profiles in poetics: Elena Karina Byrne

Elena Karina Byrne


Elena Byrne is an assertive actuating poet who intimates, “I write and think like a sprinter”. Writing in transits of translation, she exposes a disengaging spirit, an “exotic explorer of the extraordinary, utilizing the beautiful mundane”. When asked to explain these transmuting experiences and how she as a writer is able to attentively shift these expressions, she describes her poems as “installations in a performance art setting–– they are live objects animated and embodied (made as part of the body) by the voice”. The expression is “physical,–– it’s erotic,” it is a balance of varying subtexts of power.

In this interview, Byrne exposes intuitive insight into our perceptions of truth. “Truth has a lively changing face,” argues Kafka, and this face Byrne invites, is a “wild cauldron of humanity with its many versions”. She elucidates that art is “lucid dreaming, waking dreams, hallucinatory clarity and all the oxymoron’s that exist as reminders that consciousness cannot exist on merely one plane and must be interrupted.” For Byrne, the “visibility” of women writers is what she sees as increasing in significance over the past twenty years. She confides, “it’s strange and necessary to even say that… But the stranger is endowed with hyper-awareness…the desire to be known means destabilizing what is expected of you.” Byrne imparts with us resonating wisdom: “art counteracts… it is remedy and opposes remedy…your word: access! It creates access.”

Former 12 year Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America, Elena Karina Byrne is a freelance teacher, editor, collage artist, Poetry Consultant / Moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a Contributing Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, a reviewer for ForeWord’s Clarion Reviews, Literary Programs Director for The Ruskin Art Club and the new Executive Director of AVK Arts. Her work has appeared in numerous publications. Her books include: The Flammable Bird , (Zoo Press /Tupelo Press 2002), MASQUE (Tupelo Press, 2008) and the forthcoming Burnt Violin (Tupelo Press, 2012), and Voyeur Hour: Poetry, Art and Desire (essays, Tupelo Press, 2013).

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

At 14 I decided to become a writer … my parents and brother were artists, the majority of my cultural upbringing was centered in art. I found myself wanting to translate the visual world and in doing so, discovered language as an art of my own. I believe my mother first gave me copies of Edna St Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, Neruda, and Keats. I was one of those outdoor-till-dusk Tom Boy kids, and not an avid reader until late in life. However, I was lucky enough to attend private schools from the age of 10, which meant great literature was required reading and that also started the real fire in the belly.

At Sarah Lawrence College my favorite writers changed with need and desire…O, I loved (and still do) Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Wallace Stevens, Delmore Schwartz, and Heather McHugh, Jane Hirshfield, Mekeel McBride, Laura Jensen, Gregory Orr, and early Louise Gluck and Tess Gallagher, an unknown poet named Thomas James, and also …my professors Thomas Lux, Jane Cooper (who compared my work with Tomas Transtromer!), Galway Kinnell… Jean Valentine, Carolyn Forche, early Jorie Graham, early Brenda Hillman, Barbara Hamby…I was lucky enough to hear the brilliant Susan Sontag lecture.

I became friends with Irish poet Desmond O’Grady in Boston while having my “Junior Year Abroad.” He re-introduced me to the Irish poets and Anna Akhmatova with whom he read in Spoleto Italy. My Gosh, the great old long loves: Hopkins, Sappho and Shakespeare. To see and hear with the whole body! Sometimes I wanted to saturate myself in the language, other times I wanted to mimic constructs and forms of breath; my hunger for the visual representations of the intellectual and emotional life never wavered.

I think we often tend to re-visit old loves, but find new ones, new ballasts… I did not love Whitman or Dickinson until much later, same for Marriane Moore…then I was flooded with contemporary writers and tried to digest as much as possible, along with the surrealists, more great modern poets, more Spanish and Eastern European writers, anything to disengage my usual modes of thinking and hearing… Whether we love or dislike something, it seems some kind of disengagement has to happen. 

