Training for poetry
Posted February 11, 2007on:
Do you still return in your imagination to your early years for material?
I’ll go anywhere. When I sit down to write, I start with a really blank mind. I try desperately to get started and it almost always takes me a very long time. I’ll try anything. Childhood is as fair a game as anything else. More often than not, I am pulling stuff strictly out of my imagination. But the you fill it in with whatever you need at the moment. You are going along and you think you are writing about one thing and then suddenly you think, Oh, that childhood moment would be perfect here.
I don’t think you can define how you acquire your imagination any more than you can define why one person has a sense of humour and another doesn’t. But I certainly would lean to the side that says all those solitary hours of daydreaming were a kind of training for poetry. There was probably also the general sadness of my early years, with the father I didn’t ever get to know or to meet–being told how wonderful he was practically on a daily basis. That’s a sad way to grow into the world, even though I had so many other normal things going on around me.
How much autobiography and how much invention is there in your poems?
I can think of only a few poems that mention family and those are sometimes based on a little truth and a lot of myth, or a lot of imagination–one of the two. When a poem insists on coming out and it turns out to be autobiographical, that’s OK. I don’t have a rule against it, but I’ve never had any major interest in it.
Was storytelling part of that childhood world for you? Your poems, from the very beginning, have a narrative quality. You are a good storyteller. Were your grandparents good storytellers?
No. My grandfather was silent and my grandmother was cooking. What my family was good at was telling family legends. I was told that there was a man who lived in the attic for years who had fathered two of my aunts. Why? I don’t believe it was true at all, but it was told. Two of my aunts had red hair and nobody else in the family has red hair. People thought it could be possible.
From “The Art of Poetry” interview with James Tate, Paris Review, Summer 2006