An interview with Elena Karina Byrne

Elena Karina Byrne is a freelance editor, lecturer, Programming Consultant & Poetry Stage Manager for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and Literary Programs Director for the Ruskin Art Club. Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry recipient, Elena’s fifth poetry collection is titled If This Makes You Nervous (Omnidawn, 2021). Poems, reviews, and interviews can be found in Poem-a-Day, Plume, POETRY, The Paris Review, The Adroit Journal, Los Angeles Review of Books, Kenyon Review, BOMB, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Oxford Review of Books, Interlitq, Narrative, NPR/KNAU Poetry Snaps for Morning Edition & All Things Considered, numerous anthologies, and elsewhere. She is now writing screenplays while completing her collection of hybrid essays entitled Voyeur Hour.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Describe for us what it was like for you to grow up in an artistic environment?

Father taught my brother and me how to draw, and more importantly, how to “see.” Father, born in 1908 (20 years older than Mom), was an auto-didact, full of humour and a passion for life. An expert draughtsman from an early age, he worked as the head of the drawing departments for Otis Art Institute & Chouinard Art Institute. He also taught Disney animators anatomy. After retirement, he continued teaching figure drawing for UCLA & Angels Gate Cultural Center. Before we moved to London when I was thirteen, Mother and Father shared a large art studio in downtown LA where he created large bent wood sculptures, and she made large scale abstract paintings. My mother was movie-star beautiful and a brilliant, dedicated painter––high-strung, sometimes neurotic, but generous, and loving. Our house was filled with books, art (contemporary and old) and not much furniture! When Father was not teaching, he spent time doing research. Mother continually painted––principally, large canvases. I often made art while sitting next to her. However, as a “Tom-boy” from the age of six, I played (ran, played games, climbed, explored, built forts) outside every day, until dark. As a family (with my brother who was 5½ years older), we travelled often…to NYC & Europe mostly. When I was seven, on a family trip to Rome, Dad announced we were going to see the Sistine Chapel, to which I replied, “I’ve already seen sixteen chapels!” By the time I was nine years old, I was a veteran observer.

The image-immersive art world that I was exposed to, certainly paved the way to my being a poet. I attended many contemporary, conceptual & abstract art openings and performances (likely because Mom didn’t trust most babysitters), not to mention inappropriate films like Easy Rider, Little Big Man, Midnight Cowboy…I found these adult experiences as compelling as they were confusing. Imagine a child watching Chris Burden throw lit matches at a naked woman on the floor. Thank goodness my mother was willing to engage with these conversations; I may not have possessed the vocabulary to express my perceptions, but I can say that my mother created a positive platform from which I could explore the intuitive intellect. Language and image became inseparable…a wonderful enticement for collage. It’s no wonder the stoic logic of math escaped me!

Who were you when you were young? Were you shy or extrovert? How has this played into your writing?

I like this question! From preschool until 8th grade (those shaky early and pre-teen years) I was a confused mix of wholly shy and extrovert: In school, I was acutely aware of and distressed by other children’s cruelty. Often picked on, I also watched and ‘took care of’ the other kids who were being left out or treated unkindly. Kindness can be taught, so my parent’s attentive love paved the way. Like all kids, I desperately wanted to be included, especially in the boys’ games and fun. This didn’t go down well for a “skinny-bones-jones, big mouth (huge mouth for my small face)” girl…especially since I won all the races until I was 14. I write in bursts, and I think of poems and essays as akin to sprinting or collaborative sports. Basketball, for example—you see the whole court at once, in motion, and all the parts, all the players work together to enable the next basket, the final resolution.

In contrast to that gentle withholding and capitulating willingness to stand back as a little girl…I was also hyperactive, and this translated into unstoppable energy, and athleticism. When I was three, I asked for a chin-up bar like my brother’s. I loved nature, especially the sea, animals, stuffed animals, and art materials, hated dolls, wanted to wear the same clothes as my brother…I was the fearless leader in exploring neighbouring backyards, even houses! Look, don’t touch. I wanted to run away and live with a Native American tribe. I loved sports of all kinds––some of this must have been genetic, of course––and became a ferocious athlete: 3-time grade school Presidential Physical Fitness Award winner, high school Best Athlete Award, MVP in basketball, volleyball, baseball, and all-state championship sprinter & hurdler. How does this all translate into writing? Energy, in-the-zone focus, and sheer will. Poetry is movement and the pleasure movement of sounds…then becomes the movement of the spirit-mind.

