The Poetry Project

on snakes & babies

Jules Gibbs interviewed by John Rufo

Jules Gibbs’ new collection snakes & babies (Sheep Meadow Press, 2021) doesn’t choose one—snakes or babies—nor does the book seek to rely on that ampersand, either. Instead, cast off from the skeptical sands of more supposedly solid daytime shores, we’re swimming in the dream overflow, flotsam and jetsam. Poem as oceanic feeling and seeping. Why wouldn’t there be snakes and babies in the Freudian waters?

The title of the book itself arranges a compound pairing, a wiry and twisting conjunction. The first phrase of the book, from a poem titled “X” speaks of a “second distance / in the distance. The two are distinct / and want to meet, but will never / meet.”

For this conversation, we decided to “want to meet,” albeit from a distance or two, and discuss the book’s relationship to music, gender, sex, writing poetry in the margins of poems, and whatever else floated into the space.

We hope this conversation gives a sneak preview or early screener into snakes & babies, the show before the show and an after party among many, gone so far into the morning that all the attendees now dream simultaneously. Although arriving into 2021, so far, offers the continued horror of 2020, this early-year release provides a much needed and pleasurably surreal respite.

JR: Your first collection of poetry Bliss Crisis (Sheep Meadow Press, 2012) came out a little more than eight years ago. What has changed or continued from your poetic approach in that book to the new work in snakes & babies?

JG: As time goes on, I trust my own strangeness more. I trust my ability to access it and indulge it, to allow it to guide me, but also to guide it. I’ve always thought you have to be a little stupid to write poems. Paul Valéry said: “Stupidity and poetry. There are subtle relations between these two categories. The category of stupidity and that of poetry.” The impetus to write a poem is born out of a not knowing. I have a strong, almost desperate desire to reconnect with a part of myself or version of myself (or selves) that is lost or foreign to me—as if that will restore me to something. It’s no cure for my stupidity, but it’s a cure for something. Yeats said that poetry does not add to knowledge, but rather adds to being. And the being makes more of itself by way of describing its own condition.

There’s a language that is still alive and humming under the sway of our acculturated language, one that operates independently, almost mystically. When Seamus Heaney talks about the poet going outside her normal cognitive bounds, he calls this raiding the inarticulate. I love that. Maybe the self is a field. Maybe it’s a barrel fire. Maybe it’s a drum. Maybe it’s a unique form of spacetime. Poetry says yes, all of that, and more. Poetry takes up the radical action of adding to the self, either via knowing or estrangement, but usually by working in-between. It’s a dream language that works against empiricism. Here’s what the British psychoanalyst and author Adam Phillips has to say about this, even though he’s speaking about Freud here: “[O]ne has to turn oneself into a stranger, into another apparently unrecognizable person, to make one’s life psychically viable. Self-estrangement, Freud shows, protects us from a threatening affinity with all we have tried to disown.… Nothing that is human is alien, but nothing that is human can do without the idea of the alien, to protect itself.”

JR: You live in Syracuse, work at Syracuse University, and do adjunct labor organizing at the university as well. Does any aspect of the book feel particularly “Syracusian” — beyond central and upstate New York’s penchant for calling towns old Greek and Roman mythological names?

JG: If only we looked anything like our namesake, Siracusa, in Sicily! Syracuse is a depressed, upstate rust belt town, a shrinking city, the subject of much trash-talk, where every winter we must brave mountains of snow. The White Walkers are not actually from an ancient city north of Westeros, but psychic manifestations of the extreme light deprivation we experience here by mid-February. Seriously, this happens to be a place I love, having lived here 13 years, which is longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere, and I think my working class upbringing means I am most comfortable in a gritty, scrappy town. I mean, thank god I’m not surrounded by people whose main concern is their property value. There’s also an integrity to this place and to our endeavors that won’t be diminished, a momentum and form of progress that works largely off the radar, in larger cycles of time—much like poetry does—and is therefore perhaps a bit kinder, more honest, more grounded and humane than other places I’ve lived. More than half the people I know here are engaged activists, working on levels from the school board to national politics. This city is a great sanctuary for immigrant populations and refugees all over the world, and full of people who are dreaming their way into a better future, whether they were born here or in the Congo. The church on my street is a refuge for people escaping political persecution. My house abuts a shelter for LGBTQ homeless kids. Labor organizing also keeps me rooting for the underdog, and I think all of this does inform my poems in subtle ways.

