My Nature is to Dive: An Interview with Poet Mandy Kahn




AFTER SELLING OUT its original UK edition on Eyewear Publishing, Mandy Kahn’s remarkable first collection of poems, Math, Heaven, Time, is now available in an American paperback edition. In using the word “remarkable,” I do mean that the collection is so extraordinary or exceptional as to invite comment. Or perhaps I should have called it striking, because it certainly impresses itself powerfully and deeply upon the observer’s mind or vision. From the moment I was first introduced to Mandy Kahn and her debut collection, Math, Heaven, Time, at a local Los Angeles reading series curated by Peggy Dobreer, I knew I had encountered a voice beyond the common realm.

Of the influences she names, Thoreau seems to have left his transcendental nature print most prominently. There’s also a sense of Yeats’s splendor and, at times, the concision of Dickinson, but as with all true visionaries, her alchemy creates a completely new sound — a melopoeia that is both familiar and otherworldly.

The opening poem, “The Tour Guide,” begins, 

I followed the German tour guide
through the hulking old basilica.

He told the group (or so I guessed),
indicating high and low:

This is where the wind begins.

This is where the childhoods of a thousand
martyrs live, untouched.

Wood grain in these pews still curls
to likenesses of patron saints.

Window-holes are cut the breadth
of human souls, when loosed.

And we are led into a world that calls us up and wills us to listen, drawing on a voice that falls somewhere between troubadour and architect. Math, Heaven, Time does not avoid contemporary themes, but it is timeless. And while a number of Kahn’s poems seem autobiographical, they are never merely personal. “Stuck Windows,” for example, details the universal subject of a young girl’s crush, but resists grounding in the commonplace through surprising leaps of imagination and language:

I don’t like having a crush. It makes me
bring my feathers out and loll, hoping
to color the moonlight.
My body disobeys me, my old pal,
now preferring him. When kissed, my shuttered factory
throws open its stuck windows, starting up its clunky gray
machinery to humming, ready to make a new go,
ready to manufacture
whatever it is the kids are buying these days.

This is not simply strong metaphor at work, it’s a metaphoric symphony, adding the equivalent of harmonies, syncopation, tubas, flugelhorns. The more I read of her, the more I feel the living music that informs all Kahn creates.

¤

LOIS P. JONES: I’ve read Math, Heaven, Time several times, heard you at readings more than once, and still you are a kind of literary origami, mysteriously folded, and even if your creases were pressed back into their original form, we would still not know you personally. Is this sense of distance a quality you are conscious of? Do you feel that art should be separate from the individual artist, and is that possible?

MANDY KAHN: I am aware of this distance, but think of it as a shyness that swells and recedes. As I do this work, and also the work of sharing it, and standing for it, I do my best to honor the feelings that come. There are days when I feel separate from my work — when I’m its partner — and then I am most comfortable speaking about it, and for it. I’m most shy — and somewhat submerged — when the work feels less distinguishable from myself. It’s the self I want to protect — and bury in soft soil — not the work.

I don’t believe in shoulds. When we’re drawn toward something, a lesson’s there for us. Some of us are here to learn how it feels to share work plainly. Some of us are here to learn how it feels to make our work and stand aside from it: to be and be apart. I suspect I’m here to learn both.

My toughest growth is tied up in my work: in making it, in sharing it, in being the person in person who has made and shared. This drags from my continental shelf all kinds of sunken shapes, and considering them — and loving them — is maybe my most elemental job. The harder it feels to do my work, the larger the outline that rises from the kelp: whole frigates have swum up. This must sound strange to you, as I am not a confessional poet. But when I speak of myself as a plant, that’s the barest and truest thing that I could do. That is a confession, for me.

These sunken shapes take on a number of subjects in Math, Heaven, Time, including photographs and photographers (Stieglitz, Eggleston, Goldin, Man Ray) and their relationships, focusing particularly on art of the early 20th century, as well as poems of personal significance. At a time when an abundance of today’s poetry collections seems controversial, dealing with subjects of war, race, abuse, and political unrest, Math, Heaven, Time draws our attention to the themes of aesthetics and love. How do you address concerns of relevancy in a highly political world? You always appear to be above the fray. How do you stay on track?

Two Answers for Lois P. Jones

1.

Often, at a time of war, I’m called to speak of peace.
Some are called, just then, to speak of war:
of what is seen.
In the absence of peace, I’m called to speak of peace.

2.

Peace has a very high,
very clear tone:
anywhere you plant that tone
it rises —
imperceptibly —
and leaves a trail.

Beautiful. An answer of clarity and resonance. As an urban dweller, you’ve expressed a deep affinity for the cafes, streets, and artist’s community within Los Angeles, yet many of the poems that take from the poet’s own experience are written in pastoral settings abroad or in nature. How do you find the personal “space” to draw from the natural world, living in such a large metropolis, with its many distractions?

