“For who is not mad in a country that has gone mad?” This existential question is one of several that Nyack-based poet, painter and former psychoanalyst David Klugman explores in his newly released epic poem, “In the American Grain.” On Tuesday, November 7—fittingly taking place the night of Election Day—Klugman debuted a truncated, three-act version of his work at The Turning Point Café in Piermont, New York to a packed house. For Adam Klugman, David’s younger brother and editor on the project, the generous reception to a poem seven years in the making was a vindication.
“We went through it for the past year page by page, line by line,” Adam explained. “Making sure everything in there was something that he understood, that he felt the audience would understand and that there was story that we could follow. Because if you’re going to do an epic, it has to be a story. It has to be a journey.”
According to Adam, a director and writer who previously worked as the creative director at an advertising firm, the goal of an American epic is somewhat different from classic Green epics like Homer’s “The Iliad.”
“An epic poem in America is usually a poem where the poet sees something in the country that he or she does not trust, like, understand, and is grappling with,” Adam said. “So it’ a poem and an address from an American to America, about America. It is from within the country, to the country, about the country.”
In Klugman’s piece, a poet turns to his country seeking answers to a big question: ‘Has this all been a lie?’ He sees America in shambles and laments that neither he nor his fellow countrymen have attained the lives they wanted, the ones they were promised. To get the answer he craves, the poet is challenged to take a jour- ney where he must risk madness, a beast he has fought before. He eventually has a dialogue with “The American Grain”—a term coined by poet William Carlos Williams in the early twentieth century to conceptualize the fabric of what makes our country. In this work, it materializes as a sort of folk-spirit.
Perhaps what makes “In the American Grain” particularly unique is its use of visual aids. David, who is also a talented abstract painter, created pieces inspired by key moments in the epic. At the reading on November 7, the paintings were shown on a screen onstage whenever these moments arose. The result was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
“They’re kind of like a ‘right brain Greek chorus,’ Adam explained. “They help amplify the story the way a chorus might, just with images rather than words. This is about experiencing the poem from two sides of your brain—from your analytical side with language and the other from your intuitive, non-verbal side.”
David plans for “In the American Grain” are far from over. He hopes to stage the work with actors portraying the characters, and eventually hopes to get the poem published. When asked how it felt to finally debut the work he’d toiled on for so long, he laughed.
“I’m not really sure yet,” he said, smiling. “It represents virtually a decade of my life. What happens when the poetic idea of freedom becomes not so poetic? ‘In the American Grain’ is my response to that question.”
David Klugman reads an excerpt from his epic poem.