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Elena Karina Byrne: California Poets Part 2, Five Poems

Elena Karina Byrne

February 23rd, 2021

California Poets: Part II

Elena Karina Byrne

Five Poems

That Van Gogh Was On Drugs Wasn’t Funny

the comedian said, which is why his sunflowers’ yellow

were so very yellow in their deliberately askew heads, &

from there now, know too, bees can dream, which must be

a kind of drunken wavering from the sun, dizzy parallax of

dance to dance flower-color crowned in the mouth’s epiphany

carried home. Hive’s hexagon. Sunflower’s Fibonacci. Like

grief in its sudden ownership of your thoughts, its terrible

perfection. Love too, is this precise, yet feels so lie-lawless

once let loose inside of the body, all Nile & noontime, black

seed & spiral, to that hint of foreground-yellow paint between

the teeth. I do, I desire something new every day, like his later

painting alterations, wet from another’s hands placed so very

carefully over me with the unleashed look of light. That is how

we know nothing but sunflowers, we become a different version.

Lynda Benglis, We’re Good in LA

in memory of artist Bob Chewy

confusing ourselves on impulse, completely melt-down together like that heat-

welt of hundred crayons left in the childhood driveway, whether we, now or not, like it,

to “look at this and just die” ahead of ourselves, suffocate under Lynda’s Eat Meat giant

bronze, or inside my cousin’s carpet once he rolled me off the bed to a hard landing

where I couldn’t flee or breathe. Far from her black beeswax, we will take a resin course

of action, turn & gut-twist to be fluid, fall to our lover’s floor without form, be continuous.

Or pour ourselves from a great height, whole, into a glass held out by another’s hand

because we want to trust. Yet like history, look how objects fail us by default, by

means. I’d make all my mistakes visible, add her Day-Glo pink to see my own blood clot,

bring back those who are gone, change the corner traffic light that phrased a drunkard’s

truck clear through his front windshield, turning its glass into snow & active noun.

Because any idea of his painting is incomplete, bile-black at best. Because live long

enough here & you will see Tar Pits boil over these sidewalk seams, freezing like my dog’s

lawn excrement, mat in color, holding memory of a previous self & heated to gleaming.

Almost Harunobu

Black wings

of hair, Binsashi bone pins, women of me come now servant to

the Tama river, washing courtesan brocade, multi-coloured on

a screen, new lovers kneeling. She too turns cinnabar-red by hand

paint, vertical to horizontal, lost memory sheets showing months.

That court gives rank for autumn & winter, after a milk

bath in front of the mosquito’s net, musical motif, when this

advent-end of the 17th century pulls back the bow. When

you first costume, when home, you’re story-making back.

A child learning how to shoot arrows, finds the bullseye straw.

What pattern singing from this color page reaches in secret? How

no one sees ahead, eyes half-closed, not looking up when walking:

a carried landscape. Butterfly halo above trees, kimono sleeves open,

hands each to each holding & beneath obi fold, her clit sex-knot is

hidden like a dinner bell underwater, like the impermanence of

hello or farewell, like violence rhythmed in the mind

after war.

A Martine Gutierrez Triad

-for Dylan Tara

Angel, | are you

drowning your bedsheets’ skins in

the moon’s pool water for a better muse-muse, for a body in thrall?

We wake against feeling like worn party undergarments torn out &

garden-buried, cut fruit thrown at foot | of the wood door, their fire

candied-colors crushed from an insect’s head. . .

To be deity-desire, | polished chrome, or coughed-up sun

aureate occupied by breath is everything. As if otherwise was a beauty

choice every tribe recognizes. I’m my son, the girl | he wants to be: so,

kiss these genders in us, find each naked mannequin twin | in the crowd,

a fish-mask breathing under our dining table downing all the last light.

We’re just one flame | thrown, tied hair to leaves into feathers &

for a pierced, jeweled-hungry face, | knowing perfection is always

sexless. I’d cross

over, again & again any day to make her feel safe, crawl inside carved

base of a tree, | meet wet anemone’s brooding for its pink & green axle |

revolving in the sea’s seat place, let him be her, them, in the visa-versa,

be uncured of expectation, dancing. Hands up––

We’re original owner of this one body | & I want you to see it.

