Worshipful Company of Snowbirds

January 7, 2010

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, January 8th 2010. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, stand up poetry. For decades now, James Tate has been one of the funniest, most beguiling voices in American poetry. Reading one of his poems is kind of like entering a dream, and you’re not sure it’s a good dream, a bad dream, a forgettable dream or a dream that will pester you for the rest of your life. They’re weird, his poems, and often laugh out loud funny as you’ll hear in a moment.

We’re going to listen to two James Tate poems that he read at the Key West Literary seminar. You hear that right, Key West Literary Seminar. Each January, readers and writers thumb their noses at the rest of us stuck in freezing, snowbound states and indulge in an orgy of readings, lectures, workshops and parties in sunny, Key West Florida. The 2010 seminar starts today, and I’m on the phone with poet Arlo Haskell, the Key West Literary Seminar’s media director. Arlo, how’s the weather?

Arlo Haskell: It’s cold for us, which means 60s, so we’re all bundled up. I have a hat and a vest on today.

Curtis Fox: Somehow that makes me happy to hear. I don’t know why I was expecting sunny skies and beach weather.


Arlo Haskell: It is sunny skies.


Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) Oh it is sunny, okay. At least you’ve got that. So the Key West Literary Seminar has been going on for more than 25 years, and the main reason I’m talking to you today is because of the extraordinary audio archive you guys have and have been putting together for over the past 25 years. You post it online on your website, and there’s a lot to choose from but you and I settled on some excerpts from a reading that James Tate gave in 2003. You were there at that reading, what was it like?

Arlo Haskell: Typically poetry readings, there’s poems that you laugh at but the overall tone veers towards seriousness. James Tate does this thing where he has this very deadpan delivery as we’ll hear, but his comedic timing is such that it was a highlight of the 2003 seminar and the audience was in stitches.

Curtis Fox: Let’s listen to the first poem he read, from his 2004 book Return to the City of White Donkeys. Here’s James Tate reading “Of Whom Am I Afraid”.


James Tate: I was feeling a little at loose ends, so

I went to the Farmer’s Supply store and just

strolled up and down the aisles, examining

the merchandise, none of which was of any use

to me, but the feed sacks and seeds had a

calming effect on me. At some point there was an

old, grizzled farmer standing next to me holding

a rake, and I said to him, “Have you ever read

much Emily Dickinson?” “Sure,” he said, “I

reckon I’ve read all of her poems at least a

dozen times. She’s a real pistol. And I’ve

even gotten into several fights about them

with some of my neighbors. One guy said she

was too ‘prissy’for him. And I said, ‘Hell,

she’s tougher than you’ll ever be.’ When I

finished with him, I made him sit down and read

The Complete Poems over again, all 1,775 of them.

He finally said, ‘You’re right, Clyde, she’s

tougher than I’ll ever be.’ And he was crying

like a baby when he said that.” Clyde slapped

my cheek and headed toward the counter with

his new rake. I bought some ice tongs, which

made me surprisingly happy, and for which I

had no earthly use.


Curtis Fox: Why do we find the idea absurd of two old grizzled farmers fighting over Emily Dickinson. Is that just so absolutely unlikely?

Arlo Haskell: I suppose we’ve come to think that it’s unlikely. People have come to think about poetry as among a more educated class or a class that doesn’t involve the farmers at the feed store, many of whom probably do read poetry and have favorite poems, but we don’t expect anyone to have read all 1,775 poems by Emily Dickinson.


Curtis Fox: Right. I once did a piece about a guy who almost got into a fight in the East Village in New York over Walt Whitman.


Arlo Haskell: There’s a legacy of poetic fighting. Right here in Key West there was a fist fight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens. One of my favorite local stories.


Curtis Fox: I would’ve put my money on Ernest Hemingway.

Arlo Haskell: Hemingway won. Stevens started the fight and Hemingway put him down pretty quickly, the story goes.


Curtis Fox: I never heard that, that’s amazing. Let’s go back to the poem for a second. It’s basically an anecdote, a lot of his poems function anecdotally. They start crazy and they end crazy, but they cohere in a weird way.


Arlo Haskell: It’s true. In that sense he’s definitely a story teller. His poems have a beginning, middle and an end. There’s some kind of resolution at the end. There’s almost a narrator who’s having this experience or standing by watching it.


Curtis Fox: Right, the befuddled narrator of a James Tate poem, usually someone who’s lost in a dreamlike place, doesn’t know quite to make of what’s happening around him. We’re going to hear a little bit of that in the next poem. It’s a Christmas poem. Christmas is over but we’re going to listen to it anyway. There’s a reason for that you’ll hear in the poem. Tate said he had inadvertently accumulated some holiday poems.


