This winter, Pressed Wafer Press will publish the second, long-awaited prose collection by poet-delinquent August Kleinzhaler, a selection of music reviews written for the San Diego Reader. Known for maligning the work of his peers as well as for the tipsy urban landscapes and titillating details of his poetry, Kleinzahler’s last prose work—a memoir of the poet’s mob-tinged New Jersey youth and the suicide of his hustler big brother—was gathered and tied under the suitably sentimental title Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained.
Ten years ago, with the same nerve and guts that have marked his career as a poet, essayist and academic, Kleinzahler scraped up a career as a music writer. He had just written about selling of his large CD collection when he was in a financial bind for a Berkeley literary quarterly, when oozing monetary desperation, he was contacted by an editor at the San Diego weekly about writing some music reviews. He had never written about music before. “I walked down the hill to the bookstore, checked out Rolling Stone and Spin, and found the writing so amateurish and juvenile that I figured I could do at least that well,” remembers Kleinzahler.
The change from poetry to music proved not to be too wide a gap to breach. “The parallels, (not to mention the rhomboids and quadrilaterals) are legion, both formally and informally. Poetry is, essentially—and people too often forget this— an oral medium, something to be heard, to be read aloud, not to exist primarily on the page,” he says.
Another kinship was Kleinzahler’s improvisational style and broad range of inspiration. The poet, who famously goes from museum to bar has founded his career in a mix of the high and low, the lapidary and colloquial, both in diction and subject matter. “The conversation in my family household growing up probably had a fair bit of â€˜low’ speech mixed in with intellectual discussion. I do admire stylists among writers, like the late Whitney Balliett, who wrote about jazz for The New Yorker and Isaac Babel who, even in translation, is a brilliantly stylish writer. But I also enjoy the music of raw talk and improvised speech, whether that of a Catskills-type tummler or black radio DJ or some jabbering schmoo next to me in a barber’s chair talking about why the ’49ers stink so bad.” In the realm of poetry he has often acknowledged his debt to Ezra Pound and his mentor, Basil Bunting.
In daily life, as in language, Kleinzahler seeks out chapter and verse from all corners of the mainstream and obscurity. “Most everything interests me: Hollywood scandals, Baroque curved staircases, a dynamite new Chinese restaurant. . . I chase down political information a fair bit on line. I find much of that stuff intriguing, in a horrible, masochistic sort of way. I follow pro football when it’s happening. Anything but literary gossip.”
In addition to his appetite for cultural and linguistic soupcon, Kleinzaher is a critic at heart. He’s widely known for his vicious attacks on the college creative writing establishment (which he has said “made a mockery of American poetry”) to his harsh reviews of fellow writers like former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Garrison Keillor (whose NPR poetry show he avoids “as I avoid sneezing, choking, rheumy-eyed passengers on the streetcar, lest I catch something”). Always seeking to push poetry into a less genteel space, he likens his attitude to a line from an old Alec Guinness/John LeCarrÃ© BBC spy series, maybe Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, something like: “He was a Jew. He died of a surfeit of opinions.”
The reviews and essays in Music: I-LXXXIV (Louis Prima, Dinah Washington, George Gershwin, Erik Satie, Hildegard Knef, Rufus Thomas, J.S. Bach, Thelonious Monk and Junior Brown among them) might not be poetry, but they are still deeply personal. “Emotional experience, language memory, technique, reading, yesterday’s sports scores—is all there in the chowder at any given time,” he says. His reviews often originate in the virgin moment of a first listen. “It’s all music that moved me or got a rise out of me, one way or another.”
True to form, his musical tastes today remain disparate and every-changing. His current playlist includes Fats Navarro and the little-known Walt Dickerson. And, since his marriage recently broke up, “Country & Western slit-my-throat stuff like David Allen Coe, that sort of crap.” He also likes the Chicago blues, “’50s stuff, raw, that sounds like it was recorded in a public restroom at the Greyhound terminal on over-amped guitars.”
Kleinzhaler’s currently planning to write a surreal lifestyle guide. But not so surreal that he can’t get a good advance for it. As for his famed extracurricular activities, he may have slowed down a bit, but shows no signs of remorse: “Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien. . .I’ve have never experience any real guilt about wasting my time or my life, or, for that matter, getting wasted. I’ve done some of my best writing the proverbial morning after. I stare out the window quite a lot,” says Kleinzahler, “That’s what a poet does. That’s my job.”