In the world of Elaine Kahn’s poetry, the truth is never stable. Lovers perform quotidian acts, married people devour one another, unspeakable things happen, and someone’s own story no longer feels like their own. Narrators are unreliable, assuredly telling their side of the story and theirs alone. One claims not to care what life means while ostensibly writing it all down in order to find some sort of meaning.
In Kahn’s latest book, Romance or The End (Soft Skull Press), romantic tropes are put through the meat grinder. She writes:
I have heard it said
but I have
Her words are strong and purposeful, her lines stark. Many poems are mere fragments on the page. The book reads almost like one cohesive narrative, taking the reader from the early stages of love to betrayal and pain, leaving us to ponder what was true, or what might possibly follow.
“I wanted to try to add a clear narrative structure to something that I experience as being very confusing and in fact hard to connect to,” she says. “This book, it really is me trying to make sense of something that didn’t make sense to me.”
Kahn wrote the book during a particularly hard time in her life. She was grieving the deaths of loved ones, including friends lost in the December 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland. Trump had just been elected. “I had gotten to a point where I could no longer relate to my own life; its narrative had become disfigured beyond recognition,” she tells me over e-mail.
Her writing approach was more tactile than previous efforts (this is her second poetry book and she’s also published several chapbooks) as she had a hard time engaging with works in progress. Kahn’s usual writing method is to compile her filled notebooks and compose pieces by working through the text. This time around she printed out all of the text she planned to include, cut the lines up into strips, and physically arranged them to create poems.
“I think that helped me at once get closer to the text but also feel a little more distance. It felt more like I was really assembling something. I was able to be more objective with it,” she says.
The writing method comes through in poems like “I Stand Here in my Poodle Skirt and Ask for Everything I Can Think of,” the entirety of which is:
was my sex my only magic?
I took a picture of the moon.
The cut-up technique works well with Kahn’s usual mode of writing: accruing text and taking inspiration from language in everyday life.
“I’ll write poems while half paying attention to TV. I will get language from advertisements, from receipts,” she says. She’ll then compile the text and look for themes or information that resonates. “Then, I try to figure out what story they’re telling. My poems don’t have a very conventional narrative, but to me there’s a trajectory of meaning. And it’s mostly about trying to learn more than report I think, trying to come to an understanding through my data sets or whatever, the language I’ve acquired.”
Kahn wrote her first poems as an adolescent. Though she moved to Los Angeles in 2016, she was born in Evanston, raised in the nearby suburb Northfield. She describes herself as a “weird little kid.” Reading was her main means of escaping the tiny suburb.
“I definitely spent a lot of my life imagining leaving the little town I was in,” she says, though she has only proud feelings about being from the midwest. As a teenager, she would borrow her family’s car and drive to Lake Michigan to write. “That’s where so many of my early poems were written, just sitting in the car at Lake Michigan, in the middle of winter I would go. I still love Lake Michigan, especially in winter, nobody was around.”
Though in many ways Chicago felt inaccessible at the time, just being aware of the city’s arts community, the possibility there, was formative. “That was something that I think really did inspire me when I was young,” she says. “I knew that close by there was just this whole other world.”
Much of Romance or The End was written in Los Angeles at the home of Kahn’s longtime friend and mentor, Kim Gordon, where she went to regroup while grieving. Gordon also designed the book’s cover. One of the artists’ signature word paintings—the title and author’s name are scrawled in dripping black ink—the artwork perfectly encapsulates the book’s tone: unsentimental and unpretty. It’s easy to see how Gordon and Kahn came to be kindred spirits—both frequently probe themes of power and desire, sometimes through opaque imagery, sometimes with an unmistakable bluntness.
The most startling work in Romance or The End, “All I Have Ever Wanted is to be Sweet,” almost perfectly bisects the book. It also serves as a turning point in both narration and tone; love’s commercial is long gone. On the poem’s first page (out of two), the lines are repetitive and grow increasingly frantic. At first, the reader is unsure what sort of scene they’re entering. It begins:
I watch his arms his face
is not thinking of his
face his body is what is
the fear can you believe in
fuck I let him watch
It is the “fear” and the “fuck” that raises our alertness; something is not right. The pacing and wordplay deftly translates trauma onto the page.
The second page makes the situation more plain, with rhyming couplets. The narrator is now “unfastened by my fail so low to speak,” their body “split to hell so quick.” Kahn’s lines are so sharp they threaten to cut you, as brutal as a knife held against your throat.
This quality, of not holding anything back, is one she tries to instill in her poetry students. “Something I say to my students a lot is don’t be afraid to be great. And by that I mean that it can be really easy to try to get yourself to say something in a way that’s lighter or smaller or not want to make claims, not want to make statements. Because you’re afraid of like, well do I have the right? Do I have the right to speak?” she says. “That’s a really critical thing to do as an artist, is to not hedge. I think you have to give everything you have to your work, and the stakes have to be very high in order for it to be really meaningful.”
She began offering poetry workshops in late 2016 through her “Poetry Field School,” which she runs out of her apartment in Los Angeles. The classes mostly take place online and are inherently political. She gives discounts for low-income folks and people of color, and recently offered discounts to people who canvassed for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.
Kahn doesn’t shy away from politics, nor does she see art as some entity that exists outside of reality. Though she doesn’t consider her writing a form of direct political action, she does try to do her part in other ways (hence the Bernie discount). Similarly, during the 2018 wildfires in California, Kahn raised money for those affected by selling handwritten poems. She very much believes everyone has skills that can be harnessed for the greater good. “Art is part of what makes life worth fighting for,” she says.
The poet certainly took her own advice with this book—Romance or The End doesn’t hold anything back. And for all its fragmentation, it doesn’t leave things without a conclusion. There is a series of poems called “Romance” which pop up throughout the book and serve as a sort of pulse. Usually brief, they are matter-of-fact but elusive, and seem to come the closest to resolution for the book’s first-person narrator. One near the end reads:
When I tell myself a story
I decide the end.
On the next page is the title poem, the last before a stunning epilogue. The poem is a series of contradictory proclamations: “There is no such thing as a true story and so there are no stories in this book”; “Everything is a story. Even the truth.”
It is the closing line that will ring with clarity for anyone who has loved and lost: “There is nothing truer in this world than the lie of love.” Here Kahn lays everything she’s learned on the table. There is no such thing as a reliable narrator. Even the stories we tell ourselves are inherently skewed. We place importance on certain events in our lives and not others, picking and choosing what elements make the most sense in the personal narrative we’re constantly constructing. When that narrative falls apart, because of tragedy or trauma or some other huge life event, disillusionment takes hold. For Kahn, the breakdown she was experiencing while putting this book together was a kind of separation between one’s self and one’s story.
“Writing this book was a way to remedy that,” she says. “I just wanted to get my story back, even if it ended up being a sad one.” v