a year in Port Townsend, Washington, with her Goddard College students, while also working with them long distance.
Locally, Gates has held readings in Blue Hill and at other libraries. In 2012, she organized a reading in honor and memory of poet Adrienne Rich. This summer, she read from her new work, Dos, at the Blue Hill library and is currently involved in the upcoming Farm/Arts Exhibition, opening August 24 at the Reversing Falls Sanctuary.
“I signed up for Farm/Arts because I thought it would be good for my mental health. Get out on the farm and look outside myself,” she says.
For this project, Gates spent time on King Hill Farm in Penobscot and worked in the Japanese form of “renga,” from which haiku comes.
“I had a bad attitude to the haiku,” she says. “Then I read Haibun”—short prose pieces centered on journeys, memory and longing, framed by renga or haiku—“It was cool, but it had to have haiku around it.”
Her pieces are inspired by Ron King, former owner of King Hill Farm, which, she added, “is in great shape and good hands.”
With the long process of writing and finding a publisher for Dos behind her, Gates is looking forward to the Farm/Art opening, and to two new poems appearing in Beloit Poetry Journal, out of Farmington.
“That made my summer,” she says.
But even though Dos was finished in 2011, its recent publication keeps it alive for Gates. “People have come up to me and said ‘Wow. That’s some book.’ That doesn’t happen very much in the world, that people come up in the hardware store and say they love your poetry.”
An excerpt from “Breaking Drought” in Dos:
I listen in shelter
to the rain’s long stems rising through the trees underlight.
I let myself agree and disagree under the rain’s
long hands and hair.
It all pours down
uncovers a dusty face:
I hear someone
say it is a lie to listen
without speaking is a lie.