These remarks were exchanged between Michael Klein and Douglas A. Martin during a drive down U.S. Route 91, on June 29, 2012.
Michael Klein: I don’t think about audience at all.
Douglas A. Martin: No ideal reader, no. . .? I know you feel you have to reveal, you have to give something in your poetry. How do you define the status quo?
MK: I mean obviously what is present in the culture at large and what is seen in culture and what the culture dictates. And almost everything the culture dictates I resist.
DM: Do you want to stay outside or do you have some dream of getting inside?
MK: No, I want to be outside.
DM: I want to believe that poet equals queer. For me there’s little impetus to write a poem if there’s not going to be something in there a reader has to come up against, either accept or experience having resistance to, a kind of implicit dialectic, I guess. Is that avant-garde? Do you think of yourself as a minority writer?
MK: Identity, if that’s the right word, comes and goes for me, honestly. But I do think that queer is a kind of thinking—I think about things that people who are not queer don’t think about. There are certain qualifications I have that make me an outsider, and that’s the most important one. So everything sort of emanates from there.
DM: Some poems are to me about the desire to have a record of a certain thought process. I’m really struck by the way you think in a poem. You carry it through time. It seems like you do find an access point, where the thinking can proceed from. I’m more a hunter-gatherer.
MK: You’re more open in a lot of ways, too. Speaking somewhat to accessibility, I also feel conscious of this writing the poem over and over again. Also I’m very conscious of trying, really trying to do something different each time, every time to a certain degree.
DM: Like this thing you’re trying to catch you might catch differently each time? But it doesn’t have to be full-blown meaning? What about writing to get laid? When you were younger? Now the concerns are just bigger?
MK: Yeah. Do you still think like that? Have you thought like that?
DM: My mode in the past has tended to be writing to some beloved, complicated by the fact that we usually are already involved, and then issues around language, my things like not believing in stable subjects.
MK: Now that you mention it, my poems to the beloved are named. I’ve written five poems to Andrew that have his name in them, and interestingly enough, every time I write one of those poems I never have a problem getting it published.
DM: There’s another person that this matters to, and that gives the reader an entry point. There’s still something that needs to be said, this thing that needs to be expressed, right? When I first started writing, something would be a poem if I still wanted to address it after noting particulars in my diary. It’s when I want to privilege other things, emotionality not in literalness exactly, music more than other things, when I want a place where affect gets triggered by sound strings, categories fall away.
MK: Often when people say the poem is inaccessible what they’re really saying is that they’re afraid of it.
DM: What about your first access to poetry, the moment you got it, what you were going to be doing as a poet? Or when you first had this recognition with another person’s work, that here was something to structure life around?
MK: I know exactly. It was the book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. My mother was reading it. I realized the title was a metaphor. I didn’t know it was called that at the time, but it fascinated me. I totally understood what it meant. I got it immediately, and knowing that was kind of scary but something I wanted to follow.
DM: Immediacy you found provoking. You got that there was another language.
MK: Exactly. And it was gorgeous. It was beauty that sold me. To this day that is the most important thing to me as a writer. To make something beautiful. Now they call it something else, they call it lyrical. The lyric impulse is absolutely essential to me as a writer. I don’t care how wild it gets. I still want a moment when I’m dazzled by the height of language.
DM: You’re not into noise. When I first started really working at poems one of the things I was interested in, a kind of goal, was to put the phenomena of feedback into poems, like here’s where the guitar or whatever gets too close to the source. I do want to hear you talk a little bit about poetry in relation to music, particularly the kind of music you like, jazz.
MK: I always think about improvisation. But also after a while the improvisation becomes a set pattern, and then the pattern goes off. . .and there’s no form. . .In any improv, real improv, there’s no a-b-a, there’s no form. There’s no repeat section necessarily, but there are solos. I think how a solo is a kind of voice, not feedback, but another dimension, but it’s still part of a whole. It’s singling something out. Something opens out from that being single. Something radiates from the core certainly and goes off on its own. I love that tangent making, in thinking. I’m very influenced by it.
DM: I stopped really caring about music pretty much when poetry stopped being my primary mode. You’re more a poet than me. And you do think about audience when you’re performing. Then what does an audience want from you?
MK: An audience wants to be moved! They want to be excited. Whether you’re doing poetry or prose or a movie an audience wants their fucking head blown off. They want to have an experience. You are the facilitator of that experience.
DM: Would that exclude for you a purely intellectual experience, though?
MK: No, not at all. And I don’t think of it that way either. I don’t think of it as something I’m giving them that then needs to be understood. I want it to hit their gut immediately, even if it’s something that’s difficult for them. Some writers will get up there and think because they’ve done the writing the work is done, that performance is perfunctory.
DM: If I’ve decided upon the presentation before the moment, if it doesn’t still move me to read, there’s no blood left for me. It’s not a poem if there’s not a new way to read it. Then it’s not successful.
MK: Compositional process: I always write in fragments. I almost always start at the end. Or a first sentence. They are like islands that are floating out to sea that I bring together. That’s really how I work. I’ve always, always worked like that, and I used to be scared that it wouldn’t work. Because it’s kind of undisciplined in a way. But it always does. I’ve always managed to pull something together.
DM: If you’re continuing to gather language, I wouldn’t call the fragment undisciplined. It’s like you’re checking in. That’s related to imagination. To stay with a metaphor of water when you were talking about islands, I think too you are casting out. Then at what moment do you actually get something to hook? It seems like something over duration, time, that’s the thing that will allow you to imagine all those pieces coming together to create solid assurance.
Michael Klein’s second book of poems, then, we were still living, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist and his first book, 1990, tied with James Schuyler to win the award in 1993. His new book, The Talking Day was published in January, 2013 by Sibling Rivalry Press and a collection of short, lyric essays, “States of Independence” won the 2011 BLOOM Chapbook contest in non-fiction judged by Rigoberto Gonzalez and was published in 2012. He has also written two memoirs, Track Conditions and The End of Being Known. His poems, essays and interviews with American poets have appeared in American Poetry Review, BLOOM, Fence, Tin House, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts, Poets & Writers and many other publications. He has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Binghamton University, Manhattanville and for the last 15 years has been part of the writing faculty at Goddard College, in Vermont. For many years he was on the faculty of the summer program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was a fellow in 1990. He lives in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Douglas A. Martin is the author most recently of an autobiographical novel, Once You Go Back. His first fiction, Outline of My Lover, was praised in the TLS by Colm Toibin as an International Book of the Year and adapted in part along with Anne Carson’s “Irony Is Not Enough,” by the Forsythe Company for the multimedia dance production/live film Kammer/Kammer. His other books include Branwell, a novel of the Bronte brother; They Change the Subject, a collection of stories; and Your Body Figured, a lyric narrative. He is also the author of volumes of poetry, including the haiku year coauthored with friends. His work has been translated into Italian, Portuguese and Japanese. He teaches in the low residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Goddard College, and since 2008, he has been a Visiting Writer and Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan University. He lives in Brooklyn.