ELAINE KAHN: on Being in Between Things and Walking into Another Room
Musician, poet, artist, Elaine Kahn was born in Evanston, Illinois and is currently based in Oakland, California. She received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA from California College of the Arts. Kahn is the author of three poetry chapbooks, A Voluptuous Dream During an Eclipse(2012), Customer (2010), and Radiant Bottle Caps (2008), and is a contributor to Art Papers. Her music project, Horsebladder, has toured widely throughout the U.S. and Canada. She is also co-founder of the feminist puppet troop P. Splash Collective and managing editor of the small press Flowers & Cream. Her debut full length collection of poetry, Women in Public, was just published by City Lights Books.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
Once, at an old job, a coworker asked me the name of my band and I blurted out “Fiona Apple” before I could stop myself.
More often, when people ask what I do, I say I’m an artist and I work at a college. I go into more detail if they seem to be actually interested. I consider myself lucky in that I really like my job as an academic advisor and program assistant to an undergraduate program focused on social justice education. The work I do there is meaningful and stimulating and enables me to support myself, while also offering a fair amount of flexibility. My colleagues are incredibly supportive of the work I do outside business hours and I am really grateful for that, as it has not been characteristic of my experience with “day jobs”.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
I guess wasting time? But then… I don’t know… sometimes I think you can’t waste time as an artist. I describe my ideal work practice as a state of meditative distraction; I like to access my peripheral brain. I guess it can be hard for me to find a balance between semi-productive mind wandering and disciplined work. Balance in general might be my biggest struggle. I can be somewhat of an extremist.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I am always trying to talk people out of being artists. Which is something I should stop doing, I guess. I usually tell people that there is nothing to gain from being an artist other than the satisfaction of creating work that is truly exciting to you and getting to connect with other kindred weirdos. Which, to me, is a lot!! I guess my advice to someone who wanted to do what I do would be: work as hard as you can and enjoy that work as its own reward.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I don’t really identify with the notion of success, as it seems to suggest a sense of remote completion. I am not bored and that is important to me. I laugh a lot. I mostly get to spend my time doing what I want to be doing and I feel generally okay about the things I want to do. That said, I know there is a lot more I could be doing. And I will probably always feel that I should be working harder, thanks to my mother, who is like, emphatically and boundlessly productive.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I think my greatest aspiration as a 10 year old was to grow breasts. Oh, and I wanted to “Save the Rainforest”. I would organize fundraisers at my elementary school to this end. One time I ran a bake sale to benefit some rain forest preservation org I read about in Sassy magazine and I made a cake with all green frosting. But honestly, more than anything else, I wanted to hit puberty. I was deeply obsessed by the prospect of becoming a woman.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
River swimming, a lot of sleep, hot nights, a thunderstorm or two. I would love it if my cats could come and I wouldn’t have to worry about them having any damaging interactions with wildlife. No mosquitoes.
What is your fondest memory?
Whatever has most recently made me laugh.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Free and easy teleportation and the total collapse of this racist, sexist, police hell-world.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I don’t believe art is necessary but I think art is one way of expanding imagination, flexibility, and resourcefulness. Which is closer to being necessary. I don’t think anything is necessary.
What are you working on right now?
I recently completed a book of poems (Women in Public) so mostly I’ve been figuring out how to move on from that. I have a hard time finishing projects in the sense that I define myself so much through what I’m working on, being in between things can feel really scary.
What kind of work would you like to do?
I would like to be able to spend more time working with the P.Splash Collective (Emma Borges-Scott, Bridget Talone, and myself). We collaborate on puppet shows, pastiche music, and have an ongoing epistolary project, among other things. Working with them is one of the very best things I get to do, but it’s been a lot harder to find time since I moved back to California and they are both based in New York. We’re in the process of making a new video and hope to complete filming when I head east in late March.
I am also looking forward to forming a coven with Jane Gregory, Jane’s daughter Opal, Trisha Low, and my mom.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I would make the rich people who live here self-aware enough to feel deeply ashamed. And that shame would provoke them to take effective action.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Dancing around my apartment in my underwear.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
I could put together a pretty decent outfit with fifty bucks. With 50 words I could write a few tweets about the experience.
What are some of your favorite smells?
I love the way my cats smell, like a blanket that was left out in the sun all day. I love the smell of lanolin because my mom used it on her lips when I was a kid. If she came home after I had fallen asleep she’d sneak into my room to kiss me goodnight, so the feeling of being comforted and happy is linked to that odor. I’m also kind of intoxicated by the smell of the scalps of the people I love. Like, I just wanna stick my face into their dirty hats and breathe in… I guess pheromones are emitted by hair glands? I actually don’t think I have a very good sense of smell though, so maybe that is why all the scents that come to mind are pretty intimate.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I would really just like to stay home. But… I would love it if my home had more than one room! I would like my all expenses paid life experience to be: walking into another room.