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Saturday, March 25, 2023


Rebellious poet focuses on basics

The bad boy of American poetry, August Kleinzahler, visited the Honors College last week to read from his latest poetry collection, "Sleeping It Off in Rapid City," and give a lecture entitled “The Future of Poetry in the Digital Age.” | Courtesy of David Liittschwager

Poet August Kleinzahler is notorious for harping his criticism of the current literary world: he publically scoffs the famous Garrison Keillor and scorns creative writing institutions at universities across America.

The American poet Allen Ginsberg called Kleinzahler “a loner, a genius,” and a Los Angeles Times article labeled him the “bad boy of American poetry.” Kleinzahler’s poetry may be dark and seedy at times, but its honesty seeps through with his sophisticated handling of the language and rhythm.

Kleinzahler visited the Honors College on April 20th to read from his latest collection of poetry, Sleeping it Off in Rapid City, and gave a lecture the next day entitled, “The Future of Poetry in the Digital Age.” English professor Sally Connolly plucked Kleinzahler from his home in San Francisco to read at UH in honor of National Poetry Month. Despite his reputation, Kleinzahler read with enthusiasm and charm.

Kleinzahler did not seem to mind his place as the rebel of contemporary poetry, and he said that he acquired it by speaking very critically about creative writing programs.

“For any old Mr. Magoo to be called a bad boy is just great. I like that just fine,” Kleinzahler said. “I don’t think the institutional environment is conducive to the arts — I think the arts and the artists by nature are anti-institutional.”

However, Kleinzahler said he believes in the importance of teaching poetic structure, background and technique rather than work shopping the writing itself.

“The most important thing to teach a student is to be a better reader,” Kleinzahler said, “and you cannot write unless you can read intelligibly.”

In addition to being well read, Kleinzahler said a poet must learn to detach himself from his own work and look at it in a “disinterested and critical fashion.”

“That’s hard to do. You’ve got to be a little bit schizophrenic,” Kleinzahler said. “It’s like a set of muscles you’ve got to develop. I think you have to train yourself, and that’s what I think a good teacher can do in a classroom.”

Kleinzahler said that although contemporary poetry does not typically adhere to traditional forms or meter, the poet must, “obey certain laws of shape, structure and movement,” for his or her poetry to be interesting.

“I think very regular and traditional patterns, possibly because we live in an irregular world, sound a little tedious to our ears,” Kleinzahler said. “I try to vary the pattern but maintain a rhythmic pulse.”

Kleinzahler said his early enthusiasm for writing was influenced by the late J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway, who he said, “may have been a foolish and unpleasant man, but he was a wonderful writer.”

He also said he enjoyed the Beat poets and the New York poets, as well as translations of traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry.

“It’s a different voice from different cultures,” Kleinzahler said. “It wasn’t just John Keats and William Wordsworth — it was a whole different world. It was a treasure, I think.”

Kleinzahler has lived in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco for 35 years, but he was born and raised on the east coast of New Jersey.

He said that going back and forth between the two places and experiencing their different tempos has been influential to his writing.

“Re-entering the atmosphere after being in one or the other is disorienting,” Kleinzahler said, “and that disorientation sometimes breeds poetic-type yearnings.”

Kleinzahler’s audiences at poetry readings vary by location, but he said he would always remember reading in a pub attached to a dog park in Sydney, Australia. He said his audience was “hard drinking, lively and smart.”

“Lubricated, Aussie audiences can be thrilling,” Kleinzahler said, “particularly when half of them are women. However, I enjoyed very much the reading here at UH.”

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