i n t e r v i e w w i t h j a m e s t a t e
M I K E M A G E E
I MAKE A CALL TO MY OLD STOMPING grounds in Western Massachusetts, my
old area code, where James Tate lives. Among poets who have been
"mainstreamed" Tate is something of an anomaly: the Pulitzer Prize winning
poet with the non-Pulitzer Prize winning style. He is 55. At 23 his
first book, The Lost Pilot, was selected for the Yale Younger
Poet's series. After winning the Pulitzer for Selected Poems, he
received the National book Award for Worshipful Company of
Fletchers. To say that his absurdist, paratactic poems are out of
place in the conservative world of big press, big prize poetry is
something of an understatement. A poem about the Pope can begin, "Any
poodle under ten inches high is a toy." Another poem is entitled, "Little
Poem with Argyle Socks," and in his new book, just out from The Ecco
Press, one begins, "My felisberto is handsomer than your mergotroid."
Tate seems willing to take his poems anywhere they want to go.
MM: I'm curious to ask you about Kansas City.I know that you
mention Charlie Christian in "Happy as the Day is Long," and I know that
he was part of the Oklahoma City to Kansas City circuit in the Count Basie
era, and then played with Charlie Parker; and I was wondering if that was
a tradition that influenced you as a poet or that you've been interested
in over the years.
JT: I love jazz. I love Kansas City jazz. But it doesn't
translate into poetry. I've always been interested in Kansas City,
Charlie Parker, and so on, and seeing performances in the early years,
going to jazz clubs.
MM: In Kansas City?
JT: Yeah, five or six nights a week. I loved hanging around
jazz musicians after hours.
MM: What about the culture in particular was so interesting?
JT: Oh, I guess, I haven't really thought about it, but, first
of all total passion for what they did; they would get off work and just
go for hours. And I think that, to put it in a really broad way, I think
I really liked that they had nothing to do with the straight world, that
they were just complete outlaws - not trying to be, they just were. They
didn't dislike anyone else, because that was their audience. They had to
appreciate all the people that came to hear them and all that. But they
themselves just lived in a very specialized world - devoted to their art,
and had no commerce with the kind of ordinary citizens world. So that's
just kind of a broad way of saying it.
MM: I took a look back at this essay I really like by Ralph
Ellison on Charlie Christian. In this essay he says, "because jazz finds
its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the
jazz man must lose his identity even as he finds it." I agree that
there's no literal translation between the music and the writing but
somehow this seems not unlike the speakers in some of your poems who are
always involved in very complex shifts in how they're positioning
themselves in the world, shifts in their identity in a sense. So in that
broad sense of a speaker who is improvising who he is. There seems some
kind of connection.
JT: Yeah, I think that's fair enough.
MM: Do think about that as your writing, a character speaking
himself as an improvisation? I wonder about those moments where things
seem to get said out of no logic in particular.
JT: Well, I'm definitely improvising, but, you know, sometimes
that's misunderstood, I mean, improvising isn't an easy thing. I'm
improvising, I don't know where I'm going, I don't know where I'm going
when I start. I hear a voice, most often. And each line in actually a
quite difficult way points to the next line. But it doesn't matter
whether it takes two hours to get to the next line.
MM: And so its not what we would traditionally think of as a
logical connection between sentence and sentence but some sort of other
linguistic connection perhaps, or just something more intuitive?
JT: Intuitive, deep character. I want my characters to be
discovering something worthwhile, something surprising, something not such
a given. I don't want to take a character and have him fill out a cliché
about himself. My characters usually are - or, I'd say most often, I
don't want to generalize too much - but most often they're in trouble, and
they're trying to find some kind of life. I struggle as least as hard as
they do (laughs).
MM: And so that sense of danger means that the stakes for
what's going to get said are pretty high.
MM: Some of the poets I've talked to about your work see the
last two books as a sort of departure - the myth of the "break in one's
career." Do you think that there's much merit to that?
JT: Yeah I do.
MM: In what way?
JT: God, I don't know - no, I mean I'll try and think about
it. I've been aware of it myself and I haven't articulated it.
MM: One of the things that's occurred to me is that there's a
move further out perhaps into the absurd, but also a more paratactic
aspect to the way sentences link up, more non-sequiters. I think of the
poem with the eland from Teaneck, New Jersey which seems like something
you might no have written ten years ago.
JT: No, I couldn't have. That was a poem of great release for
me. I was totally delighted to write that poem. It's really hard to talk
about these things, but, just a big letting go - you know, you've got the
idea don't be afraid of it. In that poem I actually at some point felt I
could go anywhere - of course I couldn't but, you know I had that…the idea
of this eland watching television on Teaneck, New Jersey, who's obsessed
with First Ladies (laughter).
