August Kleinzahler has produced gritty, chiseled poetry and prose for nearly three decades. The New Jersey native and current San Francisco resident is the recipient of many literary awards, most recently the 2008 Lannan Literary Award. As the final poet in the University’s Poem Present series this quarter, Kleinzahler will read from his new book Sleeping It Off in Rapid City—both a collection of old poems and the latest exhibition of his new work—in Rosenwald Hall Thursday afternoon. Through an e-mail interview, I had the opportunity to probe the mind of the grizzled poet, wherein he touches on everything from Hugh Hefner to Liberace.
Rob Underwood: What does it mean to you for someone (including yourself) to be designated as a “poet” in contemporary times? Is it simply the ability to make a living off of one’s writing, or is there greater significance?
August Kleinzahler: I think of myself as a writer, not a poet. I’m amused and dismayed that there’s a little trade journal called Poets and Writers. I’m rather embarrassed by the notion of myself as a poet, particularly as a poet in the contemporary American situation, as perhaps I wouldn’t be in, say, the Ireland or Poland of 40 or 50 years ago where being a poet was more deeply embedded in the culture. Also, the notion of advertising myself as a receptacle of the divine afflatus makes me a bit uncomfortable. But the idea—in 2008—of the poet in America, someone teaching Creative Writing to 23-year-olds on a campus somewhere...it’s all so institutionalized and grotesque, truly obscene.
RU: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have read that your only published prose collection Cutty, One Rock gets its title from your late brother’s favorite drink. Without wanting to be too invasive, how has his death affected your poetry over the years?
AK: For some reason that I’ve never examined too terribly closely, perhaps because it would upset me. I think my brother’s death liberated me in certain ways—gave me more freedom and courage to do my thing; made me more determined than I otherwise might have been. I had lost something, someone, so dear to me, maybe I figured let’s just bet the whole package on “Go, man, go.”
RU: Is there any reason why you’ve only published one book of prose? If so, is there something you see inherent in poetry that prose can’t really accomplish?
AK: I came to prose rather late. It involves a very different kind of software than poetry, though the essay form, which is the prose form I most favor, has affinities with poetry: condensation, emphasis on style, tone, voice, rhythm (prose rhythm, more diffuse than in poetry but significant). One can be disjunctive in the essay form, if not so much as [in] poetry, and leave a great deal unsaid.
RU: Being from New Jersey myself, I was drawn to your work most immediately because you were born there. Do you think the reputation and character of the state and its inhabitants have affected your poetry?
AK: Jersey’s reputation is of no interest to me. But Jersey, North Jersey, is a very particular place to me—the Hudson River light, the architecture, speech, body language.… I grew up there in a very particular time—the ’50s and early ’60s. It’s different now. It’s the soil I come from. I can usually recognize almost instantly someone of my generation from that place, and he or she, me.
RU: One characteristic of your poetry in general seems to be the constant modulation and shifting of the tone and mood of a poem. Is this an intentional device or simply the style that feels most natural?
AK: I reckon that [is] just how my style evolved over time. One sort of bumps into one’s style along the way, I sometimes think. “Oh, that sounds like me.” It can be a trap too, if one’s not careful. I suppose my own style, such as it is, is a product of my imaginative and artistic disposition and psychology, the books that have most interested me; likewise, the music, paintings, and people, the places I’ve lived, work and play.
RU: What literary works do you continually return to? Which continue to be fresh and remarkable after multiple readings?
AK: Oh, gee…where does one begin? A friend picked up the writings of the Elizabethan Thomas Nashe off my shelf a few weeks back and began reading it. Then I picked it up and fell in love with his prose writings all over again. That sort of thing happens with Babel, early Hemingway, Thelonious Monk, Paul Klee, Pound, Bunting, Kubrick.… I could delightfully waste 48 hours making a list
RU: Are you working on anything that we might see in the near future?
AK: I’m writing poems, essays of various sorts: personal, critical, whatnot. I’ll be reviewing the new Hugh Hefner biography. I should have mentioned in response to an earlier question that my music essays from the late ’90s are due out this winter from Pressed Wafer Press in Boston. They’ve all been rewritten, and I’m quite thrilled with the book, shamelessly so. It’s entitled Music: I–LXXXIV. It begins with Liberace and ends with J.S. Bach and is filled with stunning and delightful musical insights along with scandalous lore.