He’s San Francisco’s pugilistic poet, for better or verse
August Kleinzahler gets into fights at poetry readings.
Once, in Ireland, he traded insults with a host he found verbose. At a reading in a New York bar, he told a noisy drunk to shut his trap. Fists flew after the guy made a crack about Kleinzahler’s coat, a sentimental hand-me-down from his father.
Kleinzahler goes to readings because he is a poet. He just doesn’t act like one.
He is, at 58, the bad boy of American poetry, whose public outbursts make academics cringe. He dismisses university writing programs as “multimillion-dollar Ponzi schemes” in which Volvo-driving poet-professors are too fearful of risking prizes or promotions to make waves.
Kleinzahler considers himself an outsider, compelled to stir up trouble. He has labored largely in obscurity -- more popular in London than in New York. And though as a rule he stubbornly avoids the poetry establishment, he surfaces now and then with a bone to pick.
In literary journals, he takes poets and critics to task for what he perceives as their slights and shoddy work. A few years ago, he even skewered Garrison Keillor’s radio poetry readings.
So what if he’s unpopular? It keeps his name in play. “I make my living off these stooges,” he says.
Anyway, his work speaks for itself. Even the polite academy he so often lampoons lauded his 12th poetry collection, “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City,” published this year.
That, it turns out, bothers Kleinzahler too. He wonders why the attention was so long in coming. His response to the literary world: Go to hell.
Living in a rent-controlled Haight-Ashbury apartment, Kleinzahler, from New Jersey, cranks out edgy free verse about life’s losers and hangers-on. He riffs on dive bars, greasy soup, alcohol and old girlfriends, using colloquial language to celebrate the everyday and the overlooked. For him, poetry is as much about hatred as it is about love.
Kleinzahler carries himself like a boxer: sure-footed, as if ready to throw a punch. His readings are often delivered in a low growl, in the streetwise accent he displays like a trophy.
Critics have labeled him too much Tony Soprano and too little literary sophisticate.
In “August Kleinzahler and Anger Management,” a piece in the Contemporary Poetry Review, fellow poet Alfred Corn ridiculed what he called Kleinzahler’s exaggerated displays of bravado -- on and off the page -- and accused him of mimicking Charles Bukowski, the uninhibited Los Angeles poet who died in 1994.
“It’s too late to run this same act again. It’s nothing new. Anyway, what’s so interesting about being a lout?” Corn asked.
Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who has been a target of Kleinzahler’s scorn, calls the poet his own worst enemy. “All the vitriol,” he said in an interview. “I don’t get it.”
As for Kleinzahler, he’s proud of his barbs, especially his attack on Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” In a piece for Poetry magazine, he railed against Keillor’s “treacly baritone” and said his wistful readings smacked of “a middle-aged creative-writing instructor catching a whiff of mortality in the countryside.”
The essay brought hate mail, which pleased Kleinzahler.
“I thank Garrison Keillor every night before I go to sleep,” he said. “Whatever it takes -- jumping on Natalie Portman’s bones, getting caught staggering out of a hotel with her at 4 a.m. -- I’d do it. Anything that gets people to my work.”
Even angry poets have heroes. Kleinzahler’s was his older brother, Harris, a self-destructive genius who flamed out early.
The title essay of Kleinzahler’s memoir, “Cutty, One Rock” -- Harris’ standard barroom order -- chronicles the events leading to his brother’s 1971 suicide at 27. A New York financial analyst by day, Harris spent his nights in fistfights, benders in lowlife gay bars and poker games, which put him in hock with the mob.
Kleinzahler idolized his older brother. He imitated his every move, down to his handwriting and, later, the way he held a whiskey glass. Early on, Harris taught his younger brother the power of words. When Kleinzahler was 8, Harris called him “obnoxious.”
“It was as if he’d punched me in the stomach,” Kleinzahler wrote. “That was the moment I resolved to become a man of letters. If there were words that could be as punishing as this, I wanted my quiver to be full of them.”
Kleinzahler accepted the fact that his brother was gay. He also accepted -- and says he understood -- his suicide.
“If you ask me, it took guts,” he wrote. “Most people simply hold on to life and rot.” Unable to help his distraught parents accept Harris’ death, Kleinzahler at 21 left Fort Lee, N.J., to finish his education, vagabond around the nation and try to live his own version of his dead brother’s madcap adventures.
He was driven, too, to legitimize himself in the eyes of his parents -- especially his father, who Kleinzahler believed considered him a failure.
