Cx72 Interview: Elaine Kahn
February 2, 2020
How did you originally come to poetry? What specifically drew you to the medium?
Umm, I came for the drama [laughs]. I mean, literally: melodrama. I just always wrote poetry - I can’t remember a time that I didn’t write poetry. The first poet I remember reading was Tennyson, and that was because I found his book in the library and he has a poem called Lancelot and Elaine. And so, you know, it was a beautiful book with gold leaf edges, and I liked seeing my name, so I read it. And then I got super into King Arthur, started reading Idylls of the King. This is when I was really little, though. I pretty much always wrote poetry and I didn’t really think about “being a poet” or “becoming a poet,” I just never stopped writing it. Besides that, pretty much my whole trajectory as a poet has been one random this happening after the other.
When do you feel that it became more of a pursuit, something you were somewhat more intentional about?
I mean, honestly? Still kind of never. This last book was the most intentional project I’ve undertaken. I had a clear idea of what I was trying to make. But even then, I don’t know - that’s just the writing part, the rest is all kind of unplanned. My friend Andrew Durbin had asked if I had a new book and I said “Not really; I just have part of a book.” And he was like, “That’s a book. Start talking to people.” A couple days later, an editor from Soft Skull wrote me and asked if I was working on anything, and because of that conversation with Andrew I met with them. I think the main thing that made my relationship with poetry more of an identification was through teaching. Because it’s what I teach, it’s become how I describe myself. But when it comes to my work, I still think of myself more as an artist than a poet. It’s just the medium I work in is language.
What was it like to take the leap into teaching?
I started out teaching writing workshops at colleges while I was in grad school at University of Iowa, a little bit at St. Mary’s, and last year I was at Pomona. But I was not a natural teacher at first, at all. I don’t feel super comfortable in academic spaces and I don’t consider myself much of an authority on anything, so it took me a long time to figure out that it is okay for me to offer what I have to offer instead of trying to like - I think I felt a lot of pressure to be, maybe, profess some sort of critical expertise. But that’s not the way I engage with writing. So learning that there are different ways that I can be helpful to people was instrumental to me becoming a better teacher.
You started to talk a little bit about your process in writing Romance or the End, and I’m interested in hearing more about that. There’s something about it that feels almost operatic to me: there are these acts. It feels theatrical to me, almost chronological. Is it rare for you to begin first with a specific idea or intention?
Yes. My first book was very much like...a collection of poems, tied together by a loose theme. But the new book has a kind of superstructure that was important to me, that actually I see as part of the book’s content. To be frank, I don’t know if writing this book in the way that I did is something I would do again. When I got the idea to write it, I had been going through a period of time when order just seemed completely elusive--and, by order, I mean a narrative thread: the story of my life no longer made sense to me. During this time, everything that had kept me connected to myself felt like it had just shattered. In my first book there’s this poem that’s called In Life We are the Stories that We Tell About Ourselves. And I’ve always believed that’s true, in a certain respect; narrative is a very powerful force. I wanted to write this book as a way of imposing some kind of legible narrative onto a set of experiences that didn’t make any sense to me. And, it’s not like, because I wrote this book, I feel less threatened by the disarray of that time. But it did help it to become something I could just like, look at. I also wrote it because I felt like if I couldn’t make anything I was proud of out of that time, I just couldn’t stand it. I needed something to hold onto, to work on, to work towards - a structure to cling to at a time when I just didn’t have any. It was crazy - writing this book was fucking crazy. It was really hard. My process with this book was very different not just from any other book, but from the way I write poems in general.
How does your “normal” process differ?
I write really short poems, and that’s evidenced in this book as well. But I knew that I wanted this book to read like one story. Like you said, it feels like it unfolds chronologically.
Yeah, there’s a throughline.
Sometimes when I’m writing a poem I have this feeling like there are all these things I’m trying to hold in place. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. It’s like a puzzle, but one you are holding in your mind. I had that feeling throughout this whole book. And a lot of it book was written through fragments, so it really was like trying to get a bunch of pieces to fit together. I think I did it this way because some of the stuff I was writing about, I just couldn’t sit with for very long, so it had to be fragments. I put the book together by printing out hundreds of pages of texts...poems, notes, etc…..and I went through them all, and cut them up, and assembled them into the book. Some of became longer poems, some stayed just little fragments. But it was a very physical process. There is one poem in the book that had a very different process from the rest, though: All I Have Ever Wanted is to Be Sweet. For that one, I really forced myself to sit with these things I didn’t want to. I worked on that poem for months, and I worked on it every single day. I’d never done that before, either, worked on the same poem every day for so long. I would work on it over breakfast, like a crossword or something. I wanted it to be as compressed and exact as possible.
