Elaine Kahn on God-Talk, Cat-Talk, and Women in Public
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air–
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
– Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour”
A few months back, I emailed Amy and Adam about writing a column about writers and their pets. I was working a tedious temp job at an architecture school and spent most of my days reading a mixture of literary essays and Catster. On a laziness-level, I wanted to do both at the same time.
I have been an animal lover as long as I can remember liking anything. My first forays into the web were via the HorseCity.com forums, where I wrote over 5000 posts during my largely traumatic three year tenure at a Tennessee prep school.
As a child, I sought out animal books far before I was interested in the craft of writing or reading the literary canon – I loved Marguerite Henry, then The Saddle Club. I planned to emulate James Herriot’s career path, traveling the country delivering foals in the middle of the night and writing colorful memoirs about equine botulism.
As it turns out, I am not a large animal veterinarian, though I can give an OK intramuscular shot: you make a triangle with your palm, cup your finger over the horses eye. If you’re nervous, practice on oranges – the skin is tough in a similar way. Instead, I live in Los Angeles with a small, black cat (he is now sitting on my lap as I write this, but for now, he is being good, mostly letting me do it). Too, I try to look out for neighborhood strays when I can, and feel deeply attached to a collie who frequents a stoop around the block whose owners I have never met.
While I love finding a kitten curled up in the middle of a short story and digging through forum inquiries about possible nutritional benefits of the moths Joey has taken to eating, I am most fond of seeing my favorite writers share pet photos and anecdotes on social media. These remarks and images carry what I love most about poetry, transmitting minutia in powerful and interconnected ways uniquely suffused by the voice and concerns of their authors. Animal photos can be, paradoxically, deeply humanizing.
On the other hand, our pets swoosh their tails on our keyboards, demand food or play as deadlines approach, and show little or no regard for the gravity of our work. A life with animals involves many unplanned interruptions and acts of translation – as does a literary one. To me, poetry almost always feels like wanting to say the right thing in spite of shoddy tools, and what language is shoddier than none at all? Or only knowing someone’s name, and how to say no or sit, or offering food?
It’s questions like these that derail my interviews with writers. Also this one: is it time to change the litterbox?
For the inaugural Skunk Hour, I spoke with Bay Area Poet Elaine Kahn about her cats, her practice, and her new collection Women In Public.
Briefly, if you wouldn’t mind, please introduce your cats! Please include an image or images.
I have a huge smile on my face right now because it is just so nice to get to talk about my cats. Here is a picture of Cleo and Lambheart looking exactly the same.
And here is a sad face I made out by collaging a picture of Lambheart lookin horrified at the vet and a super-close up shot of a fries emoji (did you know the face on the label of the fries is a sad face??? My friend Bridget Talone told me that and now I am obsessed.)
How did you get your kitties?
A woman I knew through the OMNI had a stray cat give birth in her back yard and when I heard about it I went to take a look. They were living under a plum tree in a sunny West Oakland backyard, surrounded by wonderful, caring humans…seriously it was so idyllic. They stayed with their mom until they had naturally weaned and then I brought them home.
How would you characterize/differentiate their personalities ? (Also, feel free to include any physical appearance stuff, or anything else you would say to describe them.)
Fat Cleo is fat and has the cutest goatee. He is a little more reserved than Lambheart. He is a really good snuggler and loves to be squeezed. He even lets me use him as a pillow. Lambheart is pushier than Cleo, he doesn’t have a lot of chill. He always tries to eat my hair, which I don’t like, but he also sits on my lap like a tiny person which I do like. He has little shocks of white hair that run throughout his coat. Both of them are really sweet and extremely gentle, like they never scratch or bite me ever. Except once Lambheart bit my ear while I was asleep but I was sleeping in a hat so I don’t think he knew.
What is their relationship like? Do they ever quarrel?
No, they don’t fight. They play together and sleep together and groom each other.
I’ve been home sick with strep throat the past few days and have gotten to see some of the weird things my cat Joey does to amuse himself during the day – he plays these involved, conspiratorial games where he pretends someone is about to sneak up on him. He also likes to catch moths and of course knock things off counters and run away scared. How do your cats spend their days? What are some of their weird kitty pastimes or habits?
Well, my cats are outdoor cats so they mostly spend their days lying in my back yard. Cleo is obsessed with hair bands and seems to be able to ferret them out no matter where I put them. Lambs is more into crumpled up paper. Both love to catch (and eat) moths, though I do try to prevent this because I love moths.
I’d love to hear more about your process composing the poems in Women In Public.
I write a lot and take a lot of notes about all sorts of different things and then I obsessively edit and adjust, reading the text out loud over and over again until the music is right. Or right enough.
Where do you tend to write most? When you write at home, do they get or try to get involved? Are they keyboard sitters (Joey is)?
I write in bed. Neither of them are keyboard sitters but they both have their own ways of being mildly annoying. Cleo likes to sit on my chest and Lambheart likes to rest his head on my shoulder.
