Elaine Kahn is a Los Angeles-based writer. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BFA from California College of the Arts. She has taught at Pomona College, Saint Mary’s College of California, University of Iowa, and elsewhere. Kahn is the author of Women in Public (City Lights, 2015) and Romance or The End (Soft Skull, 2020). Currently she teaches at the Poetry Field School.
I first came across Elaine Kahn’s work via an acquaintance who highly recommended her workshops at the Poetry Field School. I began to read some of her poems online and was immediately drawn in by her skillful use of language, which comes packed in very short and concise lines: “it isn’t loneliness / it’s solitude / and it’s mine.” I admire the artfulness with which she explores the complexity of everyday emotions and situations by peeling away the layers of accessory in order to let the poem speak.
Leonora Simonovis: You are a poet and a musician. What connections do you see between creating poems and creating music and how does music—or other forms of art—influence your writing?
Elaine Kahn: I think music taught me a lot about the physical, sonic values of language—how words have a body and rhythm and how important that is in creating any kind of space out of sound. And maybe even more than anything, the capacity of silence to add tension or weight to whatever comes after it. That’s something I learned through music.
It’s only been recently I started identifying as a poet. I studied visual art in my undergraduate studies, and I have tended to think of myself more as an artist who uses the medium of language. Other art forms are hugely important to my writing. One of my favorite ways to write is while watching movies. I like watching either silent or experimental films or films in a language I don’t speak. I’ll write while only sort of paying attention, even just a color or a shape can be really stimulating to me. I also do a lot of drawing with words and images, and that’s where many fragments of my writing come from.
LS: It seems like a conversation between different forms of art are taking place on the page. Is that your intention?
EK: I try to let go of intention when I’m writing. I want to get out of my conscious mind. There are a lot of ways in which our experiences are mediated. Our brains try to put them into forms that are comprehensible, and sometimes that means a lot of information gets lost. I’m trying to get to the experience before my brain has a chance to formulate it into something closer to a familiar thought. I want what’s as close to the primary source as possible.
LS: In relation to that, what were some of the ways in which you experimented with language in your new collection? For example, in the first poem in Romance or the End, “ROMEO & JULIET & ELAINE.”
EK: That was the last poem I wrote.
LS: Really? It’s interesting that it begins as a gospel, not in the sense of preaching, but rather as revelation and exploration: “We are gathered here to worship / the American religion of loneliness.” There seems to be a connection between the act of worship and the act of belonging—or not. How do you see this relationship playing a role in the book?
EK: I think some of that language came from a lecture I was attending when I taught at Pomona last year. I can’t remember exactly what the topic was, but it was with Greil Marcus. I love going to lectures. I look at the people in the audience as much as I listen to what’s being said. I think some of the thoughts in that poem come from moments when I was looking around. It’s hard for me to say what I mean in a poem other than repeating whatever I wrote. I can talk around it, but that gets farther away from what I meant and what I wrote. I will say that even though I’m not a religious person and I wasn’t raised religious, I’ve always loved church. I love speaking in unison, and I love the experience of being in a room with a lot of other people all focused on the same thing. I think there are less and less opportunities to do those things in America, probably other places too. And it’s something that we’re seeing happening even more given quarantine. One of the most horrifying parts of it has been, especially in Los Angeles where I live, how seamless and relatively easy the transition has been to move everything online. I know other people have voiced this too, but I don’t know if things will ever go back. I don’t know if that answered your question at all.
LS: It did. What you’re saying about church resonated with me because I didn’t like going as a child, but I did like the singing.
EK: It’s so powerful. I don’t know how anyone cannot be moved by that. It’s such a wonderful way to commune with other humans. Like what I was saying before about wanting to get to the part of the mind before the socialized coding. When you sing with people, you’re touching a part of them that’s more elemental.
LS: And that connects to how language shapes the book. It seems like each of the sections in the book refers to a specific stage in the love life of the speaker. But naming something does not mean being able to grasp it or even to come close to the reality of love and trauma. How do you see the instability of language and the role it plays in poetry and specifically in your own work?
EK: Well, I think language’s instability is useful in writing because you can push it in all different directions and that’s something I’m really interested in. There’s also, like we were talking about before, the function of silence and space. There’s a lot I couldn’t say in the book, so I just didn’t. I left it blank. Like you were saying, language is inadequate, and that’s in part because life does not obey its rules. Still, there’s a need for me to get a sense of what’s happening, even if it’s incomprehensible. I don’t believe that things are meant to be. I don’t believe in destiny, but I want to be able to look at the story of what’s happening anyway because I need that. That’s how the human mind works. We’re trying to make stories about everything that happens and that we see. Even the way we engage with an image, what we look at, that’s a story we’re telling ourselves. So the book is trying to leave a space for what is unsayable and what is too unstable to fix into place, but also tell a story. It’s trying to do both things at once.