MM: Right, you've got to not censor that.
JT: Exactly. Get rid of your censors. And then, you know,
not unlike so many of my poems, the poem takes a turn late in the poem and
gets serious and sad and real, and I think its moving, myself.
JT: You know? But getting there was amazing.
MM: There seems to be a way in which animals free up that
censoring function in your work, although animals seem also to be
something that has been around all along.
JT: Yeah but they're getting better (laughter). I have a
talking dog in that book.
MM: Right. They show up in your poems quite a bit, even in
the first books. Is that something that's a real life interest?
JT: Oh, it's a true life interest. I made a trip to San Diego
just to hang out with some lemurs.
JT: Well, I was in love with lemurs and I was visiting them at
every zoo I could go to and then I realized that Sand Diego had a good
population and serious primate people there and I got permission to go and
talk to their people and get as close as I could to the lemurs. The won't
let you hold them because you have to get certain shots.
MM: What is it about lemurs in particular?
JT: Do you know anything about them? They're just fabulous.
They're the most wonderful primates imaginable. They're only in
Madagascar and they're endangered like most things, you know. The people
cut down forests, killing them because they have superstitions about them
because they have these long fingers that they point and the natives think
that means your going to die, if they point at you. But their very, very
gentle creatures. They constantly hug each other. They have these long,
long tails. Anyway, no, I don't want to make a big deal out of this. I'm
a normal person who happens to like animals a lot. I don't want to get
too self-conscious about how they get in my poems because that'll, you
know, stop me.
MM: Right, right.
JT: I'm just a normal person in all other regards except for
my particular love for lemurs (laughter).
MM: Well, I don't want to belabor it either, we may as well
move along. This is more biographical. I was curious about your time in
Iowa and whether you encountered anyone there who turned out to have a big
influence on you and what that time was like.
JT: Well, I'm not gonna say anyone but I'll just say this: I
was fresh out of undergraduate school and I had been trying to be a poet
for four years and I hadn't written very well - and I was very aware of
that. I was a passionately devoted young poet but I was totally
disappointed with what I was able to write. Just before I left
undergraduate school I started to get somewhere. There were a couple of
poems where I said, well, that's beginning to be something. Then I went
to Iowa and the most profound experience I had I think was just running
into all these other people who wanted to be poets. That was incredible
to me. I had been totally isolated. I knew jazz musicians, I knew a
painter or two, I knew an actor, and that's about it.
MM: Poets were absent from the landscape.
JT: Totally, I mean I was in Pittsburgh, Kansas, for God's
sake! (laughter) I didn't regret being there but I just didn't know any
poets. But just running into this place where there were a hundred people
- well, that's an exaggeration, a hundred writers altogether but maybe
fifty or sixty poets - of differing ages. Most were young but some were
older. They came from all different kinds of backgrounds. And quite
frankly that initial encounter was the most incredible thing of all. And
also the fact that I had an audience, also the fact that you could finish
a poem at ten o'clock at night and go down to a bar and there were five
people who were ready to read your poem and give it a serious reading.
That was a wonderful experience, really wonderful. That really excited me
and I'm sure it hastened my development considerably. there's no question
about it. Just having the audience and knowing that poetry was a real
thing and that you didn't have to be a vagabond, which is what I had
imagined (laughter). I thought you'd probably have to starve to death
your whole life and, you know, hop trains and sleep in railroad yards and
MM: Another Kansas City motif.
JT: Oh I was ready to do that. I really thought that that was
what you had to do and that's what I was gonna do. I really did, I didn't
know any better, and that's what I wanted to do. Not that I wanted to be
a bum but I wanted to write poems and I was determined to do it.
MM: Yeah, I mean that seems important to me - in a way its a
happy accident that you didn't know. To get yourself in a certain mindset
JT: That's right. That's right. I was ready to go the
distance. And pay the price. I never expected to be a teacher, I never
expected, you know, anything. I just was totally devoted and
passionate about poetry. And suddenly there were all these people and, I
don't know, that just was great. I think it produces a kind of hothouse
effect where you grow more quickly than you might on your own. So I think
that was probably the most important thing. And I immediately started
writing better poems, I mean just immediately and, so insult to my
teachers, but it didn't really have anything to do with them. Definitely
no insult to them, they were fine teachers. I was just ready to go in a
MM: And so then all of a sudden you're twenty-four, you have a
book out, and you're in an English Department. What was that like?
