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Books In Conversation

Living Between the Imagined and the Real
MICHAEL KLEIN with Tony Leuzzi

Michael Klein
When I Was a Twin
(Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015)

One of my favorite poems, Odysseus Elytis’s “The Mad Pomegranate Tree,” begins with a clarifying head note: “an early-morning question of mood of high spirits à perdre haleine.” Roughly translated, the last three words mean “to become breathless” or “until one is gasping for breath;” they also invoke the response I experience when reading the poems and prose of Michael Klein. Distinguished for both supple, vigorous movements of language and a restless, sometimes searing honesty, Klein’s style is unmistakably his own. Whether a compact verse poem or a longer-scale scene from one of his memoirs, his work vibrates with an almost devastating energy that is a natural extension of his physical presence. Franz Liszt dazzled crowds when performing his own sweeping, pyrotechnic rhapsodies. Similarly, Klein’s resonant reading voice induces awe, in part because it so fluently matches the intensity of his material: its sonorousness urges us to pay closer to attention to the weight of his words. In anticipation of When I Was a Twin, Michael’s sixth book—and his first to feature verse alongside prose, I asked him a few questions. His hallmark candor was refreshingly unaffected and necessary.

Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Congratulations on your new book, When I Was a Twin. Most people will not know that its original title was A Life in the Theater. Reading through the verse and prose pieces that make up this collection, I can definitely see how the former title could have also worked. What were your reasons for making the change?

Michael Klein: I made the change for a few reasons. The title essay takes up a lot of the book, so it was simply a logistical reason. The title change also had to do with a decision to change my initial idea for the cover, which was a wonderful and weird painting by my friend Michael Landis. It was a painting of a figure with a bag over his/her head and an eggplant—those were the main subjects—and it had a wonderful color sense. But then, months later, a student I had at Goddard, Shef Reynolds, was doing a photography project which he wanted me to be a part of and he took a photo which became the actual cover of the book and, hence, the title change which went perfectly with the cover image/photograph. I had misgivings, of course, about using a photograph of myself on the cover, but it was such a striking portrait. I couldn’t resist. 

Rail: How might the two titles be linked for you?

Klein: A Life in the Theater has always been one of my favorite titles ever since Mamet wrote a play by the same name. I love its double meaning. The idea that you have this other life that has to do with how people perceive you, which may or may not have anything to do with the person you are. I just finished watching the Robin Williams movie, The Night Listener, based on Armistead Maupin’s experiences on the telephone, mostly, with a kid named Anthony Johnson, who wrote Between a Rock and a Hard Place which described his horrible and abusive childhood. It turns out the kid never really existed and was being impersonated by the woman pretending to be his mother. There’s this gorgeous line he quotes at the end of the movie from, of all places, The Velveteen Rabbit, which says: “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s the thing that happens to you.” In a way, A Life in the Theater and When I Was a Twin both attest to that belief. The whole book, I think, is really about the difference between the imagined and the real, how both are sort of essential in order to have a life that feels authentic, that we live, still as whole beings, somewhere between those two ideals.

Rail: I first encountered you through your verse. I soon discovered that there was a whole other Michael Klein, one known to so many others as a writer of powerful memoirs. One of the exciting features of When I Was a Twin is its seamless combination of these two Michael Kleins. Are you proposing this book as a book of poems in verse and prose, or as a mix of poetry and memoir, or as a collection of thematically unified pieces that take whatever form they need to take?

Klein: That last thing—unified pieces that take whatever form they need. But this is how I really feel about all writing: content dictates form, always. I never really know what a piece of writing is going to be until about the middle of the first round. Although a poem, honestly, is a very differently shaped idea of a statement. One thing I did in this book, which I haven’t done before, is to take an idea and give it more freely to fiction—that is, not worry about if something is really true or not. When I’m writing poetry, the “idea” of truth is much more important to me. It’s my truth, obviously, but there’s a much more steadfast allegiance to that truth than when I’m veering off into prose. This book was an experiment with that kind of sentiment.

Rail: The lead poem in the book is “Harmonium,” my favorite poem of yours to date. In the middle of the poem you say, “I want to stay changing.” It’s such a forceful admission, the ambition Heraclitian in its dimensions. Why is it important for you to stay changing?

Klein: That was actually a response to Kunitz’s “I am not done with my changes” and his poem, “The Layers.” It’s always resonated with me because here was this guy approaching 100 years of age and he’s still facing the world with open arms and an eye on wonder. That’s what I want. Of course, to live it, like all living, is sometimes better dreamed than lived.

Rail: In the same poem you mention lists. This, intentionally or otherwise, prepares readers for what follows.  There are a number of compelling list poems in When I Was a Twin. They are formally conventional lists but the carefully measured language of the lists themselves distinguishes them. “Other Horses” and “The Medium” in particular entice me to wander through the spaces between the items in their lists. What made you turn to list poems for this book? And who or what might have been your models for building them the way you did?

Klein: Those lists came out of nowhere and my whole intention—which kept me really interested in making them—was to make them seem like items that are a sort of mash-up, again, of something imagined and something real. Some of the items on the lists in any of those poems are easy to see and understand in the context of the world, but not always in the context of the list they’re a part of. They were also, for me, an experiment in taking something fixed, which is what a list is, and fill it with things that are more fluid or ambiguous—to take the information inside in a way that wasn’t always obvious. My inspiration for all of these lists probably came after reading Édouard Levé’s extraordinary book, Autoportrait, translated by Lorin Stein. It’s this amazing “memoir” that is basically a book-length paragraph of declarative sentences that don’t necessarily relate to each other. On the surface it sounds uncomfortable and why bother, but I found it completely riveting as literature. He was making a new form and reading it felt like walking with someone through their dreamlife. It was an incredibly important book for me.