JR: Do these poems feel impacted by your teaching?

JG: I don’t know if poems are impacted by my teaching, but the reverse is true, in that I only teach what I practice. In writing, I move (or am moved) into an entirely different sort of brainwork which is really dreamwork. You have to be a little more practical in teaching, but then again, I do try to create an intentional space where my students can honor the dreaming mind, the anti- or extra-rational mind, the child’s mind, the pre-verbal mind, the part of their very selves that remains uncolonized by dominant culture, and that has long ago declared itself a thriving independent Nation of the Interior. My students—and I—have to believe in that autonomous and mystical version of the self in order to write poems that mean anything, poems that give us more interesting and expansive options for living than the version of reality that’s been imposed upon us.

JR: The book opens with an epigraph by Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger. What is your experience with Celan’s poetry?

JG: Paul Celan was one of the first poets I really fell in love with, even though he also happens to be nearly impossible to comprehend. We have to let go of expectations of what comprehension even means if we are to read certain poets, like Celan, who seem connected to something strange but true. His poems work on me like music works on me. The epigraph was hard to select, but that poem, “Sprich, auch du,” is something I committed to memory in both German and English a long time ago, so it’s part of my poetic fabric now, and I just wanted to honor that. It’s a poem about living in the diaspora of the Holocaust, but it’s also about the necessity of poetry, and the way poetry must straddle so many contradictions. As in: I am here speaking, in the wake of genocide, where all my people have been silenced. The poem goes on to say that we must “keep yes and no unsplit,” and I think that’s the work of any poet, in any time or land, to resist absolutist thinking. The authority of yes and no is a fascist authority in this sense, and it’s not that yes and no do not exist, it’s just—at least this is what I take Celan to mean—that the yes will always be tied to the circumstances of the no, and the no bound to the conditions of the yes. That’s the shade he speaks into, and it’s where the truth lies. Since most of our language is hell-bent on absolutist (right/wrong; yes/no) and categorical (like/dislike; good/bad) thinking, the poet has her work cut out for her if she aims to be one who “speaks truly, who speaks the shade.”

JR: How does two-ness (and thinking beyond binaries as well) shape your poems in this book?

JG: Oh yes, I hope this comes through as simultaneity rather than binary thinking. I think that first poem, “X,” and the second, “distance idea,” speak to something that drives us into the poetic mode, to want to write poems. I love that you call it a “wiry and twisting conjunction,” because that’s it, really, that’s what poems are—they navigate this impossible space of experience and memory, but each act of describing or capturing creates a ghosting effect, a distortion, an alternate telling, a turbidity.

JR: Each poem has a one-word title, all of which are monosyllabic except for “Target,” “Weapon,” and “Baby.” A droplet or a monomania or a singularity. Some of the pieces also originally appeared under longer titles. How did you decide on whittling down?

JG: The titles were a problem. Many of these had showy, rangy titles to begin with, and I do love over-the-top titles and the way they can draw attention to the artifice of the poem, its constructedness, its announcements, its zany play. But as I put the book together, I felt the titles were sucking up too much oxygen, so I wanted to strip the announcement of the poem back to a whisper, a non-event, less demanding of attention. These one-word titles are so plain and generic, they almost don’t exist.