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Hmmm Well, either directly or indirectly… taking me under their wing, or giving me long-time inspiration of one kind or another:  Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Thomas Lux, Galway Kinnell, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Sherod Santos, Lynne Emanuel, Gillian Conoley, Forest Gander, Agha Shahid Ali, and my dear friends, poets like Cathy Colman, Gail Wronsky, Brendan Constantine, Bill Wadsworth, David St John, Angie Estes, Lynne Thompson, Kathy Fagan, Molly Bendall, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Sholeh Wolpe, Sarah Maclay, and Amy Newlove Schroeder… and my students!! To name just a very few of many … this makes me insane because I know I’ll think of so many more…that’s what it’s all about, one by one inspiration.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

My first book was a typical first book carrying the variety of poems and topics that were merely a result of hard labor contained within a 15 year passion… Family, Self, The Other…. Clichés are abhorrent, so I think my work has always been centralized in startling imagery and any physical surprise set against the language boundary— abstract ideas and themes have evolved through the emergence of the work itself…projects, that seem so dominant in the last book Masque and in the forthcoming new book, This Accomplice, have a mind of their own at first, then my mind re-exerts its power in formal uses of research and revision. Forms of address have also changed in my work, … from monologue’s rhythmic-like voice, to long weaves, to remaking the fuge with truncated bursts, a corpus choir and a distanced narrator… Now I think, in order to truly keep myself motivated and complacent-free, I shall challenge myself to try something entirely new for the fourth book of poems… we are exotic explorers of the extraordinary, utilizing the beautiful mundane. I suppose we can never truly re-invent ourselves, or our voice, but we can certainly try to shake things up a bit!

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I love the great classic novelists, and in fact loved  teaching A.P English for that reason, but right now, writing a novel seems out of the question… I was a sprinter… I write and think like a sprinter.

Currently, I am writing a book of essays on art, poetry and desire because I love the art of non-fiction! I love reading it, I love writing it and my process is much the same as some of my own poetry writing process: a form of collage, of collection and puzzle-piece-this-together. I find non-fiction, despite its linear requirements,  can be as wonderfully alarming and creative unfolding its discoveries, as poetry… the times when expository flare can grab you between breathing, thinking, and feeling.

Visual art, conceptual art, performance art…have also re-appeared in my life in a big way. So many women artists, with whom I share similar concerns and ideation-focus, have made me want to return to making art:  my mother who was a wild painter, Ann Hamilton whose piece is on the cover of my second book (the first book is my own cover art work), Sophie Callie and Hannah Hoch especially…

5.)    In your essay “Father,” you write, “how quickly we see what we feel.” This reflection is attached to the sentiments you have looking at a sketch drawn by your father. Can you elaborate on the relationship between image and what we feel, whether this be body, mind, spirit, or all of the above? How have you utilized your experience with visual art in your poetry? 

Father’s drawing he made as a four-year-old boy represented/ reflected the future-father I knew as a man and artist. Image and feeling represent measures of temporality, the perceptual engagement with the worlds we know: the one we live in, the one we imagine, the ones presented to us by others, etc. Time is a material we move in and out of and it seems it can be slowed down and sped up by our experiences. The image and written word, the feeling and the objects all seem to be in a timeless motion when presented to us as art. Looking at that drawing, I believed what I saw was synonymous with what I felt. There’s a spontaneous narrative, visual and verbal, that recreates both the familiar and the unfamiliar…if you’re lucky, you get a bit of both. The process of seeing presents marvelous predicaments of conjunction and disjunction. Sometimes this involves translation of what we see, or it involves a hybrid projection of intellect and feeling, and certainly involves intuitive, non-cognitive understanding. Our memory effects/gives affect to our present-tense perceptions, don’t you think?

I’d like to think of my poems as being like installations in a performance art setting–– they are live objects animated and embodied (made as part of the body) by the voice. A doctor once told me that my poems were like trances and gave him the sensation that he was reading a Picasso. I knew which Picasso period he meant, LOL.

