Q&A with Marvin Tate: Artist, Poet, Musician

I met Marvin Tate while doing an artist residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois, last October. His name was familiar to me from NPR (National Public Radio), but I didn’t really know very much about him. He was the first of the residents to do a reading, which he scheduled at 3 p.m. midweek. All the residents showed up, many preoccupied with their own work. I know I was dragging with very low energy. He began reading some of his poetry and within moments, the room was charged — his work is truly amazing.

Marvin Tate
Performing on stage. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jane Fulton Alt.


Born in Chicago, Marvin Tate grew up in the Lawndale neighborhood on the city's westside. With a background in writing, acting, singing, and musical theater, he has always been fascinated with storytelling and poetry. Tate spent a number of years in New York and then returned to Chicago in 1986 to focus on his writing. A featured poet on NPR’s This Amerian Life and HBO's Def Poetry Jam, he has released poems as part of an anthology through the Tia Chucha press. He has performed with Amiri Baraka, the late Malachi Thompson, Annie Sprinkle, The Eternals, Ken Nordine, Tim Kinsella, Bernie Worrell, the late Oscar Brown Jr., among many others. For his musical album Family Swim, his first release since the breakup of his band, D-Settlement, Tate returned to his long-time collaborator LeRoy Bach.

Marvin Tate singing little soldier from his Family Swim CD

little soldier

you don’t have to cry anymore
i shut all the windows
and locked the doors
i sold off all your stash
and paid your dealer off
so you wouldn’t have to work
there anymore

there was forty dollars
lying on the table
hundreds resting
on the bathroom floor
and when he asked me
what i was here for
i looked him in the eyes
and blew his durty brains out!

you don’t have to cry
anymore, i shut all the windows
and locked the doors
i sold off all your stash
and paid your dealer off
so you wouldn’t have to work there
anymore

mama, why are we always
in a hurry? we don’t have to hide
anymore; the tank is full
the cooler is plenty and i’ve
got all my favorite toys

there was forty dollars
lying on the table, hundreds
resting on the bathroom floor
and when he asked me what i
was here for; i looked him
in the eyes and blew his durty
brains out!

ArtStyle: Where do you get your inspiration for your art?

Marvin Tate (MT): I connected with the art of storytelling and impersonations at an early age — around age eight. In retrospect, those two forms of escapism have become part of my present day persona or part of my DNA.

No matter how irreverent I've tried to be, social issues have always been a part of my art. It's great when you can say something socially keen in your art yet not allow the work to become preachy.

ArtStyle: How has society influenced your art? What are the social implications of your art?

MT: I like my art to alter the vision, touch and smell, etc. of the viewer and listener. To have them walk away feeling a silent scream in their consciousness and wondering why and what made them feel that way.

ArtStyle: Could you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

MT: Shining light on the unspoken without being confrontational. Although confrontational art has its moments, it can become easily tiresome too. I'll have to babble a bit before I get to my point. Creativity is my only weapon to feel that I can change destinations, destinies and corrections of my past and the forgiving of my present. Creativity is a gift that God has given to us all; some of us take the journey to seek, see and hear not the obvious but the other side of darkness and the beauty it holds.

ArtStyle: What was your most important performance? Care to share that experience?

MT: This Christmas eve, my wife and I were in the kitchen listening to the radio while preparing Christmas dinner when suddenly one of my old songs came on the radio and it didn't stop there; after the song, the announcer talked me up for about a minute or two. That was cool because my daughter heard it too and it's nothing like convincing a twelve-year-old that her pop is still “kindah cool” in his own little way.

ArtStyle: Do you have any “studio rituals”? For example, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

Marvin Tate
Performing with his band. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jane Fulton Alt.

MT: Yeah, like playing sad songs (they always produce a transcending effect), a bottle of rum, cigarette smoke, some porn (if I have the time) and in some cases, meeting new people and reading a good book or hearing a good quote from a passerby or my wife and daughter.

ArtStyle: Discuss one of your snow globes. What were you thinking when you created it?

MT: Okay, what about this one right here — Three Chicago Bears miniatures celebrating as if they've made a tackle or such; however below them is a Santa figurine made to look as it has been crumpled on by these big burly (insignificant to some) jocks. There are white sand and miniature gift boxes that float up in the air when the bottle is shaken or turned upside down. I was just trying to make fun of jocks, xmas and anger management.

ArtStyle: Where can we see more of your art? Where can we hear you read your poetry or play your music?

MT: My art can be seen mostly in my studio, Green City Gallery. It's not legit yet, but eventually it'll become a place where my wife and I can display and sell our work. She's a great photographer too. Otherwise, it's just my house. I also have art at Jimenez Gallery on Oakley and North Avenue. Poetry? I'm working on a new manuscript called The Amazing Mister Orange and for music, there is a MySpace page, but if you want to buy my music then you'll have to go to CDBABY.com. And I am working on upcoming shows for the new year.

ArtStyle: What trends have you noticed in the Chicago art scene?

MT: Trends? People are trying to go beyond their cultural environment by mixing and blending the senses. People are trying to look for commonality instead of differences but not in a “We Are The World” crap but in amore; like hey I appreciate your being different and let's build something to celebrate it without alienating or becoming elitist.

ArtStyle: What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

MT: The day my daughter was born. I had to stop being selfish. Art and creativity are no good if you can't bring it or share it with people who have not given themselves the time and imagination to do so.

The day my band, D-Settlement, broke up. A lot those guys had become like my second family.

ArtStyle: Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the art world?

MT: Creativity. I can't imagine where or what I'd be doing now if I'd never acknowledged its existence and magic.

Poems by Marvin Tate.

Subway

newyork city subway

seated to my left is a woman
who has taken off her blouse
on public transportation
tucked, neatly beside her
is an artist; i can tell that
he is an artist by the way
he has convinced himself
that sitting next to a woman
with her boobs out does not excite him
and so, he continues to read; a trendy magazine
about famous left handed people
i want to tell the seen-it, done-it all artist
that i'am from Chicago, the city of big shoulders,
the queen of the sea restaurant, michale jordan
home-run inn pizza and the cabrini green projects
but i can tell, that he'd only be appalled at midwest ways
how disgusting, staring at a womans' naked tits
on public transportation
the woman is screaming
about why she won't put back on her blouse
the art student has joined her in her protest
about everything from fashion avenue
to the gentrification of the Bronx
reporters arrive and the police are in hot pursuit
but will have come too late; as the two head back
to there tiny soho apartment; where they drink
cold beer out of environmentally safe cups
and admire each other's performance.

Garland

open mic night

you were there to hear a friend
read her poems to an audience
for the very first time
you discussed, the previous night
which poems she should read
and that, if no one laughed or applauded
that you'd make a big fuss over her
and become her biggest fan
but you got into a argument instead
with the host who believed in being quiet
when his friends read their jokes
myra, was there too and we both decided
to leave and went next door so that we could talk
as loud as we wanted; anyway, am e-mailing you
to tell you that am sorry that i did not see you read
and that you left a few of your poems on my kitchen table
they are really good ; you should consider skipping
the entire open-mic route and shoot for the small presses;
i can help you with the process; otherwise, am going to see
niki's new band tonight at the velvet; we could meet before
the band hits the stage and can talk as loud as we want.

Marvin Tate's latest CD, Family Swim, can be purchased at http://cdbaby.com.

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