Interview with
Robert Klein Engler
by Kathryn Wagner
"The conservatives don't want me because I am gay and the liberals don't want me because I oppose affirmative action, so I go where I'm invited."
Robert Klein Engler
You mentioned in another interview that sonnets are your favorite poems to write. Why is this? Most people find them the most difficult to write.

I guess they are difficult to a degree. Of course, we do not teach students to write in meter anymore, so it may seem extra difficult if you have to learn it on your own. Sonnets require that we understand the iambic pentameter line and how to rhyme. They require that we give shape to our emotions, too.  I suppose sonnets are to rap what matter is to antimatter. Some say, like W. C.  Williams, that the sonnet is a reactionary form, but unlike Williams's work, which, in my opinion laid the foundation for the text of modern advertising, I have never seen a sonnet used to advertise a Lexus!

There was a time in my emotional life when the disruptive forces of love and politics required that I impose some kind of order in my imagination, at least for the sake of sanity if not for art. Writing in the sonnet form helped me do that. Now, I have quite a selection of them. Here is a recent sonnet you might like:


When he was young and drawn alone by thirst,
He drank the poison of a love sublime.
The second drink was bitter from the first.
So now he sips the antidote of time.
The lives of saints will move in solemn pace
With holy wills beyond his love and hate.
Their bodies are like sunset clouds of grace,
But all he knows of this is how to wait.
The breath of God exhales above the land.
In this white dome he lives his length of days.
At times a glory cups his heart in hand
And shows him when he walks with heavy gaze
    As if there were an opening in light
    A world seen dark because it is so bright.

It's been mentioned that you were ethnically cleansed/banned by the Chancellor at the City College of Chicago. I'm assuming this is because of your gay content of your poetry? Do you care to expand on this?

People do not want to admit that things like this happen in America, but they do, and based on my experience, they happen to gay men and to white men. Ah, but there are those who will say it is just my overwrought imagination making all this up so that I can be a victim and advance my agenda. Let history decide that. Right now I believe public higher education has been so politicized by affirmative action and moribund liberalism, that I suspect you will not recognize it in a few years. By then knowledge will have given way completely to ideology.

Before I was banned, I did have my professional mail destroyed by boys in the mailroom at the college and had to file a complaint with the Chicago Commission on Human relation before anyone listened to me. In the end, we settled and I agreed to a gag order. Nevertheless, it came out that my mail was destroyed because certain parties did not like my writing articles and poems and sending them to gay publications. I think after that victory, there were people in the college administration who were looking to get even for the embarrassment I caused them. All in all, the City Colleges of Chicago seems to me to be a pretty homophobic place. They still do not have a "sexual orientation" clause in the faculty union contract.  I suppose it is difficult for your readers to understand this without understanding the miasma that is Democratic politics in Chicago. I hope people get my book, A Winter of Words, from and after reading it, judge for themselves. 

I know your specialization is poetry, but have you thought about writing a novel?

Actually, I have written a few novellas, and two books of short stories. I have also written three plays and am working on my fourth. I hope to have a staged reading of that in November. It is a story about a professor who lost his teaching position and is down and out in New Orleans.

Will this reading be in Chicago?

Yes, and we hope to have a wine and cheese reception beforehand. Just send me an e-mail for more information. Of course, my readers are invited.

Do you consider yourself a gay poet? Or a poet who attracts mostly gay readers?

I tell people that I am a poet who happens to be gay. I hope in my development as a poet I can move from the particular of being gay to the universal of being a human being. I also hope to attract as many readers as possible. That's why I like computers. Anyone with Internet access can read my poems.

Your books are often found in the gay/lesbian section of bookstores, rather than the poetry section. Do you have any feelings on this?

I'm happy my books are in a bookstore. They can also buy them online. I would be happier if people bought them any way they can. It is too bad we have to categorize literature like this. Please, come this way. Do not be shy. Take me down from the shelf and have a look.

Do you target certain journals for publication? I noticed your work appears often in diverse magazines/journals which stress the freedom of publication.

Usually, I send my work out to a wide range of magazines, and am happy to see it published by whoever wants it. Of course, if a magazine doesn't want poems that rhyme, I will not send them a sonnet, or vice versa. And why not go where you are welcome. The conservatives don't want me because I am gay and the liberals don't want me because I oppose affirmative action, so I go where I'm invited.

