Poet Michael Klein On Growing Up With Adrienne Rich
Michael Klein, author of the new poetry collection The Talking Day, spoke with BuzzFeed about his career, his thoughts on dating, hooking up, and commitment, and what he is still learning from Adrienne Rich.
BuzzFeed: You describe 1990, your first poetry collection, as being about "trying with all this dying around" because the book is grounded in the AIDS epidemic. And you've said Then, We Were Still Living, your second collection, is about "trying to survive the world at large," as those poems were written in the wake of 9/11 as well as the death of your twin brother. So how are you — poetically speaking — trying to "survive" now with your latest collection, The Talking Day?
Michael Klein: The Talking Day, I think, is about getting older — in a weird way — which is something that I've never really thought about. And so I think about dying way more than I used to. And it's not a bad thing. In youth, you always think about how much you can do in one life, and now I'm thinking about how much I've already done and where it's taken me. I'm more reflective. And The Talking Day is influenced by this sense of knowing that I'm not going to finish everything, and what that means — if I even know what that means. My idea of living feels much more contained than it did in the first two books. So it's about who am I and what am I doing here. I know that sounds very general, but who I am and what I'm doing here changes all the time because of how fast the world seems to be moving. And so it changes from book to book.
BF: The Talking Day opens with the lines, "I'm dumb about the world. To me, it always looks haunted." Looking at the trajectory of these poetry collections, it's like we're moving away from the AIDS epidemic. Yet, there's talk about the resurgence of HIV/AIDS as unsafe sex is becoming more casual. Bareback sex in porn seems to be trendy, even.
MK: When I was your age, getting HIV/AIDS meant that you were going to die of it. There was no way you were going to survive. Now, though, you can have a life, or at least a diagnosis isn't a death sentence, and I think that's why people are taking more risks.
BF: Do you think, from your perspective, we should be more alarmed? Is this casualness something that just happens every few years, or are we perhaps headed for another full-blown crisis?
MK: Well, I think we live in a time in the world in which — it's always going to feel like the most dangerous time. If it isn't AIDS, it's something else. Whether we end up dying through nuclear annihilation, or the planet decides to gobble us up in fire and rain. And the gay world itself is in an evolution — the way that people feel about unsafe sex is very different than it was 30 years ago. Back then, when people got sick of AIDS, that was really all that was happening in the gay world — there was politics and art, but a lot of artists were dying. Now there's a lot more happening in the gay world, which has, for one thing, become way more transgendered. And technology is a part of this too. We're able to find out and pay attention to more things at once. But then when you go back to the old, tired clichés about sex and what have we learned, the answer almost always seems to be nothing.
BF: In Then, We Were Still Living, you have a poem, "Five Places for Sex," which examines the relationship between place and queer sex. For so long, queer sex has been linked to physical location: notorious cruising grounds, bathhouses, clubs, etc. And as we talk about that evolution you mentioned, the physical location is becoming a virtual location. We have hookup sites and apps like Grindr and Scruff.
MK: Well, I'm not on Grindr or anything like that myself, but I know about it because I'm gay and therefore I know about everything. (laughs) You know, I met my boyfriend, Andrew, online, and we've been together for 10 years, which is a miracle to me. What happens in the virtual world is that you make somebody up and then, when you meet them, you decide if the person they are is someone you can live with. And I think we — and not just gay people — have become a lot more open to what can happen in a relationship. Andrew and I started off by emailing each other. And, because I'm a writer, writing is never casual. So, over time, we fell in love with each other's way of expressing ourselves through language, obviously. To be in a very real place from the very beginning — and that's where we were in writing those emails — was amazing.
BF: From a very idealistic standpoint, from what you're saying, it sounds like the way queer people are meeting and dating online is turning us into a culture of writers. Folks are writing their way into each other's beds.
MK: Exactly! And it's wonderful and challenging. You have to work a lot harder when you're building a relationship and all you have is language.
BF: And you've been dating for 10 years…
MK: Dating? (laughs) Ten years is a long time to date, girl. We're basically married. But honestly, I don't believe in marriage as an institution. No matter who is doing the marrying. Andrew and I have living wills. We're very much in each other's lives, but I really believe marriage is a heterosexual paradigm, which is my bias, but there you have it. Everyone should have the right to get married — I'm not against that — it just doesn't mean anything to me personally. I don't subscribe to institutions and conventions. I'm not a member of the church. I'm not a member of anything. I'm a member of my mind. It's the same way I feel about best sellers. As a writer, when I see a book on the best-seller list, I immediately lose interest. It couldn't be that good if that many people are reading it. For me, there's more power being on the margin. Jewelle Gomez did this talk years ago at the Lambda Book Awards, and she talked about how powerful being on the margin really is because people who are truly on the margin, who see strength there, aren't about assimilation. My idea of assimilation is about making the margin wider.
BF: Could you talk a bit about your relationship with Adrienne Rich?
MK: Adrienne was my first teacher. Her son was a good friend of my twin brother's when we were in the sixth grade. We used to go to her house. At that point, she'd published maybe three books. My brother, Kevin, and I were 14, and we knew we wanted to be poets. And when we read one of Adrienne's books, we couldn't believe it. We didn't understand everything she was saying, but her voice was incredibly authentic. She was a total demigod to us. My brother and I and a woman named Lori Robinson sort of coerced Adrienne to do a workshop with us on Saturday mornings. We'd go several times a month. We'd sit around and read poems. We were very into W.S. Merwin and James Wright at the time. Not a lot of women. She didn't really push any women writers on us, interestingly enough, and she was the only woman poet we knew! In addition to our reading, of course, we were all writing our own poems. Imitations, mostly.
And then when she was teaching a workshop at City College, which happened to be right across the street from my high school, I'd cross the street late afternoons and she'd let me sit in on her workshop. She never told anyone who I was — that I wasn't a college student or that I was cutting a high school class to be there.
For many years, though, Adrienne had this thing where she wasn't talking to men. During that period I was applying to Bennington College and I wanted a letter of recommendation from Adrienne, and she wrote it. And I remember people being so surprised because, well, she wasn't talking to men, and I'd just say, "Well, I'm not quite a man yet. Maybe next year. Maybe she'll stop talking to me when I turn 20." But she never did.
BF: Adrienne, of course, passed away last year, but are you still learning from her?
MK: Oh, yes. It's very interesting when you have a relationship with a person and also with their work, especially with someone you really loved — both as the person and as a writer. Now that she's not here, and all I have are the poems, I'm learning from her in an entirely new way and reading the poems from the end back to the beginning. Her lesson to me as a teacher and friend has always stayed the same as it was when she was living: Don't make art a commodity. And in a letter to me she said, "To remember Pound's 'DICHTEN = CONDENSARE.' It's a pun in German: 'dicten' means to write poetry (Dichtung) but also to condense."