The Colorado Poet, #22, Spring 2013

Interview: Daniel Klawitter

An Epistemology of Flesh (Daniel Klawitter, 2012)
Runaway Muse (Daniel Klawitter, 2012)

Bob King: Let me start by quoting the title poem of An Epistemology of Flesh, to give people an idea of what you’re up to: “The suffering of the body / is most factual. / As real as a rock; / absolutely actual. / / Pain is certain knowledge / on a cellular level: / an epistemology of flesh / as hard and sharp as metal. // But love can loom much larger / than what pain can comprehend. / So we turn to metaphysics, /when we break instead of bend.”

Several of your poems are not this metrical, but you often use rhyme.
This is not, shall I say, the currently favored mode. What’s its pleasure for you?

It seems to me that there is something almost magical about rhyming verse. When well done, it’s like a language puzzle where words and thought snap into place in an almost supernatural manner.

Daniel Klawitter:  It seems to me that there is something almost magical about rhyming verse.  When well done, it’s like a language puzzle where words and thought snap  into place in an almost supernatural manner.  There is just a kind of linguistic satisfaction I get from well-rhymed poetry that I find very hard to resist. 

I’m pretty sure this enchantment began for me in childhood with reading Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends.  Then in high school, I became this huge Bob Dylan fan and bought a hard back copy edition of all his lyrics up to 1985.  Later on in my 20's, I ended up becoming a singer and lyricist myself for two different folk-rock bands in Santa Fe, NM, and I would guess that writing song lyrics for 7 years influenced my tendency to rhyme in verse for the page as well. 

In terms of the current poetry market,
I do think that in the past decade or so a considerable number of poetry editors in the U.S. have become more generous to lyrical/rhyming poetry submissions...but probably not as open as editors in, say, the United Kingdom.  As Don Patterson wrote in his 2002 introduction to New British Poetry, “the majority of poetry actually read in the UK tends, quite simply, to demonstrate an allegiance to more traditional ideas of form and poetic closure than its more freewheeling, loose-lined, and open-ended North American equivalent.”

BK You say Jack Hirshman was an early mentor and influence. Dismissed, as you say, by some as a “socialist street poet,” his first book in 1960 prompted Karl Shapiro to say “What a relief to find a poet who is not afraid of the vulgar or the sentimental…” How did you happen on Hirshman’s work and how did it help you in your own?

DK: Well, back in 2007 I was trying to find some left-leaning publications willing to consider a few of my more “socially engaged” poems, and I stumbled upon Left Curve magazine where Jack is still, I believe, one of the editors.  He sent me back a handwritten note, in green felt pen, telling me that while the poems I had sent were not quite right for Left Curve, I should send them to The People’s Tribune and mention his name as a credential.  That publication did indeed end up publishing two of my poems. 

At the time, I didn’t really know who Jack was, but because of the kindness of his personal response, I got to know much more about him.  While I’ve read his poetry of course, it is much more how he has gone about carving a non-traditional vocation as a poet that has influenced and inspired me.  Because of his unrepentant Marxist politics, he lost his job in academia.  Much of his poetry is self published and he has spent a lot of his life running around giving out poems to homeless people for free.  He has spent his whole “career” combining art with activism and has done so with little regard for literary prizes or mainstream acceptance...and yet, in spite of this he became appointed the poet laureate of San Francisco and his work is both well-known and deeply cherished in certain parts of Italy and France. 

BK: Another aspect of your work that you’ve said many editors have been cool to is the subject matter of religious and socio-political themes. You dedicate one poem to William Sloane Coffin Jr. who was a liberal Christian clergyman and peace activist. How does religion and politics come together for you?

I believe one would be hard-pressed to think of two more universal themes in human history and culture than religion and politics. And yet, these are the two  subjects we are told…to never mention in polite company.

DK: I believe one would be hard-pressed to think of two more universal themes in human history and culture than religion and politics.  And yet, these are the two subjects we are told people are supposed to never mention in polite company.  Folks have come to think of religion as a purely private affair that should be kept out of the public sphere entirely and political “issues” are seen as divisive as well.  But I find that poetry is actually one of the best vehicles to illuminate these subjects because verse (with it’s use of metaphor, simile, etc.) allows us to make different (and sometimes surprising) new connections that can help us break out of the realm of mere dogma and propaganda. 

That being said, I don’t think most readers would find my religious poems particularly pious or devotional in a traditional sense and my “political” poems aren’t about Republicans and Democrats...but about larger social issues like the oppression of women and people of color.  So whether we take them seriously or not, religion and politics are important issues that affect us all, and I don’t see how poets can ignore them. The current poet laureate of Colorado, David Mason, wrote: “I have sometimes found myself bored by poets for whom little was at stake.  When the accuracy, memorability or beauty of language quickened my interest, I frequently discovered that I was also reading poetry of social significance.” 