6.)    What are you plans for the future?

This Accomplice will be out in late 2012. My essay book, Voyeur Hour will appear in late 2013.

I am completing a new chapbook, will work on another new/new poetry book, and continue reviewing, editing, etc. I plan, I hope, to paint/collage and make boxes again…sigh…all of this in addition to curatorial work and many arts collaborative projects as Executive Director of AVK Arts, a quiet but noteworthy new foundation!

7.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

In America? On the international stage? 20 years is not that long ago..

Well, I think, despite or because of the “older white male dominance” of the past, women are coming up with some of the most innovative books written so far. I’d like to say I see more, than ever before, “visibility” for women writers. It’s strange and necessary to even say that…Sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own past…I say my own as a collective “our own.”

But the stranger is endowed with hyper-awareness…the desire to be known means destabilizing what is expected of you. So, I think women have managed to create a broader field of play within the writing genres. They offer new configurations of alarm and subtle variations within each… Twenty years has spawned an amazing flood of new, powerful, feverish minds. I’d like to think the growing appearance, in film and television, of strong female leading protagonists, is a universal trend that can be found in all the arts.

8.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Oh boy—so many, let’s see if I can shake the old brain until some coins fall out… besides the already aforementioned: Kelli Anne Nofltle, Medbh McGuckian, Karla Kelsey, Rebecca Wolfe, Claudia Rankin, Dorothy Baresi, Vanessa Place, Carol Ann Davis, Anna Journey, Victoria Chang, Dina Hardy, Robin Ekiss…

9.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

A Threshold Lyricist? In her essay “Facing, Touch and Vertigo,” Susan Stewart describes touch as a “threshold activity” that “traverses the boundary between interiority and exteriority.” I say that’s a pretty good description of what I hope to do with poetry. It’s physical,–– it’s erotic.

I am not a language poet, not a narrative poet, not a surrealist, nor a confessional poet, yet my lyricism devises a balancing act between all of those. I love Ann Hamilton’s idea of “arrested animation” as one description of what I attempt. There are things one wants to watch out for. Too much attention to the physical on the page mechanics of language bores and kills, especially if the breakdown of what is really being said is ordinary… However beautiful they may be, one also can get lost in sound poems, like drifting out to ocean in an open boat. Images (the inexhaustible frame by frame life we know and create) are key to me, but they really shift the vantage point of the poem when fevered by persuasions of thought and sound. Music and image drive the nail into the heart. I hope all the tools I use are available and capable of change as I am. I am always looking for a reciprocal pursuit, and finally a fresh positioning in each language variant. I love diverting the subject matter while keeping the theme’s feeling intact… sometimes emotional/visual cohesion saves a subject that seems indefinable. My forthcoming poetry book takes directions that are deliberately confounded–– this helped with the fact that the fable poems, for example, contain multiple meanings found and created for each single word title. The concordances double the voice (mine and the other’s) in a new context created by the conversation-weave… it was an open/close /open action.

10.) The epigraph of your poem, “Artifice is Enough: Mask,” a quote from Oscar Wilde reads, “Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.” Truth takes place as a wonderfully mutating breath of language that beautifully bleeds in the inconsistency of language and the transition of music. Can you describe your perception of truth and how you use melopoeia, logopoeia, and phanopoeia to investigate / illuminate these concepts?

In Steven’s book, The Necessary Angel he says, “The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe it willingly.” As you may have also noticed the quote in my first book: Kafka said the truth has a lively changing face, so one can imagine celebrating (logopoeia’s  “dance of the intellect”) not only the natural inconsistency of language, but also the subtext-influence of visuality, musicality that drives a poem toward an unexpected place. Imagine that changing face is this wild cauldron of humanity with its many versions of many religions, desires, abilities, fallacies and truths, and, and it many ways of perceiving.  One might argue truth is chained to a certain undeniable logic, but the universe defies that assumption, and so too, the poet willingly hopes to defy it.

