The Poetry Project

Remembering Michael Friedman

David Schwarz

Michael Friedman

Michael S. Friedman (1960-2020)

Michael S. Friedman, lawyer, editor, teacher, publisher and poet, father to Henry and Joseph, and husband of 19 years to his beloved wife, Dianne Perry, died peacefully on May 5, 2020 in Denver, Colorado, after a prolonged battle with cancer.  He was 59.  

Although Denver was his home for the last quarter century, and although the Friedman family hailed from Memphis, Michael’s formative years were spent on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  He attended The Collegiate School, where he excelled at Latin (his principal rival was his classmate, the actor David Duchovny) and was a better-than-average soccer goalie.  He grew up around art; his mother, Sally, is an accomplished painter, as was his aunt, Jane Freilicher. A 1982 graduate of his father’s alma mater, Michael earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University in the City of New York.  He was strongly influenced by the New York School of Poets, such as Frank O’Hara and his professor, Kenneth Koch.  It was at Columbia that Michael began the first of several publishing ventures as the literary editor of Upstart magazine, an annual publication founded by the film maker Jim Jarmusch.  After receiving an M.A. in English Literature from Yale University in 1983, Michael attended Duke University School of Law (J.D. 1986), where he garnered a number of accolades, including his selection by the Class of 1986 as “Best Female Gossip.”  He was also known for his catch phrase, “What do you have for me?”, which remained his greeting of choice when speaking with his friends, of which he had many.  He had an uncanny ability for forging deep and lasting friendships.  He began virtually every conversation by saying, “My friend . . .”

1986 was also the year Michael co-founded the influential literary journal Shiny (not to be confused with the mature content magazine, Shiny International, a publication devoted to patent leather accoutrement), which featured New York School poets such as Ron Padgett, John Ashbery, Harry Mathews, and Tim Dlugos.  Remembered as a patient, avuncular, and insightful editor with a mischievous streak, the Shiny archives are now part of the manuscript collection at the Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.  

Following his graduation from Duke, Michael practiced law in New York City, first at Winthrop Stimson Putnam & Roberts, among the most civilized of white shoe firms in Manhattan, and later at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, one of the nation’s preeminent law firms. Michael’s ability to fit comfortably in such antipodal cultures says as much about his adaptability as it does about his considerable legal skills. 

In 1995, Michael began his 25-year association with the Denver law firm of Haligman Lottner Rubin & Fishman, P.C., where he remained a partner through two name changes (the firm’s name, not his), and which is now part of the national law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  He is remembered by his partner and friend, Rick Rubin, as unique, creative, funny and cutting-edge, as well as an excellent lawyer.  Michael specialized in complex real estate transactions, with a focus on affordable public housing, both a public-spirited and professional commitment for Michael.  It was in Denver that Michael developed close relationships with poets and writers at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where Michael was an adjunct faculty member in the MFA writing program.  He also served as chair of the board of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City.

He was also a prolific writer.  Michael’s poetry appeared in several anthologies, including Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (2003).  His first book of poems, Distinctive Belt (1985), featured eponymously-titled works about several of Michael’s friends.  In keeping with the title bestowed upon him by his Duke classmates, these poems slyly conveyed mildly salacious or slightly mortifying tidbits, some of which Michael had stored away, for years.  In 2015, a trio of his novels, Martian Dawn and Other Novels, was republished by Little A, the literary fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing.  These books tackled an array of pressing topics, including extra-terrestrial life, cannibalism in Equatorial Guinea, twins, French people, writing colonies, murder and holograms.  The book received critical praise as well as a fair share of backhanded compliments.  Literary Hub’s Molly Young said “I love Friedman’s books . . . He is weird and virtuosic, and this union of traits is agonizingly rare.”  Those who knew Michael recognized him in the description of his works by Lorin Stein, Editor-in-Chief of the Paris Review:  “Friedman’s urbane silliness and élan hark back to the glittering twilight of high camp – without seeming to hark back . . . I didn’t know anyone could still make it look so easy to have so much fun on the page.”  His other books include Celluloid City (2003), Arts & Letters (1996), Cameo (1994), and Special Capacity (1992). Here’s a sample from one poem, called “Identity,” from Species (2000):

You don’t hear the name Benedict Arnold in poetry anymore.  That’s it, we’re out of here.  Take 405 North to Sunset, Crescent Heights to Mt. Olympus.  I wrote a very moving poem about him in a dream.  He had woman problems – also money problems.  What can I tell you? 

Michael possessed a wicked sense of humor with the imperturbability of a stoic. He loved to share Dianne’s bone-dry wit with his 140 Twitter followers, including this posting one month before he died: “Me a few minutes ago (5:30 p.m.):  ‘I’m still in my jammies.  I don’t think I’m going to shower today.’  Dianne: ‘Oh, that ship has sailed.’” Michael was fond of saying “That’s not going to happen,” which captures perfectly how he approached his 13-year battle with cancer.  In the last months of his life, Michael completed his final work, a novella entitled Christa Paffgen.  He died knowing that his book would be championed by his friends, fellow poets, and those who admired Michael.     

He was deeply proud of his two sons, 17-year-old Henry, a senior at The Milton Academy in Massachusetts who will attend University of Colorado in the fall, and 15-year-old Joe, a freshman at George Washington High School in Denver.  In addition to his wife and two sons, Michael is survived by his parents, Lester Friedman of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Sally Long of New York, New York, and his sister, Deborah, of Atlanta, Georgia.  (There are also two cats, one named Billie, which Michael occasionally tolerated.)  He leaves behind many friends, all of whom have their own stories about this funny, generous, down-to-earth (but don’t forget urbane!) dreamer and feiner mensch, who sometimes mused out loud about his uncanny similarity to Dashiell Hammett’s gimlet-eyed hawkshaw, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and Alain Delon.   

His poems often told a different story about Michael.  But so did the poetry he admired by other writers.  He liked this one called “Music Heard” by Adam Zagajewski:  

music heard with you
was more than music
and the blood that flowed through our arteries
was more than blood
and the joy we felt
was genuine
and if there is anyone to thank,
I thank him now, 
before it grows too late
and too quiet.

He will be missed.  

—David A. Schwarz

House Party #9