I felt very affected by that poem. I started psychoanalysis recently, and a few weeks ago I was trying to explain to my analyst what it feels like to experience disassociation - which is a feeling [All I Have Ever Wanted is to Be Sweet] conveys so elegantly. I don’t want to assume that was what the poem was “about,” but that was what it evoked for me.
Yeah, I don’t usually think it’s useful to try to say what a poem is “about.” But there’s a line in there, “my body split to hell so quick was stuck” – so, sure, it is about being taken away from your own body, and what that feels like. What it feels like when it’s happening and what it feels like when you look back on it.
It’s such a hard thing to actually describe. She was asking me to define exactly what this notion of disassociation actually feels like – I was like, “I don’t know, honestly; that’s the whole thing, I’m not really there for it.”
You’re not there, you don’t wanna be there for it. But I made myself be there for it with that poem. I forced myself to – it’s like I did EMDR on myself or something, but like, not therapeutically [laughs]. But I really did force myself to sit with something I wanted more than anything to not think about, feel, or look at ever again. Actually, there was a line after “in wasted keeps, removing me from me” that didn’t make it into the poem: “must watch and watch what I cannot unsee.” But, I couldn’t get it exactly right and the formal constraint I was using didn’t allow it… I always kind of say it in my mind when I’m reading the poem though.
So with regards to this physical process you’re describing – the process of cutting out all these fragments of notes – it’s really interesting, and it segways into something I wanted to ask you about. There’s this almost gothic notion of absence that is very present within the book, in my reading. It’s almost like “the unsaid” is a character within the narrative. Specifically within the poem My Wild Mind, I experienced this intense moment of disturbance: at first it reads, to me, as this somewhat playful statement, like… maybe the speaker is masturbating, is trying to have an orgasm, but keeps getting distracted. It beckons the question, though: is the distraction as innocent as some kind of to-do-list or perhaps some financial burden, or is it something darker, something somehow more connected with the speaker’s sexuality itself? I mean, I’m not asking that question, but rather: what role do you feel the unsaid plays in the text?
That’s really interesting, this notion of the unsaid being almost like another speaker – and I think it’s spot-on. There is a lot that’s unsaid. I know that working with space, silence, and emptiness is something that feels real to me. It has always existed in my poems, something I wanted to try to engage with more in this book. I tell my students a lot that I think people experience things more deeply if you don’t overly direct them. People have to make their own connections.
I think that’s part of why people respond so strongly to, say, David Lynch’s films.
I think absolutely. It’s really tempting and really easy to assume you had an experience because someone told you that you did. But I’m not interested in that at all. I can’t tell you any more than I am telling you. The spaces are where you have to go on your own. It’s weird to talk about it because it makes it seem like it’s intentional, or for the reader… but maybe in a way it was, maybe that’s another difference with this book, because I don’t usually think about a reader. But with this, there were a couple of people I was really trying to reach with it, trying to get them to feel what I felt, to hear me and believe me. And I guess more than anything I was trying to communicate with myself, to believe myself.
What is your favorite love story or novel? What love story, to you, feels most true?
I’ve always been really into love stories where everybody dies. I think that’s something that actually really affected me as I grew into an adult, because I never had much of a framework for love that lasts. I loved Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Elaine, Romeo and Juliet. Those are the love stories I’ve always felt drawn to: the ones that ended in tragedy.
I don’t feel as interested in those types of stories anymore. Part of my adult life has been coming to terms with the fact that I actually have a real desire to live… not just to live, but to be happy. And I think this experience surrounding the book was, I fucking hope, my final dance with a certain type of self-annihilation through romance. I’ve come to understand that although this can be alluring, ultimately it is intolerable.
There are other kinds of love that are about finding harmonies – finding someone to kind of like… well, the word “partner” is really appealing to me. Like when you’re a little kid, and you get a bus partner, or whatever. The idea is kind of like, OK, you’re on this bus together, you’re responsible for each other. That’s kind of become something that I think is really beautiful… to stand by your person, to stand with them, to move through the world as their partner. I don’t really think that gets written about a lot. I haven’t read a lot of those stories.