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Cliché Lives On Inside Me

meant for the hundred-yard dash I won again & again, flint-chip

starlight breaking in on the fractions’ failed tests I tried to hide under

the bed’s dark universe. Tempting eternity in a child dream, I counted

endless abacus beads from inside my mouth as party-goers passed on to

the next lit room ignoring me, pile of red-spotted sea creatures raising

this girl body to the black ceiling. Anxiety is as endless as love, a grove

that began in the mirror in the open closet. It’s a history carnival out there,

abyss-run for your money on the only face of a clock, its crystal, bezel,

wheels, & gears laughing violet. Now infinity’s mindscape’s steep fall

finds a starter gunshot-heat at the beginning of everything. 11.3 seconds,

& I wonder how much of that fills sand grains inside a glass half-full. I

could have escaped the room, waves crushing behind us. Wish my caul-

dark child knew that then. Math fails me now, not the other way around.


December 10th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Elena Karina Byrne, Poet, Editor, Consultant & Moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You’ve published an eco-collage poem, reprinted with permission here. In what way do the visual arts ultimately enhance the sonic qualities of poetry and do you think, conversely, an image can really exist by itself?

EKB: It’s hard to imagine how they can be separated—in the way that the brain is interconnected, we might consider sonic and visual entanglements as being integral parts of the same functioning apparatus when writing poetry. Because I was an athlete when young, I can only describe this process as physical, kinesthetic, being in the zone, being in full motion as the conscious and unconscious minds conjoin to retrieve something the artist believes already exists … poetry is a visual medium, as is film, and its musical, syntactical, syllabic persuasions animate the images, and they keep the inherent narrative (even with the most abstract of figurative poems) moving forward, from point A to point B. Cinematographer Walter Murch acknowledges “metaphorical sound” layered into a film to emphasize the visual. “It’s the sonic equivalent of photographic depth of field.” I’m there. Reciprocity, participatory exchange between areas of knowledge, coaxed into choired poem-speech. Isn’t that what memory does? The synapses recreate what we saw; perhaps the engine driving it is language attached to feeling. It’s a collage, a wholistic process, and a physiological engagement that produces a living object.

DG: Continuing the topic of art and poetry, your newest collection, If This Makes You Nervous (what you have described as ekphrastic weaves) was just released by Omnidawn Publishing. Without revealing too much, can you describe the nature of this project, the inspiration behind it, and the process you undertook in crafting it?

EKB: I grew up surrounded by art. Father, Herbert S. Jepson, was a sculptor and renowned figure drawing teacher for Otis Art Institute, The Jepson Art Institute, and Chouinard Art Institute. He also taught Disney animators anatomy and took on some late life teaching for UCLA Extension. Mother, M. Shlaudeman, was a brilliant abstract painter, and my brother Stephen Jepson, too, is a contemporary artist and painter. As a child, I had the rare experience to meet famous, contemporary artists, or see their shows, and witness the dramatic late ’60s early ’70s performance art scene. This book represents just one of several, quite delayed responses to that unique upbringing. I’m fond of saying, I’m a poet because my parents were artists. The visual comes first: my prelingual relationship to the world.

The weaves consist of betrayed sonnets, my own formatting constraints needed to reign-in the conversation. I wanted to find a way to dialogue with artists’ works while tapping into those pre-teen years of dramatic development and see how they resonated … some are more personal, others, more political. If This Makes You Nervous represents an emotional, hallucinatory, supersaturated adventure. I wish I had another book of these to include more artists and re-think how I can change the lyric impulse.

DG: This upbringing consisted of an almost total immersion in the visual arts, along with a continuous contact with artists. How have your aesthetics evolved over the years and which artists, today, serve as your main inspirations?

EKB: Too many to mention but let me try. Joseph Beuys, Betye Saar, Sophie Calle, Bill Viola, Marina Abromović, Jenny Saville, Jenny Holzer, Helen Frankenthaler, Linder Sterling, Lorna Simpson … I adore Magritte’s use of color, and of course, his juxtapositions, his philosophical writing about art. .

