Getting to Know Keith Althaus and His New Book Cold Storage
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I love the stories of how artists come to their art, often by poignant routes and moments, like tales of first love, which of course they are. But I don’t have any such singular moment or even crucial teachers I can point to. My introduction to art and my acceptance of it came from a childhood of observation, reading, study, and endless curiosity, and museum and library visits whenever possible. Those were driven by a natural sense of belonging. I was drawn to the visual arts first. I’m grateful for that in a way: for me much of the tedious but necessary youthful theorizing and laying of an esthetic groundwork took place a field other than the one in which I eventually ended up. If the underpinning of your art lies in another discipline I think you access it differently and it exerts less direct pressure on you, a kind of freedom. I never studied writing, never took a workshop. After a brief college experience I did study painting at the Art Students League. As with all choices in life there is no way to test the validity or wisdom of your decisions. But I think however we come to our art, and whatever it is it, it represents a critique of what society offers. It’s a rejection of the commercial, the academic, etc., in favor of something only partially knowable.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I don’t think it’s important whether you write at the computer or in a notebook, or standing up or sitting down, right after breakfast or late at night. They will all work for some people sometimes, and not for others other times. It’s not the time of day that’s important but the time itself. The struggle to find time is a constant in the writer’s life. When I was young, mistakenly I thought working at menial, physical jobs would leave my mind uncluttered and free at the end of the day. I was also bone-tired. One practical change I’ve adopted is write Everything, all versions, drafts, etc., in one big notebook, an unlined sketchbook (too big to lose) so I don’t waste any time looking for a certain scrap of paper, most recent draft, when I wake in the morning.
Where do your poems most often come from --- an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I’m not sure where the majority of my poems come from, but I know that those that come to me complete, set pieces, are the least fun to write, and often when done, the least satisfying, and those that begin with the slimmest basis, that are hardly there, are the most exciting, rewarding. Long ago Stanley Kunitz said (and he’s in danger of being more often quoted for this than for his poems) that before he had a defined idea or subject, before even a single word, there was something like a snatch of music, that told him a poem was coming. I love the process and the discovery.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
The first real poets I met were Stanley Kunitz, Alan Dugan, Louise Gluck, and Mary Oliver. That was in 1969 when I came to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I never studied poetry, or had even been in a workshop. From the time I left New York, giving up my aspirations to be a painter, till I arrived in Provincetown on Halloween, 1969, I taught myself. I like what Amira Baraka said in a book on Thornton Dial: “All art is self-taught.” Which is true; though it’s also true we’re always learning and we learn from everyone. In a place like Provincetown, full of both artists and writers, it’s possible to learn by osmosis. To that small list of influences I would add some dear poet/friends made there, and by extension their influences who I was introduced to, often happily with their flaws excised. And one great other, Tomas Transtromer.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what’s the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? What was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? etc.
The title is Cold Storage. The cover is a detail of a painting by my wife Susan Baker. It is the view from the parking lot at Cold Storage Beach in North Truro, where we live. In fact, if not obscured by the green of trees, in the distance you could see our house. My themes have remained constant since I began writing. They still resemble the broad wonderings of a child, though distilled over time. Age not only adds to their urgency but changes the perspective, which means you can keep writing the same poem over and over and it comes out differently!