Prairie Lights reading honors late poet James Tate

Prairie Lights held a reading to pay tribute to James Tate, a poet that attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s.


The Daily Iowan; Photo by Ben Sm

Prairie Lights hosted a reading by (insert name) on (insert date). (Ben Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Seton Warren, News Reporter

On the evening of July 15, Prairie Lights hosted a reading to memorialize the late poet James Tate, who died in 2015 — a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and instructor at the University of Iowa.

Tate began his promising career in writing as a young man in Iowa City.

“He was a student here when he was 21,” said Jan Weissmiller, a co-owner of Prairie Lights. “He wrote his first collection of poems, which is called The Lost Pilot, while he was a student here. It was published when he was 22 and won the Yale Younger Poetry Award. He became very famous after that.”

Tate spent much of his life teaching at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, and he taught at the Writers’ Workshop for three semesters in the late-80s.

“I knew him just because he loved Prairie Lights when he lived in town in the ’80s,” Weissmiller said. “He spent a lot of time in here.”

Inspired by his Midwestern upbringing, Tate’s poetry portrayed middle-class life.

“As a person and as a writer, he always had this sort of amazing sense of the common man,” Weismiller said. “Those are the subjects of all these later poems. The characters in them are blue-collar Americans, I would say. He understands them because that was his background.”

A posthumous collection of his poetry, The Government Lake, hit the shelves earlier this month.

“A foundation associated with his work, his papers, was hoping that stores all over the country would do readings of both the posthumous poems and other parts of his work,” Weissmiller said.

In celebration of his life and literary contributions, people gathered in Prairie Lights for a reading of his poems published throughout his life. Readers included friends and fellow poets.

The Government Lake includes the last poem Tate wrote, appropriately titled “I Sat at my Desk and Contemplated All That I Accomplished.”

“It was in his typewriter when he died,” said Maggie Conroy, an actor, playwright, and friend of the late poet who read two poems in his honor at the event.

The reading at Prairie Lights was a fitting memorial for a man whose poetry brought joy to many. The room erupted with wonderful, genuine laughter throughout the entire reading.

“The poems are funny and odd,” Weissmiller, said “People from all walks of life love them.”

The reading allowed Tate’s influence to live on in Iowa City.

Liza Kolvsovl, who attended the event, said readings such as this help carry on the work of writers — even in death.

“It’s definitely important to keep reading people’s work and sharing it,” Kolvasovl said. “It’s so interesting to kind of keep it alive.”