The following is Michael Klein’s Goddard College Commencement Speech – Summer, 2018
“He must have been so beautiful, he bled a painting”—Ni’ja Whitson
“I’m already myself”—Ni’ja Whitson
“All things have a secret life, even you.”
“None of my family made America great”
“If you can this summer, find a place away from the
news cycle and other oppressions of modern life. Stay past sunset and pray for clear skies.”
Welcome Graduates, the mothers and fathers of graduates, the grandparents, friends and children of graduates, faculty, Jill Mattuck Tarule, Chair, Goddard College Board of Trustees, my brothers who are sisters and my sisters who are brothers. Welcome to the 2018 MFA in Writing Commencement Ceremony.
But beauty is still important, isn’t it? It seems to me and other fairly intelligent people in America, that we are living in a time when the failure to describe the time we are living in is truly mystifying. So, please bear with me—I will get to today’s reason for all of us being here, but I don’t know what to say to you today that somehow hasn’t come out of outrage and disbelief—outrage and disbelief at the fact that one of the last bastions of seemingly liberal thought—the fourth estate—has normalized an aberration. An aberration that not only is the way to describe the predator-in-chief, but also the exact word to identify an imbecilic and authoritarian money grubbing administration that is so out of touch with the rest of the world that nobody even knows what they do apart from kowtowing to a pathological liar.
I knew, as many of us did, that as soon as MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN sloganed its way into the psyche of a carnival barking presidential campaign—and later, when white nationalists came out of the shadows because the stage had been set for them; when hate crimes soared and acts of gun violence accumulated with such alarming dissonance that as soon as one national grief was somewhat abating, the next national grief was folding inside the previous one—I knew that we had not only normalized a criminal mind, but grief as well.
That “great again” that follows “make America”, of course, means white again—exampled just recently, by this country pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Think about that for a minute: the United States is no longer a participant in a Council that has “Human Rights” in its name. Every atrocious political and racist act orchestrated by this bunch of 1-percenting egomaniacal dumbbells is making for an era of American isolation unparalleled in my lifetime. There are no leaders. And so, there is now an opportunity for ordinary Americans to shift the paradigm. But, we seem to be sleepwalking through a disaster. The ethos created around each aberration isn’t enough to organize what is absolutely necessary now: a national general strike.
J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
– J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring”
Lately, whenever I’m asked for a contributor note from a publication, I always send in: Michael Klein is a member of the resistance. I’m not being glib or queer-fashionable here. And being a member of the resistance wasn’t something I inherited. I gave myself resistance long before the electoral college (invented by slave owners in 1787) put a Disney creation in the White House. My qualification for identifying as a member of the resistance—aside from being delivered at Providence Hospital in August, 1954, with a speaking voice that would eventually sound like gravel showered with gasoline—is the fact that I’m a writer—the way the group sitting together up front are writers. And whether you know it or not, you sitting together up front decided to be members of the resistance as soon as you wrote enough pages to start a world you then inhabited with characters, in order to move a narrative forward. You decided to be a member of the resistance as soon as you came to believe that it was the ratio between wonder and bewilderment that gave you a subtext to that narrative. You made the decision to be a member of the resistance when you knew, but could not wholly explain, the complicated and fragile experience of being human in a world dictated by so much inhumanity and a country called America that cannot recognize, for example, the stubborn fact that the penal system is just another name for institutional slavery.
Because the country and the rest of the world is being what it is unbeing, I have been trying to connect it somehow to something that happened in the fall of last year that took me down a rabbit hole of such depth and despair I thought I would die of either loneliness or suffocation. I’m not here to tell you what it was exactly, because I don’t want to talk away the plot, if there even is a plot. All it is, is a slice out of living. But one thing I learned as I was falling, was how to position myself in the middle of so much danger and deceit and come out alive. I put myself in danger to feel loved. I lost all sense of time. And doesn’t that also somehow describe what writing is? A kind of disappearing act into lost time, in which you lose yourself in a kind of lucid dream. I came to realize that the same imagination I used to make poems or non-fiction was the same imagination that took me to a trauma. So, that’s what this book I’m writing will be—an investigation of the place where loneliness and the imagination launch danger.
