March 1926, 1998
Interview by Mike Magee
You mention jazz occasionally in your poems. Does that artform influence your work?
I love jazz. I love Kansas City jazz. But it doesn't translate into poetry. I've always been interested in Charlie Parker and several others. When I was living in Kansas City I'd go see shows five or six nights a week. I loved hanging around jazz musicians after hours.
What about it?
The total passion for what they did. They would get off work and just play 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 complete outlawsnot trying to be, they just were. They lived in a very specialized worlddevoted to their art, and had no commerce with the kind of ordinary citizens world. That's just kind of a broad way of saying it.
The speakers in some of your poems experience shifts in identity; almost like they're improvising who they are. There are also moments where things seem to get said for no reason in particular. Is there a connection between that kind of improvisation and jazz improvisation?
Well, I'm definitely improvising, but, you know, sometimes that's misunderstood. I mean, improvising isn't an easy thing. I'm improvisingI don't know where I'm going, 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.
Is it just intuitive?
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 are usually in trouble, and they're trying to find some kind of life. I struggle as least as hard as they do. [laughs]
I've noticed in your more recent work that there's a move further out perhaps into the absurd and more non sequiturs. For example, the poem with the eland [giant antelope] from Teaneck, NJ
It's really hard to talk about these things, but in that poem I actually felt I could go anywhereof course I couldn't, but, you know, I had the idea of this eland watching television in Teaneck, NJ, who's obsessed with First Ladies [laughter]
You've got to turn off your internal censors to get where you're going
Exactly. Get rid of your censors. And then, you know, not unlike so many of my poems, the poem takes a turn and gets serious and sad and real. But getting there was amazing.
There seems to be a way in which animals free up that censoring function in your work. They show up often in your poems. Are they a personal interest?
Yes. I recently made a trip to San Diego just to hang out with some lemurs. I was in love with lemurs and I was visiting them at every zoo I could go to and then I realized that San 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. They won't let you hold them unless you have certain shots.
What do you like about lemurs?
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. Natives kill them because of their superstitions. The lemurs have these long fingers and if they point them at you, the natives think it means you're going to die. But lemurs are very, very gentle creatures. They constantly hug each other. 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. I'm just a normal person in all other regards except for my particular love for lemurs. [laughter]
Do you think much about the role that humor plays in your poems?
Believe it or not I've never in my life laughed at the typewriter. I'm not a comedian. I'm not a performance artist. I'm not thinking about that. I'm just thinking about the poem.
And yet you seem to think that there are moments in your poems that are very funny.
It would be phony to deny that I find some of them funny, but that doesn't go on when I'm sitting there. I know it's hard to believe, but people say How can you write that and not know it's funny? Well I'm just not thinking about humor. I'm thinking about writing. I think it's 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. Each piece creates its own logic. In some of my poems, such as "How the Pope was Chosen," you can go from the practically slapstick, funny, silly humor, building, building, building, to the point where the poem gets downright scary. And then in the very last line, out of nowhere, tender.
So getting from line to line is treacherous. It's funny the way that tightrope walking is funny.
Exactly. We just don't want to fall off. We hate to fall off. It hurts.
James Tate will be reading on Thursday, March 19, at 5 p.m. at the Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, 573-WRIT.