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Elena Karina Byrne & The End Times Opry

Friday 21 May 2010 The End Times Opry brings its multidisciplinary arts showcase to the Eagle Rock Arts Center. As media partners, we’re proud to present the following interview with poet Elena Karina Byrne, one of several Los Angeles-area poets performing at The End Times.

Elena and I conversed by email. Her love of language trickled across the ether, somehow encoded into and decoded from binary.



The End Times Opry is a multidisciplinary event, and I’m excited to see how the different arts dialogue with one another. You have a new chapbook, Voyeur Hour, which contains poetry and art. Tell me about the book, and about how other forms of art dialogue or engage with your own poetry.

The Voyeur Hour Book began with an idea (which is rare for me unless I have some general artifice with which to guide a series of poems) rather than an image: voyeurism is everywhere: in our culture, in our personal lives and within the process of writing itself. But remember, it is a process of seeing—language is a process of seeing, and we position ourselves on its stage, on the street, behind the bushes, in the dark… It began with the Masque book and my art influences from Hannah Hoch, Ann Hamilton, Sophie Calle, Vito Acconci and others… the masks were all personas, adopted voices literal and abstract, so in that sense they too are a dialogue. As for Voyeur Hour… in some ways I failed and only could find occasional meditations that would satisfy the larger theme, so it soon became a book about failed love, self-voyeurism and the voyeuristic impulses that arouse unanswered questions. The art, not yet finished, is a series of painting/drawing/collages… they do dialogue, as I believe poetry dialogues, with the outside world and with the smarter nether-world of the imaginative intellect.

I really like what you’ve written about the way you fumble sounds around your mouth when writing a poem. Can you describe more of that process?

I don’t think I ever used the word “fumble”—which, by the way, reminds me of one of my favorite odd words, carphology, a delirious fumbling with the bedclothes—so poetry is an erotic fumbling with the bedcovers, with the partner, with the sounds of language, and often seems to begin in the body; any number of physical entanglements (the physiology of the phrases) can be included in how we get from raw language to the consciousness of language. I see it as being in a row boat on the ocean, the writer musically rowing their way toward landfall of subject and image and meaning. I sit on my bed and write—I surround myself with books, and my “journal,” which is filled with snippets of writing, odd found facts, art, and, yes, words that will procreate more words, words that will even instigate a whole poem.

I vowel my way into a poem. Many of the Masque poems were engendered from a single word or the short epigraph line. I know this humorous story has been told many times (I think you can find it in Language of Life, and Moyer’s interview with Robert Hass), but it does bear repeating here: Mallarme, upon hearing Degas complain of his struggle with poetry because he had no ideas, told him poems were written with words and not ideas.

You’ve written that for you “language is Eros.” I guess that means your readings get pretty intimate?

As I said in the last answer to your question, I do believe language resides in the body, is a physical expression as much as it is an intellectual one—that doesn’t mean I write tons of erotic poems. It does mean however, language is a sensual medium, and like the physical act of love-making, offers endless possibilities.

I know you’ve studied with Kunitz—I’m jealous!—and many other great poets. Whose work are you reading now, who is teaching you new things?

I was very lucky indeed!

I didn’t study with Stanley but knew him and interviewed him during my Sarah Lawrence College years. He was a stunning, amazing man on every level. Everything that came out of his mouth during our interview was brilliant, and heart-breakingly beautiful. Also the fact that he knew Theodore Roethke, one of my all time favorites, excuse the film cliche, had me at hello. A gardner married to a painter, an influential teacher, a great wit and passionate man… if you don’t already know him, (through his poetry and interviews) do.

I try to balance old and new in my reading and find, over the years, we yearn and learn from writers for different reasons. For example, Plath and Berryman and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Hart Crane were my earliest influences, not because of the drama of their lives, but because I needed to be empowered by their power of diction, their tireless craft. My first professor Thomas Lux gave his “freshman dummies” a lifetime jewel box of old and new poets as the first bargaining tool for our futures in writing. Lately I’m interested in poetry that still displays some semblance of passion and innovation… but let me say I’m not interested in blind invention, the mere self-conscious construction-play that too often passes as innovative new writing—growing up with artists and contemporary/conceptual art, one knows the recycling of the old hat. I can love Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s work next to Molly Bendall’s; Mark Doty next to Mary Ruefle, Charles Simic and Harryette Mullen… going back and teaching the greats affords me the luxury to enjoy the new poets too: Brendan Constantine, Amy Newlove Shroeder, Dan Beachy-Quick, Cathy Colman, Douglas Kearney, Lytton Smith…

You have three forthcoming books. What else are you working on? And how, with all the responsibilities you juggle, do you have time to be so prolific?

Funny, I wish I wrote more! I’m asked that question often. (I ask myself too!) I am a binge writer—fevering my way into a book until I stop. Also, I think it has been a survival tool… as when a brain is damaged from an accident and finds other pathways in which to function. Once I had children I had to learn how to write at odd intervals, and I had to learn how to give something to myself—but really, it is a compulsion, and if poems are a material like paint or clay, I am constantly trying to find new ways to discover their properties, to get messy and be surprised, to eventually find the inner life’s worth and negotiate that inner life with the outer life… outer? Now that suddenly sounds like an odd word!

May 2010

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