Pound’s “phanopoeia” speaks of “throwing a visual image on the mind..” which is, in my  truth-experience, kind of backwards, since it’s the mind that is throwing out the visual image…having had two babies I can tell you we first find our way through the visual world, then we sound and vowel our way toward language, listening, touching, all becoming part of the same announcement of our being in the world. I sometimes have to battle with my natural urge to make music persuade the subject…it’s seduction and persuasion…

11.) Marty Williams in “What the Fire Said,” her review in SOLO 6, 2003 states that your “poems best are mercurial and possessed enjambment through a tumult of images and ideas that surprise and arrest. Even the poems primarily driven by formal experimentation exhibit substance and power.” Can you please describe how you utilize experimentation? Do you believe this to be alienating to the reader? How do you achieve the balance between your experimentation with language while continuing to infuse it with “substance and power”?

Arresting imagery requires substantive power to make it work… Experimentation for its own sake is a waste of time, masterbatory…

Some of my favorite poems are fairly plainspoken. I struggle with this, especially when I am asked to read my work to young kids. I look at it and say : Arrg, this is too dense! I may have to challenge myself with the task of making the work undress more, show more flesh… I don’t try to be mercurial, but I do find weaving and tethering to be a keen part of the beauty of writing. I love to push my language to new ledges, precipices of fresh word combinations, of tangential relationships, always asking myself, how I can “see” differently, how can I enter the poem and its subject?

I hope readers will walk away with some measure of recognition, discovery and delight.

12.) Can you speak to the use of surprise and juxtaposition, the concept of time, and the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity? How does this manifest in your work?

I hope I don’t repeat myself here. Thought is time and it is subjective, even though the objective tries to contain thought. With juxtaposition, the shifting attention arouses our investigative need to know, to know more…vertigo, entropy and misadventure realign meaning. The poems sometimes present themselves as an indiscriminate list, a totem…

It seems relevant, especially now that I feel I should try to get more “personal” (Yikes, alas, ugg!) in my work and the challenge is, of course how to do that without being solipsistic or boring, or ordinary or confessional LOL …I tell my young students again and again, they are what makes the work fresh. Universality arises out of our choices of specificity. There are only so many subjects to talk about, but an infinite variety of ways in which to present the feeling, the facts, the perceptions… I’m fascinated by the intimate-impersonal of say, facebook and twitter… I realize my work contains some of that, not deliberately by the way, at least not at first… The tone and forms of address, the levels of emotion, all feel personally intimate, yet so often they are contained in a persona or poly-vocal situation. It’s empowering to become someone/something else and speak through that person. You could say objectively my shirt is blue, but then I say, no its dead parrot blue, its my first ocean blue, it’s a sexual blue…there (here) is the subjective curve of the earth.

My best friend says I straddle emotional and intellectual word play at once. I “see” juxtaposed relationships often before I see the familiar alignments. I was a superb student, but I always felt my brain functioning was a little askew! Thank god I found a profession that celebrates that. Now I push myself toward surprise as a necessary part of revelation… and even when I don’t want a poem to contain any notable revelation, I still want it to offer some new mode of seeing, some new energy with which a reader can bring into their body. Juxtaposition surprises new understanding.

13.) In your essay, “Incongruity,” you affirm, “Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote — evolved from within consciousness itself.” Can you explain how you personally access this space and / or lack of space and how our unconscious plays into this discussion?

We utilize our intuitive mind and it can co-function with the logical mind, and with the illogical mind-set… if consciousness was like a room full of doors and windows from which our “other” minds, unconscious, subconscious etc., could enter. Think: lucid dreaming, waking dreams, hallucinatory clarity and all the oxymoron’s that exist as reminders that consciousness cannot exist on merely one plane and must be interrupted… the interconnected parts of a body, and so on… art counteracts… it is remedy and opposes remedy…your word: access! It creates access.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s