I just attended the Southampton Writers Conference, and found it very stimulating in my development as a writer. Do you have any thoughts on conferences/workshops? Do you find them helpful?

A few years ago, I went to one of those writers' workshops (a strange metaphor to begin with, as if we were tuning up an engine or something) and my session was ruled over by this high-strung woman poet. I am not a person who holds to political correctness, so by the time afternoon came around she was yelling and screaming at me and my opinions. I concluded she was more interested in her own neurosis than in the art of poetry. It's ironic, but many of the liberals who flock to these workshops want diversity in everything but thought. I used to be able to suffer fools gladly, but as I am getting older now, I prefer not to suffer at all. In the end, you must have talent to be a poet, and that cannot be taught at any workshop. Yet, people like to be in the same room with the like-minded, so workshops do have a function. Misery loves company.

Is poetry an assignment?

Lyric poetry has an aura of necessity about it. This necessity comes from the pressing moment, and the poet's ability to select the exact words for that moment.  Poetry comes out of the particulars of life, but also transcends them. Poetry does not begin with an assignment: "Write a poem about an apple."  On the contrary, it begins with the poet's encounter with an apple, and the overwhelming necessity of the apple's presence. For a poet, that presence is so great, she is forced to raise up language to meet it.  Nothing in poetry comes from simply assigning words to things.  Only when something comes into our being with such force that it dislodges words, the way electrons are dislodged by an atomic reaction, is poetry possible.  Assignments throw words at things, with the hope some will stick.  The poet realizes an experience of such power, that words are dislodged from the place where language and things meet. Such it is that we speak of the light of a poem. In poetry, it is not mud we are after, but electricity.

You hold a degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School. How does religion influence your writing?

I believe religion influences me a great deal. I basically write out of the two traditions in my family, Jewish and Catholic. I believe God created the world by speaking, "Let there be light." Poets come close to that efficacy of words. Wasn't it Muriel Rukeyser who said that the universe is not made from atoms, it is made from stories?

Yes.  I enjoy her poems as well.   Do you have a recent poem that touches on a religious theme?

Here is one:


is sold, sealed in clear plastic. He waits, you suppose fittingly, on a shelf at the comic book store next to the Moses action figure with removable tablet and staff. The Jesus figure glides on hidden wheels, while Moses just stands and stutters. You imagine your years glide by, too, on hidden wheels, and what testimony there is to suffering, seeps into the rhetoric of standup comedians. The package looks rather absurd from a postmodern point of view, yet, overlooking the audacious claims for divinity, you must at least pause and consider how this man from Nazareth turned out, how his good intentions, even those debatable miracles, which never made jewels or gold, but just advanced life from the grave, or made loaves and fish so we could eat, or wine from water so we could marry and make more life, how that one life ended: nailed, stabbed and crowned with thorns. Try it. The posable arms move up into a gesture of blessing; and then you think about your work gone bad, the office arranging circuits without you, or your lover, the one who only held you with the soft hands of a sniper. Good and evil, charity and super powers, or the vanishing vapor trail of our names are all balloons of words above your head. You can make the posable arms move downward, too, wounded, like a hand trailing in the river of sorrow, where the water flows from inside, emptying you out, always the puzzle of desire with a piece missing; clear water, something like the resignation of ice, the glycerin of tears, the alleluia of dew.

I do believe, however, that in modern times we have to approach the religious in poetry somewhat indirectly. People do not want lilting, moralizing verse, but they do want meaning in their lives and they do want to fathom the depth of love and suffering.

I'd like to talk about a few of your poems.  I want to know more about the personal source of "Child's Play."  Does this stem from a long lost childhood experience?

"Child's Play" was written for a young, Latino poet I know. I was impressed with his writing and his looks, but he was not impressed with my attention. That kind of friction in the heart always leads to something. Poems come from other poems. Anyway, I wanted to imagine a place, perhaps in the life to come, where we could approach one another with innocent joy. I like the idea of casting the whole encounter in winter, which has a certain purity. The last line makes reference to that game of "doctor" children play and has an erotic overtone for me. "Show me yours, and I'll show you mine." I do not know. It's hard to talk about poems. Robert Frost was once asked what a poem of his meant after reading it to an audience. His answer was to read the poem again.


A cloud of souls, the mist of all that's gone,
returns to cap with frost the picket posts.
So cold, and still hope burns like iodine.
See now a blanket of white where once was lawn.
December makes our words appear like ghosts.

