Jesse Nathan Interviews August Kleinzahler

By | 1 November 2016

JN: The essays in Music I-LXXIV often touch on the music industry itself, but I want to ask about the poetry industry. How does the market, such as it is, affect the art?

AK: At the moment there’s a Stalinism-lite with regard to identity politics. Everyone is terrified of offending someone, particularly as regards colour or gender or sexual proclivity or those deemed disenfranchised in one way or the other, on pain of being excommunicated or consigned to the Gulag of Wrong Thinking. Let’s say, if you are a gifted African-American woman poet who doesn’t write explicitly about being African-American, or the experience of being a black woman in a white society, and in an aggrieved tone, with complaint or indignation the principle, if not exclusive, thrust of your poetry, you will be attacked, ridiculed, ostracised for not being true to your identity. And I think that’s a terrible situation. Poets shouldn’t feel bullied into being one-dimensional, or work in perpetual fear of transgressing sociocultural markers arbitrarily set out by the bien pensant police of the moment – who, I find, are oftentimes setting those markers in a calculated, self-interested way. It’s convenient to forget that many of history’s greatest artists, composers and writers were monstrous, both in nature and in attitude.

JN: You’re saying market forces drive that, reinforcing what certain people are supposed to be writing about?

AK: Yeah. And also you have this creative writing industry in which people really cultivate certain postures, poetic gestures, a kind of institutional decorum: how to succeed, how to get prizes, how to ingratiate yourself, how to get on committees, how to ingratiate yourself to people who get on committees, and it has nothing at all to do with poetry. And if the guiding passion of your life is poetry, this situation is horrific. (Passion!) But there are gratifications to be found. Those people who come through that highly professionalised realm and ‘succeed’ in the conventional or institutional sense, they’re not experiencing those gratifications. They may get the brass ring, whatever, but they’re incapable of experiencing the thrill of making something come alive in language, something that wasn’t there before. It’s an American thing. More than shooting stuff, it’s an American thing to monetise everything, to turn everything into a business, right? Religion, poetry, whatnot. We can’t help ourselves. The creative writing industry is really quite recent. And like Dutch elm disease, devastating.

JN: That’s a brutal comparison.

AK: But stuff still finds its way through the cracks. And there is some wonderful poetry being written in America today. My concern is how little of it now seems to be written by people under forty, what with the encroachment of device culture and the attendant distracting, distractions antithetical to what we’ve been talking about, antithetical to things like empty time, letting things connect – perhaps a bad word, given the context – over time. No matter how heroic, or how much fortitude and passion (oops …) and talent a young person has, there’s so much in the culture and society that’s discouraging, such a seemingly insurmountable set of obstacles. It was certainly there when I was coming up, often making the whole undertaking seem quixotic, at best. It’s likely even more difficult now, I suspect, what with the serious reading culture, along with the general culture, in freefall. Not a cheery thought, I’m afraid. Conversely, it’s an ancient human activity, making poems, and it’s going to continue to happen, like storytelling, or dancing, or music-making.

JN: What makes you happy? What are the delights in this life, for you?

AK: The usual. Food. Sex with someone you love, or love to have sex with. Drinking with an old friend. All the things that make any slob happy. But I think my greatest pleasure has always been writing a poem, and when you hit a vein, when you know you didn’t find it, it found you. Like coming on a mother lode after a hard slog. It’s thrilling. Like when you’re twelve years old and you hit a home run on a 3-2 count and everybody’s cheering.

JN: You don’t even feel the ball hit the bat.

AK: Yeah, like that, it’s wonderful. But if there weren’t that sort of reinforcement, that level of pleasure to be found in the act of writing, then why would one suffer all the humiliations and travails? So, writing poems – that’s what makes me really happy. And travel. Waking up in a new place with its own particular light in the morning. Taking in the architecture, aromas, the body language of the locals. Listening to music. Eating Chinese food. Same things as any Joe.

JN: Being in a place with light in the morning. I love that.

AK: When I think about it – and I’m getting on – sometimes I say to myself, ‘Well, what are you going to miss?’ One’s capacity for pleasure diminishes as you get older, but I’ll miss looking out the window in the morning, taking it all in. Whether the fog’s coming in, or the glint of a hummingbird in the garden. I’ll miss that. Actually I won’t be here to miss it. But I do enjoy it.

Thanks to Jake McCulley and Maura Reilly-Ulmanek for assistance with the transcription.

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