James Tate: Soon be doing some greeting cards, get some real money at last.


Arlo Haskell:(LAUGHING) Yeah, I think this is the last poem he’s going to read and the audience had boiled to a level of hilarity. That just sent everybody over the edge.

Curtis Fox: This poem is about Santa Claus. Here’s James Tate reading “Special Guest”.


James Tate: Down the chimney came old Saint Nick, which

was weird, because it was noon on a hot July day.

He was covered in soot. “Well, this is quite a

surprise,” I said. “We weren’t expecting you at

this time of year,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen

to have a beer, would you?” he said. “It’s so hot

in this suit, you wouldn’t believe it,” “Sure, I

can get you a beer,” I said. When I returned, he

said, “Where the hell am I, anyway?” I told him,

and he looked confused. “Do you know what day it

is?” he said. I told him, and he looked bewildered.

He took a long slug of his beer. “I hate to admit

it, but I’m not really sure what year it is,” he

said. I told him, and he thought about it for

a long time. “Can I have another beer?” he said.

When I returned, he said, “Why am I dressed like

this? It’s hot out there.” “You live in the North

Pole. You’re only supposed to come down here

for Christmas,” I said. “Oh,” he said. “Mrs. Claus

died. I’m lonely up there. I want to live down

here, in a nice little house like this one.” “Do

you have any money, some savings, perhaps?” I said.

“I’m broke,” he said. “I gave it all away, I

have nothing.” “You could get a job,” I said.

“I’m too old, and, besides, I don’t know how to do

anything,” he said. “We have a spare room, now

that the kids are gone,” I said. “You could live

here and help out with odd jobs.” He looked around.

“Could I have another beer?” He said. I got it

for him. “I just want to get out of these old

clothes, and shave this damned beard. It’s too

hot,” he said. He really did look miserable.

“Well, you can borrow my razor, and maybe we can

find you some summer clothes at Mr. Big’s in the

mall,” I said. “I’m just skin and bones,” he said.

“There’s no meat on me. I haven’t eaten in months,

maybe years, I don’t know,” he said. “Well, then,

maybe some of my clothes might fit you,” I said.

“I’d like that,” he said. “I’d like to be able

to walk down the street without people making such

a fuss.” After another beer, Nick shaved and tried

on one of my shirts and a pair of cotton slacks.

He was a gaunt, old man, who stayed in his room

most of the time. He seemed not to remember his

old life at the Pole, so Jill and I never mentioned

it. He liked to rake leaves in the fall, I don’t

know why. Jill knitted him a sweater, and he cried

when she gave it to him. Then he kissed her, and

I said, “That’s enough.”




Curtis Fox: So Arlo, what’s up with Santa?

Arlo Haskell: Santa has got himself in a pretty tight spot it seems like. He seems to have become if not an alcoholic a pretty heavy beer drinker. He’s struggling.


Curtis Fox: This seems to come up pretty frequently in James Tate poems. Not Santa, but someone who’s stuck being who he is and wants out, right?


Arlo Haskell: Absolutely. It’s frequently the narrator, but as many times it’s somebody else in the poem.

Curtis Fox: So today, the 28th Key West Literary seminar begins. So tell us what we’re missing, those of us who are stuck in cold states.


Arlo Haskell: Well, this year for the Key West Literary seminar we’re focusing on poetry. Current poet laureate Kai Ryan will be here along with six of her fellow poets laureate; Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, Mark Strand will be here, we have Yusef Komunyakaa and Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, a king of amazing star studded list of poets.


Curtis Fox: Fortunately, all along you guys have been making very good, high quality recordings of the readings there and you can find them on the website; key west literary Thanks so much Arlo.


Arlo Haskell: Sure thing Curtis, thanks for having me on the show.

Curtis Fox: Arlo Haskell is the media director of the Key West Literary Seminar. His latest book of poems, Joker, is published by Sandpaper Press. The James Tate poems we heard are in his collection Return to the City of White Donkeys published by Harper Collins. You can read more of his poems on our website,, where you can also download hundreds more podcasts and read countless poems and articles. We’d like to acknowledge the recent passing of Ruth Lily who’s incredible generosity led to the creation of The Poetry Foundation. Without Ruth Lily, this program and so much else would simply not exist. Our condolences to her family. We’d love to know what you think of this program, email us at [email protected]. The music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

James Tate at the Key West Literary Seminar.

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