Vol. 32, No. 8
Bar News Highlight
A Conversation With Local Bard Michael Friedman
by Lindsay Packard
The "Highlight" page of Bar News presents, among other things, vignettes about lawyer activities outside the practice of law and/or member contributions to the community. If you have an interesting avocation, story, or tall tale to relate, or if you would like to recommend someone to be "highlighted," please contact Lindsay Packard at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The poems of Denverite Michael Friedman, lawyer by trade, poet by inclination, were selected to appear in the anthology Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. The anthology was published by Scribner and was released to the public in April 2003.
Friedman is a partner at the Denver firm of Lottner Rubin Fishman Brown & Saul, where he has practiced for eight years. He studied literature at Columbia, earning a B.A. degree in 1982, and Yale, where he received an M.A. degree. Friedman attended Duke Law School and earned his J.D. degree in 1986. The following interview was given in April 2003, on the cusp of the anthology’s release.
Q: How were you chosen for the anthology Great American Prose Poems? It must be awe-inspiring to appear among the likes of Poe and Eliot.
A: The three prose poems of mine that appear in the anthology 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 the two you mention, as well as Dickinson, Crane, Hemingway, Auden, Bishop, O’Hara, Ashbery, and Ginsberg.
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.
Q: How does poetry relate to what you do as a lawyer?
A: In my current law practice, the commercial transactions I’m handling tend to be large and complicated, and have a number of moving pieces. Those types of transactions often require a great deal of imagination.
Q: How long have you been writing? Did the interest come early or was it in high school or college?
A: 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 and 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 Poets. There is a famous interview with him conducted by the poet John Ashbery. In response to the question, "Why do you write poetry?" Koch 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 Koch’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 Koch’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.
Q: Does writing come easier if you have a martini first?
A: It doesn’t, but a reviewer once referred to the "lime-green, martini-in-a-bomb-shelter tone" of my poems.
Q: What else have you published?
A: In addition to Species, I’ve had two books of poetry published by The Figures: Arts & Letters (1996, with drawings by Duncan Hannah); Cameo (1994). The Figures has been a leading small press publisher of innovative poetry for more than twenty-five years. Two earlier books are: Special Capacity (Intermezzo, 1992) and Distinctive Belt (Mary House, 1985). I also have a new book of poetry—Celluloid City (with drawings by Jim Ringley)—that will be released this summer.
My poetry has appeared in a variety of journals, including American Poetry Review and New American Writing. It also has 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.
In addition, Species is being used as an assigned text in several graduate writing workshops, including at the New School in New York City and the University of Massachusetts.
Q: When do you write?
A: I typically write at night, on weekdays, and at various times on weekends. My wife and I have a one-year-old son, so I’m finding that writing after his bedtime generally tends to work best.
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