Michael Klein is an award-winning poet and author whose poetry collections 1990 and Poets for Life are winners of the Lambda Literary Book Award. He lives in New York City and teaches memoir writing in the summer program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
The Rumpus recently reviewed his latest book then, we were still living. The poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi sat down with Michael Klein to talk about this book, about the role of the poet as witness, and about sex in public places.
The Rumpus: There are a number of things I’m thinking about in terms of your book, then, we were still living, and one of them has to do with teachers and the stories we tell when we teach. I’m so blessed because – as I tell everyone – you were one of the most important teachers in my life. Maybe we can talk about the way we first met, which I think is a good story and a nice place to jump off from in terms of the book which is so much about what we learn from one another and also when we part from the people who taught us, for better or worse.
Michael Klein: Well, you were on the committee of students at Sarah Lawrence who interviewed writing faculty candidates – which totally shocked me – the fact that students could do something like that. And the first question you asked me was what are you reading? And I totally fell in love with you at that moment. I thought: that is most important question you can ask a writer and you saw me for who I was immediately in a place where I really wanted a job. And it was my first teaching job, mostly based on the fact that my first book had just been published and Tom Lux, who was running the poetry department at the time, liked the book and me, I guess. I had nothing on my resume except an MFA and one book.
Rumpus: And you had edited Poets for Life: 76 Poets Respond to AIDS before 1990 was published, right?
Klein: That’s right. Poets for Life was the first book I ever helped shepherd into the world and then my first book of poems came after that, which was about a lot of the same things I had been reading in the work I chose for that anthology. And 1990 was about – I have to say – Provincetown, which I completely fell in love with and had never been to until I was there at the Fine Arts Work Center on a fellowship.
And around the same time, I went to get an MFA specifically because I needed writers in my life and I had a book to write but I really hadn’t thought about teaching very much. And then to get a job at Sarah Lawrence – a pretty prestigious place to get a first teaching gig – was incredible and hard in a lot of ways because this was after the days of Jane Cooper and Grace Paley who would – or so I’d been told – take care of the writers on the faculty. The only real experience I had was with the students, with teaching. There was no hand holding. And thank God, no faculty meetings.
And this was the first time I was being a writer being a teacher and I didn’t know exactly what to teach except for what I was reading at the time or what I had already read. What I did feel, though, was that I had to tell students poetry was something important to read and just as exciting as any other more widely read kind of writing, even if they weren’t going to end up writing poetry. And, then, of course I scared everybody and told them that it was, actually, an art.
Rumpus: You and Mark Doty and Marie Howe were all teaching there at the same time and without knowing it, the students were all part of a kind of conversation that had been going on among all of you in your personal lives and in your poetic lives. I think we all became imbued with this notion that saying you read poems and that you wrote poems – that there was an inherent responsibility in that. I always say that you and Mark and Marie taught me how to be a citizen within the poem, and that’s also a kind of job.
Klein: And the conversation was not only about being a citizen in the poem, in the world, but how you could make poems – how students could make poems – as simple and vital as common speech and from their own lives; that you didn’t have to go to places completely unknown or “adult” in order to make a statement in poetry; that a life inside language was always interesting, no matter where you were in terms of chronological age. I had a nine year old once say to me that she wanted to be the white on Van Gogh’s paintbrush.
Rumpus: At Sarah Lawrence, I was a student who got there and was realizing for the first time that her mother had killed herself, even though it was years before. And one of the things I think now, which I don’t think I realized then, was one of the great gifts that the three of you gave was that you were all teaching during a period of time that was also a period of great loss in your lives and in the larger community. All your personal lives seemed to be in the middle of all that. You taught us about a lot of things –- not just poetry -– and that in itself was very powerful. It wasn’t something that was overtly spoken about and yet you all had this kind of rigor and compassion. You gave us a great gift by letting us be in your lives -– to watch you make art.