I Decide the End

An interview with Elaine Kahn about her new book of poems, Romance or The End

art by imp kerr

When I tell myself a story
I decide the end

—Elaine Kahn, “Romance”

Not enough people talk about Eurydice. Not enough people talk about what it’s like to be down acclimating in hell when your deadbeat musician boyfriend suddenly tries to bail you out. Orpheus is full of empty promises, so you end up tumbling back down into that shithole once more. This is only the version the poet H.D. told: “if you had let me rest with the dead, / I had forgot you / and the past.” In this version it’s always Orpheus, Orpheus, Orpheus. I think what we all really want is to know more about Eurydice.

Elaine Kahan, Romance or the End. Soft Skull Press, 2020. 144 pages.
Elaine Kahn, the poet, teacher, and author of the full-length Women in Public (City Lights, 2015), as well as the chapbooks A Voluptuous Dream During An Eclipse (Poor Claudia, 2012) and I Told You I Was Sick (After Hours, 2017), reminded me of H.D.’s “Eurydice” during a recent conversation. We spoke of Kahn’s relationship to writing and her new book, Romance or The End: Poems, out this month from Soft Skull Press. It was a personal pleasure to catch up with this poet after years of being distantly connected through a web of acquaintances (and finally getting to study with Kahn in her Poetry Field School in 2018).

Kahn’s Romance imagines all the contours of desire if you were willing to both bludgeon and caress them, sometimes in the same breath. The book is divided into a dizzying array of confrontations with the self, the lack of self, desire, and the desired object. Throughout the book there is a tension around what romance means. This is an idea that taunts us as we live our complex yet unromantic lives, weighed down by the mundanity of a living that can seem at times to provide no escape. Kahn manages to carve out a space around the expectations for both romance and its obliteration that feels real. What she offers is better than a fantasy. The speaker in the poems exhibits a constant frustration between wanting to be nothing and wanting to be alive.

Perhaps this points to how the experience of romance and being “in love” is a space of nonidentity, a space where you lose yourself through your desire. You disappear to feel alive. Nobody tells us this is what love feels like, but then who’s to say? Again and again while reading Kahn’s Romance, lines like this crop up: “Only to be / nothing / And to love / to be alive.” Their whirring frequency speaks to a common desire, a contradiction within all of us, to be seen and to be invisible, to be heard and to be silenced, to be set free and to be sent back down to hell.

What Kahn’s poetry reminds us is that we can always execute a choice, between living and dying, between romance and the end. Lucky us to have a guide like Kahn to walk us through the wending path of polarities, someone brave enough to see that and/or is also both/and. If truth is going to arrive for any of us it’ll probably taste like the punch of a poem.


MARY ELIZABETH BORKOWSKI: Congrats on your book coming out. This is amazing! How are you feeling?

ELAINE KAHN: I am feeling okay! This book was very shitty to write and I have some mixed feelings about it coming out. I’m proud of it, but I am looking forward to a time where there is more distance between me and that book.

I’m glad that you spoke to the difficulty of writing in particular. While reading, I realized how deeply personal the poems felt, almost like an exorcism. I was hoping you could talk a little about the evolution of Romance from the chapbook I Told You I Was Sick. What was that like?

I wish this book had been more of an exorcism! But it’s a little different than that. These things happened to me, in my life, that I felt I could neither understand nor accept. I became unable to connect to my own narrative; it felt chaotic, excruciating and inescapable. With this book, I wanted to try to recover some sense of order, to make it all into a story that I could look at and engage with, even if I still hated what the story was.

When I was working on the chapbook I Told You I Was Sick, I had a less clear sense of what I wanted to recuperate. I was interested in engaging with this trope of “the romantic tragedy,” but it hadn’t occurred to me that this could be explored through a form I imposed onto the content as much as through the content itself. Once I got that idea, that’s when the book Romance or The End began to take shape in my mind; it was really satisfying actually.

This might be a terribly naive question, but here goes: What exactly is romance and how do we talk about it? How is poetry still a vital medium for this conversation?

Well . . . I don’t know exactly what romance is! I guess it’s the story of falling in love and, ultimately, having that love end. Because it always ends, even if the end is that one or both of you die. (Sorry!) And in fact, my early ideas about romance were very much tied to this. The love stories that I was really drawn to as a child and adolescent always ended in death. I mean all the most archetypal love stories are tragedies.

Poetic language has a unique capacity for narrative that I find singularly honest and effective. For one, it doesn’t have the same concern for resolution, even in terms of like syntax or image, that a lot of other mediums do. Poetry operates through a kind of breaking apart that is, to me, the most authentic mode of storytelling. And it also leaves a lot of room for space, for the unsaid, the unexplained, the inexpressible, which, to me, is absolutely necessary. There are so many blank spaces in my writing that are not aesthetic choices. They are real; they are part of what happened. Emptiness and silence are part of the story.

I love what you say about poetry operating through breaking open, and how that negative space is not aesthetic, it is a real space, a real nothing. You write, “Obviously, this / is not a love poem,” and then a few pages later, “The fantasy of being murdered has returned / it lives inside me like a crab.” Like, obviously this is not a love poem, and this is not a book about romance, people! But there is sincerity in naming romance as such, because it’s almost that gesture that we want, that attempt at romance. When you say you don’t know what romance is, I think most of us don’t, you know? It’s a myth, a dream that kind of makes us sick. Do you think there’s a possible “anti-romance” generated by your poems? I’m thinking specifically of the act of naming multiple poems “Romance.” What is the intention there?

