The Rumpus Interview with Michael Klein


Klein: I think the important hope is one for some kind of sustainable future while resisting what’s comfortable, in a way -– what comes too easily and how the media and military complex saturate our collective consciousness.  E.E. Cummings said, “almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody but yourself.”  So, anything that is keeping you from being your most authentic self is something not to hope for.  The authentic self is the only place poetry should come from anyway.  It has nothing to do with finding subject matter -– having to search for it.  In some ways, you should always know what your subject matter is, i.e., what’s important to you.

When I think of hopefulness, I immediately think of intimacy.  Hope and intimacy are close in meaning to me.  One of the missions of the book was to talk about ways in which we’re intimate and ways in which we’re afraid of intimacy, which I think is pretty much the way I experience the world.  And everything in the world it seems to me is a manifestation of that.  That, and you’re either in living or in dying.  Living isn’t only about being in the world, it’s about making something happen to the world.

Rumpus: Your first book is really about living in a world where it feels like everyone is dying.  It’s everywhere.  And in this book, there are also all kinds of deaths, but they have a bigger range in terms of the material and psychic death that seems to be happening throughout the culture.  Both books are elegies or odes to keeping going.  And because they’re spaced far apart, I wonder if they are hoping for different things?  Not just the speaker, but the poet himself, who is at a very different place in his life.

Klein: I think the hope in the first book is that I will survive all the dying around me, and the hope in the second book is will I survive in the world at large.  The world at large wasn’t in my first book, which, as I said, was very autobiographical.  There’s a poem in that book called “Scouts”  with the last line:  “whoever expects acceptance doesn’t want to be known”-– which is what that book was about, too:  the mistake of taking anything for granted.

then, we were still living has a much bigger canvas.  One of the things that September 11th did was make the world small enough to see all at once.  It was with that kind of looking and that kind of energy that I came to these poems.  Amazed, exhilarated and hurt.  And, if I wasn’t channeling literally, I wanted to be.  I really wanted get out of my own voice in a way and just transcribe.  The pared down language, of course, is intentional.  I felt like a self that didn’t know it could actually write and, at the same time, was looking for a new language for a new subject.

Rumpus: New subjects and older subjects.  One of the many things I’m interested in, too, about the book is how it speaks to public space and the things that happen in public spaces which we never thought possible -– which is how I thought of September 11th.  I would see those buildings every night when I walked down my street in Brooklyn -– a huge public space in New York, but also cold and distant.

As queer people, the other relationship we have to iconic spaces and public spaces is that it’s where we’re often found having sex.  I’m really interested in “Five Places For Sex” in your book and how it is really about public sex; and that idea coupled with the profound political tragedy that happened within a public space.  There’s this very interesting notion that there were always things going on in these spaces that nobody ever knew about.

Klein: The shortest poem in the book -– about the thief that took something from the World Trade Center mall so he could give it back to the world instead of keeping it -– it’s that kind of sensibility -– where nothing has value -– that makes public space a site of anonymity, which, of course, is also what all the sex that happens there is about.

I had a project that I never completed which was to write a book called “50 Places For Sex” and I got to five, and then I stopped.  Those five places are real places, though, for me in my own life.  In an early version of the manuscript, a lot of people didn’t think “Five Places For Sex” belonged, but then I put it in the middle so that they were bookended by the other pages and that felt completely right.

It’s not particularly titillating to me -– to write about sex, which is probably why I write about it in the first place.  It’s documentary and crucial to my being and, obviously, an important aspect to gay culture -– though, of course, like all pleasure, it’s too important and shouldn’t be the thing that identifies us, really.  My friend Ricky Ian Gordon sums it up like this:  there used to be a time when men aspired to be Michelangelo.  Now, they aspire to be David.

Rumpus: One of the things that happens by the end of the book is that this speaker, in the midst of all these poems, becomes kind of traditional.  I mean that in a positive way.  He allows himself a certain type of happiness and the architecture of the book begins with a kind of disassembling of all sorts of things:  the body, the political life.  Then, in the end, we have this image of -– not the self -– but the partner making something:  “Saturday:  spring begins/my lover’s saw/cutting cleaner//then deeper./He is remodeling/the kitchen.”  That’s a really different world than “You can keep your shining/money — worthless, hidden,/unreachable.  Dear Lord,/unlit, we’re made of bread,”  which begins the book.  Everything at the beginning of the book is scattered and at the end, there’s something really mundane happening.  It’s very Whitmanesque, in a sense.  Things come back.  Even things we didn’t know that could come back, come back. Could you talk a little bit about form and domesticity?

Klein: Which goes back to your earlier question about what we can hope for.  And I think one of the things that is resolved -– if that’s the right word -– at the end of the book, is the fact that in all this dissonance and maybe looking too hard at the world, there is a something to be said for watching your lover sawing wood.

Rumpus: And there’s that incredible moment in the poem “Happiness” that keeps it from being melodramatic where you see the lover’s face darkening in ways that you still can’t comprehend.  It’s saying:  Ah, there’s still mystery.  There’s always going to be mystery.

Klein: Yes, mystery.  And happiness.  Well, you know I fall in love in this book.  And I fell in love before at the end of “The End of Being Known” which was my last book.  I fall in love more completely in this book because the relationship has now gone on longer.  It’s the presiding feeling:  here I am, single for 15 years, I’m now in this relationship and totally in love and dealing with the world in a place where it’s never been before.  That’s where then, we were still living comes from:  love that resists mere contentment.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Apocalyptic Swing, and Rocket Fantastic. Calvocoressi's poems have been published or are forthcoming in numerous magazines and journals including The Baffler, the New York Times, POETRY, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Tin House, and the New Yorker. Calvocoressi is an editor-at-large at Los Angeles Review of Books, and poetry editor at Southern Cultures. Calvocoressi teaches at UNC Chapel Hill and lives in Carrboro, NC, where joy, compassion, and social justice are at the center of their personal and poetic practice. More from this author →