An Interview With Poet August Kleinzahler

Claudia La Rocco

In November, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish August Kleinzahler's eleventh book of poetry, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep. A loner and a traveler himself, Kleinzahler has avoided the cloistered life of academia for stints as a logger in British Columbia, a political commentator in Germany and, most recently, a music columnist for the San Diego Weekly Reader.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Kleinzahler how he engages the reader as he travels through the strange places his poems inhabit.

August Kleinzahler: Well, I hope that the reader trusts me. I never try to be gratuitously difficult. I think a lot of people use difficulty as a gesture of the avant-garde: If you have nothing to say you can hide behind difficulty. Then there are poets who are extremely difficult and extremely rewarding.

There was a poem of mine recently in the New York Times about a sleeping dog, and it seemed obvious to me that that's what it was, it was just about a sleeping terrier whom I knew and had slept with—chastely. And I thought, well, this is a good thing because it's one of my more accessible poems and it's going to be in the Times and people will read it in dentists' offices and so forth, but most people either didn't understand it or thought the dog was a symbol of something else. [Laughs.] But it was just a sleeping dog. It never occurred to me that it was difficult, and I think it never occurs to quite a few writers.

My difficulties are usually not with allusions from mythology or antiquity or the Bible. They often have to do with the lived-in world, or peculiar slangy locutions that aren't necessarily peculiar to me but might be unfamiliar to others. I don't know if I do it consciously but it's been pointed out to me often enough—I mix registers, I mix tonalities, so people are never quite sure—is this funny, or is this sad, or is this a cruel satire, or what's he going to do next?

P&W: I was surprised to learn you are sometimes considered a humorist—many of your poems are fantastically funny, but I would never label you a humorist.

AK: Partly that's a rap from a very kind review Helen Vendler did in the New Yorker years ago, in which she said I was essentially a comic poet. She was wrong. But I think there's a mannerism of solemnity that is pervasive in contemporary poetry that people mistake for gravitas. So, when you partake of that particular register, you're putting your entire enterprise into question. Are you then a serious poet or are you a Billy Collins sort of poet, full of pleasant whimsy.

P&W: But your humor isn't whimsical.

AK: Occasionally it is—probably when I was younger it was more whimsical. I've probably grown harsher and coarser. It's all calculated; if it's going to be coarse or whimsical or whatnot, it's supposed to blend in with other registers.

P&W: One of the registers you use very well is rage.

AK: I think anger is another register that people get very upset about, because poetry is supposed to be very genteel. I certainly have anger and rage in me, along with these other things—so do we all.

P&W: You've made no secret of your disdain for the abundance of MFA programs, and the poetry 'industry.'

AK: Well, it's made a mockery of American poetry. It's been subsumed by the creative writing corporation of America. It became a business in the sixties. Universities needed money, and creative writing programs were moneymakers. And it grew, sort of like kudzu, until it became this strange institutionalized nightmare that has nothing to do with creative literature or anything else. It exists as this bizarre, quarter of a billion dollar pyramid scheme: Go out there and express yourself and you'll be confirmed in your self-esteem and you'll get your little prize and maybe even a publication.

P&W: And get on a committee.

AK: And get on a committee. It's not just a joke abroad. My novelist friends who read poetry 30 years ago don't read poetry now. And the people writing the poetry don't care. It's a business.

The people who control the engines of reputation are not merely corrupt, they're blinkered and ignorant. Most of the famous people, the people getting MacArthurs and Pulitzers and whatnot, are not very good at all, or they're competent craftsmen. What little good writing there is—and there's never a lot—is drowned out.

In the late nineties, I went around to different campuses. I enjoyed the travel and being with young people but it was very difficult to do anything, particularly in the fancier programs, because they were so professionalized. You'd get these kids—they'd already arrived as a package. It was extraordinary. And I thought, my God, who has interfered with these children? [Laughs.] They should be brought up on charges.

I don't mind teaching undergraduates; in fact I enjoy it. I'd rather teach a survey than a creative writing thing.

P&W: That way you don't have to read...

AK: The students' work? That's something they should do at home in the privacy of their own bedrooms. There's this sense of entitlement in these programs, that thousands of kids have the talent to write. Serious people will tell you that you can teach an entire lifetime and never come across anyone with talent. Most people who persist with it and have the gift have something wrong with them. They don't have to be suicidal and drunkards and that cliché, but there's usually some sort of extreme psychological situation that pressures language into original poetry. It's not a pretty thing. It's not a nice thing. It's a very destructive thing.

P&W: The forces that compel you to write?

AK: The forces. The writing's fun, it's a release. If you can bring it off it's like particularly wonderful sex. But it's not a thing that can thrive in an institutional context. Only in America would someone come up with that.

P&W: I take it then, that you're not a regimented, get up at the crack of dawn and write every day type of guy?

AK: Not for poetry. But if I'm involved in a poem, everything else comes to a stop. It's like a trance. It's very exhausting.

P&W: But thrilling.

AK: Oh, absolutely. Prose writers can only imagine.