JT: Exactly. Well, I took the book publishing pretty
gracefully quite frankly. I immediately told myself some stuff. I
immediately said, don't do what everybody else wants you to do, don't
listen to critics, remain totally true to poetry and that's the only thing
you're gonna do. Wherever it takes you that's the only thing you're gonna
do. You're going to write poems and you're going to grow according to
your own sense of growing. And I did that, I mean I really did. I got a
lot of praise for that book and didn't listen to it - because people were
saying you know, "Write The Lost Pilot again, write The Lost
Pilot again," and I just knew better than that. I said, nope, that
book is done and I'm going to try to do something else, as much as I can.
And, when I say I was graceful about it I mean I had readings all over the
country and I didn't let that go to me head. Somehow I just walked into
it. I just said, okay. I did it. And in terms of teaching, that was
totally weird because it was Berkeley, and it was big time serious -
serious in the sense that they took themselves so goddamn serious.
MM: This is the late '60's right?
JT: Yeah. And I just didn't take it to seriously. As long as
I was doing it I wanted to be a good teacher. I was so young it was
ridiculous, but I was trying to be a good teacher. I wasn't full of any
self-importance - on the contrary, I was really uncomfortable and wanted
out. And the year I got out they invited me to stay, its was Berkeley,
and I was actually unimpressed because I had never aspired to be an
academic and didn't aspire to be one. So, I just quit…I hope I…from the
few former students I've ever run into I think I may have been a good
teacher, I don't know. I assume I was, I tried, but California wasn't for
me. I spent half the year in San Francisco which was great. I got to
know some poets in the scene that was still going on there, Robert Duncan,
and Thom Gunn - I knew poets across the board. So that was interesting
but I didn't feel like I belonged there. I sub-letted a professors house.
It was pretty, pretty, pretty. You know, I mean it was pretty! But I
really didn't feel I belonged there and I left and I came back unemployed
to Kansas City for about nine months and then I took off.
MM: Has Western Massachusetts changed your writing (I'm from
Greenfield so I'm curious).
JT: Oh, really? I actually don't think that…
MM: That geography is all that…
JT: …that geography matters to me much. In fact when I was
young, I'll tell you this, going back to Kansas City, right after my first
book was published there was a review in the Kansas City Star, and the
headline was something like, "Will Tate Leave the Midwest" (laughter).
And my immediate response was, fuck you!
MM: They wanted you to be a regionalist!
JT: Yeah, I mean, there was no way I was gonna be that.
Every now and then some Kansas City idea or some Kansas City tone or
something might enter a poem, but I'm not interested in regionalism of
any sort. And so I don't think that New England has impacted on my
writing at all, just as the Midwest barely, barely has, only in a few
poems in my whole life.
MM: What about poetic influences? Among modernists, or before
that, or among your contemporaries?
JT: I don't think anything influences me, it never has. I
fell in love early on with William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, as
the great modernists to me. Obviously you could name others, but those
were the twin pillars for me. And I don't particularly think…let me put
it this way: I've not been influenced by either one. As a young, young,
young man, when I first came upon those two poets, I went, thank God that
we can write in the language of our time. Whether it be objective
description or musing in our heads. We just talk in the language of our
MM: That sense of the vernacular that comes so much into
JT: Yeah, exactly. But this encounter was when I was eighteen
years old. So that was just a release for me. I actually can't say I was
influenced by either one, except to be…
MM: In attitude perhaps rather than in style.
JT: Yeah. For a sense to live in my own time and find my own
language to speak about it. But I have many, many loves through out my
reading life and I don't really think they ever did anything to my poetry
in any direct way that I can tell. I'd be happy to confess them if I knew
them. I just don't think they get in there.
MM: I think of certain people who remind me from time to time
of your work but it's not so much in style - the way your poems sound is
so unique - but certainly in attitude, in the sense that you allow
yourself to speak in a vernacular voice, that you can digress. I mean
they remind me of other poets influenced by Williams - so someone like
O'Hara who seems always willing to say what needs to be said when it needs
to be said. And so in that sense its much more about an attitude about
what poetry should be and what it can be. Does that make sense?
MM: I was thinking that it might be interesting - although it
may not be interesting to you - to talk for a moment about the politics of
poetry. I was curious to see, when the Norton Anthology of Postmodern
Poetry came out, that you weren't in it. Which wouldn't be so
surprising since these things are political, who edits them and these
things. But to see Russell Edson and not to see your work: there are many
similarities there, and if anything I'd say your work is the more
typically postmodern as that word gets thrown around. So I was curious to
know what you thought about that, whether it was just a matter of who
knows who and nothing more than that?
