Jesse Nathan Interviews August Kleinzahler

By | 1 November 2016

JN: So you read less poetry than you used to?

AK: Yeah. I don’t read a lot of new poetry. I used to read a lot more poetry, and I’d walk around as a kid with lines from Confucius to Cummings, Gasoline, the City Lights editions, Lunch Poems ringing in my head. All of which I enjoy revisiting. It’s not a casual thing, coming back across the poems, because bang, you’re suddenly back in an imaginative place you hadn’t been for many years. But what was attractive usually remains attractive or compelling, over decades. There’s some very good nonfiction out there: I like some of the late nineteenth-century work, early twentieth. I like Georgian prose. It’s often the style of something that I’m intrigued with. And I get impatient with narrative and plot and character development. Even if the nonfiction isn’t on something I’m terribly interested in, I like interesting prose, I like exploring other worlds and sensibilities.

JN: And you travel a lot. Since we’re talking in the pages of an Australian magazine, would you mind saying a few words about how you find the country?

AK: I’ve been several times. The first time was in the later eighties, for the Spoleto Festival. It was a very lively scene, a very boozy, smart, frolicking scene. And you know, when I went back twenty years later – after having visited a couple of times in between – it was dead as a doornail, all the bean counters had gotten control of the festival, now called the Melbourne Festival, luring the stiffs in from the suburbs for their culture injection, nobody was reading, everybody was on panels … Also, the country had turned dreadfully right-wing and stupider by half, nearly like us here, if not quite.

JN: Panels?

AK: Yeah, panels, that’s how they do it now, almost everywhere, and it was just awful. But Melbourne’s one of the cities I’m most comfortable in, and Sydney’s beautiful. They screwed Sydney up with the Olympics, now it’s one big parking lot, but still a magnificent city. Perth is dead odd, but if you’re a sailor, I’m sure it’s wonderful. I had a very good time in Australia, met some lovely people. I’m at home there. And Scripsi was very important, they published me in the eighties, and it was wonderful having that kind of outlet, it was like oxygen. No one else was much interested. Any literary magazine has a circumscribed shelf life, but that was a very rich time, I think, for Australian letters.

JN: I was reading about the gun control laws in Australia. They’ve gotten tough on guns in recent years, after a 1998 mass shooting, and these laws seem to have been incredibly effective. I think, to the world, the American gun fetish seems outlandish. It seems outlandish to me. I can never explain it to my friends in Europe, for instance. I can never quite explain it to myself – why guns are so important to so many Americans.

AK: I have friends who are hunters, who are gun people, but they don’t have automatic weapons, and they don’t walk around with pistols. The gun lobby in America is one of the most sinister forces in the country, of which there are many, and its power, even in the face of one catastrophe after another, means the Congress is financially beholden to the lobby, and the President – a dovish, relatively intellectual character like Obama – actually has to pretend he goes out shooting on weekends or whatever. It probably has something to do with America’s self-image. The Wild West. It’s a form of American madness.

JN: Before you travel somewhere, especially internationally, do you do a lot of research on the places you’re going?

AK: Yes, always: maps, travel literature, movies and novels set wherever it is I’m travelling to. I quite enjoy the whole prepping thing. But that doesn’t impede the free-flowing aspect at all, I find, only enhances it.

JN: I’ve recently been reading Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry. It seems to have been a major catalyst for many poets of a certain generation. Did it have an influence on you?

AK: Tremendous, tremendous. It was probably the most influential, well-thumbed book of my late teens, and certainly early twenties. It was like the Bible. And Donald Allen, who had worked at Grove Press for many years in New York, moved out here at some point, not long after the publication of the anthology. I think he lived just up over the hill there and set up a small press out here, Four Seasons Press or something like that. When I came out here for the first time, nosing around, a lot of those poets and that poetry was in my head. Duncan, Olson, Creeley, Dorn, Helen Adam, Brother Antoninus, Jonathan Williams, Ginsberg, Corso, Orlovsky, Schuyler, Ashbery, Whalen, LeRoi Jones, Ron Loewinsohn … A number of them lived here and I’d bump into them – Duncan, Loewinsohn, McClure, Ferlinghetti, Meltzer, Lamantia, Levertov – or someone would point them out to me.

