Thursday, September 18, 2014

An Interview with Sandra Kleven

Photo: Michael Kleven
We asked our friend Sandra Kleven to answer a few questions for us, covering her processes, beliefs, and experience as an artist. Sandra is a poet, writer, filmmaker, and editor of Cirquea literary journal based in Alaska. Her answers, as expected, proved thought-provoking with just the right touch of that “quirky Sandy thing.” (Keep reading for more on that!)

Be sure to check out Sandra’s latest book, Defiance Street: Poems and Other Writing, which Stoneboat Co-Editor in Chief Rob Pockat reviewed in our Spring 2014 issue, and read on to learn more about this excellent writer.

You have a genuine inclination for aesthetic, whether it be visual arts, performance, filmmaking, writing, or other forms of creativity.  When did you first notice that penchant, and what inspired you to pursue it?

I love the concept and hope it is true. 

A creation of any kind has “content” or subject matter.  The work can plainly lay it out like, say, a tic-tac-toe board, all X’s and O’s.  Plain as milk, simple. Or you can doll up the content, do something new, add a twist, solder in steel, or work toward laying out X’s and O’s in a manner never done before. This is one way to see the aesthetic element.   

But every “different” thing does not correlate with the pleasing aspects of a deep aesthetic. Something else has to come into play, and trying too hard will destroy a house of aesthetic cards. 

Cleverness is one way to push the presentation further, cranking up caution to avoid “cute”—to achieve something more like wit.  Maybe, in the style of Dorothy Parker, this is an aesthetic of entertaining. “All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends.” (This remark is from the 40’s, when most of us think the world was square.)

Surprises can elevate the work.  I like to wake up the reader, as in these lines from my own poem, “Remnants:”

Dangerous men have taken my buttons.  My sleeves fly wholly in the wind.  At night they come through windows.  I had to give them something small. 
Maybe these lines leave a reader saying, “What the heck?” curious to read further.

I have a poem titled “BJ.”  The aesthetic of BJ, you could say, actually, is to offer the BJ as anti-aging treatment. Readers have told me that they argued about whether or not I meant the common, everyday, BJ.  The last line was the reveal to all but the cloistered:

Hey, buddy, whip out that piccolo.

But for that, it’s pretty subtle. 

Once your reader knows your proclivities, they can be confident they are right about the territory you appear to be entering. I work to push my boundaries, to enlarge the field of play in pursuit of a certain strange liveliness, a quirkiness of soul. The assault on one’s own sensible limits comes in steps, especially when it relates to exposing sketchy elements of your own history—things parents or your own grown kids might have a choking fit when reading.   

Photo: Carmina Kleven
As a younger writer, my first step in deeper disclosure involved getting my kids’ permission to write things about them.  Later, I’d run bits of work past the people who were “discussed” or characterized in some way. 

Then, especially in terms of my adult kids, I stopped showing them the work.  It was no longer about them.  My writing became my work, my thoughts, my sins, my appetites and creative impulses that ran all over the boards. They can seek out my published work if they wish, but their cool eyes at my shoulder would inhibit me. I am close to my kids and, yet, I don’t really want their feedback. 

As I become more captured by the thought that I am making art, I want to be left alone, free to be outrageous or to explore tender things, like the body, the sensual, the embrace.  Lord knows I’d be (even) freer in my writing if I lived in an East Village walk-up, without family everywhere around me.  As I move headstrong into each area of interest, I must forget family oversight. Sharon Olds is a great role model for this. In The Gold Cell, she writes about her children in tender (and alarming) ways.  She also creates a sexual scenario where she is upended in the living room with some orifice or other, like a lily or tulip in appearance.

Metaphorical sweat broke out on my forehead, not because it was erotic, but because it was so daring, and it was not even flattering. I’ll find the poem…here is her line: “My ass in the air like a lily with a wound in it.” A very, very brave line, even while it feels like over-sharing. But screw that. Let her be free so I can be free.   

