Death and Identity – Discovering Vision as an Artist: An Interview with Michael Klein

By Geoff Watkinson

Michael Klein’s second book of poems, then, we were still living, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and his book, 1990, tied with James Schuyler to win the award in 1993. His latest book, The Talking Day, was published in 2013, and a collection of short lyric essays, States of Independence, won the 2011 Bloom Chapbook contest in nonfiction and was published in 2012. He has written two memoirs, Track Conditions (Lambda Literary Award finalist) andThe End of Being Known. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Bloom, Fence, Tin House, Ploughshares andProvincetown Arts. He has taught writing for the last 15 years at Goddard College.

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Geoff Watkinson: In your newest book, The Talking Day, it seems that there’s a move towards acceptance—identity acceptance—especially in the poem “Saturn Returns.” Do you think that’s something you’ve moved towards?

Michael Klein: Yeah. It’s my third book and I think, in a sense because it’s my third book, it’s probably more self-actualized than the other two. And I’m thinking more about my death than I did because I’m closer to it. I’m not young; I’m not old. But then poets, I think in general, are very aware of what they are, and what they write is a reflection of feelings about not only living, but about dying too. The acceptance you’re talking about is really that—the acceptance of dying and the acceptance of being much more at ease with not only who I am but also with how the world is.

GW: This whole notion of death, of how the ways we perceive death reveals a lot about culture, is something I’ve spent a lot of time reading about recently. I’m thinking about Don DeLillo’s book White Noise, and how Americans are terrified of death. Why do you think Americans are so terrified of death?

MK: Because many Americans don’t have a spiritual life. I think it’s because it’s a consumer culture and because a lot of Americans don’t have inner lives that they really think are worth following. There are people who are living but they are dead in a certain way. I think it’s very American—you do this and you do this. You can call it the American Dream—whatever you want to call it. It’s a certain pathway that’s not freedom at all. It’s bondage. And I also think Americans are terrified of death because of what they see around them. It’s a very death conscious culture in a weird way. It’s morbidly obese. It’s like everybody’s on a fast track to death. America is divided spiritually. Spirituality, I think is important. And I think most people don’t follow it. Spirituality is a state of being. Most people aren’t satisfied with who they are. There’s always something that can be better.

GW: You’ve written a lot about national tragedy. We were talking last night about September 11th and the aftermath. I think, for my generation particularly, that day is still playing itself out, exactly what that day means. I was in New Jersey—a sophomore in high school—and my father worked at the Trade Center occasionally, along with a number of my friends’ fathers and mothers. So in that moment, when we watched the second plane hit live, almost everyone in that classroom thought there was a good chance they knew someone in the building. And of course that played itself out over the course of the next half hour or hour. I’d later find out that there was a family friend in that building who got out, but who was one of the few in his office who did. I often think about that day and its impact on me and my generation. What’s your take on national tragedy and the post-September 11th world?

MK: Well you know, it’s funny that you say you knew someone in the buildings because I actually didn’t. And most people I know didn’t. As far as national tragedy—I don’t think we learned anything from that actually. I think it was totally politicized. It was a reason to start a war in Iraq. We were given an opportunity to really soul search who we are as a culture and what we do in the world and how we inflict pain and how we import terrorists. Do you know about Jeremy…? Oh what’s it called? It’s a book and a documentary.

GW: Dirty Wars?

MK: Okay, so you know what’s going on. I mean every day. There are drones. We’re going into countries every single day. So when you talk about how do we feel—how does the country feel—about national tragedy, they don’t. They don’t think about it. They don’t even know what’s going on. Everything is unraveling. It’s been unraveling for a while. It’s a military complex. This country is run by the military. It’s a military complex. It’s always been that. And you have to feed the military complex, whatever that means. But normal, regular human beings walking around—most of us are not part of that. So we don’t know anything about it. And I don’t even think about this shit that much. I have to be honest. I mean, I wrote about 9/11 just because it was so hard to write about it. It was a really good assignment. If you’ll notice, in those poems I don’t talk about buildings. They’re very non-political. I’m sort of looking for an emotional landscape to describe how I felt and how other people felt and what it meant for the world. But when we talk about what it meant for the world it’s like it’s the same thing as saying what it means for America. It isn’t. And we’re so isolationist. We never think about the plight of the rest of the world. I mean ordinary American people do not think about what’s going on in the rest of the world, generally.

GW: In an interview with The Rumpus, whether specifically or whether you allude to it, you mention how young poets are narcissists. I think it’s interesting because, going through an MFA program, you run into strands of that for sure. I guess this is sort of a two-part question. What do you think that the role of artists is moving forward, especially young artists, in dealing with the changing landscape of the country and what role do you see MFA programs and this huge enlargement of MFA programs across the country in giving this title of “artist?”

MK: I used to make a joke that they give out MFAs like Prozac, which is kind of true. And I don’t know if I made it up or if I heard it, but it’s a really good line. I think what I’ve always thought, whether an MFA or not, that the artist’s responsibility is not just their own work but to the larger community. And one of the things I’ve found about MFA programs is that they can tend to be separate from that. I teach in an MFA program, and one of the things I always stress is that the reading be more international, that people read writers that are not like you. But that the important thing to understand is that as a writer or artist you’re having a conversation that’s already been started and you are contributing to that conversation. And that’s what makes you not a narcissist—when you realize you’re in a dialogue. There has to be a sense of you moving out from your own experience and what it means to be in someone else’s experience and to write about the world. And the natural progression for most artists is that you start with yourself but then eventually you move out. And for me too—I’m an autobiographical writer—that’s how I came to writing.

It took many years for me to move out of my own story. But it was very essential to me because it was the only way I was going to grow as a writer. But some people never do. Actually, Adrienne Rich, who was my mentor for many years and basically the woman who got me started writing poetry, she would always say that one thing you do want to do is make the leap out of yourself—you have to start writing about other things. That was something challenging. But I urge that for everyone.

What happens when you become an artist is that you grow into your being an artist. You have vision. Being an artist is about having a vision. And so at some point in your life as a writer, or whatever you do as an artist, I think you begin to take that vision and put it on anything that you want. Not just reflected back into yourself. But real artists are visionaries. I mean I’ve always felt that way. Don’t you feel that way?

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Geoff Watkinson founded Green Briar Review in June 2012. He is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Old Dominion University, where he is the managing editor of Barely South Review. Geoff has contributed to Moon City Review, The Good Men Project, Bluestem,Prick of the Spindle, The Flagler Review, and Used Furniture Review, among others. Find him at www.geoffwatkinson.com.