Describe for us your writing process.

I should say I enter the room of a poem backwards—deliberately so. Poets create their own metaphoric philosophy and principles in engaging with the world. No surprise, too: I warm up—like an athlete––which is to say, surround myself with books (not just poetry) on the bed, desk, or floor, randomly read them, let language occupy my body first, until a quote, an object, phrase or reference triggers a connection! It is an empathic act of translation; like a method actor, I want to become inseparable from that new voice I have chosen, from memory and its sensory effects. The process is physiological, a sensual entanglement, an erotic energized, cooperative push and pull…animated consciousness without anticipating the results. That is, until later.

Revision is critical and its own hungry beast. The revision process allows us to better target themes, rehearse the musical persuasions, and find historical connections with the personal. Then I ask myself if the language/image story is surprising and makes sense…that being said, I know many of my poems are not easy because they are so layered—my over-enthusiasm? The lyrical impulse dominates, yet I have recently found a new fondness for personal narrative, as long as another outside revelation comes into play. Dear friend, poet William Wadsworth reminded me of the heart-stopping prose from Gustave Flaubert’s poetic mind in Madame Bovary: “as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors; since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance, when we long to inspire pity in the stars.”

Artists are criticized for their solipsism, yet don’t we look for, in all forms of art and entertainment, science, religion, and education––look for the answers and recognition from the unanswered, the ineffable, as we do from real life? The quandary of being an imperfect human who belongs to a planet of other animals and humans becomes a strange joy for the artist. In our case, we are lucky to say it is also a profession. I am as convinced, as my father often declared, that we would be a far better world if civilization continued to include and equally value creative intelligence and development in its educational practices.

Your poems are lyrically complex and multi-layered. Some of them challenge the limits of language. How important is it to you to be understood by your readers in terms of trying to strike a balance between giving the reader some information, in the form of notes, and leaving the rest up to the imagination?

I love the material of language (Roland Barthes said, “language is a skin,” and I say, so too, is it like clay in our hands). Language is our sixth sense, our tool of empowerment as “handwriting fits to the form of its passion.” (Jorie Graham) Words create gravitational fields of occasion and collision. I love the problem-solving adventure of making a personal poem from raw material as it co-mingles with outside research sources and collective influences. I don’t mean to be obtuse, however, I guess I’ve set a standard for myself regarding the inventive complexity of making a well-written poem or unique piece of art. I have found my own means by which to associate and reassociate, divert, and weave subject matter. It’s a fun challenge and natural for me…like speaking in another tongue, like putting together a thematic photo album, like leaving a puzzle trail of clues all over the house.

Now that I have an MFA in screenwriting, I’ve discovered a whole new relationship to language. This compels me to explore further, find a form of representation that is still visually and emotionally compelling but not quite so abstract…like an artist who has moved through different style periods of painting. We evolve and change; our work hopefully follows. I have always asserted there’s a deep connection between film and poetry––not just because they are both visual mediums, but something else that involves inception, approach, and process, the physics of what cinematographer Walter Murch describes as “previsualized and improvisational.” In his conversation with Michael Ondaatje (The Conversations), he says, “I paint the space between my eye and the object.” Visual collaboration and cadence; action and “whoever holds the narrative ball.” Good dialogue avoids being too ‘on the nose;’ poetry avoids easy clichés. Dialogue is revealing, full of subtext and emotion in the same way imagery, syntax, and word choice stand in for the speaker’s state of mind and give us an idea of where we might end up. I love whodunit mysteries, like the series Endeavour…key word here: mystery.

One of my favourite poems from your first collection The Flammable Bird is “Origin of Bees.” I notice that bees make their appearance in several other places throughout all of your collections. Tell us about your fascination with bees and how they have come to play a part in your poetry.

I’m so happy you mentioned that first book poem– one of my favourites too, despite being so old! I’ll begin by saying I was terrified of bees as a child. Mother said it was pre-conscious, because, while pregnant with me, she picked a peach covered in bees who stung her several times. Likely wasps not bees…Anyway, I imagined that their loud, dizzy flight meant they wanted to hover over the flowers of my ears and enter! As an adult I forced myself to confront this irrational fear while living with a friend in Bath, England. She housed a hive in the back garden. They’re our saviours, one of the many geniuses, interrelated species keeping us alive. Now, I adore them, talk to them, and want to protect them––I have many wild, bee-friendly plants on my hills. I have yet to pet a bumblebee!