I have taken aesthetic, here, to mean the extra elements added to content/subject/theme that move material toward an artistic or pleasing form—at best to the heights of such form—working in unbounded space, without regard for who you are pleasing or upsetting. My own intention is the exploration of thought, form, and experience, allowing the deep creative, the muse-type miracle, to surface without restriction, when I am so graced. Like in the poem “Circus, My Circus, “ published in Stoneboat a couple years ago, I stepped into the center ring, ready or not, because “this circus is the only show in town.” 

Today, the paper reported that among thousands of items at an archaeological dig near Quinhagak, a wedge was found, made from caribou antler and decorated with a raven’s foot design. It was decorated with a design of a caribou hoof. The archeologists say with typical certainty of such scientists that it must have been repurposed, “once a handle, perhaps,” as such items were not typically embellished.  This one was embellished. Maybe, they did things different in Quinhagak. Maybe, one artist carver did things differently in 1640, introducing an aesthetic to wedges.   
The genres in which you write—poetry, creative nonfiction, playwriting, and children’s books—contain an element of reflection that authors often struggle with. How do you maintain that reflective narrative while avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality or melodrama?

Photo: Carmina Kleven
When I set out, I am trying to engage, hold, entertain, and connect. I am not thinking about avoiding melodrama or sentimentality. I don’t think about the quality of reflection referred to in the question. I am an anti-rule activist but have a few internalized “guidelines:” I work hard to find the fewest words to say a thing. My rewriting involves mainly cutting. I tend to work in the associative realm, at best, writing what occurs and reading the runes later. I keep the strange beasts as they take shape. I can cut later, but these oddities will provide surprise.  Novel elements prevent the predictable, which I consider more deadly, really, than melodrama or sentimentality. But, I don’t go toward the soupy. I am naturally restrained, which benefits poetry. I have written three pieces about my grandson Jaden who is profoundly delayed. My summary statement in one poem brings in advice from family members who have recently died. I imagine them as wise entities, and they tell me as the poem closes, “If Jaden is laughing, Jaden is fine.” And Jaden, though he cannot reason or talk, is all merriment—like a small laughing god. It’s heavy material to address without going soupy—or mushy.  

I work in the manner prescribed by Richard Rodriquez, among others. The essay is your stage—perform, entertain, dance, inspire, be edgy, do something different. Challenge the rules. Do it different, if difference arises. Be your own persona. Inhabit the work. Do not allow sterility or purity. 

I started my thesis so strangely that I am surprised it survived my own scrutiny. But I dared to present it to the evaluating faculty members, untouched. No one made a single reference to it. Consider this weird opening from my thesis, “Defiance Street: The Essay:” 

I walk in poetry’s mansion. Everything is shrouded with sheets, from tables for toast to all things large. The sheets themselves are shrouded on the shelf where they are stacked. Down in the root cellar the celery is shrouded. What a sight, this shrouded celery! The sauna is shrouded; the sun porch, stairs, salon, the situation, the sun, the sunset, the son, the sonic boom; the sherbet and the sorbet. The swimming pool is shrouded. Simple things are shrouded. Sandra is shrouded. The shrouded are getting crowded. Scimitars, slump, soot, saliva, sloths and the Soviets are all shrouded. Don’t worry. This list is under control. Everything in the universe that does not begin with the letter S is shrouded. All the shrouded objects, situations, jokes, epochs, passions, people (everything!) look like a gathering of common ghosts. This is good. I am a poet. I have managed the universe with my mind.

Accepted without a blink or, perhaps, it just slipped by the scrutiny of the faculty. 


I was thinking of writing my early poems. Say, the poems of my twenties. Title it “Early Poems.” When they are released, people will know these are fraudulent early poems. 

 As time passes, the fraudulence will be forgotten and, if convincing, the material will come to be accepted as my early poems. (This imagines a shelf life of a few hundred years.) Before too long, only a student of Sandra Kleven’s work will know this quirky fact. 

The student will announce, “You know, she actually wrote these so-called early poems later in her life.“

Teacher and students will raise eyebrows, dubious, “Really?” 

