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cheek by jowl

Anderson: Poetry Month Showdown, Herrera vs. Kleinzahler

Herrera, Kleinzahler.

As you’re surely aware by now, thanks to all the rhythmically chanting mobs in the streets, America is knee-deep in National Poetry Month — that enlightened period during which everyone drops everything to honor the art in every way they know how: by carrying poems in their pockets, writing Walt Whitman’s “I sing the body electric” on their naked abdomens, reveling in the hypnotic rhythms of international poetry slams, and showering contemporary poets with the cash and attention they’d normally blow on high-end electronics. Here we compare two contemporary poets who made news last month by becoming the first-ever joint winners of a National Book Critics Circle award: the thick-mustachioed activist Juan Felipe Herrera (for Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems) and the grumpy contrarian August Kleinzahler (for Sleeping It Off in Rapid City: Poems, New and Selected).


Juan Felipe Herrera

August Kleinzahler
NBCC Acceptance Speech Thanked mother, father, fellow open-mike poets, publisher, teachers. Didn’t show up; in a short written statement read by his publisher, thanked the NBCC and his mentors.
Book Titles That Sound Most Like Adult Swim Cartoons Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box; Giraffe on Fire; Border-Crosser With a Lamborghini Dream Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow
Political Activism Civil-rights marches, traveling theater for migrant workers, prison poetry workshops. Once suggested that the U.S. government break terrorists by forcing them to listen to Garrison Keillor reading poetry.
Writing Process “I do five things at the same time and I write fast. I actually have to slow myself down to get things done. The art of flying is the art of writing.” “I can’t really see the glamour of it: a bit of desultory typing and a great deal of staring out the window.”
Poetry’s Larger Purpose “Own your experience, it is your source of inspiration and healing. Expand your conversation with the experience of your communities and world, put yourself in the shoes of everyone else around you and far from you and you will walk with many friends and families and create a bigger and better world.” “Good or bad, art's exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain. And in this, Moby Dick or Bach's 'Well-Tempered Clavier' are not different than the movie Cat in the Hat or Britney Spears wiggling her behind on stage; the former being more complexly entertaining and satisfying, but only for those who can appreciate the difference, and they are the minority.”
On the Teaching of Creative Writing “Mentoring is [the] most important aspect for me. Teaching and learning at the same time, expanding our thinking, and our action, our sense of community and self.” “What little of real originality is out there is drowning in the waste products spewing from graduate writing programs like the hog farm waste that recently overflowed its holding tanks in the wake of Hurricane Isabel, fouling the Carolina countryside and poisoning everything in its path.”
Photos: University of Arizona Press (Herrera), David Liittschwager (Kleinzahler)

Photo: Courtesy of the University of Arizona Press; David Liittschwager