“Discovering” James Tate

Well, the Pulitzer Prize winner is new to me at least. Or, I should say, his words are.

I had heard of him from the blurb on Actual Air and I knew from reading interviews that David Berman had studied with him at UMass. But I had never seen a word he had written or said until last week when I couldn’t sleep and I scrolled through the Paris Review interview archives for something to read, as I am wont to do in such moments of overtired energy.

I was struck by the simplicity of his poetic origin story:

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.

I find this anecdote, even if he is just being humble, to be incredibly empowering. A) It doesn’t matter if you didn’t decide from early on that you wanted to write. You can just pick it up and if you like it, you can start teaching yourself. You don’t need credentials or pretensions. B) When you’re writing a poem, you’re the boss. If you don’t think mountain is quite right, you can cross it out and put in valley.

Now I’ve just got to read some of his poems.

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One Response to “Discovering” James Tate

  1. Pingback: Google’s Tracing My Movements From Point A To Point B? | Component Parts

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