Interviews

James Tate, The Art of Poetry No. 92

Interviewed by Charles Simic

James Vincent Tate was born on December 8, 1943, in Kansas City, Missouri. He was educated at Kansas State College and at the University of Iowa, where he was still a student when his first book, The Lost Pilot (1967), was selected to be published in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets. Since then, Tate has published more than twenty books of poetry, among them The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970); Viper Jazz (1976); Riven Doggeries (1979); Reckoner (1986); Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award; Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994), which won the National Book Award; and most recently Return to the City of White Donkeys (2004). I read each collection of Tate’s poetry as soon as it came out and have reread them often over the years, but not until I read them all again this year did I have such a clear sense of the magnitude of his achievement. Tate has always had a serious purpose. He has not only written many good poems, he has done so in so many different and original ways that I cannot think of anyone of comparable range. Most poets start out thinking they are “experimenting,” and what that amounts to is usually best forgotten. Not so with Tate. Even his early books, Row with Your Hair (1969), Hints to Pilgrims (1971), and Hottentot Ossuary (1974), are not only wildly inventive and funny but also full of beautiful poetry. The critics usually deal with him by calling him a surrealist and leaving it at that. If he is one, he belongs to that native strain of surrealism to which Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields also belong. “It’s a tragic story, but that’s what’s so funny,” Tate says in one poem. He is one of our great comic masters.

In addition to his poetry, Tate has written a novel, Lucky Darryl (1977), a collection of stories, Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee (2001), and a collection of essays, interviews, memoirs, and short fictions, The Route as Briefed (1999). His literary prizes include a National Institute of Arts and Letters award and the Wallace Stevens Award. He has taught poetry at the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University, Emerson College, and, since 1971, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where this interview took place on two dark afternoons last winter, one in December and one in January.

I drove down to Amherst from New Hampshire on small winding roads past bleak little towns, snow-covered fields, and frozen ponds. Tate and I sat in his dim living room among piles of books, records, and tapes, surrounded by beautiful old quilts hanging on the walls. We had had many conversations over the years, but never one so formal, so we kept shilly-­shallying, testing the tape recorder, pretending in the meantime that I was there to record his stories of Jesse James, the famous Missouri outlaw, who according to Tate not only wrote haikus but used to correspond with the nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Once we began the actual interview, I realized that many of the things Tate was telling me—about his early life, his beginnings in poetry, and his way of working on poems—I had never heard before, despite being friends with him for more than thirty-five years.


INTERVIEWER

You have a poem called “South End” that begins: “The challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit.” Would you elaborate on that? What is “the horseshit” and what is “the ultimate”?

JAMES TATE

I mean the ultimate horseshit. You find it anywhere, and you never know where you’re going to find it. You can find it standing on the corner and overhearing two winos talking.

INTERVIEWER

That’s a variation of a statement that one encounters often in modern poetry, that one must find the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary.

                                                                          TATE

I was aware of the fact that I was repeating a well-known idea. Adding “horseshit” to it made it a bit more distinctive. 

INTERVIEWER

Your poems often feature comic characters who try to make sense of things and can’t. Life confuses them. They talk nonsense. Are these characters improvised out of some bit of language you’ve overheard, or do they come from elsewhere?

TATE

It’s both. It comes in the act of composition. It comes in the moment of writing, too. Sometimes it’s really poignant just to realize how crazy somebody is and how they view the world, how sad that is. Any variation on that is magic. Conspiracy theorists, for instance—they drive you crazy, but at the same time I want to listen.

INTERVIEWER

So for you tragedy and comedy are not separate?

TATE

No, not at all. They’re in the same theater, on the same stage. That’s true of the best poems. You can’t tell where they are going to go. One can start with tragedy and end with comedy, or the other way around.

INTERVIEWER

There is such a strong belief that tragedy is a higher form, that comedy is a low, temporary distraction, and that great literature must be solemn. What is the subversive quality in humor that everyone is worried about?

TATE

I don’t know. Most people don’t have a sense of humor in the first place. So if they find themselves laughing at the end of an experience, they are almost distrustful of themselves—like, what happened to me? Today, for instance, on the tragedy side we could easily be talking about the hideous effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, or we could be talking about the Iraq war. But we can go out tonight and hear a great jazz band. We could spend a night with friends, laughing and drinking and toasting and saying how wonderful life is. Simultaneously, we all know that we’re enshrouded in tragedy, lies, and all kinds of evil. Torture, for God’s sake! And heaps of evil beyond what we can contemplate, and yet life is wonderful for those of us who haven’t been directly affected. So we walk around balancing the two all the time. I, for one, am not giving in. I am not going to walk around in tears all day long. I still want to have a good day if I can.

In my poems, I try—God knows, probably unsuccessfully—to bring that home. There’s a poem in my last book, “A Clean Hit,” where suddenly a bomb falls out of the sky and blows up this person’s house. And all of the neighbors come running down and they’re saying, “What the hell happened?” The guy whose house got bombed says, “Well, I voted for this president. They shouldn’t be targeting me.” They’re all trying to figure out what they did and what they didn’t do that could have caused this bomb to drop. Some of them think it’s a mistake. They say, “It happens all the time. Those reports pass through so many hands, by the time they reach the top somebody has gotten the address wrong.” So you can still have fun with the horror.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me something about your background in Missouri. Were your folks city people?

