Deep-Sea Creature

August Kleinzahler never wrote a best-seller. Award-winning poets seldom do.

By and large, poetry pays as crappily as the poet’s profile is low. This June, August Kleinzahler won the $40,000 Griffin Prize, self-described as “the most lucrative award for books of poetry from any country in the world,” but they were Canadian dollars, and you probably still haven’t read his prize-winning collection, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep. It’s okay. Kleinzahler will take the money, and keep working. He figures his hazy local visibility is professionally useful anyway. “I dislike literary society intensely,” he says over coffee near his San Francisco home. “In order to work, I had a socially noisy spring. It takes me a long time — sometimes months — to quiet down and clear my head out.”

He is accordingly meditative and inconspicuous, tucked into a dark sweatshirt, dark jeans, dark sneakers, and half-masked by large rhomboid sunglasses. It is an undesigned, recessive look, save for the baseball cap festooned with a Chinese character whose meaning the poet doesn’t know. In person Kleinzahler is more an even and amiable listener than the cranky, judgmental, viciously funny son-of-a-bitch he can be in print.

That’s the other important thing about Kleinzahler’s poetry: his prose. At this point in his career it’s gotten so good that a soon-to-be-published collection of his essays, Cutty, One Rock — due out in November — might end up doing more for his reputation than any number of poetry prizes.

“Far fewer people understand my poetry than I thought,” he says. This realization “was shocking to me. I thought I was distinctive by virtue of being so accessible.”

Kleinzahler, the poet:

“One reads that the digestive wind passed by cattle/is many times more destructive to the atmosphere/than all of the aerosol cans combined./How does one measure such a thing?/The world has been coming to an end/for 5,000 years. If not tomorrow,/surely, one day very soon.”

Kleinzahler, the essayist:

“He looked a little like a deep-sea creature out of his element when you saw him in the sunshine wearing casual clothes. … If Bruno were a plant, you’d have to feed him lots of cigarette smoke, liquor, and red, fatty meat if you wanted him to bloom.”

A friend once told him his poetry and prose bounce light off each other, and he seems to like the idea. “I’m still inventing my life as a writer,” he says. “It’s not a career. It’s more of a disease.”

Kleinzahler was born in Jersey City, babysat by mob goons in his formative years, and imbued with a useful distrust for affectation. His adolescence was occupied by roaming. At 21 he wound up at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and came happily under the tutelage of the British poet Basil Bunting, admiring his “attitude toward the work and seriousness. Cult of personality was anathema to him.”

That crucial influence shows up in Kleinzahler’s own work ethic. “You have to assimilate all sorts of technical skills, as a musician does. And as a musician would, you develop a certain sound. Over time you discover what your aptitudes are, and you become less afraid of showing them off.”

And in spite of Kleinzahler’s well-documented disdain for what he calls the Ponzi scheme of creative-writing MFA programs — “It’s made a mockery of American poetry; it’s been subsumed by the creative writing corporation of America” — he does, occasionally, teach. You get a sense of him as the professor whose seminar students will kill to get into, even as they disclaim how full of shit they think he can be.

“I tell young people there are four thousand neurosurgeons in the United States. It takes many years to do it. It takes a lot of time to refine your ability for diagnosis, your surgical skills, and so forth. So you’re talking about twenty years. And there aren’t 24 poets whose work will matter down the road in America. If you’re bright and have an aptitude and you work hard, you plug away, you can be a neurosurgeon. Well, you can be the most intelligent, well-read, diligent person in the world and work at poetry for twenty years and be no good at it.”

Kleinzahler works fitfully. “Ideally, I just leave it alone. Sometimes it’s just a matter of self-disgust reaching a critical mass. I’m a great believer in clearing some space for yourself and letting time take care of things,” he says. “I’ve still rather an adolescent outlook for a 54-year-old man. I may have lost the way to adulthood.”n

The Strange Hours Travelers Keep

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22

Cutty, One Rock

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $10

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