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And The Poem Has Set Me Softly Down Beside You
It’s L.A.’s summer scene and for the moment we’re lost in it. Mandy Kahn is serving me iced Lov Organic Tea on a picnic blanket in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park. Nearby, people play cards, basketball, enjoy a stroll. We’re talking about form, transformation, and movement—connecting to poetry as a physical event—and how L.A. has made experiments with these ideas easier.
“Movement has been a really successful way, across cultural genres, of invigorating experience,” she says. “For me, these poetry installations are fun experiments with that—and they really are experiments. Los Angeles is such a wonderful place for me to be making work because I feel like I can experiment with audiences. I did an installation at an art gallery last year where I coordinated an audience—I created a poem in two parts, where I spoke and then I taught the audience a reply, and then I coordinated them also to move around the space. This is the sort of thing that audiences here are so game to participate in. Not every experiment like that is as successful as every other experiment…”
The conversation flows, but Kahn’s easy energy belies the lifestyle of a writer with a busy schedule. Math, Heaven, Time, her first collection, was published in March, and she’s been doing readings since. She’s finishing a second collection and she’s under deadline for three new opera commissions, in addition to planning a new poetry installation. She is that relatively rare cultural anomaly, the professional poet, who confounds the warnings of finger-wagging parents and college counselors everywhere.
The investigation of how poetry connects with and transforms the body is a central idea in Kahn’s work. I recite a few lines from her poem “Your Hands,” in which the imagined voice of Alfred Stieglitz explains his fascination with the hands of his lover, Georgia O’Keeffe: “It’s / how, holding the tree / in even sunlight, / they are the tree.”
“Is this a state,” I ask her, “that, through your work, you’re bringing into yourself as an increased awareness?” “So, there’s this particular photograph [by Stieglitz] of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands and a tree, and…the way that it’s photographed, the lines, the colors sort of meld together. I think that she is very much—she’s such a part of that landscape, that separation between artist and what’s being portrayed disappears, and you have this very natural melding, this becoming one thing. In her case, she visited the southwest and she didn’t paint it as a visitor. She just never left and became of the environment. You look at pictures of her later in life and she is the desert.”
“This kind of poetic unity: is that something you’re trying to uncover?” “Yes, I think that would be a highest goal—disappearance, really, and just being a conduit through which a naturalness can flow. What could be better than to disappear so that the great honesty, or the great universal, can flow through the conduit of you? What could be a higher aim than invisibility, really?”
“Like at the end of your poem ‘Several-month Vacation,’ you have, ‘A horseman, you hover your heels / by the stirrups, waiting to see what you’ll do.’” “You’re right. It’s totally the same thing. I’m always thinking about how there are these two centers, this mind center—the part of us that feels that we have all the choices in the world and we can manipulate things or make our to-do lists and crawl our way towards something; and then there’s this feeling center, or heart center, that flows and carries us effortlessly into our future, whatever it is.”
It’s hard then not to surrender to that idea. There in Plummer Park, where most wander by unobserved, but felt, there is a sense of connectedness without specificity—that she, I, they, are all part of an early evening that’s unfolding naturally, inevitably, regardless of specific intention. We make our goodbyes. Later, pulling onto the freeway and resigning myself to the crush of late rush-hour traffic, I muse instead over the afternoon’s conversation and various lines from a half-dozen poems. The traffic disappears. I’m home before I know it.
Photographer: Graham Dunn for iheartreps.com. Stylist: Yohanna Logan for TheRexagency.com. Hair: Alfredo Llamas for tmg-la.com. Makeup: Amy Strozzi for tmg-la.com.