Jesse Nathan Interviews August Kleinzahler

By | 1 November 2016

JN: You drove a cab for a while. You must have great stories from those days.

AK: Not for very long, and they’re mostly sad stories. Drunks, driving old guys to the Veterans Hall, eight o’clock in the morning, they drink and play cards all day. I was rather intrigued by that aspect of life, that sort of low realism, at least when I was younger, but it quickly got old.

JN: Where did you drive?

AK: Victoria, British Columbia.

JN: What is the allure of ‘low realism’?

AK: I think it was the draw of noir fiction, Raymond Chandler, or people like Nelson Algren – an interest in the forgotten people, people who are mentally unstable, the alcoholic, the abandoned. It’s there but for the grace of God … You caught a break, or some advantage growing up. Occasionally over the course of my life I have felt myself tipping in a dangerous direction, or a pathetic direction. So one develops empathy for those who do actually succumb.

JN: It’s a thin membrane.

AK: Yes, that’s a word I’ve often used for it.

JN: And there’s nothing but luck really. Lucky to be here and not –

AK: There?

JN: – sleeping under a bush by the 4H building. There’s a funny story in your collection of music essays about the time long ago in Juneau when you tried to drunkenly climb on stage and meet a hero of yours, John Lee Hooker. The security guard tosses you back into the crowd, from the platform. You go on, in the piece, to paint a portrait by way of elegy for the man B B King said ‘plays the blues like I heard ’em when I first started to play’. You mention, though, that eventually Hooker ‘had compromised with the marketplace and recorded with popular white blues bands’. What was the compromise?

AK: What an impertinent brat! He was more than entitled later in life to ease off a bit and make some money. I suppose the compromise was to move away from what B B King first heard early on in Hooker’s career and toward a de-fanged, looser, more commercially palatable sound, i.e. for a middle-class white audience in thrall to an idea of the ‘black experience’. That’s not the audience he was playing for when B B first ran across him.

JN: One thing that stands out about your writing is the specificity of the language and the range of vocabulary. ‘The Strange Hours Travelers Keep’ begins with a list that includes ‘Treasure spewing from Unisys A-15 J mainframes’. That line sort of blew my hair back, what little is left of it. Do you know these arcane terms already, for the most part, and then the context to deploy them eventually appears, and the word is there at your tongue? Or do you write a poem and slowly find the vocabulary, and do research, read technical literature and dictionaries and that sort of thing?

AK: Yes, the latter. I’ve certainly done that with regard to a lot of medical and scientific allusions. I used to print out articles from the medical journals for the research docs for a couple of years when I worked up at UCSF. So I’d be spending a lot of time in the stacks, and reading Scientific American. And then I went on a bender: in the basement of the medical library they had every issue of Scientific American from 1944 or whenever, and I’d pull what was of interest to me and photocopy it. I had a photocopy card for my job that was defective and never ran out or had to be topped up, and I was pretty much alone down there, and so could copy as much as I wanted, and I accumulated a vast library of Scientific American articles on subjects that I was interested in. One day I was madly photocopying – I could do the work I was being paid to do in a couple of hours, I’d do it very fast and then I’d need to kill time for six hours – and I was standing there in this tiny, airless room, in a far corner, and four guys walked into the room, in suits, very serious, and they say, ‘Alright, we understand what’s going on here, and you can give us the card, you can surrender the card, and we’ll let it go at that.’ So I meekly turned over the card. I do like technical terms. A friend of mine who lives in lower Manhattan, Larry Joseph – Lawrence Joseph, the poet – was talking about the systems by which vast sums of money are held and/or transmitted back and forth – Federal Reserve money? international reserves? – I don’t remember the specifics. It’s in an actual place. It’s a building that has this huge computer, where hundreds of billions of dollars, trillions of dollars circulate. And so I don’t think Larry said ‘Unisys’ specifically, but certainly the conversation with Larry was generative. I think I just explored it from there. I read something about the mercantile market in Chicago, and so the poem was a composite of things, about all these electronic signals, money moving through the firmament. And when I found out where I was going with it, I needed to know the name of that computer, which is probably obsolete now.

JN: In another poem you mention ‘porcelain isolators’. Such an exact and perfect word, ‘isolator’.

AK: I was teaching a course called ‘The Poet in the City’ – it was a course about modernism I’ve taught several times. That was in Providence. I took the kids on this field tour of a power plant.

JN: In a poetry class?

AK: A literature class, chiefly about the poetry of urban life. And the more interesting kids got something out of it. I certainly got a lot out of it. I phoned up and arranged a formal tour, and then I read up on power plants, so I knew all the elements, the piping and so forth, and how it worked. The poem is a love poem. That features a power plant.

JN: Do you read a lot of nonfiction?

AK: Primarily.

JN: More than other genres?

AK: Oh, yeah. My reading habits are curious. At any given time, I’m reading about twenty books, and they’re piled up all around me, to my wife’s annoyance. And I despair. They sit there almost like a rebuke: ‘You can’t finish anything, you just get further and further behind.’ And then one day – and sometimes it takes years – I finish them all. One day I wake up and they’re all finished. And then I feel triumphant, and redeemed. So, this morning I made a list of twenty books that I’m currently reading.

JN: Do you want to say the titles?

AK: Sure. Silent Conversations by Anthony Rudolf, a big fat book by a very small press, the record of an English writer, publisher, scholar – his readings and enthusiasms, chiefly, but also music and so forth. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, Pedigree by Patrick Modiano, The Film Explainer by Gert Hofmann, who is Michael Hofmann’s father, he’s quite wonderful. Vertigo by W G Sebald, The Selected Letters of C G Jung, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, Rose Alley by Jeremy M Davies, and Fancy by Jeremy M Davies, who’s my prose editor at FS&G at the moment. He’d been at Dalkey Archives for ten years before that, a brilliant writer. Furies: War in Europe, 1450–1700 by Lauro Martines, Pen Portraits and Reviews by George Bernard Shaw, Cherokee by Jean Echenoz, Jung: A Biography by Deirdre Bair. I just finished Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner, a wonderful Australian writer and good friend. September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle by Peter Levinson.

JN: A number of biographies.

AK: Yeah, I like the genre. Memoirs, biographies. I’m reading more fiction at the moment than I customarily do. I’m also a great one for compendia, dictionaries, encyclopedias …

JN: Do you read much poetry?

AK: I read very little poetry.

JN: Why is that?

AK: A lot of it’s not worth reading, and a lot of it I’ve already read. A friend of mine, Steve Emerson, recently showed me a little thing he wrote about James Schuyler, and so I pulled my Schuyler ,em>Selected off the shelf and started reading and then quickly dropped it, like a hot potato, because it was so overpoweringly good, and I’d forgotten, I hadn’t read him in a while, I’d forgotten how important he was to me. And I was writing something else at the time, and I just couldn’t deal with it, I couldn’t enter back into that. And then I had to, because Jeremy Davies had just queried me about a piece in the new book that I had written for the London Review of Books about Schuyler’s letters, so I was compelled to dive back in. It was a funny experience. He’s one of my very favourite writers, at least earlier on in his career, but it was like running into a girl you used to know and were mad about: it’s bad news. You think, ‘Whew, I’m on the other side of that,’ however exciting it may once have been, and then you see her walk into the bar and you go, ‘Whoa, I’m getting out of here!’

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