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.
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”?
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.
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.
I was aware of the fact that I was repeating a well-known idea. Adding “horseshit” to it made it a bit more distinctive.
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?
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.
So for you tragedy and comedy are not separate?
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.
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?
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.