On the road, he worked as a cab driver, logger, English as a second language teacher and locksmith. And he began to write poetry, partly as a way to relieve the pain of his fractured family. In 1983, he says, he hit bottom. His parents pushed him to take a job in Los Angeles, dubbing foreign films. He sat in his apartment and wept -- wanting to keep trying as a writer. “Give me six more months and I’ll give it up,” he told himself. “Then I’ll get a regular job.”
Soon after, he received a $5,000 literary award and never looked back.
Kleinzahler’s essay on his brother’s suicide was published two decades after Harris died. He sent it to his father, who was dying. Their relationship had remained strained.
“He said the essay was beautiful and very brave and that he kept picking it up and reading it and crying,” Kleinzahler recalled. “It was the last time we ever talked.”
The poet likes to shoot hoops and throw hard picks that break ribs.
Basketball tucked under his arm, cap backward, he trudges uphill toward an outdoor court near his apartment. But for the extra pounds and crow’s feet, he still resembles the scruffy Jersey kid -- always ready with the wise-guy retort.
Kleinzahler’s poetry is streetwise and restless, zigzagging between the slangy and the scholarly, sweaty and quick as a point guard. The basketball court is his office, a place where mind and body run free.
Hit for the sake of it, he writes,
For the music of hitting Hit
Because will ordained it
And you can deliver.
When Kleinzahler first encountered San Francisco in 1981, he experienced, he says, a “chemistry, like sexual attraction.” He listened to the lowing foghorns and “the garbage trucks, the streetcars, the buses gearing up and down.”
He found characters like Bruno Mooshei, the late owner of the Zam Zam Room bar in Haight-Ashbury, where Kleinzahler likes to drink.
“He looked a little like a deep-sea creature out of his element when you saw him in the sunshine wearing casual clothes,” he wrote. “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 flourish.”
But his passion for San Francisco has faded. The city, he says, has become overly familiar. If it weren’t for his cheap rent, he says, he’d leave what he considers a self-indulgent, second-rate artists’ hub.
“It’s more like an old marriage now than a romance,” he says. “I know all her best stories and jokes and what she likes in bed. Which is fine; she’s beautiful and charming, but the bloom is off the rose.”
So he keeps writing here -- about going home, dropping “down through the clouds, into the rain and old quarrels,” about trees doing a “witchy dance.”
The late Allen Ginsberg, another of this city’s angry bohemian artists, once called Kleinzahler “a loner, a genius” whose “verse line is always precise, concrete, intelligent and rare.”
Still, Kleinzahler has never felt embraced by his adopted city. At City Lights, the famed independent bookstore, he once challenged staff to explain why his books weren’t displayed in the store’s front window. One of his poems, “San Francisco/New York,” describes a place much like City Lights, a used-book store with such “dowdy clientele haunting the aisles” as “the girl with bad skin, the man with a tic.”
“They said I was upstairs with the other poets,” he said. “It pissed me off.”
At the bookstore recently, he cornered events coordinator Peter Maravelis, who joked: “Please, August, please don’t hurt me!”
Maravelis said the poet would do well to promote himself more: “He’s not about charm. He should have more readings, but he spends more time writing and being a poet than hiring publicists.”
At a recent reading at a local community center, Kleinzahler began his riff on university writing programs, which he called “an ugly, typically American thing, like teaching someone to be kind or sexy.”
He caught himself: “To say this incurs hard feelings.”
But then he started again: “A poet having an agent is like an unattractive person like me having a pimp. I find it disgusting.”
He admits he has to teach poetry sometimes -- taking semester-long jobs to pay the bills. But he says the only students he really enjoyed were the misfits he once taught in the city’s Tenderloin district as part of a writing grant.
At first, the men struggled -- until Kleinzahler stressed that poetry was not necessarily about pretty experiences. That freed them.
“They really went to town, outdoing each other with regard to violence, crude sexual encounters, misogyny, loathing for family members, cops, authority figures,” he said.
“It was rough stuff. But the poetry, however primitively put together, was at least alive and a fair step up from the slop they had been producing, presumably to give me what they thought a poem was, or what I wanted them to write.”
These, he says, are the real artists. The rest can take a hike.
“I’ve offended people of importance,” he said. “They irritate me. They’re fakes, bullies. But I’m good enough to get away with it. It kind of makes me feel like Robin Hood.”
He cocked his head.
“I’m really just a nice, middle-class Jewish boy from New Jersey. If you take a swing at me, I’ll probably swing right back. I write poetry.”
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