Freewheeling North American Mammals: David Berman and James Tate in Conversation
David Berman: Do you see a lot of freewheeling North American mammals passing through your yard?
James Tate: [Laughs] Yes I do. I have a bear that frequents and deer. And fox. And I don't know what else because they come late at night when I'm sleeping.
DB: From your writing desk?
JT: Yes, as a matter of fact, I can see them from my writing desk. Bears frequently frolic right in front of me. They climb trees. They slap one another. They're parked right in front of my desk.
DB: Your essay, "The Route as Briefed," seems to be an account of your Kansas City childhood. What brought you to write it?
JT: I really wasn't consciously writing anything. I think I wanted to write that piece very much for myself. I wasn't thinking about publishing it.
DB: Did writing it un-jam or release anything into your poetry?
JT: No, not really. In fact, what I wanted to do was clear it out of my system and make sure it didn't get into my poetry.
DB: So what did the adults in your family do for jobs?
JT: Both my maternal grandparents were bankers. My grandfather rose up to be assistant treasurer of his bank, so he didn't get too high up for spending an entire life at it. And my grandmother worked at it as a part-time job. My mother worked as a secretary to various companies. Chrome Fixture, for one.
DB: When your father died in WWII, did the government help the family survive?
JT: Yes, I believe so. I don't really know the exact terms, but there was some sort of survivor's stipend.
DB: Did you get to go to college on the GI Bill because of that?
JT: As a matter of fact I did.
DB: How was your father spoken of around the house? Was he mentioned every day?
JT: When I was very young, I'd say he was. He was very present when I was four or five or six. And then he drifted away as my mother started to date. Then on the other hand, in 1977, when I was thirty-four and she came to visit me in Europe, she said, "I sure hope we meet your father here." She had the idea that he was still wandering around Europe.
DB: How did you feel about (the former) Axis powers when you were growing up?
JT: [Laughs] [Laughs more] Oh...I guess when I was very young I must have hated them. But you know it doesn't take too long by the time you reach your teen years that you realize how nations get into wars, and you soon sort of forgive them.
DB: Did you play war with other kids?
JT: [Laughs] Yes, I did.
DB: Were you particularly popular or unpopular as a teenager?
JT: Oh god...I was kind of in-between. I wasn't with the really popular kids, but I did all right with the slightly less popular kids.
DB: You mention a gang, "The Zoo Club," that you were a part of in high school. What merited membership in the group?
JT: You just had to be a wiseacre. And succeed in amusing some of the tough guys.
DB: Were there other gangs?
JT: Yeah, there were other gangs around but in other high schools. We were the only gang in our high school. There was a gang at every high school in Kansas City.
DB: How big were they?
JT: They could be anywhere from forty to eighty.
DB: Did everybody have nicknames? Weapons? Who was the leader?
JT: Yeah, there were weapons. We didn't really use them, but the leader of the gang stole a rifle from a police car and some of the rest of them had pistols, but no one ever used them.
Yes, everybody did have nicknames—animals and bugs and insects, things like that.
Oh, there was definitely a leader, one guy named Jeff Sharon who was just twenty times tougher than anybody. How he got to be that way, I don't know. He was something of a gangster but a really nice guy. Last time I saw him, he had circus lions lying about on his lawn. When I met him last time, I asked him if he had any kids, and he said he had a son but that he was in prison, and I said that was too bad, and he said, no, not for what he did.
DB: Were those concrete circus lions in his yard?
JT: I never actually saw them, but my impression is that they, you know, could still eat a man.
DB: Are you still in touch with any people from back then?
JT: I wouldn't say I was in touch, but I see certain people when I go back to Kansas City. Ron Stanley, known as Squid—he has a big ranch outside of Kansas City, and I see him occasionally. I also have a poem about him.
DB: Did you go to Fairyland Park?
JT: Yes, very much. Yeah, I really enjoyed Fairyland Park.
DB: When you left Kansas City at eighteen, how did the family take it?
JT: [Laughs] Well, I was going off to college and my gosh and that was a fantastic enough thing right there. It might have been the worst college in the world, but my family was pretty excited about it. And then I just kept going to college, and so they kept thinking it was pretty good.
DB: You worked in a movie theater? What films were showing that year?
JT: That's a good question. It was an art theater in Kansas City. The only one. The Trial by Kafka was playing there for quite a long time. All kinds of art theater films were shown that I had never seen before. It was a feast to me. I was supposed to be outside selling tickets, but I was always in the theater sneaking peeks.
DB: I was an usher at a Loew's in Plano, Texas, the summer of '86. My Trials were Short Circuit and Sweet Liberty, starring Alan Alda.
DB: So where did you live in the years between leaving Kansas City and arriving in Iowa City?
JT: Three years in Pittsburg, Kansas, going to college, and then I went to the University of Kansas City for one year, and then I went back to Pittsburg for one year, and then I went to Iowa.
DB: What was Pittsburg, Kansas, like? What is it like today?
JT: [Laughs.] Oh god.... there were a couple bars that were about one hundred years old and two or three places to eat. Chicken Annie's out in the countryside and a few places like that. Other than that, there wasn't much of a downtown. It was just a small place. The professors I had seemed happy enough to be there, and I immediately found a circle of friends, a small circle of friends. They were all artists of one sort or another. They were jazz musicians that had gone to Yale and been kicked out and a play director and an artist and a fiction writer. Those were the only friends I had, but they were enough.