“Really, it was a game for her.  She wanted to fill in the missing years.” 


You are currently involved in many artistic endeavors. Tell us about your work with Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim as well as some of the other projects you’re working on.

Because I’ve walked with good people down dark roads, I’ve fractured the cup that once held my naivety; my child-like belief that the best good would prevail—all of that spilled out like piss. I don’t think everything is awesome.  

So what do you do when you have lost faith? You carry on in faith. With roots in social work, the movement of the ‘60’s, and as a past VISTA volunteer I am interested in growth, justice, freedom and community. With other roots, in pain, loss, and anguish, I like to shake things up and create new order. 

Photo: Sandra Kleven
Cirque is a cup, a glacial lake, large enough to carry contradictions. I have been graced with the title of editor and the work this entails. Good comes from this.  Writers are connected. Work reaches the world. 

Founded by Michael Burwell, Cirque draws from Earth’s cycle publishing on the Solstices with deadlines on the Equinoxes. How could I have known when I wrote “Holy Land” that a carpet would roll out that led to Cirque? I have said, “I was born to this.” I have spent a lifetime getting ready. 

Whether doing it as a vocation or avocation, writing is a tough gig. What advice do you have for emerging writers?

Don’t wait until the work is ready. Moving the work into the world impacts it, cuts the diamond. The work needs the process of review. Don’t start a book-length manuscript until you have had some success placing shorter pieces. It is too easy to get hung up there, to die on the vine, if, after years smothering in a book-length manuscript, you find no publisher. Too much time is involved getting to that point.  Maybe, two years, five? Ten? The writer may wait two additional years to learn that it’s not going to be sold to a major publisher. The news can be devastating, and it will feel like an indictment of one’s worth. It is hard to bounce back from this, especially if the writer does not have other published work that serves to shore them up, to stand as evidence of worth to the writer, themselves, and to provide the “platform” that a major publisher may demand. 

Rejection may not be a judgment on the writing, but writers can rarely grasp this fact. If they spent two years writing and submitting in the shorter forms, they would become a better, more confident writer. They would know other writers and readers. They would be better positioned to devote time to a book-length work. In fact, the first book length publication might be a collection of the earlier pieces. This is the case with my latest book, Defiance Street: Poems and other writing, reviewed in the current issue of Stoneboat.   

Readers and writers often have some kind of metaphysical connection to authors. Theodore Roethke seems to be almost a spirit guide for you. How did that connection develop, and how has it guided your work and your aesthetic?

My Roethke period was quite a trip. He wrote that the dead poets will help you. He gives an example of Yeats visiting him as he worked to master a particular rhythm. Because of spending five-plus years with Roethke’s work and those who knew him, I have friends in Saginaw, Michigan (his home town). I spent a day with his student, Tess Gallagher, at her home in Port Angeles. With my son, Michael Kleven, I interviewed his former student and friend, the poet David Wagoner, who just received a Lifetime Achievement Award from National Endowment on the Arts. 

Everything started at the Blue Moon Tavern. In the early 1960’s, my district friends made a home of the Blue Moon Tavern. I was too young to get in legally. Roethke was part of this group, even earlier, holding impromptu poetry seminars in the back.  Today his portrait hangs over the pool table. Roethke died in August of 1963. That summer, I lived in the most posh digs in the district with my friend, the artist David Hall-Coleman. Our house was about four blocks from the bar. 

As noted, at 18 I couldn’t get in, but it was a home to many of my district friends: poets, alcoholics, poets who were alcoholics, and a ragged group of socialists and guys looking to score—drugs or chicks. 

In 2009, my son and I made a movie about Roethke, traipsing through the U-District with an actor playing the poet. 