“Origin of Bees” was my first research-based, longer poem. My first rant. It felt axiomatic, felt like a synesthetic revelation and reverence, a feverish ode to bees. Like my ekphrastic poems in If This Makes You Nervous, I immersed myself in knowing as much as I could about bees and bee history before writing. I clenched “my teeth tight on their wax/Their verse” and followed delight’s “bewildering in the body.” A subtextual story arose (“What propagates the self from the self?”) and took off from there…

I admire the way you take a word and play with it like a cat chasing a mouse. I am thinking here of your focus on the word ‘relentless’ in ‘The Proportion of Broken’ and ‘remote’ in the poem of the same name. Does inspiration sometimes come to you through a single word as opposed to a specific theme or a work of art?

You caught me. YES! I suppose they provide secret doors and windows… I’m all about Stanley Kunitz’ assertion that “words are so erotic they never tire of their coupling.” These poems from Flammable Bird provided hints of what I wanted to further explore in other books. For example, most of the poems in Masque, were inspired by a single quote. It was my fevered book of persona poems, my freedom book to write about anything…in the voice of, and from the country of the unknown, there I made my fire.

Tell us something about your second book, ‘Masque’. What was the motivation behind it and how you came to structure the whole collection around the various meanings (and spellings) of this word.

I saw my first book as a simple collection of poems. I wanted something more, some artifice or thematic structure that would not only provide an organizing principle for the new book but might also give me permission to explore new voices, to entangle the relationships between I, she, you, we.... I quoted Kierkegaard in my first book “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” perhaps because I wanted to write about him and because my marriage started to fall apart. In Maggie Nelson’s 2021 book On Freedom, reminds us of the Heidegger connection to that quote and makes a great point: “it’s more that, in so far as indeterminacy––which is a form of freedom, i.e., the freedom of not knowing what’s going to happen next––allows for ‘what if?’ thinking…” (254) and like her, I too, am in the game.

Do you remember your first ever published work?

Hmmm not the first, oddly. I remember waiting to send out (some crazy idea there was no rush and being hard on myself) … and I remember the first two years brought in good results: California Quarterly, Mid-American Review, POETRY, Jacaranda Review, Ohio Review, Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of American Poetry… I chose magazines I was familiar with or liked and went from there. What I tell my students and clients: never undersell yourself—know your magazines; it’s a somewhat of a crap shoot, so just keep sending.

What projects are you working on now?

When I’m not editing and teaching, I turn to my own work. These days, I must admit I’m only writing screenplays (my own limited series and one that was commissioned) or editing my essay collection. In part, because I’m so excited to be working in a new genre and because film has occupied my thinking for so long…close friend, poet Cathy Colman and I often discuss the interwoven visual and verbal inner workings of cinema—a healthy diet of old and new, series and films. Echoes and overlaying complexities, and how it all comes together as a thrilling collaborative invention...I want to woo and be wooed. This means letting go of ego, and being faithful to the art. Occasionally, an ecopoem or family poem arrives. I imagine I will be better inspired to create a new poetry book, once I locate my creative intentions (and interventions)—for a different kind of passionate wrangle with the story we call life.

The following poem is printed with the author’s permission:

In any case, the discovery that fruit flies sleep…

– Patricia S. Churchland, Touching a Nerve:

The Self as Brain.

tells us something about that 8-year-old boy, his somnambulist’s lack of reason

for a blind bargain, for sleepwalking right out of the house to open the pig pen’s

gate… to letting them go like an anthem. Just when we assumed all thinking was

tied to daylight, where the sleight of hand language enters us, consider the 1500’s

phrase, pig in a poke, a cat out of the bag. Like my brother who ran for his life from

our front door, then stopped at the dark’s dugout canoe, more than once. Secrets

have a way of rising with sleep. Whoever fell down this dark well, wandered into

the wrong neighborhood dream. Whoever sings like an overripe pomace fly,

vinegar fly, wine fly, must remember Darwin points to how remarkably ancient,

evolutionarily speaking, sleep is
when you forget you’re no more than a child from

parents, a larkspur cluster of stars, one state of mind, and a stupefied animal brain’s

bad habit dredged from the same Horsefly Lake: You’ll find the familiar ancestor’s

click of the tongue in your dozing first cousin, same mothershed shut eyes, and that

flinch of wind passing through the plum trees like a second insight to who you are.


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