Tsuga, 2015 – Oil, graphite & cold wax on 12″x 12″ wood panel
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”
“Teaching the Ape to Write Poems” from Absences, 1970, James Tate (1944-2015)
James Tate was my professor at The University of Massachusetts in the 1990s, when I was a student of English Literature. My focus at the time was creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry and short fiction. I signed up for Professor Tate’s class because I thought he was a genius and I’d long admired his work. He was a great poet with the kind of humor I understood; darkish with a heavy stroke of irony. From my experience, James was more poet than professor. Rare was the day when he actually turned up for classes —they were mostly taught by university TAs. Still, I gleaned a few gems from his few-and-far-between lectures; points about discipline, focus and editing. “Teaching the Ape to Write Poems” sums up more than a few of those lessons for me and they’ve served me well through the years, whether writing or painting. I am grateful.
Half the battle is showing up to work. The other half is believing in yourself enough to stick with it. Talent is just the magic dust you carry to battle.
James Tate died earlier this year.