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Distilling experience: poet Michael Klein reads new works

Published: October 22, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


PHOTO BY Nafiz R. “Fizz” Ahmed/The Hoot

“Beautiful, messy and lyrical,” were the only words Olga Broumas used to introduce Michael Klein at the Creative Writing Department’s School of Night poetry reading event. Those words, however, perfectly described the literary experience.

The last poetry reading I went to was a formal event. It took place in a museum and the poet read excerpts of her work from behind a raised podium. We sat in silence and let her words wash over us. The poet was uncomfortable with speaking and so she did not talk with the audience, preferring to stick to the words she had written. Michael Klein’s reading was nothing like that.

Everyone was packed in the Mandel Center’s reading room, which gave the event a cozier feel than a large and mostly empty museum space. Klein was also brimming with words—he eschewed a constant stream of them. When he wasn’t reading one of his poems from his recently published collection “then, we were still living” or several new poems, he was sharing an amusing anecdote about fellow poets or talking about his eventful life. He chatted with the audience members, making the event feel less like a poetry reading and more like a conversation with a smart and funny wit.

When Klein did read his poems, he had a very distinctive and unusual style. He enunciated the ends of words and varied his tone. This made him particularly engaging to listen to. His reading style could be seen as being reflective of his writing style. In the question and answer session that followed (which was more informal than the name implies) he said, “I always write by sound … I’m always listening, not thinking as much as I’m listening.” He described how when he writes a first draft of a poem he might use a word, even when he is unsure of its meaning, because it sounds right.

The poems from “then, we were still living” were infused with this way of thinking about poetry. When Klein read a few sections of his “Five Places for Sex,” sound was especially important. Klein describes an intimate encounter between two students on a train, using imagery that links books with sex; he depicts a boy reaching underneath a book and touching the penis of the other boy. The line reads “I said/Hello/Hello/Hello/until the panther rested—down so much—in the springy hills.” Each lingering repetition of the word “Hello” sounds like someone climaxing.

Other poems from “then, we were still living” displayed that Klein is also adept at imagery. One memorable line he used to describe a friend’s descent into alcoholism was “a friend submerges in public like a body in a wave.” Many of the poems Klein read dealt with difficult personal and national subjects. While some poems grappled with the subject of 9/11, others were about the loss of his twin brother.

Part of the reason that the poetry reading felt more like a conversation with an old friend was because Klein spoke candidly about his past—his mistakes and his losees. Before he read one of his newer poems, “The Gift of Prophecy,” he explained that the poem was inspired by a past mistake. Klein used to be a racetrack groomer for a famous horse called Swayle at a time when he had still been struggling with his addiction to alcohol. A writer from New York Magazine interviewed him about the horse and Klein told the reporter an outrageous lie, that he was dying of cancer. He said “I wrote about that loneliness … of having to tell someone you’re dying and lying about it.” The poem ended with the powerful and moving line: “Nobody can say I am living of something.”

His poem titled “Washing the Corpse” that focused on the death of his friend was equally compelling. These semi-autobiographical poems took a lot of time to write. Klein said it took years to write “Washing the Corpse” because “it took a long time to find the language for it.”

“The Gift of Prophecy” was one of the several newer poems that Klein read that will become part of a manuscript that Klein is working on tentatively titled “What I’m going to do is?” The title comes from the made-for-television movie “Neon Ceiling” that ends with a little girl standing in the middle of the road and saying that line. Klein said that he was drawn to that line because “we all ask ourselves that question.” Many of Klein’s poems include references to other texts and media. “The Gift of Prophecy,” for example, is also the title of a psychic’s biography.

After his poems, Klein spoke wonderfully about the act of writing and his life as a writer with a day job. Although Klein has written two memoirs, he described how he is more comfortable with poetry. “Poems distill experience … I think the spirit in my poetry is brighter … I think prose is more selfish.” He explained how much of his time is spent revising poems and he encouraged all budding writers to do so.

Klein works as a paralegal for a law firm because he knew he would not make money from his writing. “It keeps me in the world, not in a narcissistic haze,” he said.

Near the end of the memorable event, Klein parted with a suggestion to those aspiring to write, “You should be open to whatever happens. If the day is a blank page … then anything can happen … Your first draft should be messy.”