Ledbury Poetry Festival
Listen to August Kleinzahler's reading at the 2009 Ledbury Poetry Festivalhttp://www.poetry-festival.com/VirtualPoetryFestival.html
August Kleinzahler has been described as 'an authentically American voice'. A review in the Economist of his fourth collection Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow said: "[the poems] twitch and jerk and snap their fingers at you... High and low vocabularies hang out together. They are hectic, pulsing things, ever alive to the music of words when spoken." The review goes on: "They take us back to Walt Whitman and his inventive recklessness with words. They are expansive, energetic and, from time to time, a touch crazed."
Kleinzahler was born in New Jersey in 1949 and grew up in a neighborhood with a strong mafia presence - his favorite babysitter was Albert Anastasia, head of Murder Incorporated. Kleinzahler's autobiographical collection of essays Cutty, One Rock, tells of the images and events that defined his youth and destined him to become a poet. The book tells us that he was the last of three children - an unexpected baby; that his father's moods were unpredictable; that his mother disliked children; and that he was essentially raised by the family dog. In a final chapter, Kleinzahler tells the story of his older brother, a financial analyst who lived a double life - a gangster, a gambler, and a homosexual - and took his own life aged 27. In interview, he said: "my brother's death steeled me in my resolve to be a poet, which at the time seemed, quite appropriately, a high risk enterprise. He loved risk so much that I thought it would honor his life, I guess, if I upped the risk ante in my own life."
Kleinzahler's work has been compared to Frank O'Hara and in The Wolf, he says he "cottoned onto" O'Hara when he was 19. "O'Hara's discursiveness" he says, "became attractive to me because of its urban settings, devil-may-care brilliance and dazzling turns." Another influence was Ault's collection of Elizabethan Lyrics: " I liked the mix of wild . . . and shifting registers of voice and dialect". Kleinzahler talks about how James Schuyler's Crystal Lithium(1972) was also an awakening for him, quickening his attention to the minutiae. This has prompted Geoffrey O'Brien to write in Village Voice: "August Kleinzahler uses inventive language to write about the small, ordinary things of life."
Despite majoring in English at the University of Victoria, Wisconsin, Kleinzahler has spent most of his life in blue collar jobs. He has worked as a locksmith, cab driver, lumberjack, music critic and building manager. Talking of his development as a writer, he has said "[these jobs] kept me out of the academy, which saved me." Latterly, he has taught Creative Writing at Brown University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, as well as running workshops for homeless veterans in the Bay Area, San Francisco. The title poem of Green Sees Things in Waves, Kleinzahler's sixth collection, deals with a man called Green - one such homeless veteran. Kleinzahler explains in his introduction that Green "took an extraordinary amount of LSD one day and hadn't been right since." The notion of seeing the fixtures and fittings of a room as waves, which eventually 'simmer down', the musings on physics and the science of sound, are counteracted by the conversational tone of the poem which grounds Green's experience firmly in a poignant reality.
Kleinzahler's voice on this recording picks up the language patterns of his native New Jersey and brings alive the music of what feels on occasion, like improvised speech.
Green Sees Things in Waves Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999
Sleeping It Off in Rapid City Faber and Faber, 2011
Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, Faber and Faber, 1995Buy
Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club, Farrar Straus Giroux...Buy
Sleeping It Off in Rapid City: Poems, New and Selected...Buy
Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places,...
The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, Faber and Faber, 2004...Buy
The writer and broadcaster Clive James introduces a few of his favourite poems in the Poetry Archive.