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He Sees Things in Waves:

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

Illustration by KEVIN CHRISTY


Monday, February 06, 2006

The following interview originally appeared in Issue 28: 20 Interviews, released in 2006


10 Questions for poet August Kleinzahler

By Ange Mlinko

August Kleinzahler has worked as taxi driver, locksmith, logger, building manager and music critic. But he is most famous for his 10 books of poems, including the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize winner, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep (FSG). His autobiographical essays are collected in Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained, whose title alone evokes his signature dive-bar/chevalier aesthetic — a kind of mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Robert Herrick.

Born in Jersey City in 1949, raised in Fort Lee (which named him poet laureate last year), Kleinzahler settled in San Francisco but has remained itinerant. He has taught most recently at the University of Texas at Austin, and was awarded a fellowship in Berlin in 2000. Accepting the Griffin Prize, Kleinzahler wrote, “My ideal reader is a taxi driver in Karachi.” It wasn’t a wisecrack. He went on to imagine an Everyman negotiating traffic in an ancient city of 15 million who is nevertheless a connoisseur of the evening light; who owns obscure pamphlets by poets of small cult presses; who is eclectic and genuine. “Poetry is the most difficult and demanding of the literary arts. It is also the oldest and most enduring, and despite rumors to the contrary, is not about to go away anytime soon. Long after the art novel, as we know it, is gone, we shall have poetry.”

Kleinzhaler was about to hop on a plane to South Dakota when we spoke by phone. Between the state’s geophysical anomalies and decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles, he thought there might be a poem somewhere in there.

Question 1: Why are you traveling to Rapid City, South Dakota?

August Kleinzahler: I’ve been wanting to write a poem about Rapid City. I have the title in mind, but it’s a secret. Now I have to write a poem around the title and I can’t — or won’t — fake it. Also, Rapid City is in an interesting part of the country I haven’t seen: decommissioned missile silos, Mount. Rushmore, Little Big Horn and the Black Hills — a curious uplift and geological anomaly in the midst of the Great Plains; also a sacred Native American area. And, if things get boring, I can always run up to Deadwood, not far, and break a whiskey bottle over some miserable motherfucking, cocksucking cretin’s cowboy hat.

Q2: One of the unfortunate hallmarks of poetry is a deadly earnestness, which is not the same as seriousness. You are an aesthetically serious poet who nonetheless plays with personas, tones, registers; your lyric poems sound dramatic when you read them to audiences. And while this has drawn many to your work, do you think it has also led to any misunderstanding?

AK: As for seriousness — striking an earnest pose, writing about concentration camps or AIDS or 9/11 in terza rima, what have you, does not make for real seriousness. Some of the most hilarious poetry I’ve ever read, however unintentional, is by “serious” American poets on those themes. “Seriousness” is what happens in the movement, diction, syntax, textures and design of the poem. That’s where the emotional energy of poem resides. It’s caught up in the molecular bonds of things, if you will. Lewis Carroll is serious. Max Jacob and Apollinaire are serious. Robert Lowell and Maya Angelou are not.

Q3: One thing people either like or loathe about your books is the tough-guy voice that echoes both the Beats and noir fiction. How do you respond to criticism that using this voice, these gestures, verges on caricature or cliché?

AK: All art, so far as I know, plays with conventions, cliché and expectation, whether it’s Alexander Pope inverting a syllabic foot at a telling moment in “Rape of the Lock” or Charlie Parker interpolating a few chords of “Jingle Bells” as he roars through a version of “Anthropology.” The art is in how you do it — timing, placement, degree. I do play with voice, all the time. But I also have a stable, “real” voice of my own which moves among other voices. Among other things, it’s the voice of a northern New Jersey male: provincial, educated, middle-class, Jewish, heterosexual, born in 1949 and very much of a time and place, raised in 1950s America.

I sound a lot like my father and mother and the kids I grew up with — and if there’s a bit of Philip Marlowe or Sal Paradise in there, whatcha gonna do? I’m certainly not a macho or tough guy, but rather a gentle, bewildered soul o’ergiven to reverie.

