January 2005

Adam Travis


An Interview with August Kleinzahler

Some of August Kleinzahler’s prose gives the impression that he might be bad at keeping “the right kind of friends.” I mean he doesn’t tread lightly upon the literary vanity of his colleagues, and it may come as a surprise that he has nevertheless managed to do well for himself as a writer. In a review (not included in this book) of Garrison Keillor’s recent anthology, Good Poems, Kleinzahler made an unpopular show of force against the mind numbing rocking-chair sententiousness that the Prairie Home Companion stands for. I quote:

Now, had Keillor not “strayed off the reservation” and kept to his Prairie Home Companion show with its Norwegian bachelor farmers and Lutheran bake sales (a sort of Spoon River Anthology as presented by the Hallmark Hall of Fame), comfort food for the philistines, a contemporary, bittersweet equivalent to the Lawrence Welk Show of years past, I’d have left him alone. But the indefatigable and determined purveyor of homespun wisdom has wandered into the realm of fire, and for his trespass must be burned.

And burned he was. I work at the magazine (Poetry) that printed this review in April of 2004, and I’d like it to be known, to the credit of Mr. Kleinzahler, that the hate mail came in at least until late June. Rita Dove wrote to express her righteous indignation. Anonymous readers feared for delicacy and decorum. And yet there were others to whom the slash and burn of Kleinzahler’s shock and awe review was a salve to the polite dullness that has corrupted contemporary poetry. For just as long letters of thanks and praise came to the offices of Poetry. Finally, we have a man to burn our old bridges. Against all odds (namely the dull university domination of poetry), Kleinzahler has done well stirring up trouble. He writes often for Slate and The London Review of Books; Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishes his books.

There happens to be only one (relatively tame) piece of poetry criticism in Cutty, One Rock, but the biographical essays go a long way to show why Kleinzahler isn’t so inclined to play politics, least of all in the quads. For one, there are very few university poets to whom we cannot apply the adage, “Those who cannot do teach.” Second, pedantry and literary geek speak (i.e. deconstruction, dead authors, Marx, Freud, and French émigrés) turn out, in fact, to be far less interesting topics than Jersey, Frisco, gangsters, dive bars, jazz singers, and other so-called “seedy” etceteras. Remember that the full title of this collection of essays is Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained.

“Gently” is perhaps not always the best way to put it. Kleinzahler is a man who was partly raised in the company of tough guys, some of them gangsters. In one essay he reminisces the assassination of his childhood neighbor Albert Anastasia, head of Murder Incorporated, and father of his childhood play partner Gloriana:

I don’t suppose it was Tough Tony who brought little Gloriana to my parents’ house every day and babysat for the two of us while my mother went off shopping or visited friends. It was some other affectless gorilla with a shoulder holster. “Play-a nice, children,” he would say if things started going to hell in the sandpit. Apart from Gloriana and her mommy, it was my mother who was most saddened by Anastasia’s untimely death. For with him went the best babysitter on earth. Mother knew that if anything, anything at all, happened to either of us, the babysitter would have his dick shot off.

And along with the Jersey mobsters came the Jersey entertainers: Frank Sinatra, Buddy Hackett -- the kind of men whose work has become its own kind of Americana. How could any kid who grew up down the street from Hackett and heard “Frank” talked about with a kind of chummy familiarity, possibly escape taking a mildly formative interest in jazz and jokes? Even if he’d wanted to, Kleinzahler’s parents didn’t let him get away with not knowing his world as fully as possible. He tells the following story about his encounter with Hackett:

After dinner one night my parents told me to go get Buddy Hackett’s autograph. My parents had no interest in Buddy Hackett’s autograph. They hardly ever watched TV and were convinced I was mildly retarded because I did. No, they were sending me forth, in their endearing Jersey City way, as a trial balloon.

He was barely taller than I was, and I was seven years old. He was red-faced and breathing moistly and with some difficulty, like a toy bulldog on a sultry day. “Whuh da you want, kid?” he asked in one of America’s most distinctive voices. I identified myself, told him where I lived, and asked for his autograph. He glared at me, incredulous, for a few moments (I could sense the wife and maid cowering inside) and said, “Fuck you, kid; talk to my agent!” and slammed the door in my face.

But there’s more to Kleinzahler than a few amusing stories. The title essay of this book is one of the most beautiful accounts of suicide I’ve ever read. When Kleinzahler was a young college kid, his brother (a few years older) made the choice to take his own life. An experience like that probably makes a stronger impression on a person’s work than any strictly artistic influence, pop or otherwise. A man does not become a great artist for having lived through personal horror, but death -- and especially suicide -- has a way of strengthening one’s regard for work that matters, and weakening tolerance for everything else.

Mr. Kleinzahler briefly answered a few of my questions about death, literary loathsomeness, poetry, and his new book.

How did your brother’s death affect your writing?

I remember my brother's death steeled me in my resolve to be a poet, which at the time seemed, quite appropriately, a high risk enterprise. He loved risk so much that I thought it would honor his life, I guess, if I up'd the risk ante in my own life.

What, in your opinion, is the most horrible (or alternately, the most beautiful) suicide scene in all literature?

I can't think of any especially affecting suicide scenes in literature: the Shakespeare tragedy suicides come to mind, but theater moves me almost not at all in any direction. Perhaps the most vivid suicide in literature that comes to mind, or the one that stays with me, is Hart Crane jumping off the prow of the ship into the Gulf of Mexico. I find that all very moving and grand.

In general, what do you think are the most intolerable traits in a writer, either personally or in their work?

I dislike the infantilism and self-absorption of writers very much: the sense of entitlement, the prima donna behavior, the license to behave badly, even cruelly, because one is an artiste. Because academics also exhibit this sort of behavior, when you run across a writer/academic it all really starts getting big ugly.

If you could write a poem or a piece of prose that sounds like (or has the same feel or ethos of) any song, what song would that be?

I actually only recently wrote a poem based on a song. It's out now in the Winter '04 number of the Threepenny Review. It's based on the Johnny Mercer song "I Thought About You" and dedicated to the memory of Thom Gunn, a close friend and wonderful poet.

Your essays are full of gangsters, a couple of pop stars, some playgrounds, and a nice variety of nightclubs and bars. What do these places and people mean to your writing? Or, to put it another way, what do so-called “low” places and characters have to do with beautiful or “high” writing?

I like the movies. I like serious literature, serious music, painting, what have you. It's not unusual for me to go from a museum to a bar. I don't especially subscribe to the notion of a hierarchy in high and low culture. One nourishes the other. Snobs in this realm are inevitably hoisted with their own snobby petard.

Your prose seems to demonstrate a healthy loathing for dullness. Poetry readings these days often tend to be shockingly dull events. What would be your idea of a truly entertaining poetry reading?

A beautiful, naked 25 year old woman reading "Tintern Abbey" exquisitely well and in a Northumbrian accent.

Is there any poem you cannot imagine living without?

Basil Bunting's long poem "Briggflatts" has meant the world to me, not least hearing him read it aloud in a Northumbrian accent, and fully clothed.

If not writing, what do you think you might have done with your life?

I'm no good at anything else, but if I had the skill, I'd have loved to have been a jazz pianist, a bebopper in the '50s.