An Interview With Poet James Tate

Nick Twemlow

The short story collection Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee, to be published later this month by Verse Press—the nonprofit literary publisher that also publishes the triannual literary poetry journal Verse—represents a significant shift in focus for poet James Tate. The author of numerous books of poetry, including Worshipful Company of Fletchers (Ecco Press), which won a National Book Award in 1997, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems (1991), Tate has tackled a new genre, as well as a new way of thinking about writing.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Tate, who teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, about the distinctions he makes between writing prose and poetry.

James Tate: [Writing prose] is a very different mode altogether. I really can't even mingle the two. I'm either doing one or the other. When I was doing the prose I didn't write any poetry for some time. And when I'm writing poetry—or as I'm writing now, prose poems—I don't write anything else. I'm just in that one mode exploring that form, exploring that genre, as much as I'm capable.

P&W: Is there a difference, in your mind, between a prose poem and a short, short story, such as the ones in your new collection? How would you define this difference?

JT: Even though the stories in this book that's coming out are relatively short, there's still something a little more relaxed in their method, in the pursuit of where they're going. They have a little more time to expand. In the prose poems, they may have qualities of fiction, that's for sure. The ones I'm writing now are pretty narrative, but I limit myself in space so that I am forced into a tremendous compression. It's pressure on development: how you're going to get where you go. In a story you can be just a little bit more circuitous. In the prose poem it really has to be ... every single thing has to be contributing to the ultimate goal, which ... I don't know what it is until I get there. [Laughs.]

P&W: What attracted you to a small press, and Verse Press in particular?

JT: I like the people they've started off publishing: Matthew Rohrer, Joshua Beckman, Joe Wenderoth, and Peter Richards. I know Matthew Zapruder [co-founder of Verse Press] and he's an extremely competent man, thorough man, who's very quickly learned the business and I know he cares very much about his authors and his authors' wishes. So I just felt like I'd be in very good hands.

P&W: How has the editing process been for Dreams of Robot Dancing Bees?

JT: Matthew just makes it all very comfortable. We live near each other so we can actually meet, which is great. There hasn't been a lot of necessity for that, but whenever there has been I just drive a couple of miles and we get together and talk it out, and you can't beat that. I've been treated very well by Ecco Press, that's for sure, but you basically never talk to anyone. Somehow the book comes out and looks good. [Laughs.]

P&W: Do you anticipate writing more fiction, a novel perhaps, or something completely different: A play, or is it back to poems?

JT: I'm very happy where I am right now. I seem to be productive and I seem to have found a challenge in what I'm doing and it doesn't seem to be coming to an end. You kind of know when you start to repeat yourself and it's time to stop and I feel like I'm far from there at this time. I don't have any sense of wanting to turn away to something else. A novel would be great if you really have one in you but I'm not so sure I do. I think I like to move around too much; committing myself to one thing for two, three years, I think I'd feel a little claustrophobic. I admire those novelists who can do it and really write good things.

P&W: When you were writing the stories, were you reading a lot of fiction?

JT: Not particularly. I mean I'm always reading fiction but that's not what got me going, no. It started by accident. I wrote a really short one—a little two- to three-page thing and I liked it. It just had something in it that was very different, and I got to dig down into a part of my brain. My poems aren't particularly ... I mean the ones I'm working on now are, but previously I wouldn't call my poems anecdotal or storytelling per say.

So I wrote this little thing that had an actual little narrative to it, characters and dialogue and stuff. It was very short but I liked it. I thought, 'God that's something I've not allowed myself to do, to develop realistic characters like that, realistic dialogue, actual situations.' I didn't think too much of it. A couple weeks or a month later I wrote another one, and I went, 'Yeah, I must have a lot of that in me.' I've never really dug into that particular corner of my brain and heart, so then I wrote a third one and then I was hooked. I said, 'That's it. I'm putting poetry aside.' And so I just went for it and just kept doing it and was addicted to it for a while, and kept exploring that and seemed to really like it, seemed to really love dragging up these characters that I'd never known I wanted to work with.

And as I say, the dialogue and the situations and where they led and the pursuit ... the ultimate pursuit is really no different than a poem. It's really the same thing. You want to go someplace you haven't been and you want to uncover some kind of-I don't know if I want to say truth or illumination or epiphany, but something. And so that's much the same as a poem: You don't know where you're going and you hope to reach, as I say, some kind of truth or epiphany. So ultimately the journey's the same, it's just different methods.