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Ishmael Klein at BIG NIGHT!

Ishmael ("Ish") Klein is not your typical poet, self-taught video artist, and puppet maker. Indeed, she may be the only graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers Workshop to work extensively with hand puppets. 

The longtime Philadelphia-based Klein (she recently moved to Amherst, Mass.) is a one-woman art institute of quirky, do-it-yourself creative projects that are at once both broadly comic and oddly compelling. The closer you look at and read her work, the more you come to realize that she is a master of narrative mock innocence juxtaposed to far darker themes and deeper anxieties through the genius of comic timing.

The clever, child-voiced, and disarmingly witty Klein may be the perfect headliner to close out Just Buffalo's popular and highly successful BIG NIGHT! event series for its fall season at 8 tonight in the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk Street). Admission is $ 5; free to members of Just Buffalo and its affiliate organizations and to students with valid identification.

Klein is the author of a widely reviewed first collection of poems called Union! published last year by Canarium books that had nothing to do with organized labor, but instead took its inspiration from the ethos of the Soviet/Russian "Soyuz" space program ("Soyuz" translates as "Union") in which the isolation of terrestrial voyage is a metaphor for spiritual longing, and the destination is a kind of cosmic fellow-feeling.

The book is divided into four sections -- "Amid Ocean," "Dry Land," "Hard Earth," and "Up and Away!" -- each of which traces out one trajectory of self-discovery moving toward a broader, collective awareness at the end of a personal relationship. Klein's second collection of poems called Moving Day is slated for publication in April 2011, also from Canarium Press.

She is perhaps even better known as the maker of a series of short films and videos that are concisely written, whimsically cast and brilliantly edited with a knowing eye and a broad range of cinematic references.  You can sample her The Mentalist's Mental Cabinet of Vengeance! and Manic/Depression at the The Poetry Foundation website, where you can also read three of her poems. Poet Travis Nichols compares Klein's short videos to "Roman Polanski films if Polanski worked in Pee Wee’s Playhouse." You can check out more of Klein's video oeuvre at YouTube's - ishkleinfilms's Channel.

Klein's poetry, like that of her friend and sometime collaborator Dorthea Lasky, begins in a kind of parody of the self-absorption of "confessional" and post-confessional poetry's internalization of authenticity, but then moves to a kind observational lyricism, vulnerability and candid insight that seems almost spontaneous, not the "product" of endless hours of revision or creative-writing-program "craft." Here, for instance, is her poem "For You I Will Make Myself Useful":

For You I Will Make Myself Useful

My word, you rats are lonely
you who run through my mind.
You are stinking, so I am stinking!

Song of discomfort! My thing!
You who may be there; what could I give you?
Words well done? Idiocy prevents me.

How's this: Ish Klein loves you x (genuine signature and date)
and can lend a limited amount of money to you; in your time of need.
If that is what you want.
Or I will make physical contact.

How far will we go? You tell me.
Wait! I should arrange these things, these words, or whatever.
Polish the brass.

The sun is like an omen.
The moon, a variable drip.
My heart is like a tire fire.
You who read this are like a beautiful drug.

And I LOVE drugs
It's the year of the drug or dog.
That's my year!
My hand is now a puppet calling out to you.

What else do I have for you?
I can tell you where I found money once.
At this place I also found a pack of cigarettes.
Outside the Central Library. Left facing South. Apparently enchanted.

Okay, enjoy this flat mechanism which is maybe in your hand.
Save it until you find a use for it.
Love, Love, Love,
Ish Klein.
Not all of Klein's work "performs itself" so mock-transparently. Consider this dark romance:

Lithuanian Sunset

Ninety minutes since dark, I do not expect the surrounding ice
to quit its hold nor do I expect you wearied at my door:
shoulders narrow ‘neath your dark green cloak.

You wouldn’t be dashed by stones at my door who take unkindly
strangers; flinging them knee to split knee. Dashed all strangers
take me less than notable, even addled as if they could win
a contest to prove their contention.

I have wandered, am neither here nor there;
you are where I left: sous terre,
roiling voices beneath your brow
and beaux who wrote with forced arm; not strong.

This is to say meet me where I met you first.
Where you stirred as I lowered myself over cliff’s edge.
A burgundy train I wore; you held me up by this.
Your great strength, a thing beside, a saviorial beast, loving me

I am the kind who need only be reminded of kindness
and with my All will pursue that quality in the new life.
The remembering one. You seemed to see this.
You lost your horse carelessly that day.

Joining Klein will be media artist Jordan Dalton, who describes himself as "a cultural producer, environmental activist, experimental geographer, and media practitioner."  His work investigates the role of sound in the built and natural environment, how art and culture can work with and through activism and community action to inform, educate, and activate the general public. He is currently an MFA candidate in the Department of Media Study at the University at Buffalo. 

As with all BIG NIGHT! events, the food creations of CIA (that's Culinary Institute of America) trained gourmet chef Geoffrey Gatza will share the spotlight with the artists and performers. Gatza, of course, is the acting editor of the Buffalo-based independent publisher BlazeVOX Books and the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, the most recent of which is Secrets of my Prison House.

--R.D. Pohl
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