Jesse Nathan Interviews August Kleinzahler

By | 1 November 2016

JN: When you meet bad poems – in a magazine, in a book, somebody sends you something – what kinds of things do you find you dislike about them?

AK: Well, if it’s shoddily made, that’s one thing. What I find more offensive is people trying to strike a certain pose. You see it in lots of creative writing programs. And it has a certain tone, an elevated tone, a very important tone, the tone of being rather poetic, or the current fashionable notion of what’s poetic. That drives me absolutely fucking crazy. But if someone’s young and they’re just a little bit ham-handed, that doesn’t put me off. I was in the urinal at the gym the other day, and a young man in another stall was staring at me and he smiled sheepishly and he said ‘Augie?’ and I said ‘Yeah?’ (I don’t know why he called me Augie, but quite a few people do) and he said, ‘I heard you read at Diesel a few years ago.’ It turned out he was an admirer, and so we proceeded to the sauna and he told me he had just self-published a book, and the next time I saw him he gave me a copy. And it had some real virtues. It was wide of the mark in a number of ways, prolix, too many adjectives, and trying to do more than it could do. But I wrote him a note and said you definitely have something going, which is true, but you do X, Y and Z, which you probably want to avoid. Usually when you tell that to people they go to the Dean of Humanities, so to speak, they say you’re ‘authoritarian’ and being abusive – but he was very curious, so we’ll have a cup of coffee and talk about it sometimes. But you can’t do anything with anybody unless they’re willing to listen to suggestions. Some people just go completely pear-shaped and never talk to you again.

JN: I know what you mean about the posing. You hear it at readings, that awful poetry voice readers take on. And it’s in the poems too, that voice. Poetic poetry.

AK: I know that voice. It makes my blood run cold. There’s both a male version and a female version, equally loathsome. These tyros have a notion of what a poem should do, and that’s death on arrival, once you approach the medium in that way. There used to be an ad on television for some sort of food product, and the godlike voice would come: ‘Don’t mess with Mother Nature,’ and the great wind would come over and sweep everything away, and I think poetry’s like that – don’t mess with the muse, she’ll let you know or she won’t, but don’t keep phoning her up.

JN: I’d like to try something. I’d like to say a word, and then hear you riff on what it means to you, as far as poetry, or a specific poem, or your processes and practices – any way you want to go with it, really.

AK: Knock yourself out.

JN: Impatience.

AK: I am an uncommonly impatient person but it can be put to use sometimes as a kind of engine, a tool, instead of a distraction or annoyance. The former requires considerable discipline.

JN: Melodrama.

AK: I don’t like it in life or in literature, really. If I find myself headed in that direction, in life or art, I instinctively bolt for the nearest exit.

JN: Precision.

AK: Well, of course, whether a tennis backhand or etching implement … In poetry, rhythm, diction, image, overall design, et al., everything contingent upon everything else, an intricate network of balances and counterbalances, even the slightest misstep or miscalculation and it all goes hurtling into the abyss …

JN: Boredom.

AK: Boredom, which is very much a component of the ‘enforced idleness’ we discussed earlier, is not a bad thing, quite the contrary if it’s allowed to run its natural course.

JN: Passion.

AK: If more people understood what is meant by ‘passion’, they would use the word more sparingly, if at all. It’s something that befalls one, usually unexpectedly, and more often than not in an unwelcome, if not entirely destructive, form. But as with other powerful forces, it can be put to good use, especially if one’s an artist of some kind. Or a mixed martial arts fighter …

JN: Do you wander around San Francisco sometimes? I’m curious what you like to look at in this city. I was out walking the other day and I found a bag of fortune cookies on the sidewalk. And I left it well alone, I felt like Hercules in the treasure trove of the gods. You walk off with one of those … you might get struck by lightning.

AK: I don’t wander around as much as I used to because my legs don’t work as well as they used to, but I would walk up Stanyan, to the top of the hill, and then go up to Tank Hill, and then I’d wander down Tank Hill, down steps – there are a lot of hidden staircases, with canopies of leaves, you could be in Tuscany or the south of France – and then there’s a basketball court near the Randall Children’s Museum, I’d go there and shoot by myself, it was very quiet. And it was sheltered from the wind and fog this time of year, and I kind of used it as an office, because it was so quiet, and if I had a poem in my head, I’d just let it go through my head and go through my head and go through my head, and then I’d write it down when I got home. And then there’s a back way up a steep hill, a very beautiful view to the east, you can see the Mission spread out before you, Potrero Hill, all the way out to the East Bay and Mount Diablo on a clear day. And that was a piece of good fortune, to be able to do that in the middle of the city. It’s very close to the geographical centre of San Francisco. And sometimes I’d just walk over the hill to the Mission. It’s more gentrified now, but it’s always been the most vital part of San Francisco. The city can get a little twee in other neighbourhoods, but I’d walk over there and grab a burrito, and then I’d walk back, a circuit of about four or five miles. I was younger and fitter. I’d walk to Green Apple in the Richmond, buy some books, walk back through the park. Walk to the ocean. I like North Beach and Chinatown very much. And then there are parts of town I don’t like at all, that creep me out: the Marina, Pacific Heights, Noe Valley. A lot of it is just me, it’s chemical. There are cities I’ve visited where I nearly break out in hives. Minneapolis was one. I had to get out of there in a hurry.

JN: Is fame a good thing for a poet? Or for poetry?

AK: I wouldn’t know! Sometimes people tell me I’m famous, and I’m –

JN: Well, you just got recognised at the gym.

AK: Oh, that was just a local thing. Thom Gunn, who was a good friend, lived a couple blocks up the street, and if someone recognised him, or a storekeeper pulled out his name as if to say, ‘look who comes to our shop’, he would get enormously upset.

JN: Famous poets aren’t necessarily good poets.

AK: Right. You can’t walk around with that because then you get very self-conscious and nervous. ‘Well, if they all love me for my sonnet sequence, what are they gonna …’ I don’t think it does any good, and it’s a lot of work to cultivate and maintain. If it just happens to you, that’s one thing, though still problematic. But when I was much younger, I knew where I was if I went to a literary party in New York, how much attention I got: did girls come up to me, did people wanna shake my hand. And I was always surprised when people knew who I was. But that was just an experiment. I didn’t stick around, it makes me very uncomfortable. And the people who want to know you on that basis, I find off-putting.

JN: Is it a good idea for a poet to study meter and rhyme? Not formally, necessarily, but to grapple with it, in one way or another?

AK: Yes, it’s essential, particularly meter. If a poet can’t master the iambic line – which, unless you’re James Merrill, takes at least fifteen or twenty years – he can’t depart from that measure in any sustained or interesting way. Some may bridle at the notion, but they’d be misguided. Rhyme, too. Rhymes, or the repetition of sound, be it alliteration, assonance, what have you, is fundamental to poetry and its range of effects, and, I might add, to expressive prose, or a certain kind of expressive prose. You gotta ‘chime on time’!

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