Lyric Essentials: Brice Maiurro reads James Tate

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.

Brice Maiurro reads “The Memories of Fish” by James Tate

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.

Brice Maiurro reads “The Beautiful Shoeshine” by James Tate

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.

Further reading:

Purchase Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate.
Read this in-depth interview with Tate in the Paris Review.
Watch Tate read a selection of his poetry in 2013 in Poets & Writers.

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.

Further reading:

Stay updated with Maiurro on his website.
Read this interview with Maiurro featured in Westword Magazine, honoring him as a Colorado Creative.
Check out Maiurro’s indie press, South Broadway Press.

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:

Lyric Essentials: Nate Logan Reads James Tate

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In our latest installment, Nate Logan shares two of his favorite James Tate poems. He talks about his appreciation of the “deceptive simplicity” that underscores Tate’s poetry and the ways in which Tate’s work has influenced his own. Thanks for reading!

Nate Logan reads “Consolations After an Affair” by James Tate

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems for Lyric Essentials?

Nate Logan: For me, these poems were relatively easy choices. “Consolations After an Affair” is my favorite Tate poem and my all-time favorite poem. “I sat at my desk and contemplated all that I had accomplished” was the last poem Tate wrote. If you’d asked me to pick three poems, I couldn’t say who I’d put the bronze medal on. “A Wedding,” maybe? Can “I Am a Finn” and “I Am Still a Finn” count as one? 

RS: What do you admire about James Tate’s work?

NL: I’m not the first person to say this, but the deceptive simplicity of Tate’s work always invites me in. In On James Tate, Lee Upton writes: “The banal that we are presumably to control in daily life proves, if not entirely uncontrollable, to be possessed of near-demonic force. That is, in his poems the banal asserts itself.” I love that. Tate’s speakers are in our almost-world: they encounter people and situations that are slightly off, but not so off that I can’t imagine it happening in real life. Even though Tate abandoned writing about his waking life early on, the poems are not devoid of our collective lives.

Nate Logan reads “I sat at my desk and contemplated all that I had accomplished this year” by James Tate

RS: It wasn’t until I started reading about James Tate that I found out that “I sat at my desk…” was the last poem he wrote before he passed away in 2015 after a long illness. Do you think this poem reflects anything about that time of his life?

NL: I never had the opportunity to see Tate read live or take a class with him. I’ve heard various stories about him and am friendly with other poets who did have him as a teacher and/or see him read. I’ve watched some videos online where he appeared frail, but that’s the extent of my personal knowledge of him.

“I sat at my desk…” was discovered in Tate’s typewriter after his death (there’s a picture of it in his last book, The Government Lake). The poem reads as a meditation on age, which seems as natural a topic as any for a poet in his 70s. But still, that singular voice is there. “I ate / a cheeseburger every day for a year. I never want to do that again.” And the end of the poem, it made me tear up the first time I read it: “A policeman stopped me on the street and said / he was sorry. He was looking for someone who looked just like / me and had the same name. What are the chances?” That last sentence, “What are the chances?” is a perfect summary of Tate’s work. I ask this at the end of every Tate poem, not as a way of measuring suspension of disbelief, but as a way to express wonder at what I just read.

RS: Has his work influenced your own in any way?

NL: Oh, certainly. It’s flattering whenever a poet or reader says my work reminds them of Tate. I don’t care to write from my waking life either, so my poems are also filled with situations and speakers from a world like our own, but not exactly. Readers have also told me that my work contains an understated thread of humor, which is also a staple of Tate’s work.

RS: Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about?

NL: Currently, I’m just writing poems in the routine I established during my MFA. I do have a few poems written with Clu Gulager as a protagonist, which may turn into a chapbook-length manuscript, but he doesn’t need my help making fans.

James Tate is a poet from Kansas City, Missouri. Over the course of his career, Tate published more than 20 collections of poetry. He won the National Book Award for Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994) and the Pulitzer Prize and William Carlos Williams Award for Selected Poems (1991). His final collection, The Government Lake, was published three years after his death in 2015.

Further reading:

Read a feature about James Tate in the New Yorker
Read a review of The Government Lake in The Paris Review
Purchase The Government Lake

Nate Logan is the author of Inside the Golden Days of Missing You (Magic Helicopter Press, 2019). He’s editor and publisher of Spooky Girlfriend Press and teaches at Marian University.

Further reading:

Purchase Inside the Golden Days of Missing You from Magic Helicopter Press
Read a review of Inside the Golden Days from Barrelhouse
Read Nate’s work in The Indianapolis Review and Rabid Oak

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.