My influences have naturally evolved, alongside shifts in my writing—deliberate challenges that I like to create for myself. Hannah Höch inspired the beginnings of Masque (Tupelo Press); Ann Hamilton, who graciously gave me the cover art for the books, Masque and Squander, rocks! She’s influenced my poetry and essays, further instigating a fever for language as material, for relationship disengagements from space, nature, commerce, and time….

I tend to fall in love often … with art, new music, film, and with deep sea creatures who certainly embody something equally alarming and beautiful.

DG: Let’s return to your forthcoming collection, which is really an incredible achievement. In “Andrei Tarkovsky: Reckoning the Water Raft,” you write the following:

“A man on pause enters my interlude before sleep, floats on a low moss raft where I must be made of water. Water is its own audience. How It suffers rhythmically, to and from…”

Water, dreams, and illusion are indeed major themes in the director’s work and you weave them in quite effortlessly in your own project. In addition, the Pessoa line, “They all have, like me, their future in the past,” adds another layer to all of this, as water, especially rivers, are often seen as symbols of time. Wasn’t it Heraclitus that said, “You can’t step into the same river twice?” Were you at all thinking about the dilemma of freewill here and whether we might be prisoners of our past, or is something else at work with the water imagery?

EKB: Thank you! That poem just arrived in my mailbox from Western Humanities Review.

Mmmm … that’s a multi-layered, wonderful question. In truth, my first impulse was to inundate myself with his film images until I landed on two that a friend shared, late one night. I targeted the emotional landscape, the geographic psychology that illustrated what was going on. I tried to remove myself from the filmmaker’s intent and from my own “plot” idea—what do we say, getting out of our own way to let the intuitive intellect take over. I’m pushing logic to the periphery, which sounds abstract. Ultimately, this poem enters the abstract realm of loss (a predominant theme in this book), so water seemed to be a natural element that expresses one’s emotional ability to dissolve, to transform …. Nevertheless, I used the visual objects as guideposts, incorporated the vocabulary of what was seen to express the unseen. maybe that’s what most poetry does, but I like to think of these as my crossing over the border into the unfamiliar country of each artist. How could I adopt their visual language and create an entanglement exchange ….

DG: Continuing the discussion of your poem, it includes—in eclectic ways—a very strange mixture of characters, from Leonardo da Vinci, to Joseph Beuys, all the way down to Bin Ramke, and all in no particular order, whether chronologically or thematically; in addition, many of these individuals are incredibly well-known, while others are indeed experts in their field, but without said reputation. How did you ultimately choose who would make an appearance, and was it even choice at all, or perhaps something else entirely? In addition, had you heard about all the figures beforehand, or did you discover some of them during the process of writing?

EKB: I was familiar with the majority of the artists, many of whom were originally based in L.A.—so I revisited their work until something grabbed me by the back of the neck. I can’t say that I love all the artists I chose—but all compelled me to write. Sometimes, they chose me—a magnetic force, challenging me to problem-solve the next steps. Of the marvelous artists I stumbled across: Caitlin Berrigan, Martine Gutierrez, Ricardo Nicolayevsky, Nan Goldin, Awol Erizku, and Masayo Fukuda. I want to mention too, that I’m embarrassed there’s a spelling error: Chantal Ackerman not Chantel! Perhaps because I was vague about her career until the brilliant poet and dear friend, Cathy Colman, pushed me in her direction. I suffer from name aphasia, and I can’t spell! How’s that for a writer …. Next time, I hire a copy editor.

DG: In your review of Gillian Conoley’s 2019 poetry collection, A Little More Red Sun on the Human, you write the following: “I ask of a poem what it asks of itself: find a new space to hold my attention.” How do you feel about the current state of poetry? Does most of it capture your attention, and who are some of authors you gravitate towards?

EKB: Hard question because there are indeed so many terrific poets writing and translating, and so many amazing non-fiction writers out there—also, because my new MFA program has me living in the fiction section of my library while I’m completely hooked on screenwriting and film studies! Oh my, the only way I can do this justice is to only mention a just a few of the less visible and up-in-coming (How did you put it? Ones “without said reputation” compared to the others): Molly Bendall, Calvin Bedient, Natalie J. Graham, Jennifer S Cheng, Sara Borjas, Torrin Greathouse, Cathy Colman, Brendan Constantine, Ramón García, Lois P Jones, Kim Dower, Katie Farris, Lynne Thompson, Gail Wronsky, Raymond Antrobus, my publisher, Rusty Morrison, editor Daniel Lawless.