TATE

We lived right in the heart of Kansas City. I spent my first seven years living with my mother and my grandparents in my grandparents’ house. I could say they were city folks. Both of my grandparents were bankers, so they were downtown every workday of their lives. My grandmother was fanatically religious. To me she was very kind, but with my mother she was seriously religious. After my father died in the war, any man who would even be considered for a date would be scrutinized, probably criticized, and most likely rejected as a possibility. I remember there was a very handsome, very decent Catholic man that my mother dated for a year when I was about five. And my grandmother simply objected to him. Totally. Finally she sent us away to live with her sister up in northern Michigan just so my mother couldn’t see that man anymore. So we spent a winter up in Michigan.

INTERVIEWER

How did your parents meet?

TATE

They had been in high school together. They were high-school lovers. They were married less than a year before my father was inducted into the military in 1942. He was stationed in the States first for training, in Texas I think, and then he was moved to someplace in England. He flew out of there for missions over Germany. He crashed on April 11, 1944. I was four months old. So he never saw me.

INTERVIEWER

Did the family get the news right away?

TATE

It was a little fuzzy. We knew he had crashed. But it was a short while before we found out he was dead. Whether they didn’t know or what—I have no idea what could have been going on. Now, of course, I have all the letters from the government and there are still things that I don’t know. Was he killed in the crash? Did he parachute out? I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

What about the other people who were with him in the plane? Was it a bomber?

TATE

Yes. A B-17. I know of one man who survived. My mother had contact with him for a while, but then he started to tell her that her husband had escaped and she stopped trusting him. From her point of view he was an enemy. I was never given straight answers as a child. I was told that my father was never found. That turned out not to be true. I have since utterly verified that he is in a military graveyard near Liege, Belgium.

INTERVIEWER

If he is in that grave, they must know what happened to him, right?

TATE

I don’t know if, for instance, he was held prisoner of war for a short while and then killed, or what. He may have just died coming down.

INTERVIEWER

His death must have devastated your mother.

TATE

This is pretty unfair to the very nice man she was married to for the last thirty-four years of her life—but she was always in love with my father.
Always. It was a high-school love affair, they married young, and she never got over it. She came to visit me in Spain in 1976 and she was really crazy. She had never been abroad and it just rattled her to the core. Shortly after she got off the plane she said, I’m really hoping I’ll meet your father.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any connection with your father’s parents?

TATE

They died, my mother likes to say, of grief very shortly after my father died. The father was a one-legged zookeeper in Kansas City. He had diabetes and lost his leg. I only have the faintest memory of him. No one on his side of the family has ever contacted me. Ever. I’ve waited all these years thinking there must be somebody out there and surely they’d like to meet me, but I’ve never heard from a soul.

INTERVIEWER

Did your grandparents and your family always live in Kansas City?

TATE

I haven’t had much luck tracing my family. I’ve tried, believe me. It’s not easy. Most people in my family don’t even have gravestones. They were too cheap. I’m serious. You go to a little cemetery in this town south of Kansas City—I know that there are eighteen relatives buried there, but none of them has a stone. So it’s hard to say, although I knew my great-grandparents on my mother’s side a little bit when I was very young. They also lived in Kansas City, so that takes you back pretty far right there.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve described the seven years when you lived with your grandparents as a child as an idyllic period.

TATE

I lived with three aunts, and an uncle as well, in this small house. It was heaven! There were several kids around my age. We were always on the streets, in any season. It didn’t matter how cold it was outside. There were always ten or twelve of us roaming around, doing stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you leave your grandparents’ home?

TATE

My mother got married. It was a brief and very unfortunate marriage to a dangerous lunatic who shot holes in our house with a .45 automatic. He slit his wrists—all kinds of stuff. It was only years later, when I happened upon the one and only photograph that I had of him, that I realized that he bore a considerable resemblance to my father. She had married him from the gut—like, oh, he’s like Vincent. And he was. He was a nice-looking man, with the same exact curly hair and very similar features. It was that simple. She married him after knowing him two weeks. I hadn’t even met the guy. She came home and said, We’re moving out of here. I’m married!

It broke my heart to leave. My grandmother had been all sweetness to me because I was a baby and I had lost my father in the war. So I had all of the sympathy and love imaginable. But I think my mother had always been looking for a way out of that house. She was terribly oppressed by her mother. 

INTERVIEWER

How long did the marriage last?

TATE

He was out of there in less than six months, but my mother and I carried on by ourselves for five years more. It was lonely. My mother always had jobs after that, serious forty-hour-a-week jobs, a secretary for a chrome company or for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I would come home from school to an empty house, nobody in the neighborhood to play with—mostly older people around—and it was lonely. I look back on it and I don’t really want to complain about the loneliness because it forced me to be very inventive—to daydream. I had soldiers. I played with them endlessly. Just daydreamed. Then my mother dated again a little bit. Some of the men would totally take to me and were really fatherlike. I would think, This is OK, I’ll be OK. Then suddenly he wasn’t there anymore. I never knew why. I didn’t feel privileged to ask those questions. He just wasn’t there.

INTERVIEWER

Did you stay at the same school?

TATE

Yes. It was a good school, I had friends. 

INTERVIEWER

So why are you laughing?