JR: Absence or negation or redaction or refusal are continued themes. Sometimes a line is simply “(____)” (“Drift”) or lines begin with variations on “We are not…”" and feature words like “un-dream” (“Wing”), or a list of “No’s” surrounding and structuring a “poem with nothing in it” (“Crash”). Or we go to “no-woman’s land” (“She”), look into an epistolary poem with stanzas addressed to “Annihilator,” meditations on emptiness (“Bind”), play into the Keats riff “to touch/the spirit ditties of no tone” (“Stay”). A final chorus of No’s leads many phrases in the poem “Want,” birthing a plethora of double-negatives, amid several other nos, wonts, donts, and nots as neighbors that, in the end, sonically knot into a final piece titled “Notes.”

JG: God, I’m such a contrarian. That’s me again, in battle with myself. Also with the world. With the patriarchy. With late-stage capitalism. To be alive is to be fighting, it would seem. Union yes! Sí se puede! What can I do but sing the No even as I fight for the Yes? From a certain angle, everything after childhood is about absence, as we grieve that firstness we were born into, that is irrevocably lost. We can only recall, imperfectly, only gesture back to what is gone, taken from us. In writing, we conjure, we call some of it back via whatever sorcery we have at our disposal. It’s bound to create chaos, the self replicated in so many versions, and no one version can be recalled in its singularity. So I think the reversals and inversions and refutations that you have pointed to are ways of coming to the multiplicity of self and lost self. You have to negate something to make it appear sometimes. Or, as Paul Valéry put it, “God made everything out of nothing. But the nothing shows through.”

JR: The final piece, “Notes,” builds an annotation bridge through the book as a whole, in addition to introducing totally new scenes. I remember you told me once about writing poems: you should write a new poem on the margins of a poem that explicates each line. This second poem on the margins is the “other” or “real” poem, a double. Does that resonate with how the “Notes” piece was built?

JG: That margin trick is from Gerald Stern, who was my teacher during my MFA years. He told us a story about his early days writing poetry, where, feeling unsatisfied with his work, he started playing in the margins, writing notes to himself about what he thought he was doing in the poem itself, and it struck him that the stuff he was writing in the margins was the actual poem he meant to write, more true to his voice, more true to his wonderfully idiosyncratic way of thinking. And I mean, it worked for him—a Jerry Stern poem is unmistakably his voice. Always. And I do use this technique myself, sometimes, and I periodically ask my students to experiment with it as well. And you are right—“Notes” is kind of writing about the poems. A false key or legend. A faux poem. An aboutness. In some sense, Jerry’s idea about marginalia is really the true mode of all poems, in that we are writing in the margins of history and culture and self, crouching in the shadows of the stuff that occupies the grand stage. Poetry would have to assume some kind of primacy in our culture in order not to be marginalia, and that’s never gonna happen. Then again, poetry’s power is in its shadow-lurking, so maybe it’s just as it should be.

JR: Is your book written in the marginalia of other books? If your book was friends with other books of poetry (or any other genre), who would your book befriend?

JG: snakes & babies doesn’t make friends, as a rule, but would secretly kill to be friends with almost any book by Adam Phillips because it wants very badly to be psychoanalyzed by him. It also wishes to be friends with Decreation by Anne Carson, because it stole at least one rib from that book. It would love to have a whiskey with Nathaniel Mackey’s splay anthem, rest its head on the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson’s shoulder, hit the MoMa with Frank O’Hara. In a dream world, at least.

JR: Are there five records/albums that could be the soundtrack to snakes & babies?

JG: Prince’s Purple Rain and Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and anything angsty but charged-up, discordant angsty like early PJ Harvey, Exene Cervenka, etc. Or maybe better would be Zappa’s orchestral stuff, like Yellow Shark or Civilization Phase III. Or maybe even spacier, like Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. I could play this game all day, but I won’t get it right. (This reminds me that a friend of mine once gifted a copy of my first book, Bliss Crisis, to Lucinda Williams, and that was pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer, even though I don’t know whether or not she read it, or if she liked it or hated it.)

JR: Sex and erotics play a big role in snakes & babies, especially in poems like “Baby,” “Keep,” and “Buzz.” I'm wondering about how the sex in the book stems from a sort of Freudian-analytic dream state the book likes to play around in and also how other parts may have come from a different social/political erotics.

