August Kleinzahler is a distinguished American poet who is currently a visiting fellow at the Gould Center.
This semester, Kleinzahler is teaching a six-week poetry seminar at CMC titled “Speed, Compression, Kablooey: Paris, New York and The New Poetries.” Kleinzahler has won numerous awards and fellowships. Allen Ginsberg has described him as a someone whose “verse line is always precise, concrete, intelligent, and rare. A loner, a genius.”
I am currently enrolled in his class and have had the privilege of interviewing him for the Forum.
Q: I am currently enrolled in your poetry seminar, and whenever people ask me about it, I find myself referring to you as a poet rather than my “professor.” Have you done much teaching before? And if so how have you balanced your two roles?
I’m delighted that you refer to me as a poet and not a professor, and honestly, I’m something of an impersonator in my current role. I teach maybe every seven years, (it’s almost biblical) and I enjoy it very much. It’s interesting for me to be around young people and see what they are thinking about because it changes; the culture is changing very rapidly now. And because I don’t have children of my own, I really lose track of where young people are at. Their habits of reading and thinking and communicating are interesting.
Q: So you have been teaching for a while. As a professor of literature, have you noticed changes in the way students have engaged with writing and reading over the years?
Kids today seem no less bright to me. There is—of course there is change. On the superficial level, people are reading on screens and writing on screens. But on a deeper level, I also do suspect that their reading habits are quite different. I have visited some schools and noticed that children aren’t reading the romantics and the metaphysical poets like we did in high school. And that freaks me out. When I got excited about writing poetry, it was because of poets like Keats and Browning. And if kids [aren’t] reading that, what are they reading?
Q: Speaking of changing worlds, I am told that you have received your first mobile phone less than a month ago. Have you maintained a conscious distance from information technology? And if so, why?
It’s true. Technology is fabulous; it has unquestionable merits. But it has liabilities, as well. The amount of information we have access to is a wonderful resource, but it eliminates a number of steps that include thinking and memory and association, and I think it makes the mind rather lazy (there is some evidence now that shows that technology is changing the chemistry of the brain in real time).
Q: So you think such technological change is having an effect on literature?
It has created a culture of distraction. And that’s the big challenge for writers now. The audience for things like fiction is much diminished, and the novelists are feeling hard-done by. But as a poet I don’t have much sympathy for them (as they have always had the big audiences and we had to survive under the radar). I also believe that poetry will survive the new information technology revolution because it’s more closely whetted to song and dance and the body and speech and the rhythms of speech and breathing. And it takes less long to happen. You can create an environment or even a narrative in short hand in a few strokes, really. You can do what takes a novelist a few hundred pages in a few lines. Poetry can retain its significance and vitality. And I know novelists are going to be very aggravated to read this.
Q: On the subject of prose, I read that an English editor of yours encouraged you to write essays (when you were only a poet). You have since published writing in the form of both poetry and essays. How do you approach these different forms?
It’s a challenge—because it’s a very different mental exercise. I can’t do both simultaneously. I have to stop doing one, and then it takes me a long time to turn around and do the other. It’s kind of like turning an oil tanker in the ocean. They require different psychological states of the mind. I came later to prose, so it feels less naturally to me. Every poem involves a lot of difficulty, but it comes more naturally.
Q: You are currently teaching a poetry seminar. But have you ever taught creative writing (either prose or poetry) before, and do you think that such skills can be taught?
I have, and really don’t like it. I don’t think one can teach poetry. You can make suggestions to a young poet to read this or that, recommend habits of thought and reading and application. But poetry is either in you or it isn’t. It seems to require a psychological pressure that pushes you out from the normal orbits so that you look at the world rather differently. It’s a strange way of looking at the world, especially in America, where everything is institutionalized. It’s nonsense to believe that going through a program and learning the tricks from established great writers makes you come out as a poet. Prose, on the other hand, has more mechanical components. Skills such as controlling the development and arc of characters and plots can be taught (far more than poetry at least). There are only about a dozen poets in a language at a given time. But there are probably several hundred writers who can tell a story at a very high level. I know that this doesn’t sound very democratic. But sports aren’t democratic. And why people should not think this true of arts probably says something about our society’s values.
Q: What made you not give up when you decided to pursue poetry?
Older poets whom I admired told me that I had talent. I couldn’t have done it without that encouragement. In retrospect, it was very foolhardy. Like following a sniff of something into the woods. The wolves are baying and the dogs are howling and soon you realize that there is no way to get out of here. So you have to keep gong and hope for the best.
Q: Success must have felt great.
When I was young and had my first book published, it felt glorious. It was thrilling to have a book with my name on it. I used to sleepy with a copy under my pillow. In my later forties, I was taken up by Faber and Farrar-Strauss (the two big poetry publishing houses) and hence started getting serious attention and winning prizes. That was a different kind of excitement. I had become an established poet, and people “resented” me for that. It was fun being resented because I struggled so long to get to that place.
Q: I know this is cliché, but any parting advise for aspiring poets or writers out there?
Good luck. I never encourage anyone to do poetry. It’s a very difficult way to be in the world, even if you happen to be talented (which is very rare) and you have the strength of will to pursue it for twenty years to become a master of your craft. Don’t even think about it unless you love it and you can’t help yourself. Otherwise, learn Cobalt computer language or whatever.