TATE

I’m laughing because I remember that as I got older I always somehow ended up being the buddy of the toughest guy in the class. I don’t know why I did that; maybe it was self-protection, but it always seemed to be a very good move. The toughest guy, a good-looking guy with a ducktail—slick. I would be his buddy.

INTERVIEWER

Did your mother marry again?

TATE

She did. A really bad guy—there’s a pattern developing here—and that marriage lasted about five years. He was a traveling salesman who worked for Monroe selling shock absorbers. He had a who-knows-how-many-state area, maybe five states, and he was gone pretty much all week, thank God. I really don’t remember him doing anything to me, but he used to beat the shit out of my mother. Really badly—black-and-blue—and I would be in the house watching. Eventually, toward the end of it, I drew a gun and stuck it to his head. His own gun. He had told me where he hid it. To protect the house, you know? He told me where it was, and I finally went and got it. It really was time to do it. I was probably sixteen.

INTERVIEWER

It’s amazing she put up with him.

TATE

Yes. First of all she had a baby with him, a girl. She was not working. She had no income of her own. I know for a fact that he never came through with child support after the marriage was over. He never did anything. He never made any attempt to see his daughter the rest of his life. But he wrote me when I won the Pulitzer Prize. He sent me pictures from back then and wrote me this love letter: Oh, I’ve always followed your career, I’ve always been so proud of you. Which is bullshit.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write him back?

TATE

Hell no. I wouldn’t cross the street to save his life. He was a bad man. He was a freak. He didn’t fit into society. She finally divorced him around the time I left for college.

INTERVIEWER

What was your high school like?

TATE

I belonged to a gang. We called ourselves the Zoo Club. I don’t know how much of a gang it was, though. There was always rumbling about, Oh, are we gonna take on this gang? Are we gonna take on that gang? But usually nothing ever came of it. Sometimes people would even acquire guns and dynamite—like, well, we’ll have some dynamite in case we run into these guys. Nothing ever happened.

INTERVIEWER

How many of you were there?

TATE

The core group was about twenty-five. And, just like my guy in grade school, we had one guy who was unbelievably tough, the toughest guy you’ve ever seen in your life. He’d just kill anybody. He was fat and he had a belly like that, and his punch hurt so much. He would send people flying through the air, literally. Big guys would go flying through the air. He would steal shotguns out of police cars.

INTERVIEWER

How did you guys spend your time? On street corners?

TATE

We had a drive-in that we went to all the time. If a car from another gang drove through, everybody would tense up and get ready. I remember very few fights. But we’d hang out. We had our babes. The babes were a big part of it.

INTERVIEWER

What about school? Is there anything memorable about the education you received? Do you remember reading any books?

TATE

No. I remember giving a report in senior English class once, on Moby-Dick. I hadn’t read a page of it. I basically didn’t read anything. For a brief time I had an interest in the Civil War. I read some biographies, but that’s about it. I planned on what I thought was an honorable profession, being a gas-station attendant. I thought that was good. My uncle had been one. I thought that’d be cool.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still return in your imagination to your early years for material? 

TATE

I’ll go anywhere. When I sit down to write, I start with a really blank mind. I try desperately to get started and it almost always takes me a very long time. I’ll try anything. Childhood is as fair a game as anything else. More often than not, I am pulling stuff strictly out of my imagination. But then you fill it in with whatever you need at the moment. You are going along and you think you are writing about one thing and then suddenly you think, Oh, that childhood moment would be perfect here.

I don’t think you can define how you acquire your imagination any more than you can define why one person has a sense of humor and another doesn’t. But I certainly would lean to the side that says all those solitary hours of daydreaming were a kind of training for poetry. There was probably also the general sadness of my early years, with the father I didn’t ever get to know or to meet—being told how wonderful he was practically on a daily basis. That’s a sad way to grow into the world, even though I had so many other normal things going on around me.

INTERVIEWER

How much autobiography and how much invention is there in your poems? 

TATE

I can think of only a few poems that mention family and those are sometimes based on a little truth and a lot of myth, or a lot of imagination—one of the two. When a poem insists on coming out and it turns out to be
autobiographical, that’s OK. I don’t have a rule against it, but I’ve never had any major interest in it. 

INTERVIEWER

Was storytelling part of that childhood world for you? Your poems, from the very beginning, have a narrative quality. You are a good storyteller. Were your grandparents good storytellers?

TATE

No. My grandfather was silent and my grandmother was cooking. What my family was good at was telling family legends. I was told that there was a man who lived in the attic for years who had fathered two of my aunts. Why? I don’t believe it was true at all, but it was told. Two of my aunts had red hair and nobody else in the family has red hair. People thought it could be possible.

INTERVIEWER

Who told you these things?

TATE

Maybe it was my mother. My mother was a good one for stories. I don’t mean intentional storytelling, but passing on things that were just preposterous.

INTERVIEWER

Did your mother ever ask you about your plans beyond high school—about college?

TATE

My mother never asked me any questions. She was too busy surviving. Nobody in my family had ever been to college, except maybe a year or two in juco. After high-school graduation I assumed that all of my friends, the entire gang, were not going to college. Then August came and—Jesus!—suddenly it turned out that almost all of them were going. I was horrified. I thought, You betrayers! You candy asses! What do you think you’re doing? You’re leaving me. So I panicked and I thought, Well, I only got Cs, how am I going to get into any college? And I asked around and somebody told me about this Kansas State College in Pittsburg, Kansas, that they’d pretty much have to accept me. At the last minute I sent off an application and I was accepted, so I went on down there. It’s right in the corner of Kansas near the Missouri and Oklahoma borders, a hundred miles south of Kansas City. That was 1961.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like to be in college without having planned to be?

