Terrance Hayes’s most recent publications include a collection of poems, So To Speak, and collection of essays, Watch Your Language, both out from Penguin this year. Other recent books include American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin and To Float In The Space Between: Drawings and Essays in Conversation with Etheridge Knight (Wave, 2018). To Float In The Space Between was winner of the Poetry Foundation’s 2019 Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism and a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin won the Hurston/Wright 2019 Award for Poetry and was a finalist the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry, the 2018 TS Eliot Prize for Poetry, and the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Hayes is a Silver Professor of English at New York University.
The ideal annual reading of James Tate’s Hell, I Love Everybody begins with die-hard fans volunteering wide-ranging accounts of their James Tate encounters. Readers recall where they were and what they felt hearing lines of the fifty-two poems in Hell, I Love Everybody. Most refer to the late poet as “Jim.” Only familiarity with the defamiliarizing feel of a Tate poem prepares a newcomer for one of these annual readings. Someone once read “I Left My Couch in Tatamagouche” over the beat of A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” at an event. Someone else claims to have heard Bill Murray read “The Blue Booby” under Brooklyn Bridge in the rainy season. When the book event occurs in an abandoned zoo or bus depot, a policeman with a goat named “the Prince of Peace” usually makes a cameo. Some readers insist Tate appears disguised as the policeman or goat. When the book event happens near a river, some readers come dressed as toads. Marguerite Farnish Burridge and her husband, Knelm Oswald Lancelot Bur- ridge, claimed to have attended a library reading where when Tate said, “A book can move from room to room without anyone touching it,” all the spines on the shelves and chairs shuddered. (The two agree they also saw Muhammad Ali levitate in a Four Seasons hotel hallway.) I tell the reader next to me that I found Tate all by myself in a Hartsville, South Carolina, bookstore in 1991. “I Am a Finn,” the reader replies, knowing.
Four muscular readers grab the corners of the portable stage, carrying it from the riverbank to the barn while the elderly woman on the stage recalls hearing Tate read “Where Babies Come From” at her sister’s baby shower. Who was the baby? “David Berman,” I shout from the crowd. The woman looks to see who said this and makes an unreadable face. “When Jim said our parents almost always stood on the wrong shore, we heard waves crashing though we were indoors,” she says, nearly toppling from the stagehands. Stan, a grizzled community college creative writing professor, claims to have organized a minor junior faculty rebellion after Tate read “How the Pope Is Chosen.” At some events two readers stage a reading of “The Rules,” standing at opposite sides of the event space shouting lines through bullhorns while readers in the audience repeat them.
The subtextual pang you find in a Jim Tate line, a deadpan panic, creeps into the echoes.
Tate seemed always to be saying someone else is saying something in his poems. He was a ventriloquist and witness. Somewhere there is voice-over bootleg footage of Jim Tate saying, “I’m just a hungry little Gnostic in need of a sandwich.” The Tate poem makes the dark and unknown as illuminating as the enlightened and logical. In a poem, “Just as many things exist in the dark as they do in the light.”
When Tate said to a team of junior gymnasts snowed in at a diner, “My fe- lisberto is handsomer than your mergotroid,” there was, according to Jemma, one of the gymnasts, an outbreak of laughter so contagious, Mr. Tate could not finish his poem. Jemma who was so moved by Tate’s unfinished reading, she began the Jim Tate Reading Club for Gymnasts and Fans. Fans, coaches, opponents and their coaches and fans, and anyone in attendance with interest may join Jemma’s Jim Tate Reading Club for Gymnasts and Fans, now in year three and going strong.
The Tate poem is full of comedic timing and obsessive timekeeping. The Charlie Chaplin–like poet displaced to contemporary middle American ennui and deluded, denuded delight. Like the deadpan voice-over of a Charlie Kaufman high school hooky movie. Tate appears disguised as Charlie Brown or Charlie Parker. Tate appears disguised as a candy store shopkeeper impervious to ill will, a blue antelope, a woodpecker tapping Morse code into a dead oak tree, a pink-eyed extraterrestrial infatuated with John Ford Westerns. Tate’s poems induce imaginative fortitude. Events can happen in a mind, a mine, or a minefield, ideally when the temperate outdoors and indoors are the same.
When a reader contemplates leaving the book party, the reader who notices must say, “I feel as if I were the residue of a stranger’s life, that I should pursue you.” The Jim Tate poem normalizes the bizarre, the dream-songy, the mythic, the absurd, the quotidian, the diurnal, surreal, and occasionally nightmarish feeling of life. “This is a house of unwritten poems, this is where I am unborn,” Tate tells readers in a room below a falling darkness, and then for years and years someone reads him saying it at a book party or alone at home. It’s truly wonderful to read in a James Tate voice alone or at public, private, or secret reading. Adjust your tongue so that it can hold a small key underneath. Adjust the ear at the back of your neck and the eye at the tip of your nose. Speak like a lost pilot in a lost key. Everyone is expected to read.