Kleinzahler, August 1949-
Kleinzahler, August 1949-
PERSONAL: Born December 10, 1949, in Jersey City, NJ; son of Marvin and Isabel (Resnitzky) Kleinzahler. Education: Attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1967–70, and University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, 1973.
CAREER: Writer, poet, educator, and essayist. Worked variously as a cab driver, locksmith, lumberjack, and educational designer. University of California, Berkeley, visiting Holloway Lecturer, 1987; Brown University, visiting writer, 1997; Iowa Writers Workshop, visiting writer, 1998; University of Texas Michener Center for Writers, visiting writer, 2000; Stanford University Stegner Program, visiting associate professor, 2001. San Diego Reader, music critic, 2000–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from Canada Council, 1977 and 1979, Ontario Arts Council, 1978, and New Jersey State Council on the Arts, 1980 and 1985; Guggenheim Fellowship; award for younger writers from General Electric Foundation, 1983, for poems in Sulfur magazine; award from Bay Area Book Reviewers Association, 1985, for Storm over Hackensack; John Simon Guggenheim fellow, 1989; Lila Atchison Wallace/Reader's Digest Writers' Award, 1991–94; Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1997; Griffin Poetry Prize, Griffin Trust, 2004, for The Strange Hours Travellers Keep.
A Calendar of Airs, Coach House Press (Chicago, IL), 1978.
(Editor) News and Weather: Seven Canadian Poets, Brick Books (London, Ontario, Canada), 1982.
Storm over Hackensack, Moyer Bell (Mt. Kisco, NY), 1985.
On Johnny's Time, Pig Press, 1988.
Earthquake Weather, Moyer Bell (Mt. Kisco, NY), 1989.
Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Green Sees Things in Waves, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club: Poems, 1975–1990, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2004.
Cutty, One Rock, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Art International, Chicago Review, Grand Street, Harper's, Independent (London, England), Kenyon Review, Lost Angeles Times, New American Writing, London Review of Books, New Yorker, New York Times, Origin, Paris Review, Poetry, Sulfur, Three Penny Review, and PN Review.
Author of weekly music column for San Diego Reader, 1999–.
SIDELIGHTS: According to Geoffrey O'Brien in the Village Voice, August Kleinzahler uses inventive language to write about the small, ordinary things of life. Storm over Hackensack, O'Brien wrote, is a collection of "handcrafted, sinuous, intensely focused poems" which indicate "both that subject matter still has its uses and that recent death announcements for the personal lyric were slightly premature." Kleinzahler's language, the critic reported, "veers jauntily from video parlor argot to Ovidian tropes," and he "ranges in mood from the goofy to the mournful, but always what concerns him is the shape of what he makes." O'Brien concluded: "Not many writers … will have either the wit or the fluent technical inventiveness to follow in Kleinzahler's track."
Kleinzahler's fourth book of poems, Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow, was the first to be published by a trade press. A reviewer discussing the collection for the Economist said of the poems: "[They] 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 reviewer summarized: "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: an authentically American voice." A writer for Publishers Weekly also found Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow to be a collection charged with energy and characterized Kleinzahler as a writer who "combines a meticulous eye … with surrealistic perception." Bruce Murphy in Poetry described Kleinzahler's poems as "playful, like a stone dropped in a pool—or maybe thrown. They aren't necessarily going anywhere, or they are rippling outward in every direction at once." For Murphy, Kleinzahler's influences include "the Beat aesthetic/ethic … jazz, Buddhism, urban landscapes, and street life." According to David Rivard, writing in Ploughshares, the poems in Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow accomplish "one of the hardest things of all" by combining "an impulse toward improvisatory speech with a terrific ear for clarified structures." Rivard set Kleinzahler apart from postmodern writers because "he's interested in rendering the feel of living into accessible speech."
The title poem in Kleinzahler's next volume, Green Sees Things in Waves, deals with a man named Green who has taken too much LSD and continues to have flashbacks to a drugged state of consciousness. Noting Kleinzahler's satiric approach to this subject matter, David Wojahn, writing in Poetry, observed that the poet "favors gallows humor." Wojahn continued: "Yet if I wonder about the tone of the book's title poem, perhaps it's because no one quite sounds like August Kleinzahler, despite the fact that he wears his influences on his sleeve. The caffeinated momentum of his lines and his surprising associative vectors make for exhilarating reading, so much so that it's easy to forget how dark he can be." A Publishers Weekly critic, examining the same collection, felt that the poems "deepen on rereading, revealing a secret seriousness…. [Their] winning vigor and idiosyncratic speech rhythms give these ambitious oddities grace and lasting appeal." However, in the New Republic, Adam Kirsch had a far less positive response to both Kleinzahler and Green Sees Thing in Waves. Kirsch granted that all the elements that Kleinzahler has often been praised for are present in the collection: "Here again are the jaunty demotic diction, the urban grit, the delight in camp and pastiche, the moments of sentimental seriousness." He also admitted that the "range of moods and approaches … is striking." "But," Kirsch continued, "what Green Sees Things in Waves demonstrates very clearly is that this ideal of fidelity, to the rhythms of actual speech and to the waywardness of actual thought, is not enough to make poetry. Kleinzahler is devoted to liveliness, but what is most striking throughout the book is limpness, the disappointment of accuracy unheightened by artifice." Kirsch contended that by eschewing "rhythm, rhyme, and pattern … in favor of reportage," and by creating "a poetry that bends exceedingly deeply to the ordinary," Kleinzahler's work "is emblematic of a peril facing poetry today."
Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club: Poems, 1975–1990 reprints what the poet himself considers worthwhile from his first two books. Reviewing the book for the Library Journal, Graham Christian wrote that "Kleinzahler has risen to a position of considerable eminence in American poetry," and went on to assert that "no other American poet fuses the artful and the queasy-making so well." A Publishers Weekly critic found that Kleinzahler's poems "open out into subtle disquisitions; languor and alertness join hands in sinuous poems on down-trodden neighbors, greasy soup, snow, playing hooky and the sounds of jazz."
Kleinzahler's works "are poems by someone who's been old for a long time, who's worked hard for a living, who's perhaps said goodbye more times than he wishes to remember," observed Judith Moore in an interview with Kleinzahler on the Poetry Daily Web site. "These are grownup poems for grownup readers." In The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, Kleinzahler presents a "frenetic and wily collection" of poems from a poet fascinated with what thinking humans build and concoct to "keep themselves busy and dizzy and safe from sorrow's dark draw," remarked Donna Seaman in Booklist. Kleinzahler "keeps readers off balance through an unstable mix of deadpan irony, ambiguous intent, and eclectic subject matter," observed Fred Muratori in the Library Journal. In the five-part "History of Western Music," Kleinzahler comfortably settles in with classical works but also interacts equally well with more popular musical forms and performers. He presents a series of poems adapted from Horace, considers the complex biological structures of the human mind, and ponders death as it approaches to take an old poet. The collection's "grand array of metaphors, objects and offhand stories … make this volume his most coherent and most thoroughly enjoyable to date," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
In Cutty, One Rock, Kleinzahler diverges from poetry into the realm of personal essay. The nine autobiographical essays in the book explore Kleinzahler's childhood in a 1950s neighborhood in Fort Lee, NJ, where the mafia was everywhere and Jews were scarce among the area's many Italians. In these "wry, offkilter essays," he writes about the images and events that defined his youth and which set him on the track to becoming a poet, noted Entertainment Weekly reviewer Jennifer Reese. The youngest of three children, and an unexpected baby, Kleinzahler grew up with a father whose moods were unpredictable and whose mother did not like children—even her own. In one essay, he relates how his parents' personality quirks meant he was, in essence, raised by the family dog. He describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his early home, of the constant din of subway trains, the inescapable presence of other people. He looks back almost affectionately at the gangsters, members of Albert Anastasia's Murder Inc., who were constant presences in his life, and one mobster in particular whom he considered the best baby-sitter he ever had. He also narrates a comic episode that occurred when noted comedian Buddy Hackett moved into the neighborhood. In a final chapter, Kleinzahler tells the emotionally powerful story of his older brother, a financial analyst who lived a double life, himself a gangster, a gambler, and a homosexual who took his own life at age twenty-seven. The stories related in the book are "high and low, crushing and comic, indelible as India ink," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "Kleinzahler's unsparing essays glow with the threat and promise of the neon signs of all-night dives," commented Donna Seaman in Booklist.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, November 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, p. 565; November 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Cutty, One Rock, p. 454.
Economist, July 8, 1995, review of Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow, p. 82.
Entertainment Weekly, October 29, 2004, Jennifer Reese, review of Cutty, One Rock, p. 75.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2004, review of Cutty, One Rock, p. 849.
Library Journal, May 1, 2000, Graham Christian, review of Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club: Poems, 1975–1990, p. 118; August, 2003, Fred Muratori, review of The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, p. 89.
New Republic, July 13, 1998, Adam Kirsch, "The Trouble with Lively," review of Green Sees Things in Waves, p. 39.
Ploughshares, fall 1996, David Rivard, review of Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow, p. 240.
Poetry, June, 1996, Bruce Murphy, review of Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow, p. 164; July, 1999, David Wojahn, review of Green Sees Things in Waves, p. 219.
Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995, review of Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow, p. 97; April 27, 1998, review of Green Sees Things in Waves, p. 62; May 29, 2000, review of Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club, p. 78; October 27, 2003, review of The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, p. 60.
Village Voice, August 20, 1985, Geoffrey O'Brien, review of Storm over Hackensack.
Bookslut Web site, http://www.bookslut.com/ (January 3, 2005), Adam Travis, interview with August Kleinzahler.
Poetry Daily Web site, http://www.poems.com/(February 27, 2006), Judith Moore, interview with August Kleinzahler, reprinted from the San Diego Reader.