Q4: Your poems evoke a pungent world through gentle, courtly diction. Actual physical sensations come through the page — I imagine you picked that up from your former teacher Basil Bunting?

AK: Bunting was very good at rendering physical sensation. It’s among my favorite qualities in the work. I do, indeed, try to capture the physical world through the sound and movement of language. Not always, and not always successfully, but I do try now and again. The late English critic Kenneth Cox used to talk about how words “taste” in the mouth, and whether he liked the taste or spat the words back out.

Q5: Obviously, many readers of Cutty, One Rock must have sought out your poetry afterward. Just how willing is the reader of serious fiction and memoir to cross that line and pick up a book of poems?

AK: I don’t know, really. I’m not at all uncomfortable with the readers of my prose migrating over to the poetry, or vice-versa. I do know that 99 percent of the people who read and enjoyed the prose book, and then checked out the poetry, were hopelessly baffled by the latter. But that’s fine. Poetry is more difficult, generally speaking.

Q6: You have written music criticism, and an ongoing series of poems entitled “A History of Western Music.” I’d like to ask you what five CDs you’re listening to now.

AK: I wrote a weekly music column for the San Diego Reader for a few, very enjoyable years. Best job I ever had. My listening tastes go through phases. The past year or so I’ve been listening to a fair bit of world music. Five of those CDs are Lif Up Yuh Leg An Trample, Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing, New Fuji Garbage, Congotronics and Hindustani Slide Guitar.

Q7: As difficult as it is for a poet to find readers in the U.S., artists in other mediums are also struggling to find an audience. Why is that?

AK: I think the audience for interesting art of any kind is shrinking fast for a number of reasons, too many to enumerate: It’s a book-length essay. But the unfettered capital bit with profit as the be-all, end-all is a large factor, as are the diminishing attention span, a widening and increasingly specialized information band, the collapse of secondary education and on and on. The entire concept of time seems to change on a monthly basis, and that has a violent effect on how art is made and consumed.

Q8: The most recent prose I’ve read of yours was your diary in the London Review of Books about the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. How often do you write about current affairs?

AK: I obsess about politics, at least since we’ve begun our slide into what I call Prozac fascism, presided over by corporate media and their multinational corporate brethren.

But I’ve written about politics only very seldom. I wrote a few pieces for a big Berlin daily back in 2000 when Bush was running for president, which was quite exciting, especially for a poet, and a rather obscure poet, at that. I’d write a rant on a Friday afternoon in English, and have one and a half million people read it two days later in German. Those one and a half million people got very exercised about it, one way or another. But finally, political journalism is a dispensable mode of writing, unless you’re George Orwell or Joseph Roth. If you come upon a new or fresh observation on Monday, whether you write it down and publish it or not, 66 people will have come upon the same notion on their own by Wednesday. It’s a heady experience to have a million people read one’s opinions over coffee or on the crapper. I think a poet is better advised to seek out anonymity and the “smell of the lamp.”

Q9: Was your attack on Garrison Keillor in Poetry especially felt because you perceive him as being in cahoots with the people who label anything difficult elitist?

AK: Keillor and what he’s turned into, at least in terms of visibility, is symptomatic and emblematic of a culture in free-fall, a culture desperate for meaning, continuity, values even if it comes in a 32 ounce tin of Libby’s creamed corn.

Q10: Since Cutty, One Rock, the balance seems to have tipped toward the geography of your childhood in New Jersey. How did you become poet laureate of Fort Lee?

AK: The tiny but wonderful Fort Lee Film Commission (Fort Lee is the birthplace of American film, for your information) read about me in the New York Times and decided I needed a plaque. There was a formal presentation at a town hall meeting. I brought my mother and wife along. I’ve never felt more honored. I had to read a poem at the opening ceremony for the town’s new community center. I followed the priest, who gave a benediction. My mother made a small scene and I think the local police officials had me figured for a sissy.


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