There are nine poems titled ‘Romance’ in Elaine Kahn’s new collection, Romance or the End (Soft Skull Press, 2020). Romance is an invitation to ‘make art out of pennies’, she writes. It is ‘diurnal’, ‘a silent expiration’, ‘the feeling / of leaving your body’. Each successive poem is a rehearsal of love’s promise – first twinkling before gradually dissipating into something dull and painful, like a toothache. ‘There is nothing truer in this world’, Kahn concludes, ‘than the lie of love.’
Kahn’s second book of poetry belongs in the heartbreak canon with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009) or Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay (1995). Her fragments – expertly stitched into verse – are spare and unsparing. I return to Kahn’s poetry again and again for its specificity of language, which cuts across life’s stickiest delusions to reveal a burning core. We met one recent Saturday evening, after we had both been out canvassing for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, in her Los Angeles home.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez: If you were interviewing a fellow poet, what question would you ask them?
Elaine Kahn: Who hurt you? [Laughs] My curiosity immediately goes to gossip and drama.
ACA: Is that something you would want to be asked?
EK: No. [Laughs] Although I imagine that is something people wonder when they read my book. It is certainly something I ask when I read a book: what is the story behind this?
ACA: Reading is, in itself, a form of prodding, although those specific revelations – the ‘who’ of the reader and the author – don’t seem complementary to this book. You appear to pay less attention to the details and more to how they are scaffolded.
EK: Yes. This book came out of a specific time in my life: it’s about the structures of romantic love and their effect on love’s story. Who decides what the story is? Do we get to change it? And when does it end?
ACA: Yes, it’s a book about narrative, not about plot. In certain instances, the narrative of a particular love can structure your reality. At first, it seems ideal, but then you start to notice a crack in the wall. Suddenly, the entire floor is gone from under you. I am thinking of a poem in the earlier half of the book, ‘Alarm’, which captures the moment when doubt enters the room.
EK: The symptom of what you described – a crack in the wall – is like when you become aware in a relationship that a performance is taking place. I wrote that poem as a play. Its emphasis is on that moment when you start to enact roles.
ACA: Right: when you finally see the elaborate stage and how a shared reality is dependent on sustaining its own fiction. How do you title your poems?
EK: Titles are very important in this book. I didn’t just have poem titles to work out: I also had chapter titles. I plotted out the chapters roughly following the structure of Greek tragedy. I thought of each one as a container. When I was putting the book together, I’d write the chapter titles in huge letters on a piece of paper, then stack each poem in the appropriate pile, like ‘This is the container for that.’ I also drew pictures of the narrative arc to try to get a sense of its shape. It made writing the book harder in some ways but, in others, easier. At least I knew what I was trying to make happen in each moment.
ACA: It seems like the work of writing this book was closer to composing or sculpting; you took language and placed it.
EK: Right! What I love about poetry is the language can actually tell you the story. When I write poetry, I look at the words and listen. I ask: What am I noticing here? What are these things I have chosen to write down and how are they connected? What do they have to say to each other? Then, I move the words around and push on them until I get the sense, not of truth, but of clarity. All of a sudden, I see it. I hear it. And it is so satisfying. Those are the best moments for me. But they are rare and don’t last long. Writing can be a real slog.
ACA: When you are taking these notes, is it instinctual?
EK: Yes, I suppose. I write things down as much as possible. I’ll take language from everywhere. I don’t believe in ‘a rarefied tongue’ for poetry and I am not a disciplined writer: I work best with a distracted mind. So, I write things down while I am teaching or watching television or queuing at the US Department of Motor Vehicles. Those are the words I like best; language that comes from the world rather than my own mind. My internal monologue is not very interesting.
ACA: It’s more like you are attuning yourself to what surrounds you.
EK: One hundred percent. Those notes become material to make poems from. I really do think of it almost as fabric, a big unruly bolt of fabric I have to handle. It was especially true with this book. I printed out hundreds of pages of text and cut it up into tiny pieces and put the poems together with strips of paper, glue and tape. I would carry around a big folder full of these strips and work on it anywhere. At one point, I had a cardboard box I was carrying with me everywhere. It was ridiculous!
ACA: Is there one poem that you are particularly proud of or feel a certain kinship with?
EK: One of the ‘Romance’ poems includes the lines ‘love ends fast / and never’. When I read that line, I still feel heartbreak every time. Not in a bad way. It feels like peace. When you really love someone, that doesn’t get undone, for better or worse. I am glad that, in my life, I’ve had the opportunity to be in love. There is something so soothing to me that, no matter how bad it got afterwards, no matter how fucked up things were, the love was still there. It will always be. It happened, and nothing can make it unhappen.