Jacob Kahn on Finding a Pony to Ride in Circles
Jacob Kahn is a poet originally from the Rocky Mountains. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and went to school in Missoula, Montana, where he studied poetry and wrote art and book reviews for the Missoula Independent. He currently lives in Oakland and teaches at an elementary school. A poetic guidebook, A Circuit of Yields: Conventional Wisdom for Giants (2015), is recently out from E.M. Wolfman Books in downtown Oakland. He collaborates intermittently with the artist Jack Metcalf on participatory one-night-only art spectacles, and cooks continuously.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I say I work at an elementary school and I write poems. Most people find this kind of numbing and odd. I think it has to do with being a young male. People don’t expect poetry and especially elementary school to be the territory or nomenclature. If they want elaboration, I say I work in special education at an elementary school and write short poems.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
My father recently committed suicide. It was (and still is) a very baffling and shocking act. Candidness (like this) helps in slight, surgical ways. Helps to more openly breathe, I think. I have lots of other personal struggles, but dealing with this is so obviously the biggest of the bunch. It’s beyond the bunch. I couldn’t really say anything else.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I’m not sure, because I’m not sure I’m very good at what I do. I mean I think I am, but I’m also just hopelessly responding to conditions I don’t often apprehend. The world’s so slippery. I envy poets who have a strong foothold. I can’t step firmly like [George] Oppen, or sidestep like Marianne Moore, or even walk backward like [Frank] O’Hara. For me it’s a big whirligig. I find a pony to ride in circles. Get a pony, ride in circles. That’s my advice.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I have a fairly perilous relationship with success. It borders on obsessive. I wish I didn’t care so much. Or I try hard not to. I feel sometimes like an addict when it comes to success. Shame is not my friend, but I think my appetite for success is more like a pizza addict’s than a drug addict’s. It might be unhealthy, but it can also be quite propitious. It satisfies hunger. It helps me, you know, get shit done. And it’s not just poetry or writing. I play basketball almost every day and keep track of how many shots I make. I will cook the same curry over and over in the same week in order to get it down, to master it, to succeed. Honestly I’m not sure how productive or interesting I’d be without “success” relentlessly hectoring me.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I grew up in Salt Lake City when the Jazz were deeply enmeshed in that city’s provincial also-ran psychology. While Michael Jordan represented all that was slick and eastern and evil, Stockton and Malone were (and are!) undying, up-country heroes. I’m also a not-so-clandestine sports nerd. This “basketball ballet!” brings me loads of squeamish joy.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
There is a remarkable emigration story in my family, and I’ve confirmed it’s not apocryphal, though my knowledge of the details bends a bit flimsily. One of my great grandfathers grew up in Russia/Poland during the Pogroms. He was one of maybe four or five brothers, I think the second or third youngest, or just not the oldest. Obviously—and this is such a wincing understatement—it was a terrible time to be Jewish in that part of Europe, so my great great grandmother decided that either the whole family or just the brothers needed to start fleeing to the US. They bought a passport from what I believe was the family of a dead non-Jewish Russian and gave it to the eldest brother. He used the passport to get to Western Europe somewhere and then board a ship to America. After living and working in New York for a few months, he sent the passport back along with enough money for the next oldest brother to follow suit. This continued until all the brothers had emigrated on the same passport.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Stockton and Malone. Stockton. Stockton taught me to love short-shorts.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
But a week in the wilderness is my ideal! Backpacking very far into the wilderness! I lived in Missoula, Montana for six years before moving to Oakland, so I spent lots of weeks in the wilderness. It was, in many ways, ideal. There’s a John Ashbery line from the poem “Poem in Three Parts” that sheepishly asks, “Am I myself or a talking tree?” Talking tree is my ideal. Or just talking to trees. I love trees so much! I really, really do. So I would spend a week around trees. With books about trees.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Lots … for me. Which isn’t lots (para-educator salary! woe is me!) but I am very thrifty. I count pennies.
What’s wrong with society today?
Usually I clam up when it comes to polemics. Declamations. One-liners. There’s lots wrong. More than one sentence. I guess I could say people who don’t listen—and to a lesser extent don’t ask questions — piss me off. And they seem to have a terrible affect on society, these non-listeners, that part of the demographic Venn diagram.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Any number of political feats, really. And hardly unachievable ones, too. Universal healthcare. Decriminalization of drugs, stricter control of guns, restoratively just policing, a subsequent deconstruction of the prison/military-industrial complex. A swift and total severance between politics and the control of female, trans-, and genderqueer bodies. An economy fully in step with renewable energy, that incentivizes work in education and allows more fluid mobility between jobs and lives. The list goes on…
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
I like to come up with phrases to repeat to myself like “little league baseball” or “Egyptian buildings.” I like to look in mirrors. I like to repeat things.
What are you working on right now?
For many years now I’ve been writing these non-metrical, highly self-interested sonnets. Some are pastoral elegies full of static electricity and birds. Some are concise acceptance speeches for things I’ve never done. I like to call them prose sonnets. I think lots of them are tremendously misguided, full of tics and wrongdoings, like accidentally and purposefully putting your pants on backward. There are hundreds of them. It’s a bit like baking cookies. I just like the smell. Intermittently I’ll do something else. Oakland’s own E.M. Wolfman Books just put out a book of prose poems I wrote about giants, called A Circuit of Yields: Conventional Wisdom for Giants. But for now I am back working on these sonnets.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I like to do work that is usefully formal, that finds a form and sticks with it, that plugs into self-discovered forms. And not traditional forms, not “formal” writing per se, just poetry that is aware of and answerable to its own formal logic — often a form or the shape of a poem will come to me before the actual poem. I usually write through serial projects (prose sequences, sonnets) and I think because of this a few friends have called me a stylist. That designation makes me uncomfortable. Its haughtiness reeks, as though I were an artisan donut baker and not just a writer — but I guess I’d rather be a stylist than totally adrift on the page. I do love messy poems and poets who more or less handily crash through form, I just get very easily lost without it. I admire work that finds form useful. Or basically desperately needs it.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Price of rent. Reasons for the price of rent.
A night on the town: What does that mean to you?
Going to a reading, or walking to a bar near my house. Lots and lots of chatter. Or green curry at my favorite restaurant in the world, Champa Garden. Or just walking around any neighborhood in Oakland. They’re all miraculous.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
People when they’re excessively angry. It shouldn’t be that strange because it happens all the time (see: road rage) but it’s always so weird and disturbing, isn’t it?
What are some of your favorite smells?
Hands down, trees. Cottonwood. Elm. Creosote. Ponderosa. Fir.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Is “free books forever” a life experience? Is that a bad choice? Can a life experience stretch the length of your life? I just want books. Free books. Forever.