Have your cats ever appeared as characters in your work (feel free to include poems, or links)? Or in some other, less overt way?
Cleo and Lambheart have not made it into any of my writing yet, though they do star in many instagram videos. But my old cat Hitchcock was all over my poetry. When he was hit by a car I wrote a 60 page dirge in mourning. it has never been published. I also wrote a musical about him called “Orange!”
Though I haven’t spotted any feline-specific shout-outs in Women in Public, you invoke animals numerous times throughout the collection: horse-eyes, sea-birds, dog-girl, rabbit-y face, human characters voiced in animal-squawks.
In “Sixty Five Percent of What I Throw Away Is Compost”, you say:
The bunnies and the poets
were born to die
before the king
What do these lines mean to you?
I never know how to explain lines beyond what I have written…I guess I was thinking about doom. I grew up surrounded by animals. We had chickens, turkeys, quails, dogs, turtles, cockatiels, bunnies, snakes, gerbils…actually pretty much everything but cats. If anyone in town ever found an injured animal they would bring it over to my family’s house and we would try (and usually fail) to nurse it back to health. We had a pet grackle that had fallen out of a tree as a fledgling. It lived completely in the wild but would come flying and land on your shoulder if you called it. Then it got hit by a car, because it wasn’t afraid of cars. Basically, animal life and death was a big part of my formative years.
What value do you find in looking to animals and animal consciousness as a metaphor in your work?
I didn’t know how to answer this question so I asked my boyfriend what a metaphor was and he quoted me my own poem and then started talking about etymology. I seem to have trouble understanding what makes metaphor unique from other kinds of speech.
Women In Public is filled with invocations of saints and deities. In the poem “God was the way it was” you begin “was born a dog-girl” which reminds me of an embroidery someone else’s parents had in their home saying that Dog is God spelled backwards. How do think of the connection between animals and spirituality, in terms of this poem or on a larger scale?
Yes, there is quite a bit of incongruous god-talk in my writing. Truth is, I was raised to be a heathen. Like, my parents would argue because my mom was an atheist and my dad was agnostic and my mom would be like “if you do not know for sure there is no god then you are a pussy.” But then in sixth grade my mom made me get confirmed because she thought it would be a good, free, bible lit class, and that appealed to her. However, it all backfired, because they taught me about hell and it was like, this really traumatic thing. I became very afraid and mesmerized by the idea of hell and it ended up leading to a prolonged period of rebellious Christianity. That doesn’t really answer your question, sorry.
Many of your poems confront ideas about self-love, self-reflection and the meaning and/or harm that might come out of our self-aware way of being in the world. I’m thinking specifically of the lines:
I’d like everyone
to put down their bran muffin for a
moment and consider the peace that comes
from staring into the eyes of a dog.
Also, the poem “Water, Lightness, Puberty. Tiredness. Shut.” in which the speaker’s mom essentially says, be less self-aware. Animals are not self-aware. What do you think we can learn from their minds and way of living?
One of the things I appreciate about relationships with animals is that there is no expectation of equality and I find that to be relaxing. I care for my cats; I feed them and take them to the vet and clean up their shit. I do so with the understanding that they are never going to, like, get me back by doing all the dishes one night. And that is AOK. I don’t know, maybe animals teach us that self-love is not the same as self-serving? And actually that’s carried through to the other piece you mention Water, Lightness, Puberty. Tiredness. Shut. In that poem I don’t think the speaker is being advised to be less self-aware, rather to be less self-satisfied. To me, that poem is, most basically, thinking about unacknowledged, unending hard work, and the ways in which it can be meaningful…ugh…I am from the Midwest, can’t shake it.
You just went on a tour – I’d love if you’d share a highlight and/or a low light.
Tour was great. I was traveling with my partner, Kit Schluter, and we happened to be floating around the east coast at the same time as fellow Oakland poet Brandon Brown. Getting to hear great poets read their work night after night is such a gift, you really get a sense of their voice. That was definitely the highlight. Both Kit and Brandon have new books that everyone should check out—Kit just did this gorgeous translation of Jaime Saenz’s long poem The Cold (Poor Claudia) and BB has the amazing Top 40 (Roof). Low light was for sure that I got really sick and ended up in the emergency room after having a 102 degree fever for 5 days.
What was it like returning to your kitties after?
Your music project is called horsebladder – since this is a column about animals and why/how we talk about them, I was wondering if you might describe where that name came from.
The name is a nod to the insanely great Jamaican drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. I don’t really know why I chose it. I started out wanting to be a drummer, and instead learned no instruments. I guess what I like about the name “Horsebladder”…is the way it fills your mouth up with sounds in a way that is almost vulgar. But then it’s also really tender, and that’s fitting for the project.
- Elaine Kahn on God-Talk, Cat-Talk, and Women in Public - May 11, 2015