BK: Your take on religion is interesting, as a subject that often has people, and writers, on one “side” or the other. You have a couple of poems about, or against, raving fundamentalist preachers, but you still find a place for religion. You open “Why Go To Church?” with “Because I’m a hypocrite / and so are you.” And you end with “Of course religion is a crutch, / but what makes you think, you don’t limp?” How would you characterize your attitude toward this belief/disbelief dichotomy in your work?
DK: I grew up in Texas in a kind of nondenominational, fire and brimstone kind of church.  And what I came to realize pretty early on is that aggressive certainty in religious matters can be a very dangerous thing.  In fact, fundamentalism of any sort is basically anti-artistic: there is frequently little room for the ambiguities of language or the varieties of human experience, a distrust of creativity, and a kind of cultural puritanism I find stifling to the spirit.  For me, the beauty of the more
liturgical religious traditions lies in their comfort with mystery and devotion to the sacred through symbol and wrestling in a more aesthetic way with the most ultimate kinds of questions human beings can have.  The “answers” are not necessarily as important as living the questions with integrity.  For me then, doubt is a healthy part of faith...and is perhaps better translated as “soulful curiosity”. 

BK: You also create poems out of more mundane, or maybe “fleshy,” pursuits. There’s a poem built on an experience at a Denver soul food café, a non-apology for liking sausage, your reaction to your wife eating a pomegranate (“a bloody and laborious affair”), your grandmother in dementia, a snowflake falling. Some are serious, some verge with a punch on ‘light verse’ or maybe ‘heavy light verse.’ So your style can take in a lot of subjects, right?

DK: I certainly hope so!  Otherwise my work would be doomed to only appear in obscure Christian Anarco-Syndicalist zines stapled together in someone’s basement in Portland, OR.  (Laughs).  No, I actually appreciate this question because folks shouldn’t get the impression that all I do is write about esoteric theological disputes and peasant revolutionaries.  By my own reckoning, some of my best poems are the ones you have mentioned.  I also really like your phrase “heavy light verse”.  I do enjoy using a lighter and more playful tone in a poem that deals with something heavy.  One example of this is a poem I wrote about the philosopher Kierkegaard....a guy who was a “gloomy Dane” if ever there was one.  I used a fairly playful rhyme scheme for the poem though, and the result is that it became the first poem ever published in the 33 year history of The Soren Kierkegaard Newsletter out of St. Olaf’s College.  In addition, some of my most successful poems are those that use humor, and I’d say the majority of my work tends more often than not to include a kind of sly wink in terms of poetic voice. 

BK:  In the short poem “Poetry vs. Prose,” you end with “If prose is lengthy fiction / is poetry short suggestion?” Can you take this idea of poetry as “short suggestion” further? The idea of ‘suggestion’ seems interesting.

DK: I think the allure of fictional novels is that they give us a sustained and complex experience of a character’s interior life.  We are able to escape into another person’s skin and almost become that person as they wrestle with moral dilemmas, emotions, situations and motivations. 

A writer of poetry …is usually constrained by the length of the line inherent in poetry and I think this forces a poet to do more “sketching” with fewer words.

But a writer of poetry, even a writer of long poems, is usually constrained by the length of the line inherent in poetry...and I think this forces a poet to do more “sketching” with fewer hint and suggest, as it were, and leave a bit more interpretation work for the reader to do him or herself.  Another way of putting it is that perhaps prose tends more to “tell” while poetry attempts to “show”, to paraphrase Archibald McLeish.  But there are certainly novelists who write poetic prose and there are poets, like C. K. Williams, who write outstanding prose poems as well. 

BK: You like being published in “legitimate” publications, you say in the introduction to Runaway Muse, but I don’t think you’re trying to make it big-time in the Poetry Establishment. What are your thoughts on you and being a poet as a life and career?

DK:  Yeah, well, I like to think that I’m fairly realistic about my place in the pantheon of poets!  Everything I’ve learned about poetry has pretty much come from reading other poets.  Which is to say that I’m largely self-taught and don’t have an MFA in creative writing.  I also have a full-time job as a community organizer with a Denver-based nonprofit, so I am not part of any academic English department as so many great poets today are. 

I write for love of the art, not for prizes or any pretensions to achieve the status of a Billy Collins (who I enjoy reading by the way).  So given all these restraints on my time and my marginality in terms of having a circle of literary influence, I’m fairly satisfied at having published roughly eight poems a year for the past five years.  And a few of the contemporary poets whom I admire the most have read and enjoyed some of my poems and were kind enough to say so...particularly Colorado’s own Wendy Videlock and the incomparably brilliant A. E. Stallings.  This has meant more to me than any chapbook competition or other accolades. Of course, if a major publisher wanted to put my two poetry chapbooks under contract for national distribution, I wouldn’t say no!