Hmm, OK . . . I guess I should say, should always say, that any attempt to “explain” my poetry or the decisions made within my poetry is a bit of a fiction. But I think the attempt is still important, I still learn from it and find it interesting to try. Can I ask what you mean by anti-romance?

When I use that term I think of something like the sex negativity of radical feminists or even queer negativity. There’s this idea of wanting to deny something, contradict it, maybe even destroy or ruin it.

Well . . . yeah I definitely had strong desires to destroy and ruin while writing this book! And, to be frank, I also have a lot of desires to destroy and ruin when I am in love, which is perhaps more relevant to your question. I have always desired love, romantic love, more than almost anything else but also tended to find it absolutely unbearable. It makes me wish I was dead or could disappear. I don’t know if this is what you mean, but yeah, like that poem about the fantasy of being murdered . . . that’s real, it’s like a really visceral longing, and quite specific. I don’t understand it exactly, but I feel it.

I never thought about it before, but in this book “romance” is almost a character. There’s that poem “love has turned on me / and now I am its liar” where love is acting upon the speaker and controlling their behavior. So maybe part of the motivation of naming a bunch of the poems “Romance” was a way of flagging that.

Implicit in a lot of your poems is the dilemma of how we can love and achieve intimacy in this wretched world. Like, is romance or love under capitalism even possible? 
Yes, of course we can find love and romance under capitalism! I don’t even really understand how that’s in doubt. Perhaps the confusion lies in the idea that romantic love might ever be pure, under any circumstances. But by nature romantic love is an alloy. 

Let’s return to one other thing in my question and also something in that same poem, “THERE IS NOTHING MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS,” which opens, “Sickness / is a kind of clarity.” I want to understand more your discussion of sickness in this volume.

There’s probably a reason that the expression “lovesick” exists; perhaps love is a type of sickness. It is definitely an altered state. Maybe love hits us so hard because it applies inherent defamiliarization. Part of what my book is exploring is the idea of entering into something you know is doomed, doing so anyway. Not without fear, but certainly with devotion. And then when it all goes wrong, the speaker in the book (me, lol) is like . . . well, I said this would happen.

I remember a while ago on social media you posted something about those “me: and also me:” memes. I think you posted one that said, “I have a lot in common with this ‘also me’ person you all are talking about.” In this latest book, there’s a lot of enjambment of contradiction, you know, like the “also me” person is often right next to the “me” person in the space of a couple lines. And I love this so much, this unapologetic paradoxing. Do you feel that you have a persona in any way?

I actually had this conversation with my friend Beck Levy about Lana Del Rey recently, and I was like, “I don’t think I know the difference between persona and personality,” and Beck was like, “Maybe a persona is a personality without the expectation of accountability.” Anyway, no, I don’t feel like I have a persona. I mean, of course there are different ways I express myself in tweets than in phone calls, etc., but it’s not an affect, it’s just a result of the medium. I have always felt like my poems are me being my most honest and direct self. I think my poems are the best part of me. That this conflict and contradiction are so evident in my poetry relates to what I was saying earlier about how, to me, poetry is actually the mode of expression that has the greatest capacity to communicate narrative truth. Because nothing is stable in poetry, really, and neither is anything in life. I don’t think two statements being contradictory makes either one less true.

You are not only a poet who writes poetry; you also teach poetry. What makes something poetry, and who gets to decide?

I think there’s some really unfortunate things about the way poetry is taught in the American educational system that have led to some widespread misunderstandings about poetry. Poetry is often presented as this rarefied form of literature that one needs special knowledge to access. That just is not true. I remember getting assigned certain poems to read in high school and having teachers be like, “What does this poem mean?” as if the poem were a code for something else. But poetry is not something to be decoded; it is something to be experienced. You don’t listen to a song and think, “What is the significance of using a high hat instead of a floor tom?” You just listen and your body tells you what it means and you don’t worry about it. In my opinion, this is the way to engage with poetry: Don’t worry about it!! Just be open to it, listen to it. Maybe it will move you and maybe it won’t. There’s no failure on your part either way.

How do you feel about the “Rupi Kaur–ification” of poetry? What is the outrage around Kaur’s writing really about?

I love that people connect to what Rupi Kaur has to say. And if that makes them feel more comfortable engaging with other kinds of compressed language, great. But to me, her writing doesn’t do the things that I find exciting about poetry. People have lauded her for making poetry more “accessible,” but I wish that instead people would be encouraged to feel free to access, to connect with, what they don’t necessarily understand.

Yes. Yes! This is so true about how poetry is taught. It is taught almost as a cipher. And if you’re “clever” you can decode it. What is your experience being a poet and a writer in this particular period in history? To pull back on the theme of romance as an im/possibility, as a kind of aporia, how much of being a writer is a romance, or a rarefied idea of something?
I had to look up what aporia means. I think being a poet is very romantic, in the sense that it’s sort of doomed. There’s a precarity to it and, sorry to say, a sort of masochism. I love being a poet :) 
Lastly, as you say in the opening poem: “How am I not, as a suffering woman, in some ways, a very small God?” Because your poems make me think I am!
Oh, Mary . . . you’re so much more than a god. You’re a suffering woman.