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!
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.
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.
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.
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.