During this period of study, I discovered that about seven Roethke students went on to become well-known poets. David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, Tess Gallagher, Joan Swift, James Wright, Sandra McPhearson, and others.  All had written about Roethke as a teacher, so I pulled their words from various sources and created a play with the premise that the former students are visiting a college classroom to talk about their teacher. The script also includes a chunk of David Wagoner’s play “First Class,” which allows a Roethke character to show up and regale the class. It is both touching and hysterical. We recently performed it in Seattle with a few of Roethke’s real students in the audience, Tess Gallagher, Joan Swift, and a representative of David Wagoner. Annie Ransford, who directs the Friends of Roethke in Saginaw, Michigan, was also present. 

All of these good things occurred from following Roethke. I have become friends with all of those mentioned associated with Ted Roethke. His impact on my verse?  Not so much, but his impact on my life has been amazing. I do at times feel his presence, as in this poem:

Out of Place in Seattle

“A lively understandable spirit once entertained you. It will come again. Be still. Wait.”
                                          —Theodore Roethke

We don’t speak of stones or the sea in Western Washington. We
use other words in place of these, found out in your poetry.
That’s how I knew you weren’t from here.
We don’t talk the way you do.

It’s an inclination to eschew words like eschew
because you sound too
big for your britches
like I was when I was
little in Seattle
Crying though the diamond links
crushed by a congress of friends
with you locked up in the violent ward
two Northeast blocks away.
You came here from someplace else
          to put things differently.

          Poetry’s province is elsewhere,
          a stone tossed up from the sea,
          embedded in the poet’s shoe
          one blink from catastrophe.

A child kneels at the lip of a wave.
She stretches out her hand to reach for something shiny.
You know what she wants, drawing under weighty water.
Walk weary to the beachhead waiting ’till she follows.

We walk the weary beaches ‘til clamshells
leave half-moons on ours soles.
Then you say,
Stop now, Sandy.
You have more than you can use.
Let’s go home.

The word “busy” is perhaps a gross understatement when describing your life. How do you fit in time to write, and what is your process?

When too much time has passed without the creation of some writing I am proud of, I will think, “I have got to write something.” I had that thought once when I got on the train to Fairbanks. It would be a round trip (each way, 12 hours at 25 miles per hour). My plan was to write “something.” I knew that UAPress was accepting pieces of 400 words about the cold, for an Alaska anthology. I put myself to the task. I wrote a painful little piece, “Open Water.” It made it into the anthology. Once I got into it, it took about two hours on the trip up and about the same on the trip back. It is very gratifying to write with intention and to have something reasonably good arise from it.  

I used to write “Morning Pages” in the manner prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (every morning, long hand, three pages). I have about four loose-leaf notebooks and between them, maybe 800, of these never-read pages. Someday they may be the basis for new work. Maybe, to help me write the poems of my middle years, the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  Maybe for my juvenilia. 

Faculty members and others have complained that teaching and editing will pull a writer away from their own work. But I do have quite a bit written that still needs a home. When you write more, if it is good, then you have work to do on behalf of the material you have created. That responsibility can get quite out of hand. 

What can readers expect to see from Sandra Kleven in the future?

Before he invited me to edit Cirque, Michael Burwell asked me to write an essay about Roethke. He said, "Just do your quirky Sandy thing." So I did, grasping for the first time, and pleased that my style, my aesthetic, was evident as a “quirky Sandy thing.”    

Photo: Michael Kleven
I have discovered the essay of late and will continue to explore the edges of creative nonfiction. I plan to teach and lead workshops, associated with a writing program.

More than this, I have two very large projects looming. The first is the establishment of the Alaska Center for the Poem, an organization to promote Alaskan poets and link them to the larger communities. 

The second is a publication, Brandish, which will collect writing that relates to social services and the “helping” professions in Alaska. It will include critical essays, memoir, historical accounts and other materials—at the level of a literary journal.  We are open to submissions, now. Cirque, too, is open for submissions. If you miss a deadline, we hold it for the next issue. 

Thanks for inviting me into this process. The questions were the best ever.  


Sig. said...

This is a great interview, Sandy. Thank you so much!

Carey Taylor said...

Sandy Kleven is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. This interview was a delight to read and gave me more insight into how Sandy "ticks" as writer/editor/person.