Peter Kline on Passing and Having an Intense Engagement with Language
Peter Kline‘s first book of poems, Deviants, was published in 2013 by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and at Stanford University. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he is also the recipient of residency awards from the James Merrill House, the Amy Clampitt House, and the Kimmell Harding Nelson Foundation. His work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Tin House, the Best New Poetsseries, and elsewhere. He lives in San Francisco.
What are you working on right now?
My first book of poems, Deviants, was just published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. Deviants is a book of estrangements. As the title might suggest, many of the book’s speakers are isolated, disaffected, excluded, or otherwise separate from society. My poems of the last few years have been concerned with passing of all kinds — with passing as a man or a woman, as gay or straight; with passing through unseen, passing by without stopping to help, passing over the threshold, passing from innocence, passing from consciousness, passing from life. My speakers wear many masks — they are loners and flirts, worriers and snarlers, supplicants and Jeremiahs. But they all share an urge toward both transgression and transcendence, and they all have an intense engagement with language. I want my poems to stick both in the mind and the craw, to be beautiful and memorable and at the same time strange and disconcerting. I am also interested in challenging the easy relationship between speaker and reader through the use of shifting personae whose designs on the reader are slippery and sometimes adversarial, in the tradition of Sylvia Plath and Frederick Seidel.
Most recently, I’ve been working on a series of poems in a form I invented, a slender, eight-lined “mirrorform” that begins and ends with the same line. To my surprise, many of these have come out as modern psalms addressed directly to the Divine — though a pretty cheeky kind of psalm.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Learning patience. Each of us has only so much time — we don’t know how much — so impatience is a natural byproduct of being mortal. But many of my greatest mistakes have been acts of impetuosity.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Read as much as you can, write as much as you can, and actively make your biggest life choices in accordance with that goal. And try to learn patience.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
My family hasn’t preserved many ancestral stories. But I do know that my great-grandmother worked for a time as a pianist for silent movies. I wonder what she thought about there in the Friday-night dark of snuggling lovers, as the villain grabbed for the maiden again and she made it thunder.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
Many of my poems perform a kind of striptease, winking at readers, goading them into taking on a more active role in the poem. Poetry that sets out to be weighty often ends up instead plodding or portentous; I like poems to be more nimble. A good striptease artist is playful and varied, and never loses his sense that the pivot and strut aren’t for their own sake — there is an audience to be seduced.
What’s wrong with society today?
For one thing, selfishness. So many of the malevolent tendencies of society — the short-sighted destruction of the earth, hateful religious and philosophical extremism, greed-culture, enforced ideological and sexual conformity, all deliberate violence — stem originally from an impulse to pursue the self and its interests no matter the consequences to others. Impatience, too, can be a kind of selfishness.
What kind of work would you like to do?
One of the best things about being a poet is that I can do just about whatever kind of work I’d like to do. The art requires no money and very few supplies, and doesn’t rely on collaboration. Also, there’s a purity to it — there are very few opportunities or incentives for a poet to sell out!
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The rent. San Francisco is getting too expensive for artists to move here, to its impoverishment.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With fifty words I can write my next bestseller, tickle a crocodile’s tail, tell this jabbermouth what’s what, fly to Betelgeuse and back, put a woman in the White House, tell my mom and dad I love them, run out for cheese and a sixpack, convince someone to kiss me.
With fifty bucks I can buy maybe three new books of poems, at least five used. Or dinner for two at Pizzetta 211!