JG: Sigmund is fun! Then again, he’s a total bummer. I read all 700-whatever pages of Interpretation of Dreams, and yes, that does inform the book, but I’m also irreverently messing with Freud’s ideas of sex and the Oedipal child. As Judith Butler and many others have pointed out, Freud never gave women much of an alternative to the suffering. But there are alternatives! I think poems, like dreams, are sexual beings concerned with the erotics of self, the erotics of language, and with the encounter with the other, which is always charged with erotic energy. Dreams may seem inefficient, but they deliver us, like no other medium, to our own otherness. Sure, they are often chaotic and boring when people relay them, because when there is no boundary of truth to a story, we tend to lose interest. I do take up dreams in this book, but they are heavily mediated by the time they get into the poem—first via my own interpretations, then via a processing of the interpretation, then via further interplay with language in poem form. Like the poem, a dream will always be overinterpreted, will always keep speaking beyond its boundaries. Maybe that’s what sex is, too—a body speaking beyond its boundaries. Dreams and poems and sex all have so much in common; they don’t deal in facts, yet they play with the highly charged fields around the truth. Too, they are often shockingly unprofessional, fluent in disorder, fueled by error.

The other truth is that my dreams are populated by snakes and babies. All the time. For like, the last 20 years. So who knows what anyone’s unconscious mind is up to, but you have to reckon with the fact that the unconscious mind is also your mind. And one part of the self is talking to another part of the self during dreaming as during poeming and maybe even during sexing. Isn’t sex a kind of dream state? In his beautiful book Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary, David Shulman talks about the magata mind, which is a kind of “spaciness and sleepiness, a mode of dreamy self-absorption and unfocused attention.” It’s a state that is close to “what the Sanskrit texts mean when they talk about pure, whole ‘consciousness,’ the defining feature of being fully alive.” There’s definitely some meeting place between those states of mind, conscious and un-, and you know it when you know it. It can occur during lucid dreaming, or in writing a poem, or while having sex. Or I guess you could also be on mushrooms. It’s such a terrifying and ecstatic place, it’s a wonder we ever get out of bed.

JR: Gender feels very porous and transnational in the book. In the poem “She” the line “women’s arms heavy with women's dresses stitched by women in Bangladesh” refers, also, to a political economy shaped by gender. “She” is also the only prose poem in the book. How do gender and prose work here?

JG: “She” was originally called “Women’s Department,” and it grew out of an actual encounter at the mega-gross-mall in Syracuse, Destiny USA. The story is too long to tell here, but the poem took many forms before this one. Ultimately, it had to assume a form that felt like a scroll, that allowed for the multiplicity of “she” which I hope is actually the multiplicity of our gender, where gender is not singular, but rather infinite genders rolling out in all directions. This she is kind of tortured, though, and bound by her designation even if she is also a generalized form of Every Woman. There’s a lot of rage in this poem, and some self-directed misogyny, too. It’s something of a rant, but in ranting, I am also purging some of these ideas and feelings, energetically shaking them from fixed states. The prose poem, where no line offers a resting point, a caesura, feels like the right form for such a purging. The prose form also allows me to rove around womanness, without the hierarchy of the line, allows for a more open or democratic or dare we say feminist exploration, more egalitarian.

JR: At the end of the book, a first-person spoken scene relates “snakes are child’s play, child’s play is seduction” and the compoundness of the title merges in a slithery, bodily, and playful way: the book’s conclusion as a sort of ouroboros/snake eating its own tail, the end being in the beginning, but I was also wondering if the closed loop image is too determined as an enclosure into a cycle, versus the feeling of your book as very open, very expansive, and working through but also out of narrow categories.

JG: Oh, you are the ideal reader, John! I did not intend an overdetermined conclusion, but I would hope that the loops of logic and feeling and radiant weirdness, wherever they occur in the book, are both closed and open, that they spin in wild and unpredictable ways. Words can’t help but gesture outwards, and images bounce, ping around, making patterns we didn’t even engineer. But of course the poet must engineer it anyway! It makes me very happy that you feel the book works in this way, through but also out of narrow categories in order to move towards an expansiveness. Because I think that’s my ideal of what poetry can do—it adds to the available stock of reality, as Berryman might put it, and experience and ways of being. If I managed to do that in any small way in this book, then my poor soul is saved!