Lyrical writers, I think, live in that place a lot of the time. But, whether you are a lyrical writer or someone who writes in short, deliberate, phrases—you are all after a common affirmation. You want readers who, by the way, are also members of the resistance. You can see them at the end of the film Fahrenheit 451, when, after all the books have been burned, the resistance, in a snowfall, is reciting whole books they have memorized, in order for literature to stay, by willing it inside the human body.
Deep reading is reading with your life and, it seems to me, that an MFA degree could be thought of as the first marker of that commitment. It’s a big deal, what you are getting today, and without my own MFA, I wouldn’t be standing here reading this letter I’ve written to Ni’ja and Jessica and Kaye and Jesse and Aleesha and Michael and Sarah and Brad and Dane and Ian and Stephanie and Lindsay and Jon and Richell and Brian and Starki.
Of course, the MFA also represents a kind of closure for the part of the psyche that needs to be rewarded. And, it can also be the way into a teaching job and, so I’ve been told, into a lot of money, if money is the reason you are writing. But if you happen to hear voices or see—the way the Coen brothers saw a bowler hat rolling through the woods that framed the screenplay for their movie, “Miller’s Crossing—if you see something in your head that keeps you up at night until you have to write something, anything, down with the nearest writing tools available (Hikmet wrote poems on the back of books of matches in prison)—the degree supports something you probably—somewhere in your being—already know: a kind of mission, if you will, that you could win by gambling with your heart. You chose to open a door into a secret reality. You have a secret life.
I see my own MFA as a coda to a dream pursued and not deferred. And against sometimes insurmountable odds (money, family, health, fractures caused by time and love) and the fact that it’s hard to live in a country that is more invested in fakery and war than caring for its citizens, you have chosen to step outside the status quo and claim citizenship to outsider country. Resist. Resistor. Resistance. I can’t say it often enough, in all its word formations. Resist, even, what you already know. Whoever came up with the phrase, “write what you know”, must have been smoking crack. Toni Morrison told her students: “Don’t pay attention to that. First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? …If you do end up writing an autobiography, relate to yourself as a stranger.” Don’t be scared to write into the unknown.
Isadora Duncan was a dancer who seemed to be dancing into the unknown, at the edge of a 1920’s abyss. Every dancer does this to some degree, because they are occupied with changing open space and marking time. But the dances that were made by Isadora Duncan came from the core belief that she was shamelessly free. Nobody had to tell her that. Nobody taught her how to be free. Carl Sandburg wrote a line in a poem about Duncan that said: “I dance what I am.” And she thought of herself as a dancer even before her own becoming one—proclaiming that she had danced in her mother’s womb. She denounced marriage (her one and only marriage was brief and he, a poet, committed suicide), she was bisexual, she didn’t believe in economic security and was able to make a kind of art no one had ever seen before. Everything that happened to Isadora Duncan happened because of her dancing. Her own way of being drew hundreds of people to see her and at the age of 19, she was the most famous dancer in the world and her fame seemed to make her even more ethereal, more unreal, like the way she famously died—strangled by her own enthusiasm in the form of a long scarf she was wearing, standing up in the passenger seat that got caught in the back wheel of a handsome stranger’s car.
Ever since I saw the movie The Loves of Isadora, starring an effervescent Vanessa Redgrave, the dancer has been a kind of role model for how to live, to write. But, in the end, I’ve only been able to follow her lead with an admiring heart and not a desirous one sprung into action. I don’t have the life I dreamed for myself as an artist, as a writer. But there’s joy in my brain after a good day of writing. And, that’s the reason I keep doing it. That single day of joy—of sudden daylight breaking through the dark hour of the soul. I know it will come again, as it must—if it has anything to do with being alive.
My darling graduates, please don’t do what I did—make enough money to support your own writing. Except for the teaching. Do the teaching. Teaching is a blast. You will never be bored teaching if you really lean in close to listen to people who are there to learn. Listening is an act of love, don’t forget. That said, you will be surprised by how much more you know than your students—just by virtue of the fact that you’ve prepared and, God knows, you’ve arrived with enough imagination to know how to perform. Teaching is a performative act, and with classroom teaching, your surprise in knowing what you didn’t think you knew is, after getting a high grade, what students want— your reaction to yourself—your mind in flight.
