Matthew Zapruder is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Father’s Day, as well as Why Poetry, and Story of a Poem. In 2000, he co-founded Verse Press, and is now editor at large at Wave Books, where he edits contemporary poetry, prose, and translations. In 2022, he was the Editor of Best American Poetry. He lives in Northern California, and teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California. His forthcoming collection of poetry, I Love Hearing Your Dreams, will be published by Scribner in early 2025.
Zachary Schomburg is the author of 6 books of poems including, most recently, Fjords Vol. 2 (Black Ocean, 2021), and a novel, Mammother (Featherproof 2017). He is also a painter, and a publisher of a small poetry press called Octopus Books. He lives in Portland, OR, with B and Y.
Real Blue Antelope
I remember standing in the poetry section of a bookstore with my younger brother. It was summer, 1994, and I was 27 and about to go to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, to study with three brilliant poets at the height of their powers: Dara Wier, Agha Shahid Ali, and James Tate. My brother is a musician and composer, and at the time didn’t read a lot of poetry. Not many people I knew did.
Going to Amherst meant leaving Northern California, where my brother lived too, just a few blocks from me. I was so terribly sad to leave him, and didn’t know how to say it, or explain why I was going. I picked up a blue and white book, Tate’s Selected Poems, and opened it to “Good Time Jesus.” I handed it to my brother, and said, read this. I watched him as he made his way through the short prose poem. When he got to the last line, which I won’t spoil here, I saw his face overtaken by surprise, hilarity, and joy, so pure and intense, that for an instant he looked completely unlike himself, unfamiliar. He turned to me and said, perfectly: Holy shit.
There is something scary about the poems of James Tate. They can definitely change your life. However charming and funny and entertaining his poems might be, they are also deeply disruptive. Anarchy, freedom from all doctrine, an insistence on the legitimacy of human feeling, the right to imagine whatever the fuck you want and play it out to see what happens, the right to goof and mug, to pet the town goat and kiss the policeman or vice versa, the right to refuse to sign the completely reasonable petition, to leave and fall off the edge of the earth, the right to be an individual in society, to assert that love and the imagination are inherently political, the right to tell jokes at all the wrong times and be sad at all the wrong times and love all the wrong things and by loving them make them the right things … I could go on and on, failing to capture the feeling of reading them.
I’m just so grateful this new book of his selected poems exists, even though I cannot imagine how the people who edited it picked the poems. I read it and think, again and again, just like my brother did: Holy shit! Those are all the right choices! One of my favorites of his, “Rapture,” made it into this book. The speaker (who seems to be the same vaguely befuddled guy as in most of Tate’s poems) and a certain Cora lie in the grass, waiting for the appearance of some blue antelope, which seem at first as if they were invented as an excuse. They lie next to each other for hours. Then Cora whispers in his ear, “My God, I see them.” I won’t spoil the ending of this one either. I’ve read it a thousand times, and each time I finish, I want to read it again, and then a thousand more times. If I could write one poem in my whole life that made one person feel that way, I’d know I hadn’t wasted my life. I keep going back to Jim’s poems, especially when I’ve lost hope in everything. I always feel possibility in them.
A Way In
At some point someone told me, it was either Dara or Emily, that Jim would sometimes sit in front of his typewriter (and, they pointed right at it), looking for a way in (a way into a poem, not his typewriter) and that much of his time was spent there in that chair waiting for the way in to open up. Soon after, I asked if I could sit there, and when I did, I looked for a way in, and maybe I’m not so sure I found one, knowing better than to even touch it (the typewriter).
He’s written enough of them though, ways in, for us all to move about with ease. Some of the ways in have first names in them like Stanley, Darlene, or even Preston Cooper, and some of them have the word town or restaurant in them, for example, but compared to all his ways in, I would say, not too many, really. “Veronica had the best apartment in town,” “A bear walked right into town last week,” “In a little town south of here, a woman gave birth to a wolf,” and even, “One of Daniela’s breasts fell out of her blouse during dinner at our favorite restaurant.” See, I bet you want to go further into each of these, don’t you? It’s understandable, a door is opening with a lovely little jingle just as you walk past it. I don’t know what else to tell you—you’ll just have to go in and see for yourself as soon as you can.
They lower us down, we lean in, and there’s an easiness—something that must be impossibly hard to do because there’s no one else who can write quite like Jim. I should say, his poems also find their way into us, and so easily, because they feel like they had already been inside us all along. But how did they get in there? When I read his poems, I read them aloud just to hear his voice become mine. I don’t know how else to explain it. The first book I read that already felt like it was inside of me was Memoir of the Hawk. It was an old way into a new life, or a new way into an old life. Either way, new or old, it was a life of learning to just let a poem be, to let go of asking it questions, to be a good boy sitting quietly in the long lovely space between questions, waiting for a way in.
The first time I met Jim, I had come in on the train. Soon after I arrived, Emily asked if I wanted to bring him a turkey sandwich from the deli in town, The Black Sheep. Yes, I said, and we got the sandwich, and before I knew it, she was dropping me off at Jim’s house, and I handed him the sandwich. We sat in his living room where I asked him all of my stored up questions, every one that had been waiting inside of me to spring like a tiger, to which he gave me one word answers between big bites. He was hungry. He said I don’t know, politely, searching for something more, for my sake, and I’m not sure, but that’s a very good question. Then I felt out of gas, and we sat there quietly in his living room. I was uneasy, in front of this bright thing I’d made impenetrable, looking for a way in. Eventually, I was out of even unasked questions, and I stopped talking altogether. I looked around at his little military men, little presidents arranged like a show choir, a ceramic rooster, and a few more things I recognized from some of his poems, while he took his last few bites in silence, a small piece of white bread on his wet cheek. Then he asked me, How was the train?