Rail: Loneliness is a persistent theme in this book. Can you talk about the persistence of this theme and its importance to you?

Klein: Adrienne Rich has a gorgeous poem, “Song,” which begins: “You’re wondering if I’m lonely: / OK then, yes, I’m lonely / as a plane rides lonely and level / on its radio beam, aiming / across the Rockies / for the blue-strung aisles / of an airfield on the ocean.” I don’t know another poem in English that describes what I feel so well on the subject of loneliness. And, of course, Adrienne and I were dear friends and I think this was part of the reason we were: we recognized each other’s loneliness as our own, in a way. We felt not a loneliness of being alone, as much as being on that radio beam—another kind of living that necessitates not being in company. Having visions, too—that kind of loneliness. I will always be lonely and I will always depend on the sadness in living more than whether or not it brings me real joy. “You’re wondering if I’m happy”: imagine that to be the first line of her poem. Interestingly enough, it wouldn’t really change the meaning very much, which I think was her point. And mine.

Rail: In “A Movie About a Homosexual,” you are helping a friend come out of the closet. At one point, you tell him, “You are opening a door . . . not acting in a movie in which you play the homosexual.” There are many implications here, not least of all how we, in our isolation, turn to on-screen narratives for refuge; this may backfire if we don’t know the difference between life and a world projected on screen. How do you, if at all, conflate your obvious passion for movies with your identity as a homosexual?   

Klein: How does Frank O’Hara conflate his passion for art with his identity as a homosexual? In poetry. And not to compare myself with O’Hara (although he has always been an influence), but it sort of feels the same way to me. I do believe, as I think O’Hara demonstrated with his life and art, that there is something like a homosexual aesthetic that enables the homosexual to more easily, as you say, conflate passion for art and sexuality. The queer artist, too, is leaving his work and not children, to carry his/her genetic make up into the world.

Rail: In the titular essay and centerpiece of When I Was a Twin, you write, “Writers get their people back after their people die.” How did you arrive at this truth?

Klein: I was thinking literally of that whole phenomenon of being able to finally tell the truth—if you’re writing memoir—about somebody; how their life, while they were living, gave you pause and it wasn’t until they were dead that you could see them in retrospect for who they were. But I also think that you are freer to say more about yourself in relation to that person. I wrote one essay, “The End of Being Known”, as I say in this book, about Kevin while he was alive. But, that was the only time he occurred to me as a subject. It was only after he died that I began writing quite a bit about him. My being haunted by the dead is as real as my living without them in the world. It’s from that place that this new book is really speaking out from.

Rail: How has being a twin informed your identity as a writer?

Klein: Well, Kevin was also a writer, a poet, but was dragged down a lot more than I was in my life and so he never really took it as far as he could go. He died a very unhappy person. We were also extremely different writers. His poems were very different, more mercurial, certainly. And we have both been subjects in each other’s work at various times. But, as you can see, it took me years to really face him and talk about the things I talk about now in poems or prose. So that trajectory has certainly informed me, in a sense, as a writer.

Rail: But being a twin and a writer seems more complicated than this. In “When I Was a Twin” you write: “I don't know if my brother really saw me as a practicing artist. I was someone who wrote poems and a couple of books of prose, but I was not an artist doing it, I was my brother's brother doing it.” Here and elsewhere in the essay you suggest your voice is either a shadow or an extension of your brother's voice. Has being a twin compelled you to reach even further for your own voice than you might have had you not been?

Klein: Sure, I suppose that’s true, as it may be true for most twins. But I never felt all that as competition, more than as a strategy to establish my own, singular voice or personality. There were times when I had to look at him to be reminded I was a twin. When I say, “I was my brother’s brother,” I’m thinking for him, what I thought he was feeling. It’s complicated. I think what I’m trying to say is that as much as being a twin influenced me; it was also something I consciously resisted when it came to making art.

Rail: Being a twin myself, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by your observation that “The twin waits for the other twin to stop thinking.” Did you ever feel muted or canceled out by your brother’s voice, or did your twin’s existence perhaps inspire you to be a writer? Is this question even answerable?

Klein: I don’t know if it is answerable. The most direct way I felt muted or canceled was physical—and I’m talking about the physical speaking voice more than the physical body. As you know, I have a pretty unique speaking voice; my brother also had it, so, in a way, it wasn’t that unique, was it? The fact that there were two voices that sounded like this particular voice was a constant fascination for many people. So, after he died, I am the only one who has that voice which, as a writer, I can’t help mining, at times, for all the gold that metaphor contains.

MICHAEL KLEIN’s fourth book of poetry/prose is When I Was a Twin. His first book, 1990, tied with James Schuyler's Collected Poems to win the Lambda Literary Award (he's been a finalist five times). He has also written two memoirs, Track Conditions and The End of Being Known, both published by the University of Wisconsin Press. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, Ploughshares, and Ampersand Review (online). He teaches in the MFA Program at Goddard College and at Hunter College, in New York, where he lives with his husband, Andrew Hood, when he isn't living in Provincetown, MA.


Tony Leuzzi

TONY LEUZZI's books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with twenty American poets.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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