JT: I just think its the trends of the time. And its somewhat
because I was in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetrysince way
back, I think the early seventies. And I was in there and Charles Simic
wasn't, Charles Wright wasn't, and Russell Edson wasn't, and why me? I
didn't know why. And now I'm not in this thing. And I don't even own that
anthology. I've looked at it once and I know that multiculturalism swept
over its editors and they were perhaps pressured to make that kind of
anthology, and I was perhaps one who could be tossed out. But it doesn't
matter to me. I am not - really - ever hurt by that kind of thing.
MM: It was interesting to me only because it does seem to be
fruitful to think of this issue of postmodernism only in the sense that
time changes the way we speak and write. And it reminds me, in thinking
of your poems, of this thing that Robert Duncan says in this essay which I
like quite a bit called "The Self in Postmodern Poetry." He describes how
postmodern writing to him is marked by an emphasis on "the importance of
whatever happens in the course of writing as revelation." And that seemed
interesting in relation to your work.
JT: I like that.
MM: Is that applicable to the typical process by which one of
your poems gets written?
JT: I start usually with not a fully developed idea at all,
and then praying and working for a genuine revelation…Another good thing
that happens [when you allow yourself to stop writing in the middle an
pick up the next day] is that the next day you're another person - you
know, you are.
MM: Time changing and yourself changing.
JT: Yeah, and so you may have come up against a brick wall the
day before but the next day you go there and you look at that and you go,
no, no, no, I want to go this direction. And you start taking in it a
slightly different direction than you thought you were going. And that
frees you up quite often and gets you into a new territory.
MM: And the poem can be more material in that sense because
its about the way that time affects body and attitude.
JT: Right, exactly. You've had experiences, you've had dreams,
you've had idle thoughts, you know. So that's what I meant by being a new
person. You look at the fifteen lines you wrote the day before and you
have a different idea. Whereas when you quit the day before you thought
you were out of ideas.
MM: Yeah, I think of a poem like "How the Pope is Chosen."
So, first of all, you start with a line which, in terms of a title like
that, is totally counter intuitive: "Any poodle under ten inches high is a
toy" (laughter). Which I love. But that poem seems tonally to change
quite a bit from the beginning to the end.
JT: Just like the eland poem that you referred to. It has all
its fun - you know when I read that poem publicly it gets laughs and all
that - and then I think at some fairly late-ish point in the poem it
turns. And I take it into serious territory. I think. All that other
stuff then looks like it was preparatory to getting there.
MM: Do you think much about the role that humor is playing in
your poem, maybe we can end on that.
JT: Believe it or not - and I can tell from talking to you
that you will believe me - I've never in my life laughed at the
typewriter. I've never thought of reading a poem publicly - though
obviously I get around to doing it later - but I never think of reading a
poem. I'm not a comedian, I'm not a performance artist. I'm not thinking
about that I'm just thinking about the poem.
MM: And yet you seem to think that there are moments in your
poems that are very funny.
JT: Well I do, yeah. But I don't do it when I'm writing. I'm
just totally concentrating. But sure I do. I mean I would be phony to
deny that I fine some of them funny, and some of them maybe even
hilarious. But that doesn't go on when I'm sitting there. I know its hard
to believe - I don't mean for you - but people they go, how can you write
that and not know its funny? Well…I'm just not thinking about humor, I'm
thinking about writing. It's strange I know.
MM: Well, but writing gets generated and it does humorous
things. I mean not on its own, that's a little too mystic, but just
because of what it is somehow.
JT: I think its so hard to get from line to line that humor
just doesn't occur to me. And yet I know they're funny later. Yeah, now
we get into mystic areas. I can't even explain it, I really can't.
MM: That actually makes perfect sense to me.
JT: I actually think that this thing we do, yourself included,
is so damned hard. The logic of the piece itself, you know? Each piece
creates its own logic. You know what I mean. It just does, a toally
original logic and how that, in some of my poems such as "How the Pope was
Chosen," how you can go from the practically slapstick, funny, silly
humor, building, building, building, to the point where the poem gets, not
just serious, but downright scary. And then in the very last line, out of
nowhere except the inner logic, tender. Of course the Pope had become a
total monster before that.
MM: Right. Well, and something about the getting from line to
line. It's treacherous (laughter). So it's funny the way that tightrope
walking is funny.
JT: Exactly. We just don't want to fall off. We hate to fall
off. It hurts.