TATE

I was in such shock that I thought, You know what, I’ve never bothered with any classes, I’ve never bothered to learn anything, and I decided immediately that I was going to make straight As, even in classes like biology, which normally would have been hell for me. And I did it. I made the highest grades in the class, all As. I’d get perfect scores on exams in every course I took. And within about two months, I wrote my first poem.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

TATE

I don’t know. I was just sitting on my bed in a dormitory room and I started writing. The thing that was magic about it was that once you put down one word, you could cross it out. I figured that out right away. I put down mountain, and then I’d go, no—valley. That’s better.  

INTERVIEWER

Had you read any poetry before?

TATE

Surely I’d read some, but I don’t really have a distinct memory. 

INTERVIEWER

What was that first poem like?

TATE

It was stupid.

INTERVIEWER

There are various ways to be stupid.  

TATE

I guess you could call it romantic. It was not written to a woman but to a little landscape, trying to romanticize it. That was it. But I was hooked, and I knew for a fact that I was going to do it for the rest of my life. Poetry became a private place that I was hugely drawn to, where I could let my daydreams—and my pain—come in completely disguised. I knew from the moment I started writing that I never wanted to be writing about my life. That wasn’t the inclination. I was always trying to create another world.

So I just went on writing. I was in a bar a month later, sitting alone at a table, when some guys came up to me and said, What do you do? I looked at them and I said, I’m a poet. That was it. My identity was already formed. They introduced themselves to me. One said, I’m a jazz musician; one said, I’m an actor; one said, I’m a painter; and one said, I’m a fiction writer. Wow! I was set for the rest of my time in college.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start reading poetry?

TATE

From the moment I wrote that first poem I ran to the libraries and the bookstores and raided them nonstop. I read so much as an undergraduate—and not just poetry, but fiction and philosophy too—that I would criticize myself. It was falling out of my ears. I was stuffing myself so fanatically and madly. I surely couldn’t understand it all.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember which poets you liked at first?

TATE

There was a teacher at Kansas State who was only there for one year, a brilliant guy named Homer Brown who went on to have a pretty big career in Joyce studies. He had me over to his house a lot, and he gave me books—literally took them off the shelf and said, Here, these are yours. He gave me Stevens and Williams, and those were the cornerstones of everything. It’s fine to read stuff in translation, but it shows up in your poetry after a while if that’s all you’re reading. You’re not even writing English anymore, you are writing something else. It’s better to read poets in your own language. So once I got my hands on Williams and Stevens I was in heaven.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do during your summer breaks?

TATE

The first summer I went to Europe on a boat. I wanted to visit my father’s grave in this vast military cemetery in Belgium. The guy at the gate was expecting me. He asked, Do you want me to take you to the grave? I said no. I wanted to walk the whole cemetery before I went to my father’s grave. It was really a shock. Everybody all around the world should have to go to those places. Miles and miles of white crosses, and it’s very moving. Then I bought a Solex in Paris, a tiny little scooter, maybe one and a half horsepower, and I toured nine countries on it. I slept in train stations and fields and parks and walked the damn bike over the Alps. 

INTERVIEWER

This must have been a very important trip for you.

TATE

Nobody in my family had ever done anything like that. I was practically a celebrity. A picture of me in my Venice gondolier’s T-shirt appeared in The Kansas City Star. After that I spent a summer in New Orleans, working in a pharmaceutical warehouse. It was a hundred and ten degrees in that warehouse and we would lift hundred-pound barrels of opium all day. I eventually got kind of run out of New Orleans. I got a second job as a bartender and made the mistake of falling in love with the owner’s girlfriend. I had to leave in a hurry. I hitchhiked down to Grand Isle and tried to get a job on an oil rig. I probably weighed one-twenty at most. They looked at me and said, Get out of here, stupid. You don’t have any clue what you’re talking about! And I didn’t.

INTERVIEWER

Were you carrying around your manuscripts and books of poetry?

TATE

I’m sure I was always trying to write, but nothing survived from that period—that summer in New Orleans, and another in New York City, washing dishes at Cafe Figaro in the Village. That was pretty wonderful, though after work one night, around two in the morning, I got held up at knifepoint. I was gone the next day. I said, I can’t take you, New York City, you’re too much for me. I don’t even remember how I got out of the city, but I did, and I just started hitchhiking around New England. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any ideas about what you were going to do after college? 

TATE

One of my teachers had been to Iowa, and toward the end of my senior year he started saying that I really should go too. I didn’t apply, but I drove up and walked into the office and said, I’d like to go to school here. This was in August and—this is unbelievable, but true—the secretary said, Donald Justice is just back from vacation, I’ll call him and see if he’ll come over. And—can you believe it?—he came over on the spot. I didn’t know Justice at all, but now that I do, I can’t believe he did that. I wouldn’t have done it. So he came over, I handed him ten or twelve poems, and he said, All right, you’re in. 