  1. A danger to enter from the sleep side —
    a maze of grape vines on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius,
    tarantellas rising from the Bay of Naples, from the dead
    of the Herculaneum and Pompeii, embalmed in pumice and ash.
    What arrives may be gargantuan, more than you can bear,
    a giant baby waking in the gut of the volcano.

  2. There are two kinds of sleep, says Virgil — the Gate of Horn,
    that offers easy passage to all true shades, and the Gate of Ivory,
    radiant and flawless, but through which the dead send us false dreams.

  3. In the Temple of Isis, a painting
    of the goddess greeting the horned Io, with a baby
    at her feet like a house dog, and a snake in her lap
    wrapped around her arm like a child.

  4. My dreams are fraudulent, identity thefts, bogus wounds,
    spurious cures.
    In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud concludes:
    xxxxx I think it is best, therefore, to acquit dreams.

  5. House of Vettii, a fresco, 60-79 CE: the baby Hercules
    strangles the snakes as his parents, Amphitryon and Alcmeene,
    look on in shock. Heracles in Greek, meaning “glory to Hera,”
    named for the goddess who sent the serpents to murder him
    and his mortal twin in the cradle.

  6. The one who would kill us becomes our spiritual mother.

  7. Dream Speak says: danger in naming your personal
    myth in this ancient maze. Fathers are babies; mothers
    are snakes; there’s an asp in the thicket — now what?

    xxxxx (Now the shadow stalks its body.)

  8. What comes from us is often not of us: a flame and the smoke
    rises, more powerful than the self. Dreams, said Freud,
    are not absurd; they do not imply that one portion of our store of ideas
    is asleep while another portion is beginning to wake. On the contrary,
    they are psychical phenomena of complete validity… constructed
    by a highly complicated activity of the mind.

  9. I was born in the borough of Clarks Summit,
    Pennsylvania, as any child might be born — through the gates
    of horn, helpless and monstrous, loved and reviled —tossed
    in the crib to tussle with the increate real, to strangle and swallow
    and succumb, to reshuffle the origin story. I was a miner
    punching through earth, covered in silica.

  10. Myths drift. In the ruins of Pompeii, time
    warped in the way of shades, my body
    felt mythic, not like a city ruined, but one
    perpetually emergent, dreaming an exit.

  11. The snake’s infinity, the zeros and ones, were sent
    by the gods or parents or teachers to destroy or falsify,
    like a math problem that can only resolve itself
    in more mystery. (Fathers: see: Hercules.
    Mothers: see: Hera.)

  12. The earliest known image of the infant Hercules
    strangling the snakes in his cradle is dated
    around 480 B.C. Pindar writes about it in the Nemean Odes.
    The scene was reproduced on coins and frescos.
    vases and sculptures, and the Romans adorned their homes
    and gardens with it, a domestic token of the more powerful
    desires that rule us, the myths we still abuse.

  13. Dreams leak. They wrestle demons
    and the divine, attempt to form the unformed
    in a mixed mythology of Yahweh and Zeus — sinister
    and innocent, quotidian and mystical, opposed
    or associated, allied or estranged. Somewhere in these vines,
    a young couple is wed, and the volcano’s baby grows
    restless, its violence wants to be fed.

  14. Snakes are child’s play, child’s play is seduction,
    the work of the unconscious shadow boxing
    with an irrational, cosmically mysterious thing.
    As I kid, I pried boulders in the woods, scoured the chinks
    of granite ledges, hunting snakes. I held them in my arms
    like pets, let them slip down my shirt, up my pantlegs.
    The trick was to hold still, to let the daimonic shiver
    over your flesh — a thrill past fear
    then a private contentment —

#264 — Spring 2021