When I say, don’t do what I did, what I mean is, don’t take the job just because of the money. I knew from the very first day I started writing around 12 (songs, then poems because the piano my mother bought couldn’t hold its last tuning) that I was never going to make money because I wasn’t writing for the masses who seem to only read on a beach and when they travel. And, honestly, I could never put money and art together. The two seemed to be at odds to me. Even though I am and always will be a child of the ‘60’s—I somehow got it in my head that a good paying day job would be fine, as long as I had time to write. But the day job took away too much of my time. The fact that I managed to get some writing done and six books published, is still something I can’t find when I think back about how it was done.
I often think I failed as a working artist because I let myself become an artist who worked. I’ve had enough luck and grace since then to know if I had let the writing carry me— the way it did when I finally did leave a job to accept a fellowship in poetry at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 1990 and wrote my first book, called, coincidentally enough “1990”—that writing would take care of me; that it would always give as much back as I put into it and continue to be what I’ve long considered writing to be—a spiritual practice, a life line.
Living in Provincetown, for what turned into three years, taught me that real success as a writer meant being consistent to the part of myself that took risks. Risk is extra life, I said once in a poem. And I’ve taken enough risks to actually know what extra life feels like. I was also blessed with an addiction and later, its recovery, which in itself continues to feel like extra life. There is also, as you now know, secret life and in that regard, real satisfaction came to mean recognizing and honoring that secret life by simply putting it in words. The challenge there, however has always been to make the story of my life bigger than something that simply happened to me. I continue to try holding as much of a world consciousness inside my own consciousness.
The consciousness of the world is in a kind of suspended coma because the history of it—what happened/happens here—needs to be revised more than it needs to be written. The lessons learned from history are largely being ignored. It’s 2018, and in an ostensibly democratic country (except it isn’t) we are dealing with human rights, civil rights, immigration rights, women’s rights and, because of various factors, voting rights, among others. But didn’t we already figure out the way to navigate through such obviously humane ideals? Who are we, then, right at this moment, if we cannot finally live, for good, by the moral standard we set for ourselves and our children? I’ve lived long enough to know the world as a theater for war, but also as a place that somehow gets repaired. Whatever has happened to me since that awareness, has made me more acutely empathic of what is going on in other places, with other people, and what it means in the history book the earth precariously continuing to write or revise.
For us, in America, our chapter in that book might be entitled, The Advent of Trumpism. But Trumpism—the awfulest of isms to describe what is actually a chronic symptom running through the circulatory system of a fringe—isn’t an accurate way to consider history. Trumpism’s entire mandate is based on falsehoods and, as we have been told a gazillion times, it is an ism that lives above the law and is audaciously unconstitutional.
How do we, as writers, find a way to make whatever we write count for something when there are those among us who have lost sight of what’s really true? When what’s real has all but disappeared from the public discourse, along with intellectualism and artistic endeavoring—you are left with having to broker the truth. Brokering the truth has always been what poets and writers do—and have to do, especially now. That, and investing in the essential work of imagining, when the future seems bent on disappearing us along with the world we live in. We need to actively imagine a world where every human being isn’t hungry and every human being is able to be with anyone they fall in love with.
Of course, you’re already living in some version of the world, but for two years you’ve had the good fortune of a writing life and some form of a domestic life playing off of each other. That’s the beauty of the low residency model. You haven’t spent two years institutionalized. You’ve spent two years balancing your life with your art. You are a Master of equilibrium, as much as you are a Master of Fine Arts.
Take the generous and rigorous spirit of your community life at Goddard into the world writ large. You are the truth tellers, the story tellers, the ones that will make us remember what it was like to have lived among false gods and divers into the wreck.
Gail Mazur, from an interview:
“When you finish a book you have a really urgent desire to have your next poems be different. To leave behind whatever it is you’ve been doing. For some people it’s an incredible trigger. For me, it’s almost been paralyzing. I almost forbid myself to worry about that anymore. I would hope that there would be more of the world, more history, more courage in them.”
Class of 2018, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, 05667, First of July, Northern Kingdom, Planet Earth, I hope for each one of you that in your next adventure, the art you make will have more of the world, more history, more courage in it.
Resist. Thrive. Repeat. And, above all else, care about other people. The revolution will not be televised.