The glorious part about Iowa for me was that I’d never met another poet, so in the first few months I was amazed by how many different kinds of people wanted to be poets. I thought, God! I’ve been living out there alone all these years and all of these other people were doing it too.

INTERVIEWER

You were studying with Justice. He must have been quite helpful.

TATE

Nope. He just praised me. And he was pretty stingy with his praise. I remember once he came back from a reading and he said, I read some of your poems at my reading. I just about hit the ground. I couldn’t believe it. I have to say that I’m sure he was immensely disappointed with the rest of my career.

INTERVIEWER

But then you won the Yale Younger Poets series award in your second year at Iowa?

TATE

It was actually my second semester. I got a letter from Dudley Fitts, who was in charge of the prize. I thought nothing that the stationery was from Yale. I read the letter standing in the post office. I didn’t understand it. I read it again. It literally took me three or four times to understand that I’d won. I couldn’t believe it. It was unreal. I was twenty-two.

INTERVIEWER

That must have been big news to tell your friends at school. 

TATE

Yes, but it changed things. I thought about dropping out. Then I thought, Nah, go ahead and get your degree. I moved out into the country. I rented a little shack about fourteen miles away from Iowa City and became a hermit.

INTERVIEWER

Were you publishing already?

TATE

In college I had just a few really bad poems in really bad places. When I got to Iowa, everything clicked and I started writing good poems right away—one after another, at least one a week. I was publishing, not only in kayak constantly, but in the Atlantic Monthly and other places. Looking back, I see them as youthful poems. But so what? I was a youth.

INTERVIEWER

You must have been reading a lot of poetry too. What sort of poets did you disapprove of?

TATE

I read everything. And here’s a credit to my shame. I can remember standing in this great bookstore in Iowa City one day and I pulled a book of Elizabeth Bishop’s off the shelf. I think it was North and South. I stood there reading and reading and it just didn’t click. Nothing hit me. It took me quite a few years before I fell in love with her. Usually I was very open. I tried to read everybody. Admittedly there came a point, I’m not absolutely sure when it was, when I started to steep myself in Surrealist literature. I didn’t want to be one of them, but I was fascinated by them as a bunch of characters and by how passionate and strong their movement was. I still love Benjamin Péret, and I was also reading Max Jacob, and much of Robert Desnos. I thought André Breton wrote some wonderful poems, but I hated all of that manifesto stuff of his. What a tyrant he was, what a crazy boring guy. He irritated me.

INTERVIEWER

What did you like about Péret? He’s the most opaque of them all. Every line takes off in a different direction.

TATE

It’s easy to like Péret. But I’ve never wanted to be like anybody, or to belong to anything.

INTERVIEWER

What about South American poets? Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo?

TATE

I liked all of them. Once I discovered Vallejo, he totally destroyed me, more so than any of the other poets in Spanish. Neruda’s fluent and he’s beautiful, but there’s something a little bit soft and mushy and too romantic about him. 

INTERVIEWER

What about Federico García Lorca?

TATE

Again, he’s beautiful, he’s lyrical, though his poems don’t mean anything particularly.

INTERVIEWER

Did you try any of the composition strategies used by the Surrealist writers, like automatic writing?

TATE

Of course, along the way. A serious poet should try everything. I wrote the book Hints to Pilgrims using some of these techniques.

INTERVIEWER

All these poets we’ve mentioned were different from American poets of that period in their excessive use of images. Your poems, too, are full of extraordinary images. Where do they come from? Do you collect your images in notebooks, for instance?

TATE

I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I’ve never been a good notebook keeper. I don’t think it works for me to take a line or an image from some other source and try to fit it into a poem. I want the poem to be more organic and to flow more.

INTERVIEWER

So images just pop up while you are writing?

TATE

Yes. I get excited by the poem, moving from line to line. It’s a hell of an exciting ride. I just look into my own imagination. I don’t have a secret way.

INTERVIEWER

Who else were you reading in those years, besides the Surrealists?

TATE

I basically tried to read everybody, but W. S. Merwin and James Wright were two of the stronger models. I loved The Moving Target, by Merwin. That was a very important book. Oh, and the early Ashbery. I thought The Tennis Court Oath was very far out. It was probably too far out for me; I didn’t want to go that far. But I loved his first book, Some Trees, as well.

INTERVIEWER

I also find Rimbaud in some of your poems from that time. A nameless youth adrift in the world at the mercy of images and metaphors. Were you aware of that?

TATE

I certainly read Rimbaud and loved him. But I didn’t necessarily feel any of it was seeping into my poetry. 

INTERVIEWER

I see the presence of Stevens in many of the early poems—some of his delight in playing with words.

TATE

I’ve never felt the influence of anybody, period. That being said, boy, do I love Stevens. Now, when you love somebody that deeply, who knows what comes out?

INTERVIEWER

Somebody else whom people mention in regard to your work is Russell Edson.

TATE

No.

                                                                   INTERVIEWER

No?

TATE

No. I love Russell, I love his work, but I mean—you’ve got to be a really bad poet and stupid to be influenced by Russell Edson, because he’s totally himself. 

INTERVIEWER

Yet you both use similar strategies. You turn reality upside down. You place someone in an absurd situation and then watch him try to wiggle out of it. 

TATE

I’ve never thought about it that way. The hardest work for me is creating the situation, this new reality. Once that’s done I can work within it, follow the implications. I take a step, I see what the new implications are, I take another step, I see what the next implications are—and I just proceed like that.