Who comes in youth again to taste love's salt?
In wintertime desire is cellophane.
Once, boys at school, we played, his hand in mine,
but snowbound forts prevailed, time was at fault.
I scratched his name upon the windowpane.

The tendrils of our heart's desire all weave
an Eden of ice. We eat. Forgive our sin
that leads from wilderness to blank design.
Such tricks, with snowballs up his sleeve,
or hugs for tumbling down the hill, and then,

the glance of God, a fog, so far we fall
into the white and icy glory of His call.
Hold still. The hand of mercy gathers us.
We play again in snow and blue sunshine.
Show me your breath. Exhale. Here's mine.

Your poem, "Resurrection" vibrates with loss and pain.  Your line, "We need time to tell of going out and coming back./ Visions run ahead, while words limp behind. / When we get there, the tomb is empty" sounds like justice won't ever be met, a spiritual peace will never be found for gays.  What are your thoughts on this?

Nowhere in scripture is there a commandment against love. How to love is another matter. We all have to struggle with that one, don't we? As to a spiritual place for gays and lesbians, well, maybe it is in literature. Maybe that's why so many of America's poets have been and are gay or lesbian.


It is a long way coming to this place. Years
are spent trying to match a word with desires,
then beholding the great desire behind them all.

One thing leads to another, they say in analysis.
Can you feel it, the affair of the world surging
behind your back, metaphors glued to your hair

like tar, similes sticking to your honey finger?
It is a hard way for many, struggling out of their
parents' dream, saying what they know

in their own language of stones or candles.
What is love, but one turning away and the other
holding on?  This is why some are ground sharp,

while others stay dull, biting their tongue.
We need time to tell of going out and coming back.
Visions run ahead, while words limp behind. 

When we get there, the tomb is empty.
The ceremony of hearts falls away like a veil. 
Spell this victory if you know how.

On another line, do you think the Supreme Court will grant gays the right to marriage?

I think gay marriage will be something that each state will have to work out. Marriage is not in the Constitution as I read it.

I read your essay in the New York Big City Lit titled "Poetry and Art in Chicago: A Prosimetrical Complaint." You talk about how public art -- paintings, writings, etc. -- can never be separated from the politics of the city, that the "best poets" will never be invited to a reading unless their politics agree. If you were to have a public poetry reading in Chicago, aside from political beliefs, whom would you invite?

More specifically, I wanted to argue in that essay that most public art in Chicago is the product of a certain kind of politics, that being the Democratic politics of a moribund liberalism. In short, public art is propaganda, and failed propaganda at that, for the moribund liberal state. As to who I would invite to my reading: I would invite the few good writers I know, keeping in mind the caution "a writer is not someone who has something to say, a writer is someone who has something to write."

You write, "Imagine a time in Chicago where the poet or painter will not be influenced by politics or propaganda, but is free from any party ties..." How will their work change? Will it become a more private act?  If so, won't the artist have a harder time marketing his or her work without some sort of political background?

One way art could change is that it might actually become more American. It will not have multiculturalism imposed on it from above. Yes, it is difficult to make a living from being a poet outside the circle of liberal institutions that give the grants, publish the books, and offer the fellowships, awards and stipends. My solution to this is to keep working with integrity. There is a bitterness that rots and a bitterness that ferments to glory. Much of what I have accomplished, I have accomplished alone.

You write: "You have to go a long way to convince me that a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship or a National Endowment for the Arts is anything more than a dispensation of grace from the shine of ART -- one in the service of moribund liberal politics."  I think some would disagree...aren't these awards about the quality of one's work, rather than linked to the artists' political ties?

Some people believe these awards are based upon merit, but I don't. First of all, in a postmodern world, there are no standards to begin with. What do you think is a good poem? Why? What merits an award? I think it is politics that now imposes taste and standards. Ironically, it is a politics that wants neither tastes nor standards, because the politicians hope to impose a gray sameness everywhere. Perhaps the only art immune from this press is opera.

Finally, what are your future aspirations with your writing?

Well, they say writing is one of the few arts you actually get better at as you age. I hope to get better.

I'm sure you will. Thank you.

Thank you.
ROBERT KLEIN ENGLER currently lives in Chicago, although he spends part of the year in New Orleans, the location of many of his stories. Inquiries regarding this interview can be sent to: