James Tate

James Vincent Tate was born on December 8, 1943 in Kansas City, Missouri. Tate attended Kansas State College and The University of Missouri. He then enrolled in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and received his M.F.A in 1967. In his first year at Iowa, his early collection of poems “The Lost Pilot” won the Yale Younger Poets Award, making Tate the youngest poet to ever receive the award. Tate went on to publish over 17 books of poetry and three books of prose. Some of his works include “The Oblivion Ha Ha,” “Absences” and “Selected Poems” which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the William Carlos Williams Award. His 1995 collection “Worshipful Company of Fletchers” won the National Book Award. Some of Tate’s other achievements include a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2001, Tate was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Tate’s poems have appeared in several magazines, including The American Poetry Review, Kayak, and The Seneca Review. Alongside his writing career, Tate has held teaching positions at the University of Iowa (1966-1967), the University of California at Berkeley (1967-1968), Columbia University (1969-1971), and Emerson College in Boston (1970-1971). Since 1971, Tate has taught poetry at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Early Life

When he was less than a year old, Tate’s father, a B-17 co-pilot during the Second World War, was killed on a bombing mission over Germany on April 11, 1944. “The Lost Pilot” was written for his father, and explores how this event shaped Tate as a writer. This collection is widely considered the most autobiographical of his work. He spent his first seven years living with his mother and grandparents in Kansas City. In an interview with Charles Simic for The Paris Review (read the entire interview here) he remembers that time as “heaven,” recalling the “sweetness” of his grandmother and all of his playmates. When Tate’s mother began a string of unsuccessful marriages they moved out of his grandparent’s home. He looks back on those moments living with his mother as very lonely but “I don’t really want to complain” he says “because it forced me to be very inventive, to daydream.”

Nothing about Tate’s childhood indicates a burgeoning desire to write poetry. “I basically didn’t read anything” he says when recalling his high school days. He admits to never reading a page of Moby Dick, despite his having given a report on it in his Senior English class. In high school Tate was a member of a gang: “We called ourselves the Zoo Club. I don’t know how much of a gang it was, though. There was always rumbling about, […]But usually nothing ever came of it” he says. Tate prepared for what he considered “an honorable profession” as a gas station attendant. No one in his family had attended college before him and he wasn’t planning on being the first until he found out that nearly all of his friends from the Zoo Club would be leaving for college the fall after graduation. He panicked and applied to a school that was bound to accept him, Kansas State College. He began his education there in 1961 and “within about two months” Tate says “I wrote my first poem.” After that, Tate consumed literature manically, not just poems, but fiction and philosophy. “It was falling out of my ears” he says “I surely couldn’t understand it all.” These were the formative years, when a professor who took an interest in him gave him the Wallace and Stevens books that “were the cornerstones of everything” according to Tate.

Tate spent his summers travelling in Europe, to New Orleans and New York City working in a pharmaceutical warehouse, as a bartender, and almost on an oil rig. Despite all of the adventure, none of Tate’s writing from that time survived. He graduated from Kansas State University with his B.A. in 1965.

James Tate and Iowa City

In an excerpt from The Paris Review’s interview with James Tate, Charles Simic asks Tate how he ended up in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and in Iowa City:


Did you have any ideas about what you were going to do after college? 


One of my teachers had been to Iowa, and toward the end of my senior year he started saying that I really should go too. I didn’t apply, but I drove up and walked into the office and said, I’d like to go to school here. This was in August and—this is unbelievable, but true—the secretary said, Donald Justice is just back from vacation, I’ll call him and see if he’ll come over. And—can you believe it? —he came over on the spot. I didn’t know Justice at all, but now that I do, I can’t believe he did that. I wouldn’t have done it. So he came over, I handed him ten or twelve poems, and he said, All right, you’re in. 

So, Tate began his time in Iowa City. He tells Simic that “the glorious part about Iowa for me was that I’d never met another poet, so in the first few months I was amazed by how many different kinds of people wanted to be poets. I thought, God! I’ve been living out there alone all these years and all of these other people were doing it too.”

In his second semester at Iowa, “The Lost Pilot” won the Yale Younger Poets series award. He was twenty-two years old and the youngest poet to date to win the award:


[…]I got a letter from Dudley Fitts, who was in charge of the prize. I thought nothing that the stationery was from Yale. I read the letter standing in the post office. I didn’t understand it. I read it again. It literally took me three or four times to understand that I’d won. I couldn’t believe it. It was unreal. I was twenty-two.


That must have been big news to tell your friends at school. 


Yes, but it changed things. I thought about dropping out. Then I thought, Nah, go ahead and get your degree. I moved out into the country. I rented a little shack about fourteen miles away from Iowa City and became a hermit.

Iowa was the springboard for his career and his time here marked a period of prolific publication for Tate. “When I got to Iowa, everything clicked and I started writing good poems right away – one after the other, at least one a week” he says. He was consistently being published in magazines like kayak and The Atlantic Monthly among others.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Iowa City is not a fixture in Tate’s writing. In a 1998 interview with Mike Magee he discusses the influence of geography in his work:


I don’t think […] that geography matters to me much. In fact when I was young, I'll tell you this, going back to Kansas City, right after my first book was published there was a review in the Kansas City Star, and the headline was something like, "Will Tate Leave the Midwest" (laughter). And my immediate response was, fuck you!


They wanted you to be a regionalist!


Yeah, I mean, there was no way I was gonna be that. Every now and then some Kansas City idea or some Kansas City tone or something might enter a poem, but I'm not interested in regionalism of any sort. And so I don't think that New England has impacted on my writing at all, just as the Midwest barely, barely has, only in a few poems in my whole life.

His Poetry

James Tate’s writing is often described as “difficult to describe.” Poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia succinctly defines Tate as a writer who managed to “domesticate surrealism.” He has been known to play with phrases culled from news items, history, anecdotes, or common speech and later assemble his material into tightly woven compositions that reveal bizarre and surreal insights into the absurdity of human nature. “Tate is often funny and always fun to read, even in the nihilistic poems that make up a good portion of the volume. Line by line, sentence by sentence, he strives to keep the reader interested and amused.” says Gioia. Tate's poems are increasingly character driven, featuring a narrator's various encounters with a gnome, a goat, an insurance agent. In his 1998 interview with Mike Magee, he points to one unifying element in his work: "My characters usually are—or, I'd say most often, I don't want to generalize too much—but most often they're in trouble, and they're trying to find some kind of life." Read and listen for yourself:

How The Pope is Chosen

The List of Famous Hats

It Happens Like This


Tate, James. "James Tate, The Art of Poetry No. 92." The Paris Review. Interview by Charles Simic. Web. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5636/the-art-of-poetry-no-92-ja....

Tate, James. "An Interview with James Tate." crossconnect. Intervew by Mike Magee. 1998. Web. http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/xconnect/v4/i1/g/magee.html.

Gioia, Dana. "James Tate and American Surrealism." www.danagioia.net. N.p., 1998. Web. 26 Sep 2011. http://www.danagioia.net/essays/etate.htm.

"James Tate Profile." www.poets.org. The Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 26 Sep 2011. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/70.

"UI Pulitzer Prize Winners." www.iowalum.com. The University of Iowa, n.d. Web. 26 Sep 2011. http://www.iowalum.com/pulitzerPrize/tate.html.

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