INTERVIEWER

You often play with clichés and idiomatic expressions. You mangle them in some fashion, change a word, or take literally what is usually taken figuratively and then describe the consequences. How does that happen? Do you hear yourself using a certain phrase and all of a sudden something clicks?

TATE

Sure, you can just walk by somebody downtown and overhear one phrase and it’s a cliché and suddenly you go, Wow, actually that’s very beautiful when it’s taken out of its normal meaning. It’s very stimulating and it gives you a lot to think about. Wow.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write it down?

TATE

Well, I have to write it down or I won’t remember it.

INTERVIEWER

What about poems like “Where Babies Come From,” where the title is a cliché or a colloquial expression that you take as the starting point?

TATE

Well, in that particular case, you take an idiomatic phrase and you just get very literal. OK, where do babies come from? Well, let’s see . . . how about the Maldives? They’re all made there. And then what happens? Do you see what I mean by implications? You take the next step and say, What do they do there? They float out on the ocean and, you know, ninety percent of them sink and ten percent of them manage to float on. 

INTERVIEWER

Now this is what interests me, how something that at first sounded like a flight of fancy ends up being about real things, things that are important to us. Do you become aware at some point as you’re writing this poem of serious and philosophical implications? 

TATE

They become apparent in the writing of the poem. I can’t know entirely what’s at stake beforehand; you find out as you go. I love to take a poem, for instance, that starts with something seemingly frivolous or inconsequential and then grows in gravity until by the end it’s something very serious. My poem “How the Pope Is Chosen” is, I think, a good example of this. It starts off really silly and it grows and grows and it ends up on, I hope, a moving, serious ending. I love to do that. You see the possibilities as you’re writing and you say, I’m going to take this deeper.

INTERVIEWER

Does it take you time to grasp all the implications, or does it all happen at once in the first draft?

TATE

It happens mostly in the first session. The growth of the poem and the major changes are always during the first. But this is something I’ve developed over time. Things were different in the beginning.

INTERVIEWER

How long does it take you to write a poem of about fifteen lines?

TATE

Somewhere between one and two hours.

INTERVIEWER

So you pause between lines.

TATE

Oh, absolutely. I’m not a fast writer. I write one line and then I’ll sit for ten or twenty minutes, thinking of the next move.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise a lot?

TATE

I used to revise a lot more. I revise now almost not at all. I mean, I do my revisions instantly. I work upstairs, I come downstairs with the finished poem, read the poem, and make the corrections right there. If there is a line that doesn’t sound right I work and work and work. Sometimes the whole poem gets abandoned because I can’t get the last line right. If I try ten different times and I haven’t gotten it right, then that poem is probably never going to make it. Because I don’t go back. I am always working on the next poem.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been teaching poetry now for years. How did you get started at that? 

TATE

After Iowa, I got a call from Mark Schorer at Berkeley. He invited me to come out there to teach. I had no ambitions to be an academic and I was humbled by my background, but I thought, Christ, I can’t say no to Berkeley. 

INTERVIEWER

You were supposed to teach creative writing?

TATE

And other things. I taught literature, believe me—I taught Alexander Pope. It was terrifying. I would stay up cramming the night before. But I really wasn’t into the whole Berkeley thing. I didn’t fit in with the fellow professors, especially the young ones. The young ones were ambitious beyond belief. I taught my classes. I was a good creative-writing teacher, and I had some good students. But I quit. I got in the car and I drove back to Kansas City. No job. I rented a big empty house in the center of town. I never did buy any furniture. I had an antique wheelchair and a mattress. I think that was all I ever had there, and it was a big house. One of my friends from college, the jazz musician, had moved to Kansas City. He played every night at a good steak house and I’d go listen to his quartet and eat dinner there practically every single night. 

INTERVIEWER

The poem “It’s Not the Heat So Much as the Humidity”—that’s from that time, right?

TATE

Yes. That was 1968, when I was working on The Oblivion Ha-Ha. I gave lots of readings during those early years, so I had a little income, and after about six months I went to Venice to visit Charles and Holly Wright. They were living there at the time and it was a very cool life. I stayed in a beautiful little apartment with parquet floors and marble fixtures. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you spend three or four hours a day thinking about poetry.

TATE

That’s just about always been true. I don’t plan ahead what I’m going to write, so I’m getting in the mood. One thing I do very well, if nothing else, is concentrate. I can just go into concentration and wash everything else out. That takes discipline. I think some younger poets aren’t able to do that. They are too scattered.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a form of meditation?

TATE

It is, very much. I’m sure it is not good for my circulation but I don’t even get out of my chair. I’m there. I’m parked. My eyes aren’t closed but I’m thinking of nothing else the whole time I’m writing. I’m not thinking, When I finish this I’ve got to go to the store and get milk! I’m not thinking anything.

INTERVIEWER

Were you doing that already in Venice?

TATE

I’m sure I was. I know for a fact that I went back after lunch and that’s all I did until dinner. Though I can’t remember if I wrote a single poem in Venice that I kept. In the time I’ve lived abroad, which is a total of two and a half years, I think I have written very few good poems. It’s hard for me to live abroad. I’m distracted and—you know, saying the obvious thing—I feel cut off from my language and it hurts. 

