Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, poet, editor and community organizer Brice Maiurro joins us to read James Tate and explore the often overlooked world of the strange and whimsical within poetry. As always, thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read James Tate for Lyric Essentials?
Brice Maiurro: Tate, for being a writer who has received a lot of accolades, is not someone that I hear people reference very often, and he’s been a very important poet to me. I remember being in a bookstore, picking up a copy of Return to the City of White Donkeys and the first poem I read was “The Memories of Fish”. I loved it. What a strange and whimsical idea for this man to make fun of these fish, only to feel deep regret the next day for his behavior. The ending is the kicker too “he had mocked their very fishiness, for which there can be no forgiveness.” His work has a magic to it. There’s something punk rock to this attitude of “fuck it, I’m gonna write about a guy who is mean to fish.”
He often dismantles the ideas of poetry needing lyricism, needing stark imagery, needing a noticeable cadence or rhythm. Tate’s poetry puts you in the poem where you have to find the poetry of the situation. Not in beautiful words but in beautiful magical situations. He uses narrative prose to take you out of your day.
EH: Do you have a particular connection to Tate’s collection City of White Donkeys where these two poems are found?
BM: It’s the first collection I ever read by Tate, I mostly read it on the light rail on my way to and from work. I was working at my Mom’s cupcake shop on 16th Street at the time. I think of James Tate as being a hall pass for me into being strange, especially to find the strange, and thus at times the divine, in mundane everyday situations.
I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, in Lakewood. Went to T.J. Maxx and King Soopers with my Mom and sister on the weekends. Took girls on dates at Southwest Plaza mall. I spent a lot of time counting ceiling tiles and daydreaming. My Dad ran a shoe store called “Just For Feet” where I’d be stuck in his office for hours with nothing to do, so I wrote poems. I guess my poetry comes a lot out of waiting and boredom, and that’s something I see in James Tate. He seems like he’s just entertaining his shower thoughts.
I tend to tell people I see poetry as a math equation. Where you create a strange problem and then solve it. For example, in “Beautiful Shoeshine”, Tate seems to have asked himself “what if I had an airport entirely to myself?” He drops himself into this airport all alone, then he finds a shoeshine man, then he realizes he’s not alone, but the people around him are moving too fast to be seen, then in the poem he says, again with the good ending lines “I must not be traveling enough these days.” So here we have the problem of being alone in an airport, and Tate somehow manages to solve the equation by finding in the situation a commentary on a culture that moves so quickly, maybe doesn’t take enough time to rest and relax and breathe, all the hypercapitalism we’re so familiar with, but in a sad moment, our narrator in the poem decides not that the culture is broken, but that he must not be doing enough. I love this.
EH: City of White Donkeys is a peculiar journey into surrealism poetry—something Tate is known for. Your work also contains narrative forms, often playfully as well—do you ever draw inspiration or connection from Tate into your own writing in particular?
BM: I absolutely draw inspiration from Tate, going back to the idea that he gave me permission to bring surrealism into everyday scenarios. I have a poem where I talk to God at a Denny’s over a cup of coffee, I have a poem where I’m doing the dishes and all of a sudden I am taken into the astral plane, I have a poem where a man cuts off one of his fingers accidentally while chopping carrots and the first thing he decides to do is play his piano. Tate’s work resonates deeply with my own experience. Specifically the idea that while we’re in the muck of our everyday lives, we are so many other people and places and things. Also the humor. Humor is not as simple as just laughing. I find humor as a sense of solidarity, sometimes a way of honoring the absurdity of life, sometimes a way to process trauma, including our collective trauma. I believe humor is as valuable a tool in a poem as any other literary device.
EH: And lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?
BM: I’m working on a manuscript. The working title is “and i open another door and”. Same weirdo poems as always. Finding myself influenced now though by the softness of Ocean Vuong and the syntax and visual elements of e.e. cummings’ poems. With the poems, I’ve been considering liminal space a lot, and the acknowledgment of not having the answers. I’ve been reacting to the tenets of white supremacy as well and challenging the ways I might embody some of those identities and how I can work through that. One of the tenets of white supremacy is either/or thinking. The poems in my new collection don’t claim to have answers as much as capture my feelings and thoughts around not knowing. The title itself kinda leans into the idea of being between moments, and in a limbo, which I know during COVID is a very real experience for a lot of people, myself included.
The press I work with, South Broadway Press, is doing a lot of plotting and scheming too. We have a March edition on the theme of Language of the Earth. Our editor Chloë Thompson created the concept, which we’ll also be exploring in our February and March open mic series. We’re also looking into publishing a full-length poetry manuscript and launching a chapbook contest. We have a big team now, seven of us, and it’s been great to see our minds and hearts come together to create an identity for this very new press.
James Tate is an American Pulitzer Prize winning poet known for his whimsical, surrealist, and well-loved absurdist poetry. He is the author of over twenty poetry collections, including The Government Lake (2018), The Ghost Soldiers (2008), Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994) which won the National Book Award, Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award, Distance from Loved Ones (1990), Constant Defender (1983), Viper Jazz (1976), and The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970). His many accolades include an Academy of American Poets chancellorship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Tanning Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He taught at University of Massachusetts in Amherst for five decades, and died in 2015.
Brice Maiurro is Brice Maiurro is a poet from Earth. He is the Editor-in-Chief of South Broadway Press. His work has been compiled into two collections, Stupid Flowers and Hero Victim Villain. He has been featured by the BBC, NPR, The Denver Post, Boulder Weekly, Suspect Press, and Poets Reading the News.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at: http://ericahoffmeister.com/