JN: It’s quite a rollcall.

AK: Yes it is. I did a lecture for the William Carlos Williams Society about six weeks ago, and they wanted me to talk about Thom Gunn and Williams and the Bay Area angle. Williams was at Reed when Gary Snyder and Lew Welch and Philip Whalen were students there, and he electrified and changed everything for them. Williams is the presiding spirit behind The New American Poetry. There are lots of influences going on in that book, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French poetry, Whitman, and on and on and on. But none so much as Williams. It’s really the flowering of his influence, it’s all over the book, and that must have been part of the attraction for me.

JN: That’s an interesting pairing, Gunn and Williams. Did Gunn read Williams?

AK: Yes. Which would seem incongruous because of his own poetry, but Williams was hugely important to Gunn, and Gunn probably first encountered him with Yvor Winters down at Stanford.

JN: Gunn worked with Winters?

AK: Yes. At that point Winters had gone off Williams. But Winters, when he was younger, had been very enthusiastic about Williams. And he continued to believe Williams was important and he made sure his students were familiar with him. Gunn wrote the first important essay published in Britain about Williams, in the mid-sixties. ‘A New World: The Poetry of William Carlos Williams.’ Gunn at the time was wanting to move over in the direction of free verse, or at least try his hand at it, and he was powerfully drawn to poets like Williams and Stevens, but it was an extremely difficult transition for him, and so he went through an intermediate phase in which he wrote syllabic verse, like Marianne Moore. Counted syllables. The book that has a lot of his syllabic poetry is called Positives. It’s hard to find. It has photographs by his brother. Gunn used to say it was the one book nobody liked, and he felt rather sheepish about it. But some of the poetry is actually quite good. You could see Williams’s influence very much, also in the concerns, the treatment of mundane aspects of city life. It was really a great joy having Gunn as a friend and neighbour, and we spent a lot of time together, not here [at Finnegans Wake] so much, but in the French bistro next door. It was a wonderful friendship, about twenty years. I learned a lot from him.

JN: I want to circle back to the book on music. How did Music I-LXXIV come about?

AK: A good friend, Bill Corbett, started a press in Boston called Pressed Wafer. We were having lunch in Soho one day, at Finelli’s, a hamburger place we liked meeting at, and he said, ‘What if we put together a book of your music essays?’ I said, ‘Well, they’re kind of rough, I’d need to rewrite them,’ and he said, ‘Well, rewrite them.’ So I gathered about three-quarters of the essays I’d written over the years for The San Diego Reader. And I got to rework them all, and by this time I’d been writing for the London Review of Books and my prose had gotten better. Also my musical knowledge had consolidated and broadened over time. I rewrote seventy-five essays. It was extremely gratifying, because they really needed to be rewritten, and you don’t often get a second chance. I enjoyed that. And for many people this book is the most entertaining thing I’ve ever written. Some serious music people have even enjoyed it, too.

JN: I think it’s hard to write about music or visual art because, in my experience, you’re trying to render something that words are already inherently unable to capture. A painting is a painting because it’s a painting. Music is music because it’s not words, it can’t be words.

AK: Basically it’s impossible to write about music. It’s the very nature of the medium, it’s abstract, it’s ineffable. And if you write about it technically, it’s insufferable. So first you have to acquire a vocabulary for talking about it. And then you eventually run into your own limitations, but there’s the possibility of overcoming those limitations by reading and listening. So each essay was an adventure, because I wasn’t really a professional music writer. And this was pre-computer for me, so I was tearing around in books and libraries, and I would buy scores of music books. With each essay I learned a great deal, and it accumulated. By the time I rewrote them, I had a reasonable body of knowledge about different kinds of music, and I could make comparisons that weren’t loopy.

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