INTERVIEWER

You really like to have American English in the background. 

TATE

Yes. I like walking down the street overhearing conversations. I like standing in a bookstore and hearing conversations. I like all of that very much. So I moved back to the States. I had a job at Columbia but I chose to live in Cambridge, where I’d spent my summers while at Iowa. That first summer, I lived off Central Square and I didn’t know anybody, and after about two really painful months of hardly opening my mouth I went into the Grolier bookshop in Harvard Square, which I’d been haunting anyway, and I went up to the owner, Gordon Cairnie, and said, My name’s James Tate, I am the Yale Younger Poet winner. He went nuts. He introduced me to everybody that walked into the shop. I made friends right away, after two months of total solitude. Bill Corbett, Fanny Howe, Jim Randall—that was the hard-core group. It was a very literary gang. We talked nothing but books all night. There was a lot of heavy drinking, but it didn’t matter how much you’d had to drink, the book talk went on. It never stopped. We were literary one hundred percent. Undiluted.

INTERVIEWER

And home again in America, you wrote a lot again. I notice that back then you really liked three-line stanzas.

TATE

You could pack a lot into a three-line stanza, and then I would want it to bleed over into the next stanza—almost always. My first book is almost entirely in those three-line stanzas. And it’s also mostly syllabic. 

INTERVIEWER

You handled the line breaks extremely skillfully. Was all this done instinctively, or did you have some sort of rule? That was a big subject at the time—how does a poem in free verse break the lines?

TATE

I’m sure it was done instinctively, but that’s not to say that I didn’t have a lot of unarticulated ideas about it. You’re asking me forty years later. In class now, when people start talking about enjambment and line endings, I always shut them up. This is not something to talk about, this is a private matter, it’s up to the poet. But back then I had a lot of thoughts about these things. It was a matter of keeping the poem moving, of keeping the tension in the individual lines as well as between the stanzas.

INTERVIEWER

It’s also about timing, like telling a joke.

TATE

Oh, absolutely! Totally! It put a lot of emphasis on what I used to think of then as silence—the silence surrounding the poem, crouching in on the poem, actually.

INTERVIEWER

Your vocabulary is also striking. I noticed you have a huge open dictionary in the other room. Were you always a reader of dictionaries?

TATE

Yes. But I don’t want to exaggerate. I’ve always had second thoughts when I want to send the reader to a dictionary. Is it worth it for readers to come upon a word they don’t really know? I don’t like to do that.

INTERVIEWER

Instead, you find a word that we all kind of know, but don’t use.

TATE

That’s right. Not a word that you use every day. In fact you may not have ever used the word. But you vaguely know it. That’s the limit. I don’t want to go over that limit too much.

INTERVIEWER

There are wonderful word combinations in Hints to Pilgrims like “tomato soup light bulb”; “Zombies have electrocuted a cricket”; “Basketful of monkey affidavits”; “Cucumbers are cold and green like a junkie on a carousel.” And I love this: “A rug was too tired to fly.” And “I am the canary that
strangles itself with joy.” These things didn’t pop that way into your head. How were they composed? Was it through revision, tinkering with phrases?

TATE

I can’t recall precisely, but yes, there was a great deal of revision that went into all that. Though, I must say, when I was writing that book I actually didn’t even intend to publish it. Then a publisher asked me for something, and I decided I could put this book together, but I thought it was way too extreme. I was writing these poems, pushing language to the limit, for the sheer experience of it and to learn from it. My own poetry led me to that. When I was done with this book I decided to go back to more mainstream poetry. But I had learned whatever it was I had set out to learn.

INTERVIEWER

The funny thing is that many of those outrageous images now sound logical. In “Boomerang” and “Fuck the Astronauts” there are these gaps in the narrative and yet there’s a continuity despite the fragmentation. It seems to me that these sequences are some of the most experimental things you’ve done.

TATE

If you can master and sustain a tone that presumes it is a narrative, you can get away with murder. I remember in my courting days I read to a woman aloud, in the bedroom one day, the whole of “Amnesia People”—ten pages. And it sounded perfectly sane and normal and like a good narrative.

INTERVIEWER

There are lots of love poems in your early books. You’re one of our biggest love poets. There’s always a you—it’s not clear who she is—but it’s someone whom the speaker is enamored of. 

TATE

The yous were changing.

INTERVIEWER

What about satire? You have poems that are clearly satirical in intent. “The Chaste Stranger,” for instance, which begins with the line “All the sexually active people in Westport look so clean and certain.”

TATE

I’m sure I stumble into it now and then, but I don’t think of satire as a higher form. It’s something I might do, I guess, if I can’t do anything else. Though I don’t mean to put satire down, because obviously I enjoy both humor and seriousness too.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first start enjoying jokes? What did you listen to, what did you watch?

TATE

I watched all the same stuff that you did on TV—The Colgate Comedy Hour, Jimmy Durante, all the comedians of that day. One of the older ones who was still around at the beginning of television was Ben Blue. In high school, when I belonged to the Zoo Club, that’s how we related. Everything was humor. It probably was sexual, low-down humor, but nonetheless it was great fun. We had such an evolved slang, it would be wonderful to see it reproduced on the page. It is so hard to capture.

