Denver Lawyer's Prose Makes It
by Lindsay Pakard
Denverite Michael Friedman, lawyer by trade, poet by habit, was selected as one of the poets whose work appears in the anthology "Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present," which was published by Scribner and released in April 2003. Friedman is one of only two Colorado poets selected for the anthology.
Friedman is a partner at the Denver firm of Lottner Rubin Fishman Brown & Saul, where he has practiced for the last eight years. The father of an 11-month-old, Friedman studied literature at Columbia, where he received a BA in 1982; and Yale, where he received an MA in 1983. He graduated from Duke Law School with his JD in 1986.
The following interview was given in April, on the cusp of the anthology’s release.
How were you chosen for the anthology "Great American Prose Poems"? Is it awe-inspiring to be placed among the likes of Poe, Eliot, Ginsberg, etc.?
The three prose poems of mine that appear in the anthology "Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present" (Scribner, 2003) were selected from my book of prose poems "Species" (The Figures, 2000). I think those poems were likely included in the anthology because of the favorable attention "Species" has received. It’s extremely exciting to be included with Dickinson, Crane, Eliot, Hemingway, Auden, Bishop, O’Hara, Ashbery, Ginsberg, etc.
When I was in high school, I couldn’t get enough of Hemingway, and read all his books. So, it is a little unbelievable to be included with him in an anthology published by his old publishing house.
How does poetry relate to what you do for your day job?
In my current law practice as a partner at Lottner Rubin Fishman Brown & Saul in Denver, the commercial transactions I’m handling tend to be large, complicated and have a number of moving pieces. Those types of deals often require a great deal of imagination.
How long have you been writing? Did the interest come early, or was it in high school or college? Did you ever write standard, rhyming poetry?
The first poem I can remember writing was in high school. It was set in nature. It was written in the first person, there was a linear, logical progression, and it ended with a heightened moment of intense feeling—an epiphany. So, it followed the normative model for the poem, which is essentially the Romantic model. In short, it was very high school.
In college, in the late 70s and early 80s at Columbia, I studied creative writing with the poet Kenneth Koch, one of the leading lights of the New York School of Poetry. There is a famous interview with him conducted by the poet John Ashbery. In response to the question, "Why do you write poetry?" Kenneth answers, "To pleasantly surprise." That’s a very profound statement: that the purpose of poetry should not be to instruct or evoke the sublime—but simply to surprise. I’ve found Kenneth’s formulation to be a very useful, guiding principle. It reflects an esthetic more attuned to wit and playfulness than "high seriousness."
Around 1985, I interviewed the poet and novelist Harry Mathews (the only American member of the influential French literary group, the Oulipo). I shared with him Kenneth’s formulation about the purpose of poetry being to pleasantly surprise, and asked him if he concurred. After reflecting for a moment he said, "Yes, but why pleasantly?" I love that.
What are your favorite topics to write about?
I don’t play favorites! I used a variety of strategies, including collage, improvisation, quasi-intentionality and constrictive form, to achieve the quick cuts and turns that characterize the poems in "Species."
Who is your favorite poet? Who has been an inspiration? Who is your favorite modern (living) poet?
Two poets whose work I’ve been particularly interested in and inspired by in recent years are Clark Coolidge and Stephen Rodefer. Coolidge’s "Mine" and Rodefer’s "Four Lectures" strike me as postmodern classics. They’ve both been widely anthologized, and Coolidge has been taught in graduate writing programs around the country for some time. Their work is witty, disjunctive and edgy—and I have the sensation I haven’t read anything quite like it before whenever I pick up one of their books.
Important influences include certain poets of the New York School, in particular John Ashbery, Ron Padgett, Larry Fagin, David Shapiro, John Godfrey and Tim Dlugos, as well as Language poets like Kit Robinson and Bob Perelman. Ashbery, Padgett, Godfrey and Robinson can all be found in the anthology "Great American Prose Poems" as well.
Does it (writing) work better if you have a martini first?
It doesn’t, but a reviewer once referred to the "lime-green, martini-in-a-bomb-shelter tone" of my poems.
Where else have you been published?
I’ve had five books of poetry published. "Arts & Letters" (1996, with drawings by Duncan Hannah) and "Cameo" (1994), were also published by The Figures, the publisher of "Species." The Figures has been a leading small press publisher of innovative poetry for over 25 years—it published "Mine" and "Four Lectures" as well.
I have a new book of poetry, "Celluloid City" (with drawings by Jim Ringley), forthcoming this summer.
My work has appeared in a variety of journals, including American Poetry Review and New American Writing. It’s also been included in two other poetry anthologies: "Writings from the New Coast" (o-blek, 1993), an anthology of younger poets, and "The Blind See Only This World" (Granary Books, 2000), a collection in honor of the Black Mountain School poet John Wieners.
Recently Species has been used as an assigned text in several graduate writing workshops, including at the New School (in New York City) and the University of Massachusetts.