(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in January 2005)
August Kleinzahler was one of my favorite interviews. This tough New Jersey-born poet had been writing verse for 35 years when a gorgeous book of his essays gave him more mainstream attention. In our interview at the West Side's Cupcake Cafe, Kleinzahler took his gloves off to mock the overproduction of poetry MFAs with more entitlement than talent and to excoriate awards committees where, he argues, the fix is in. This former journeyman poet, who long ago pulled on his master's apron, isn't afraid to throw punches in real life.
By Dylan Foley
When August Kleinzahler saunters into a Hell’s Kitchen restaurant in Manhattan, the 56-year-old poet fills up the room with his presence. He’s a man of average height, with a barrel chest and rugged good looks. It is the walk, though, the swagger with a certain pugnacious confidence that sets him apart.
After 35 years of writing poetry and 10 books of published verse, Kleinzahler has made a critical splash with his collection of autobiographical essays, “Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained” (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $19). The book details growing up in 1950s Fort Lee, New Jersey, being raised by the family dog and having Murder Inc. boss Albert Anastasia’s bodyguard as a babysitter.
“I was just in the backyard with Anastasia’s daughter Gloriana,” says Kleinzahler of his toddler years. The goon babysitter “wasn’t a particularly nurturing guy...he’d just try to keep us from throwing sand in each other’s eyes. He was trying to make sure that nobody killed Anastasia’s daughter.” To Kleinzahler’s mother’s chagrin, the free babysitting dried up when Anastasia was murdered in a mob hit in Manhattan.
Kleinzahler’s essays were first published to great acclaim in the London Review of Books. In one hysterical piece, Kleinzahler tells of growing up with future Tony Sopranos, where the “No. 4 Elementary School in Fort Lee was like a theme park for Tourette’s Syndrome.”
With wit and potent imagery, Kleinzahler chronicles his life as a journeyman poet traveling across America and settling in San Francisco. The center of the book, however, is his gorgeously written essay on the downward spiral and death of his closeted gay gambler brother Harris more than 30 years ago. Without melodrama, Kleinzahler’s elegy to Harris as he disappears in a haze of booze and drugs is like a solid punch to the forehead.
At the end of his essay on Harris, Kleinzahler writes, “I miss having someone like that in my life. I miss him like a limb.”
“I knew that when I was wrote that line, it sounded strong and I was (taking a risk),” says Kleinzahler. “Some people told me to get rid of it, and they were wrong. It was very emotional. In writing the piece, there was obviously something going on cathartically.”
It seems that Harris may have been destined for a wild, short life. “A large part of it was the temperament he was born with,” says Kleinzahler. “He was noisy in the womb and always getting into all kinds of hell when he was a small child. My mother told me the story of the first time he was the ocean. He ran right into it and it knocked him down. There are creatures like that.”
The four decades of work as a poet helped shaped Kleinzahler’s finely crafted prose. He writes of his local bar in San Francisco, and the old-style cranky barman, the perfect martinis and conversation. In Kleinzahler’s deft hands, a bus trip through the garish strip malls of San Diego is an exotic adventure of words and images.
“I had written some light pieces for the London Review of Books,” says Kleinzahler, whose previous prose work had involved music review work for a San Diego paper. “I had never written any prose with heat and density. Without being self conscious about it, I was able to use some of the things I do with poetry like voice, to bring that over.”
“All these things operate at different levels of my brain. It is like drilling for water,” he notes. “If you don’t make it by 90 feet, you are paying a lot of money. Poetry is the deepest, then right up above that is serious prose, then the charming prose.
Throughout the memoir, Kleinzahler proud and sometimes comical Jersey roots come out. At one point, a San Francisco panhandler he’s given money to says, “Thanks New Jersey.”
“I was nicely dressed, a younger middle-aged man than I am now. There is this kind of tough guy swagger. If you differentiate it from the New York swagger, I’d say it is more ape-like,” he says laughing. “Recently, I was up for a big prize in England. My editor said that since I wasn’t there, if I won, he’d read one of my poems. He’s a very soft-spoken Irish guy. I said, ‘You’d have to read the poem in a New Jersey accent. If you are at sea, think Tony Soprano.’”
In looking at the modern poetry world, Kleinzahler sees it as marred by troops of newly minted MFAs with more sense of entitlement than talent.
“I’ll tell you how poetry is doing today,” says a blunt Kleinzahler. “I think the best poet in the country lives four blocks from here, a guy named Michael O’Brien. He’s a quiet man in his mid-60s. His books are out of print. Nobody knows who he is. You’ve got thousands of very aggressive, highly professionalized, talentless kids pouring out of MFA programs around the country, filling up the magazines and competing for prizes. They have no conception that work like O’Brien’s exists. There is some interesting poetry around, but it gets buried alive by these masses who are trained in promotion.
“It takes 20 years, if you have talent, to work through your influences as a poet,” says Kleinzahler. ‘There aren’t a dozen poets writing today who will be read 50 years from now, but there are thousands of people pouring out of MFA programs who think they are entitled to call themselves poets because they have their degrees.”
Though Kleinzahler has received fellowships and awards like the prestigious Griffin Prize himself, he sees so much of the problem in the poetry world as the corruption at the top, the “engines of reputation,” the award committees who give out the major grants and fellowships like the Guggenheims, the MacArthurs.
“The people on these (prize) committees are not on these committees by accident,” says Kleinzahler. “They trade favors and pay favors. If you look at the committees, you’ll see gangsters and whores. It’s corrupt.
For Kleinzahler, poetry can be a bit of a blood sport. A few years back at a Manhattan reading, he wound up in a fist fight and getting a black eye in the course of defending the honor of poetry and his father’s jacket.
“It was at the Ear Inn in Manhattan,” says the poet. “There was a loud drunk at the bar,” talking over the readers. “I was wearing this coat of my father’s, a typical loud New Jersey sports jacket. I told him to shut up. He told me, ‘Screw you and that ugly sports jacket.’ After a few drinks, I was feeling sensitive about my father. I dragged him outside. I got him on the ground and was pounding him. Everybody was horrified.”
Dylan Foley is a writer from Brooklyn, NY.