Oh God, I know. For me, it’s like, “I shall only read Nightwood.” One hundred times [laughs].
What’s the best advice on love you’ve ever been given?
Hmm… I don’t have a lot of examples in my life of people who have done well in love [laughs]. I mean, actually, something my boyfriend said to me not that long ago, I’ve thought about a lot. It wasn’t really advice, it was actually a little bit of an admonishment at the time. But he said something like, “When things are hard, that’s when I wanna feel like we’re a unit.” And I actually think about that a lot. When stuff’s hard, that’s the time to be extra, like, “We’re facing this together.”
You against the world, right? There’s gotta be something to rebel against.
It’s so easy when things get hard to just wanna bicker and point fingers, but it’s useless.
So, you know, I met you through the experimental –
The “underground music community”? [laughs]
Yep. Are you still involved with your music project?
I can’t play music anymore. It depresses me too much.
I feel the same!
I recently Tweeted something like, “Does anyone want all my music equipment? I’ve been sexually assaulted by too many musicians to enjoy playing anymore.” [laughs]
I think about it sometimes, but the truth is, I never really gave much of a shit about music. What I liked was – I’m really shy, actually, and I have a lot of anxiety about public speaking. Music helped me find a way to channel that, to learn how that can become a part of a performance, which has really helped me as a poet. Playing music also helped me understand silence and space. I mean, I love singing, I love playing piano, but I hate the music… community [laughs]. Sorry. It’s awful.
Why do I keep dating musicians? I can’t seem to stop.
I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
With this book behind you, do you have any longer-term projects on the horizon?
I already started writing new poems. Writing is how I make sense of stuff. I’ve been super involved in the Bernie campaign; that’s something taking up a lot of my time and energy but it feels really good, and really important to me – an antidote to the kind of inward focused torment of my book, because I’m not free of it yet, at all. Doing interviews like this has really revealed that to me! I wanna write a script, I think. I wrote my first ever, kind of like, play – it’s in this book. It’s that thing called Love’s Commercial. I’d be into writing more works like that; I’ve always understood my poetry as something that should be read out loud.
I just want peace in my heart. That’s the thing I think about all the time, actually. I’m trying to find it.
This conversation has reminded me of a question I’ve asked myself many times over the years. Can the suffering we incur ever be considered “worth it”? Are there any circumstances under which you might view trauma as “a gift”?
No. No… I don’t. I mean, I don’t think suffering can be avoided. But if I could undo the things that happened to me that caused me to experience the total psychic fracturing that led me to write this book, I would do it in a heartbeat. In an instant. In fact, I had a hard moment recently where I really came up against this. I think in the back of my mind there had been this lingering hope that, if only I could write a book that was good enough, somehow it would balance the scales, that it would make up for what I went through. But then just a couple weeks ago I had this moment where I realized how absurd that is, how preposterous. There is no accolade, no achievement, no reward that would even come close to making what happened feel “worth it.” But at the same time...of course, I can’t undo any of it. It happened. I am here. I am grateful for the life that I have and the work I have been able to make. But fuck... like, I would love to not have learned the things that I had to learn in order to write this book, jesus. No question.
Any thoughts for all those hapless lovers out there?
I mean, my friend Jane Gregory told me once that love is good for the universe. And that’s something I think about a lot. That’s something important to remember, because love can be extremely painful. It’s easy to give up. Sounds so dumb. But I’m such a romantic in a certain kind of way. I think the feeling of being in love is… that feeling and my mom, that’s God to me. I don’t know what other people are talking about. But falling in love and my mom… that’s my religion, so.
“My mom is my religion.”
Some of the poems from Women in Public were originally part of a longer, abandoned project where I was going to take the Bible and replace every “God” with “Mom.” Maybe I’ll do that next.
Love letter to Mom – it should happen more often. That’s like, the antithesis of Eminem.
Yeah, no. I think a lot of my poetry is a love letter to my mom… even the hard stuff.
Elaine Kahn is a writer and artist currently based in Los Angeles. She is author of Women in Public (City Lights, 2015) and Romance or The End (Soft Skull, 2020). She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BFA from California College of the Arts. She teaches at the Poetry Field School.
Romance or the End is available for purchase here. Interviewed by M. Elizabeth Scott, January 2020. Photograph provided by Elaine Kahn; book cover image via Soft Skull Press.