I always have one toe in the natural world — in a kind of mountain pool. I do require both kinds of “making” energy: both city and country. Being in the city brings the action, the arrow. I’m among my friends, I’m exposed to their projects, I’m dazzled, I’m struck. Ideas pile up for me here. Ventures are structured. I feel of my time. But to finish a project, I add that second thing: the moist soil and mulched root and pond muck. That’s the thick drink of creation.

What I’m doing in the countryside might look like rest, but my state is very active. I’m open, and I am connecting, and I am receiving. When I set out my bowl, nature fills it, and I become of nature — a vine intertwined with the great flowering stalk. I touch that side of things, too, every day in the city. I go to the park, I water my plants, I try to be up for dawn. I go for long swims in the ocean. I visit the tide pools. Without the countryside energy, I’m a closed system: the bell jar descends on the petri dish. There’s nothing wrong with making that way: with one’s feet on asphalt. But I’m not drawn to make like that. I’m here, I suspect, to be rooted, and to be a root.

I spend two months a year in plain nature, in full receptivity. During these trips, I generally stay in one place. Movement-heavy travel is grand, but there’s lots of action in it, and I’m there to be still. I like to allow one spot on the earth to unfold for me, and the petals take time to unhinge. I’d rather know one acre well than know a whole continent quickly.

But I don’t go to the countryside to concentrate. When I consider something, I enter the process of witnessing like a room, and the door shuts hard behind me. I can do that in a coffee shop with a brass band coming and going. I benefit from the coffee shop’s regular industry: from the white noise of local creation. That’s a sustaining fuel, too. My challenge in town is keeping apace of daily correspondence — those water bugs on concentration’s top. My nature is to dive: to enter every thought like a soupy pond, with my hands stretched out for bottom-muck. I’m down there most of the day, and when I return, there’s nothing left for the little hellos and what’s-news that are easy for some. When I leave town, those water bugs are gone: that lends a sort of peace.

Encompassing both urban music and the bucolic, you’ve written librettos for opera and collaborated with dancers and musicians. Do you consider there to be a connection between the world of poetry and the way, say, an artistic collaboration unfolds? Is poetry a kind of jam session of one?

Writing poetry is, for me, a jam session of two: there’s my part of the making — I think of myself as a sieve through which a something flows — and there’s the mysterious something. My sieve is in my native key — of consonant, whole, and very high notes — and if it has a color, it’s a light, translucent pink. What’s made is the something that’s traveled through the sieve.

When I write text for a collaborative work, I start it in just the same way: there’s the something, the sieve, and the product that’s emerged. And then the product is given away, and goes through my partner’s process. But this second process has a rougher grind: there are large chunks of the original elements visible in that final pot of stew. But also, there’s a sort of broth between them: a finer blend.

Making with others teaches me how to let go. Seeing the work in the pot — in the stew — reminds me I am here for play, and to be in the sandbox. And the stew will have a sort of depth the carrot alone, let’s say, cannot achieve.

There’s another reason I make collaborative work: I’m simply a fan — of dance, of music, of theater, of art, of performance — and working in partnership brings me close to the things I admire, and makers I admire. I’m there to observe — to be near — as much as to build.

Are you aware of the often choral architecture of your poems? That is, certain pieces seem to already embody a structure for voice, not in the conventional use of formal structure — as in sonnets or villanelles — but in a more organic construction.

I like that you started with “are you aware” because some of your questions — and thanks for this, Lois — have brought up things in my work I can’t quite perceive. I forget the poem’s narratives — I lose the obvious things. I enter the poems: each one is a house, and when I stand outside, or down the road, I can’t recall its decoration. I perceive each work, each house, each room, when I’m in it, but in lamplight. I cannot see these poems with a pointed eye.

So I’m fascinated by this thoughtful question, and grateful for it. You’ve brought up something I’ve often wondered about. I’ve always liked the idea of being absent when my poems appear, but it hasn’t happened that way. I’ve had to speak them. I’m curious about that. Perhaps I haven’t recognized they’re choral works, and the voice somehow completes them. I will say that I’ve often wanted to notate the poems like music, and mark each rest’s length. The line breaks sometimes help to delineate rests, but other times I’m using the line breaks to do something else: to fight the natural rhythm with a spatial jump that puts under glass a certain narrative point.

Writing the poems on musical paper would make these things exact. For now, I’ll speak them.

¤

Lois P. Jones is a poet and a poetry editor at Kyoto Journal, host of KPFK’s Poets Café (Pacifica Radio), and co-host of Moonday Poetry in La Cañada, California.


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