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Psychology Today interview

Psychology Today Interview

Risk Is Extra Life: Can Writing Make Us Brave?
Award-winning poet Michael Klein on the courage to surprise ourselves

Published on March 11, 2014 by Mark Matousek in "Ethical Wisdom," Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com)

Michael Klein is living proof that real poets are born not made. Big-voiced, big-hearted, and utterly wild, Klein transforms a room when he enters it, injecting a kind of liberating madness, an exuberance that challenges others to be larger, more original, and free than they already are (this is what real poets do for the rest of us). "Risk is extra life," wrote Klein, 59, in one of his poems, and risk has been his credo, indeed, in the award-winning books that have earned him a formidable literary reputation as well as the love of his writing students. “Surprise yourselves!” he is fond of saying. "Otherwise, you won’t be worth reading.” In life and work, Klein always surprises. The Talking Day, his most recent book of poems, is a both a Lambda Literary Award and a Thom Gunn Award Finalist this year. Klein has also written two memoirs: Track Conditions (Lambda Literary Award Finalist) and The End of Being Known, as well as another collection of poems, then, we were still living. He teaches in the MFA Program at Goddard College and lives in New York City and Provincetown.  Klein spoke to me recently about the role of courage in powerful writing and why it is never okay to be boring...

MM: How do you work with students who can’t write?

MK: I really turn them onto reading, that’s the first thing I do. It’s actually the thing I do with everybody. Many people who come to writing as a student haven’t really read a lot. So the first thing I do is try to get them excited about reading. Not necessarily about what books are about but the actual pleasure of what reading is and what deep reading is; what you read below the surface of a text. So, I do that and then I sort of mix it up. I ask them to write reviews, of a movie, or something they really like. I never put any rules on what it has to be. I just say, what do you see? What keeps you up at night? What are you really passionate about (if it’s another art form)? Again, it doesn’t have to be books necessarily. But just write what you feel. And the other thing I do a lot of time is use the ‘I remember’ exercise.

MM: Tell me about that.

MK: Joe Brainard wrote this really famous book—he actually calls it a memoir, in which every sentence in the book starts with the words I remember. You know the book, right?

MM: I’ve never used that with students.

MK: I use that all the time. He starts sentences with the words “I remember," but they’re really specific memories. They’re not like “I remember the first time Mark told me he loved me” or “I remember running away from home.” They’re very, very specific—like, “I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.” I remember sentences can be about an emotional situation, but it could also be about a thing. It could be really descriptive about something. When I encounter poets who haven’t really found their voice yet, I try to enforce the idea of the image and I try to enforce the idea of having an original idea. You have to have an original idea about something or it’s not worth writing about. You have to know something about living that nobody else has thought about. It could be anything – your idea about the rain. It could be tiny, like apricot pie. But it has to be different and startling in some way. And it has to have the force of forward motion—and I’m not talking about narrative, necessarily. I guess I’m talking about energy. It has to have energy.

MM: And when they hook into that original idea—does it help them hook into an original way of writing?

MK: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because a lot of times the original idea is something they didn’t think of as theirs, necessarily. Probably more often than not, it’s something they’ve never revealed. One of the exercises that I’ve used in order to find out what the original idea is, is to write something that you thought was true that you find out over time, isn’t. Usually they go back to childhood. Like Santa Claus being a real person—to have a myth sort of quashed at some point later in life and to write about that feeling. What was that like? I always try to give exercises where the results will be something that will surprise them and a lot of times when people are in that mode they write differently. They write better when it’s harder – which, of course, it should always be. For instance, I’m writing a lot of criticism these days and I really enjoy it because I’m not as good at it as I want to be. It’s hard for me, so it holds my interest in many ways more than poetry does. When something that you’re writing actually surprises you, you tend to get out of your own way.

MM: What about dos and don’ts for writing students? Let’s start with the don’ts.

MK: Okay. Don’t work on a computer in which you can access the Internet, which I think is really important. And don’t judge your own work. Don’t go with the first version. Don’t use dialogue unless it moves the story forward and you have a really good ear for how different people talk. Don’t talk about the natural world or the human body when you get stuck. Don’t use a long word when you can use a short word. And rule number one: Don’t be boring...

Read the full article here: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ethical-wisdom/201403/risk-is-extra-life-can-writing-make-us-brave