DG: In an interview with Rusty Morrison you make this fascinating statement: “The order of Squander was determined by the fact that much of this book was immersed in language play and language’s relationship to the speaker… who and what was being addressed. Three sections present three quotes that indicate the overall trope. Language sees. Language is actually, a three-dimensional material like clay. It’s structural/architectural and so one could stand back and observe it, abstract it, deconstruct it … Language too, falls between intimacy and anonymity. It is erotic for me.” As with If This Makes You Nervous, the poems within Squander are inspired by many different characters, from Shakespeare to Amy Winehouse, but this particular collection is more about the exploration of language. In your view, is there an ultimate purpose to language—a reason why people communicate? Is it to seek help, to reveal something about themselves, to lie, to tell the truth, to preserve our race, or is the use of language simply relative across culture, space, and time?

EKB: Certainly, all of the above. Bill Knott’s “razorblade choir” heard underwater ….

As an act of translation, we know language is ever-changing, personally, socially, culturally. To quote Stevens here: “…if only half-perceived / In the poverty of their words, / Of the planet which they were part.” (“The Planet on the Table”). I love John Koenig’s new book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, defining so many ineffable feelings. When you study other languages, you quickly learn how each culture includes its own specialized vocabulary and phrases. I agree with Ann Hamilton’s concept of translation, that “learning another language is an embodied act … and act of empathy … it is the taking into the body another sound, shape, history …” Gaston Bachelard wanted us to know “We cannot say what reality is, only what it seems like to us,” and I’ll add, the forever unknown.

It animates, creates, expresses, conceals, and erases. Language is at once our consciousness and our conscience. Fickle and full of paradox. A form of surveillance, an act of rebellion, a merging. Look at what poets Forrest Gander, Douglas Kearney, Maureen Alsop, Claudia Rankine, and Atsuro Riley are doing. I see language as an appendage (another eye, mouth, hand) and as our sixth sense. Roland Barthes always chimes in here: “language is a skin,” and yes, it participates in the erotic impulse, an immersive physical way of perceiving, especially as language begins in the body and is set free to participate, exchange with another body (can’t separate the mind from body). I believe Ann Carson said eros is a verb …. Language pushed by breath, for Shakespeare, mimicking the heartbeat, it becomes autoerotic, wants to procreate, to invent, to surprise itself and its partner.

DG: Are you working on anything at the moment?

Thought you’d never ask! First, I’m determined to finish my hybrid essay book called Voyeur Hour … another, secret “money book;” and I have some short stories based on real life (yikes!); drafts for 3 short films; a series pilot. It’s been shocking how these new genres have taken hold. Yet, author /playwright/actress Colette Freedman insists if you’re a writer, you can write anything. I want to agree with her mantra: do do do!—because we must never under-sell ourselves to ourselves … it can be a dark social/cultural disease—to second guess the outcomes, especially since one cliché holds true: life is short. Artists defy time. If I had another week in each day, I’d be painting too—maybe when I’m really old. But there’s always Henry James: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Yes, artistic madness, derived from the purest child mind, as the adult finds herself stumbling into a flowering field, alight with bees.

Author Bio:

Elena Karina Byrne’s publications, among others, include her fourth book If This Makes You Nervous (Omnidawn, 2021), and the chapbook No Don’t (What Books Press, 2020); The Pushcart Prize XXXIII, Kyoto Journal, Best American Poetry, Poetry, The Paris Review, Volt, APR, Poetry International, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Poetry Daily, Narrative, New American Writing, Plume, The Eloquent Poem anthology, and BOMB.

Former 12-year Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America and Kate & Kingsley Tufts Poetry Awards judge, Elena is a private editor, freelance lecturer, 24-year Poetry Consultant & Moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and the Literary Programs Director for the historic Ruskin Art Club. Under the inspiration of Antioch University, Santa Barbara’s MFA program in Writing & Contemporary Media, Elena is completing her first screenplays, short stories, and the hybrid collection of essays Voyeur Hour: Poetry, Art, Film, & Desire.


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