August Kleinzahler


Griffin Poetry Prize 2004
International Winner

Book: The Strange Hours Travelers Keep

Poet: August Kleinzahler

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Click here to read and listen to an excerpt.



August Kleinzahler published his first book of poetry, A Calendar of Airs, in 1978. Since then, he has published six others, including Storm over Hackensack (1985); Earthquake Weather (1989); Red Sauce Whiskey and Snow (1995); and Green Sees Things in Waves (1998). In 2000, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club: Poems 1975-1990. His poems have appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Harper’s Magazine, Grand Street, The Threepenny Review, and The Paris Review. A native of Jersey City, Kleinzahler is the recipient of awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1989), the Lila Acheson-Reader’s Digest Award for Poetry (1991), and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1996). In 2000 he was awarded a Berlin Prize Fellowship. His latest book, a collection of meditations entitled Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained, was published in November, 2004 to considerable critical acclaim. He has also been named poet laureate of his hometown of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Kleinzahler has been a taxi driver, a locksmith, a logger, and a building manager. He has taught creative writing courses at Brown University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as to homeless veterans in the Bay Area. He lives in San Francisco.

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Judges’ Citation

The Strange Hours Travelers Keep is a masterful collection of work from a poet who inhabits the energies of urban life more fully than anyone currently writing. If August Kleinzahler’s poems notice birdsong, they do so by their own account as ‘part of a mix – footsteps, traffic, / fountains, shouts’. There is something exhilarating about passages of verse which are so ferociously on the move, between locations, between forms, between registers. These poems swagger and swerve and sing, while their moments of grace are ruthlessly sudden and just as swiftly abandoned to all the other stuff that’s happening in the universe. Kleinzahler’s poems also talk a lot about music, and they themselves live in the miraculous, conditional way that music does – finding their harmonies by moving forward.”

August Kleinzahler reads The Tartar Swept

The Tartar Swept, by August Kleinzahler

The Tartar Swept

The Tartar swept across the plain

In their furs and silk panties

Snub-nosed monkey men with cinders for eyes

Attached to their ponies like centaurs

Forcing the snowy passes of the Carpathians

Streaming from defiles like columns of ants

Arraying their host in a vasty wheel

White, gray, black and chestnut steeds

10,000 each to a quadrant

Turning, turning at the Jenuye’s command

This terrible pinwheel

Gathering speed like a Bulgar dance

Faster and faster

Until it explodes, columns of horsemen

Peeling away in all the four directions

Hard across the puszta

Dust from their hooves darkening the sky

They fall upon village and town

Like raptors, like tigers, like wolves on the fold

Mauling the sza-szas

And leaving them senseless in puddles of goaty drool

Smashing balalaikas

Ripping the ears off hussars and pissing in the wounds

They for whom the back of a horse

Is their only country

For whom a roof and four walls is like unto a grave

And a city, ptuh, a city

A pullulating sore that exists to be scourged

Stinky dumb nomads with blood still caked

On shield and cuirass

And the yellow loess from the dunes of the Takla Makan

And the Corridor of Kansu

Between their toes and caught in their scalps

Like storm clouds in the distance

Fast approaching

With news of the steppes, the lagoons and Bitter Lakes

Edicts, torchings, infestation

The smoke of chronicles

Finding their way by the upper reaches

Of the Selinga and the Irtysh

To Issyk-Kul, the Aral, and then the Caspian

Vanquishing the Bashkirs and Alans

By their speed outstripping rumor

Tireless mounts, short-legged and strong

From whose backs arrows are expertly dispatched

As fast as they can be pulled from the quiver

Samarkand, Bukhara, Harat, Nishapur

More violent in every destruction

This race of men which had never before been seen

With their roving fierceness

Scarcely known to ancient documents

From beyond the edge of Scythia

From beyond the frozen ocean

Pouring out of the Caucasus

Surpassing every extreme of ferocity

From the Don to the Dniester

The Black Sea to the Pripet Marshes

Laying waste the Ostrogoth villages

Taking with them every last cookie

Then dicking the help

These wanton boys of nature

Who shot forward like a bolt from on high

Routing with great slaughter

All that they could come to grips with

In their wild career

Their beautiful shifting formations

Thousands advancing at the wave of a scarf

Then doubling back or making a turn

With their diabolical sallies and feints

Remorseless and in poor humor

So they arrived at the gates of Christendom

From The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, by August Kleinzahler
Copyright © 2003

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