AN INTERVIEW WITH ELAINE KAHN
City Lights published Elaine Kahn‘s debut full-length collection of poems, Women in Public, as the thirteenth title in the City Lights Spotlight series. The following exchange was conducted by email.
STEVEN GRAY: How did you get into the poetry biz?
ELAINE KAHN: I don’t remember a time that I didn’t write poetry, but I definitely never thought “when I grow up I want to be a poet.” As a kid, I considered poetry to be fairly archaic, books with gilt edges and tiny script. I read Tennyson in the basement of the Wilmette Public Library and my mom’s childhood copy of Junior Classics: Poems Old and New. I didn’t really have a relationship with contemporary or modern poetry until I was in college.
Rimbaud talks about making himself a visionary through a “disorganization of all the senses.” Does that sort of thing figure into your writing? Do you write in altered states, whether high or dreaming or whatever? How do your poems come to you?
Most of my poems are kind of arduously distilled from many, many pages of notes. Those notes come from all different places. Watching movies, reading, things I overhear, internet K-holes.
I do like looking at text written in languages I don’t understand when I’m writing because that helps me think of words in a way that is estranged from conscious meaning.
Could you talk about the poem, “Francis Bacon”?
“Francis Bacon” was written when I was staying at my friend Paige Taggart’s apartment in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. I couldn’t sleep and I started writing and then there it was, all at once, in almost the exact form it would remain. It’s not unusual for me to write in a middle-of-the-night anxious/ecstatic rush, but typically the text I produce endures a lot of editing and hardly any of it actually makes it into a poem. So, “Francis Bacon” is rather aberrant in that way. It contains mostly things I know or have wondered about. I remember that the reference to a stick bug was inspired by a mug belonging to my parents that I was thinking about for some reason. And the section about the coldest part of the ocean… I used to live on a sailboat, a working science research vessel, and oh-my-god the things that we would pull out of the ocean would make my eyes about pop out of my skull. I’d imagine I was thinking about the abyssal zone, which is home to hydrothermal vents and chemosynthetic life. It’s probably the oldest poem in the book. I don’t remember what it has to do with Francis Bacon. Maybe nothing.
What do you mean by the line, “What does the world hate more / than women / in public”?
The only thing I truly mean by any line of poetry is exactly what I have written, so it feels a little disingenuous to offer much in the way of further explanation. But I guess in that particular line I am pointing towards the fact that our society punishes women for taking up space.
If your poems were paintings, which artist would they be by? Willem de Kooning, David Salle, or someone else? Salle was known for deliberately avoiding meaning in his compositions. Do you have any sympathy for that approach?
I’m sorry… I don’t have a good answer for this… it is hard for me to think of my poems as anything other than poems. I certainly don’t avoid meaning in my work though.
Reading your work I was reminded of Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of Ulysses. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve never read Ulysses…
Would you recommend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
It is a gift of time, primarily. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is in Iowa City, Iowa, a tiny town without any larger towns nearby. The winters are long and brutal, spanning most of the academic year. Your only responsibilities are to write and maintain a very basic quality of life. Before I moved to Iowa, I had been living in San Francisco working 50 hours a week at two different jobs… the change was extraordinary, almost overwhelming. I had so much time, I didn’t know what to do with it, seriously. I used to spend 2-4 hours in the bath every day and took up a number of elaborate hobbies. Some people do not find the workshop model to be a useful one, but I do, and I was working with incredibly talented, dedicated writers. And, even if you don’t like workshop, you still have most of your time to use as you please. That said, I wasn’t very happy when I was living there. Just very productive.
What’s it like living in Oakland? Do you give poetry readings very often?
I love Oakland. It’s so beautiful and there are a lot of really great writers living here. I find Oakland to be a place where it is pretty easy to feel alright.
I read around the Bay Area a few times a year. I read other places in the country also. I try not wear out my welcome.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).