The Rumpus Interview with Michael Klein
Klein: Making poetry for me was so serious because it was the only relationship I was really having. I had friends, of course, but teaching and writing poems was how I survived amidst a lot of loss and sort of struggling with being a single gay man for so many years.
Rumpus: Since “1990”, you went on to build different worlds. You wrote two memoirs, “Track Conditions” about life on the racetrack and “The End of Being Known”, essays about sex and friendship -– both between your two books of poems. And those books of prose seem to me to be making an arc towards this latest book of poems which is a brave thing and something a lot of people don’t do: wait for the next book of poems to be ready. You also left one kind of teaching and began a different job as a legal assistant in a law firm, where there’s a kind of pragmatism that is different than the pragmatism of writing a poem.
Klein: Yes, the law firm, but I also still teach in the low residency program at Goddard College, where I’ve been for 15 years. I’ve always worked at law firms because I always knew I wasn’t going to make money as a writer and the law firm environment has always allowed me to go teach when and if I wanted to. Even when I was working at Sarah Lawrence full time, I still worked two days at the law firm. And, basically, I went to work because I didn’t think of writing as something you actually did to make money.
I come from a family that didn’t know what money was or how to use it and so it was important for me to figure out how to make money because I never knew when I was going to have to get a job. There was no sense of permanence or really being taken care of in any way because of my parents’ dysfunction around work, family, everything. So, weirdly or not weirdly, I developed this work ethic from an early age even when I was crazy and drug addled and still trying to be an artist.
So, yes, I have a full time job and I write on lunch breaks or at night or on the weekends. I don’t write every day and sometimes I don’t write every week. But, then, I look back and lo and behold there are four books I wrote which were all written when I had more than just that particular book going on, which sort of amazes me. And that in itself -– the work life informing the writing life -– has made for a kind of aesthetic of interruption and leap taking -– especially in the sentence making of my prose. My poems are, in a way, more conservative in terms of how the thinking moves through stanzas or whatever, and I almost always write a complete first draft when I sit down to write a poem -– which is never the way I write prose. Prose has me writing in these sort of disconnected paragraphs which I then find a way to connect.
And then, this new book of poems which took 17 years. There are new poems and very old poems in it. Aside from being influenced by a long bridge of time, it is also a book that is, in part, really informed by the events around September 11th. Marie Howe and Donna Masini and I spent the first weekend after the attacks at Holy Cross Monastery near Poughkeepsie, I think it is. I hadn’t written poems for a long time and I just sat on this amazing big hill that sloped to the Hudson River and wrote poems that felt utterly channeled. I’d never written that fast before or sort of blindly. I didn’t think I wanted to write about something so big, so they felt awkward but necessary at the same time. I was in a trance about living and subject matter -– lost but incredibly curious at the same time, the way I think we all were right then.
My work life and the other parts of my life -– they all inform the poems. And all the books, as I said, sort of just appear. The only time I ever sat down for an extended period of time was when I wrote “Track Conditions” -– and that was only because I had the summer off from teaching.
Rumpus: Back to teaching, for a minute. Two of the first people you had me read were Susan Mitchell who is constantly circling and “The Fear” by Robert Frost, one of the great poems in the world, about looking out at something and imagining what could be out there. So, it seems to me what you’re talking about is important both in the basic sense of young poets or poets in general thinking how am I going to do this? But also, how the life of the mind lives and if you live in one room -– only writing and thinking about writing, that limits the possibilities in your poems.
In your books of poems you discuss moments in which the culture has had something happen that forces them to look at themselves differently. Or, if they’re not going to look at themselves differently, that’s a conscious decision. We have the AIDS pandemic in the first book and then September 11th in the second book. Do you think about this notion of witness?
Klein: I think every poet does -– hopefully. I very much feel that even though I’m not a political poet, per se, I have to write about what’s happening in the world beyond my autobiography which is, of course, very strong in me and which, especially now, for whatever reason, I almost have to constantly resist. It all probably has to do with wanting to be a better writer.
Those memoirs, of course, we made out of autobiography -– that impulse. Once I was done and went back to poetry, I realized I just can’t do this again -– at least in the same way. And Adrienne Rich, in a letter long ago told me that I had the heart and mind to take the turn away from the purely autobiographical, which I did, which is why I dedicated the book to her.
There’s so much wrong that is going on right now that I feel like I have to speak to things that aren’t being spoken to. Gerald Stern says in an interview on this website that he can’t understand the narcissism in poems by young poets. We should be having demonstrations every day in this country, and if there isn’t a demonstration, we should use that energy in poetry -– of demonstrating, of resisting the almost casual and systematic removing of human rights, nature, art.
Eve Ensler and Adrienne Rich have always been living role models for me and old, dear friends. They have both made missions in the world to coincide with something other people call “career” and they would still have to do that work whether they were successful in the way the world normally defines success or not. And, of course, in different ways, they’ve changed the world. I bow at their feet. Every woman, I bow to, in a way because of how the world treats them. I wrote a commencement speech after September 11th called “Women Who Write the World” which basically said that men have controlled the world long enough and it’s time to turn it over to women and to start talking about how to make that happen.
Rumpus: Thinking about what we talk about and what’s not okay to talk about is deeply in line with what we think is okay to hope for and what isn’t okay to hope for. And this, it seems to me is a central issue in then, we were still living. What is it okay to hope for and what do we not allow ourselves to hope for?