LS: I really like what you said about silence. The book creatively plays with blank spaces, line breaks, and caesuras. It seems as if there’s tension between form and content—to give the idea of separateness somehow.
EK: What do you mean by that, by separateness?
LS: Like a breakup and the idea of what can’t be said. Like silence, and the fact that there’s nothing I can say about it. But at the same time, how form and content also complement each other. Like a romance.
EK: Productive tension.
LS: Exactly. Can you talk more about that?
EK: I think there’s a tension between the form and the content because the content is very fragmented and disordered and the form is structurally normative. The form is trying to put a container around everything, to keep things on the rails. The tension between the need for freedom and the need for order are things that I grapple with a lot in life, and that’s a way it’s expressed in the book. When you want things that are in total conflict with each other, what do you do? I don’t know, but the book is definitely trying to figure it out. I don’t think it does. I’m not interested in answering questions. I’m most interested in asking them over and over.
LS: I think that’s what I like the most about this book. It’s unpredictable. Even though we know what the stages of love are, they don’t look the same for everyone. And the fragmentation—you’re constantly surprising the reader with it. There are so many surprising turns in the poems. Also, most of the poems in the book are brief. The poet Sandra Alcosser says that brevity in a poem allows the reader to pause between leaps and “participate with the writer in discovery.”
EK: That is so well said. Yeah, I think that’s hugely important. I’m always telling my students that instead of trying to dictate an experience, they need to create the possibility for the reader to have an experience themselves. My partner is a screenwriter, and this is something we always talk about in film and TV, the importance of letting the viewer make connections by themselves. That’s how it gets inside of the body, which is where the activity has to happen in order to have the most impact, not just on the page.
LS: I agree. When I read a short poem, it stays with me.
EK: I don’t write a lot of long poems, but I do think there’s something really brave and kind of generous about them. It’s almost like letting people see you work. I always want to cut all of my work from my poems. Part of it is that I don’t want to ask people to read things I feel ambivalent about. But also, it’s what you say. A short poem will just stay with you, and even in long poems, what I end up gravitating towards are certain lines or stanzas. But, there’s really something to be said about doing the work of finding that moment in the long poem that really lights you up, which is so satisfying because you had to work for it.
LS: I’m curious about your process for writing Romance or the End.
EK: It was a lot of note taking. Pretty much all my work starts with writing down as much as possible and trying to accrue tons of language. Some of the longer poems are written in a more straightforward way, but to write the book, I printed out hundreds of pages of text and put it in a cardboard box and cut it all up in strips of paper. Then I would sit around and collage poems anywhere I went. A lot of the book was written like that, very physically, and that’s also mostly how it was laid out as a manuscript, printing everything out and moving pages around over and over again. It was so important to me to get this very specific structure to it. I wanted it to feel like one linear narrative even though it’s not. Like I said before, the first poem in the book was actually the last poem I wrote. And that was interesting. The book talks about lying so much, I kind of got a kick out of being dishonest in that way.
LS: That’s fascinating. When you talk about physically putting the book together, I love the idea of your body connecting to the process. Is this also how you teach writing? I read on your website about “the material aspect of language” as part of your pedagogy.
EK: Yes, that’s very important to me and something I spend a lot of time talking to my students about. It makes a lot of sense to me because writing is very physical for me, as is language, and there’s something about using my body to make a poem that feels right. I also like to get a little bit of distance from my writing. I’ve always felt it’s really important to take notes when you’re really going through it, but I tend to construct poems from a slight remove. I think so much of what I’m trying to do through writing, honestly, is understand things better, and I can’t see something objectively when I’m in the middle of it. I have to take a step back, look at it, reflect on it and ask questions about it.
I’m still figuring out the connection between teaching and writing. There are, of course, ways in which teaching can be a drain. I teach so much it can be hard to find time to work on my own stuff, and sometimes, I get students’ voices stuck in my head! But in general, I think it’s a huge gift that I get to spend all my working life thinking about language and words, and the amount of poetry I read—both my students’ writing and the books I read for class—has given me a great sense of freedom in language, a freedom to play.