But in terms of writing, you can’t try to be humorous. I’ve had many poets in their forties and fifties say to me, I’d love to be like you. One of these days I’m going to write a humorous poem. And I think, No you’re not! You’re not! You’ve been writing for twenty-five years and you haven’t written one yet. You’re not suddenly going to write one. So I don’t think it’s something you try for. I’m just who I am. I can neither boast about it nor bemoan it. You can’t do anything about your character.

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe your comedy? What makes things funny?

TATE

Surprising juxtapositions, obviously, are a great thing. And reversals of expectations. I like starting with a man sitting on a bench with nothing going on, and then a woman walks by and his whole life changes and gets thrown into some kind of hideous upheaval that he could have never foreseen or dreamed of walking into. I like to start with the ordinary, and then nudge it, and then think, What happens next, what happens next? And it gets out of control, until in the end he is practically a person he never dreamed of being.

INTERVIEWER

All these characters have a first and a last name. It’s a bit like Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Small-town types. No city slickers.

TATE

I’ve spent the last thirty-four years in a small town. In fact, I will admit that with my last two books I’ve imagined that every character and every single event takes place in this town, Amherst. When I am sitting at my desk, I may picture the Connecticut River, or I may picture a certain lake nearby, or I may picture certain mountains that I’ve hiked along the ridge here, and I certainly picture downtown Amherst constantly, store by store. But I never mention Amherst by name. I wouldn’t want to, because I don’t want the poems to be particularly meaningful to anybody in that way. I want it to be any small town. But it helps me. I say, “So-and-so just came out of the bank.” I know exactly what bank. “He turned right and went down to the ice-cream shop.” I know what ice-cream shop.

INTERVIEWER

That’s funny. I can think of many different kinds of New England poets, but you don’t strike me even remotely as a New England poet. I would not associate your poems with that tradition. 

TATE

I’ve never particularly wanted to belong to any tradition. I’ve never particularly wanted to be a New England poet. I’ve never thought about it. I certainly would resist the idea that I was some kind of Midwestern poet—I’ve lived here longer than I ever lived there. I’m not looking to belong to any place. Just as I don’t really believe that Stevens belongs to any place, even if he writes about Hartford, Connecticut. I feel like Amherst, in fact, is no different from neighborhoods in New York. Someone who goes to the same grocery shop all the time and the same three or four restaurants in the neighborhood—that’s a small town. They’re having the same experiences I’m having here.

INTERVIEWER

If you have specific physical landscapes in mind when you write, do you have specific people in mind as well?

TATE

Almost never. Sometimes they represent types of people I know, but most of the time I don’t even bother with that. In general the characters are totally imaginary.

INTERVIEWER

Many of them give the impression of being confused. They are mystified by a lot that goes on around them. 

TATE

Aren’t you? I’ve been confused most of my life! My characters tend to be perplexed and befuddled and trapped in something they didn’t see coming. 

INTERVIEWER

They also seem to be afraid of the unknown. There are so many strange creatures in your last book: flesh-eating moths, dead men who are hungry, giant turkeys. How did that come about?

TATE

I feel like that’s the way most people are—aren’t they? Their lives are dominated a lot by fear and anxiety. 

INTERVIEWER

Is this the American condition?

TATE

I would presume it to be universal.

INTERVIEWER

“In My Own Backyard” has the phrase “Bivouacked between worlds.” Your people seem to be suspended that way, too, uncertain of their true identity or what they should be doing in life. It’s not a very pretty picture of ourselves.

TATE

I don’t think it’s bad myself. It may reveal a frailty, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. 

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t have a grand theory of where we went wrong?

TATE

Oh no. Oh, God no. In fact, I’m not even conscious of really going after Americans. I’m just going after humans.

INTERVIEWER

The characters in the new book long for miracles and pray for something wonderfully odd to happen. Why is that?

TATE

It’s just a really desperate hope. All evidence in the world is against miracles. And they’re going, Come on! Basically, they want to step out of their lives. They want to step out of one tired life into something new and unthinkable, something that is somehow going to be wonderful. I’m certainly not religious in any way. But I think a lot about the so-called spirit world and how it might shine on our own mortal selves. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe in God?

TATE

I believe that we’re made up of more components than we can understand, and that there is something beyond us. It doesn’t have to be God, but there is something beyond what we do understand, and we’re in an almost slavish position to it because we’re seeking its help to understand more, and we can’t.

INTERVIEWER

In your book Return to the City of White Donkeys, your vision is fuller than ever before, more complex, and yet some readers have questioned the prosody of the poems. They’re not really prose poems, because prose poems are paragraphs, and these have lines. But readers wonder, What is this? Is this poetry? What do we call it? How do we classify it?

TATE

I probably think of them as prose poems, but I don’t like those square little blocks that they always come in. When I was younger I might have had some prejudice against strict narrative, thinking it was some limited kind of endeavor. And then once I stumbled into these I kept thinking, Well, the challenge is to show that it’s not limited, that you can keep expanding what you can do within that form. My new poems are the most narrative I think I’ve ever been. 

INTERVIEWER

One thing that you did early on, and which you still try to do in your poems, is to move the reader deeply.

TATE

There is nothing better than that. I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best. If you laughed earlier in the poem, and I bring you close to tears in the end, that’s the best. That’s most rewarding for you and for me too. I want ultimately to be serious, but I can’t help the comic part. It just comes automatically. And if I can do both, that’s what I’m after.