DB: What kind of new ideas were you picking up? What were you reading?
JT: I was picking up ideas faster than I could process them because I was reading like crazy every which way. I was reading Rilke and Rimbaud. I didn't know much about contemporary poetry, that much is true, but I was reading all the European writers I could find, Dostoevsky...and I was reading them so fast that I'm not sure I was always getting the point.
DB: You said Dostoevsky. When I read The Underground Man in college, it was the funniest thing I'd ever read. My friends and I would recite passages and laugh hilariously. Was it funny to you?
JT: Yeah, it was very funny.
DB: Did you know you wanted to spend your life writing poetry before you were twenty-one?
JT: I knew when I was seventeen. I absolutely had a revelation the first month in college that I would spend my life doing this. I wasn't thinking about university teaching. I was thinking more about riding rails and living on the road and sleeping by bonfires at night.
DB: How did you know to go to Iowa City?
JT: I had two teachers who had been students, and both of them urged me go there. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't even apply. I just drove up there and met the receptionist, and she said Donald Justice is just back from vacation, and she called Donald Justice, and he came over and interviewed me and looked at my poems and said OK. I was blown away by this, but I also sort of expected it to go this way. I didn't know how the world functioned.
DB: Who were the writers around town then?
JT: Donald Justice, George Starbuck, Marvin Bell—and then later there was a visitor named Paul Carroll, who was kind of exotic and wonderful. And Kurt Vonnegut was there.
DB: What poets were you reading at that time?
DB: Did you meet any personal heroes who surprised or disappointed you?
JT: Oh god, this was during the time of Vietnam protests, so there were huge gatherings of poets, and I often tagged along as a buddy of one of my teachers, and I would go to these gatherings, and there I would meet people like James Wright and Robert Bly.
DB: Did you give a damn about Ezra Pound?
JT: [Laughs] That's a good question. You know I have to say in some ways I really didn't. I mean, in the deepest sense, because superficially I did. I also knew he was crazy, and I also thought The Cantos was somewhat impenetrable, so I read what a lot of people read—the short poems and the so-called translations. In terms of really caring, no, I didn't really care deeply about him.
JT: I met Charles Wright in 1965. He'd come back for an MA at Iowa, and my girlfriend was a friend of his girlfriend, and that's how we met. We soon became great friends. I met Charles Simic in 1968 at a huge poetry festival in Stonyville, New York, and we became sort of fast friends almost immediately. We read everything the same, we seemed to be pursuing many of the same objectives. Although our poetry was different, we shared the same deep love for poetry.
DB: How about Russell Edson?
JT: Russell Edson and I were thrown together for poetry readings I would say as early as 1968, and I would say we hit it off. I don’t know what he would say, but I really loved him and included him in my tight pack of hearts.
DB: Was he reclusive? Could he relax in the world?
JT: Yes, he was reclusive, and no, he couldn't relax in the world.
DB: What are your thoughts on Kenneth Koch?
JT: Well, he wrote a lot of stuff and a lot of it is really fantastic. I only knew him a little bit toward the end of his life, and he was very friendly and wonderful.
DB: Was Henry Miller important to you? How did he square up against, say, Jack Kerouac when you were young?
JT: Well, Henry Miller meant a lot to me when I was very young; his books were really exciting. I'd never read anything like them in my life, and I supposed they would be exciting today, but I never put him up against Jack Kerouac; they were in two different worlds.
DB: My favorite poems in your last five books are, for me, the best poems written during my own adulthood. Since I left grad school, you've written five books of poetry, and I've written one. I must have been sick the day you revealed your secrets for artistic potency.
JT: [Laughs] My love for poetry has never flagged since it first started when I was seventeen and that definitely includes writing, you know, almost every day that I can. Of course there are days when you can't, but I try to write every day, and my love for poetry grows deeper and deeper with each passing year. So I say, David, get with it.
DB:What do you think it means that the common man can now get a hold of correct atomic time with cheap devices that get the time beamed in from somewhere?
JT: [Laughs] [Laughs a little more] He doesn't have an excuse to be late.
DB: You've mentioned before your love of maps. Have you seen Google Earth or used a GPS?
JT: No I haven't, but I know people who have.
DB: In a 1982 interview, you said, "The I, of course is never autobiographical." Twenty-eight years later, I ask you: isn't your poetry at least 5 percent autobiographical?
JT: I'd say 1 percent.
DB: You've often mentioned a mood a poet gets into where you're very alert to language and the world at the same time, and suddenly, joyfully, commonplace things and situations can be discerned to have poetic implications to the active mind.
JT: Yeah, go on.
DB: What about the opposite? Where everything has nightmare implications, and the mind is highly suggestive to all kinds of dread, shame, struggle, fear. What is that? Can many of your mid-career poems be called, metaphorically, "bad trips"? "Deaf Child Playing" for instance?
JT: Well, I don't think so, I think you probably ought to not write when you're in that mood. Unless you know, you're Arthur Rimbaud or something.
DB: Can you stop writing poems long enough to do things like put together a selected or collected, which you've never done?
JT: I don't really want to stop writing poems, and I'd always choose to keep writing them over some greater task in front of me.