A Single Question Interview with Gabrielle Bates

Natalie Staples
May 27, 2024

In reading Gabrielle Bates’ Judas Goat, I was most struck by the visceral images and the mediations that they illicit. In the opening poem, “The Dog,” the unnerving image of a dog caught outside a train “but the dog hesitated outside, and the doors closed—/no, not on his neck—on the leash, trapping it” gives way to an intimate meditation: “how easily/ I could imagine a version of our lives/ in which he kept all his suffering secret from me.” The way the minor tragedy of the dog’s is made inseparable from the closeness of the beloveds seems characteristic of the collection. Something akin to the movement in this poem continues to reverberate in others. Whether in “watery surface of a rabbit’s eye,” where the speaker pictures all whom they must not make love to in “Garden,” or in “Illusion” where speaker, “agape,” becomes “the spotted bass/ dark among a dark,” or in “Self-Portrait as Provincial,” where a ram takes on otherwise unsayable violence: “the ram, unable to shake me, bucks his head/ up and down, and I sink lower onto his horns,” the animal in these poems haunts and this haunting is not unlike the way desire unfolds in the poems— often inexplicably tied to threat.

Natalie Staples:
In Judas Goat, animals as in deer, rabbit, goat, often become more than their forms and serve as a vehicle for what cannot be said directly. How did this become a part of your poetics and might it be related to the way you write about desire and the threat inherent within it?
Gabrielle Bates:
I’ve tried to think about why I write so much about animals—why animals appear in my work so frequently—and I don’t have a certain answer, but I have a lot of maybes, which probably constellate into an answer.

When I started working towards this book, I was in my very early twenties, so the experience I had at my disposal to write from was mostly childhood and coming-of-age experience, and it makes sense to me that the childhood consciousness would come with animals in tow. I was a very introverted, bookish, only child, and I think there was something about animals that spoke to me in that state. This is true for many children, right? There’s a reason animals are often the main characters in children’s literature. But, as I age, animals don’t seem to be losing their hold on me at all. I don’t know what that’s about. 

Maybe poetry, for me, is always some sort of dialogue with a much younger self, an attempt to reckon and reconcile with her, or the parts of her I still feel I carry with me. Perhaps, also, animals are a way to try to leave her behind, to give her companions for her journeying separate from mine. I am not totally sure how animals became such an inextricable part of my poetics, but the obsession with animals feels related to childhood as a mentality, as a wellspring of questions. 

There are anecdotal speculations I could offer to this too. I’m remembering now how my best friend in kindergarten, her mom worked at a pet store in Birmingham, and she had all of these animals around her house that were very exotic to me, which captured my imagination—sugar gliders, parrots, tortoises. The notion of the dæmon, as I encountered it in the His Dark Materials books, also fascinated me. And when I was eight years old, my mom bought a building that had formerly been a slaughterhouse, and that stimulated my imagination too, all those echoes of dead pigs. I would wander around the building like an “Alice in Slaughterhouse Wonderland,” feeling for the ghosts. Poetry, for me, is a space of haunting and wonder—ideally both—and in my experience, animals have always prompted both of these things too.  

Judas Goat is interested in the risks that desire necessitates. I’m forever fascinated by the senses—our sensory experience of the world as mediated through language—and I think there’s a sensory state—like the quickening of the heart, or the raising of hair on the arms—which then makes me feel more attached to the animal aspects of existence. There’s something about that heightened sensory state of both desire and fear… I feel like they meet somewhere, and maybe poetry is the terrain where they meet for me, or where they were meeting, most meaningfully, for the decade I was working on this book. 

No matter what I’m writing, I always seem to be writing about death, which of course is an ultimate looming threat over any experience in our lives. I can remember being very newly, youngly in love and already grieving the fact that we die—that bodily separation is inevitable for lovers, even in the best-case scenarios. I think many people go to poetry to access a heightened, embodied understanding of difficult truths or questions about living. It’s not a kind of awareness or intensity of felt-thought that I think we can, or even should, be in all the time, but I also think we suffer, most of us, for not being there enough.

Natalie Staples earned a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Oregon. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, NPR, Able Muse, Birmingham Poetry Review, Terrain.org, and SWWIM Every Day. Her work can be found at natalieannestaples.com.