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10 Questions for Elena Karina Byrne

A god, speaking to anyone
who wants to listen, paints apart
this person from that limb, this ceiling
from that sky, this mouth inside a child’s mouth
like those TV puppets that scared
me, sitting wood-jaw & vertebra upright in the lap.
—from “The Neighbor’s Dog Would Not Stop Barking”, Spring 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 1)


Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I presume you mean when did I first start writing poetry? I was twelve. I had a marvelous teacher that brought the imagination into the classroom. Before that, it resided in the art room, at home, and in museums. So, my first poem turned out to be like a painting. Then, fast forward, some bad stuff in 8th grade, then high school and onto Sarah Lawrence College.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
That, of course, is constantly changing. As a recent Kate & Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award final judge for three years, I found I was profoundly influenced by those writers, many of them new to me. I especially love the geographical power of the heart and headlong identity within Vievee Francis’ work, Rickey Laurentis’ fresh approach toward subject matter, Patricia Smith’s astounding lyrical music and subject-depth risk, Ross Gay’s grace, Danez Smith’s utter unexpected! Angie Estes, an old friend, because of a shared love of language and its source place, research, bringing a poem full-circle from surprise if one can, as she so artfully (and heart-fully) can. So many other old friends like Brendan Constantine & Kim Dower (wow hang onto your socks), Molly Bendall who writes like no one else, Cathy Colman who should be acknowledged everywhere too… I could go on an on. I have two anthologies/ magazines I’ve edited coming out that I hope will highlight some of these writers known and unknown, new and coming to light.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be an artist until I was 13…then a poet! For a glimmering moment I thought about being an actress and a model because an agency tried to sign me. I also thought of being a professional athlete; I won best athlete in high school and was being recruited by many universities (I was MVP in basketball, volleyball, a softball pitcher and I ran in the All-State Championships in track).

What inspired you to write this piece?
I can’t say it was inspired as my other works (which were either inspired by a quote or engendered by the language itself). It began with an emotion, the overriding feeling of fear behind the driver seat of the poem. This poem is part of a newer series that I forced upon myself to write about real-life experiences from my childhood…not something I have done very often or feel comfortable doing. Of course, I cheated a little by bringing in an adult memory of the sheep shearing and adult commentary into the picture. Many of my memories come from this pre-teen time period in my life. We lived in an affluent neighborhood of strange characters, and the polaroid moments are only now coming alive in my two new books.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I have never considered myself to be a geographically-influenced writer, however, you will find a great deal of sea/ocean imagery in my work. We had a beach home and I “lived” in the water as a child, and to this day, I am obsessed with sea life, oceans, ocean health, and deep-sea creatures. I cry when I see whales, octopuses, jellyfish, dolphins, and the stranger the creature, the better. My daughter and her husband insist on taking me to an ocean to scuba dive for my 60th next year. I said, “what if I cry underwater and choke? or scare them away!?”

I truly believed, as a child, I could become a Native American…I only wore jeans, tees, moccasins and a fringe jacket. Finally, I got to go to camp in Arizona, but they made me dress like a cowboy. Harrumph!

Imagined, yes…ancient cultures, anything, everything I research, Italy, especially.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I surround myself with chaos sometimes, loud pop music, classical or blues, old rock, especially from the 60’s. I’m like a puppy that way—it calms me and yet gets my internal engine going. I like being distracted, disoriented—it’s how my brain puzzle-pieces together best. Entropy creates cohesion for me. But then sometimes I want something like Brian Eno’s music for airports! It’s what you might imagine elevator music in space would be like when you are hallucinating.  Then I need days away from a poem before I can edit. I pretend I didn’t write it and ask myself to reenter the subject differently, see it from another angle as an artist would a literal object.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I row toward the subject or I battle for it. I surround myself and I sample-read many, many books as a warm up for the brain. Not necessarily poetry. I work on the bed. I used to work on the floor, but it’s hard on the back & knees. Sometimes I work in my garden first, clean a room, or paint, because drawing & painting sweeps my mind clear and causes me to breathe differently.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
When I am not writing poetry or essays: painting and montage. I wish I could make films, art films too. Life is too short!!

What are you working on currently?
I am finishing my fourth book Phantom Limbs for Omnidawn (due 2021)—an ekphrastic, loose sonnet book of poems on artists (the majority, contemporary). It weaves together my personal stories and political meditations with some art elements from each artist. They have surprised me and I’ve never published poems so fast.

I am also putting together a chapbook of published poems for What Books Press—I’m a board member, and as a writer’s “collective” who also publishes outside writers nationally it is understood all the talented board members will eventually publish some work. It is called No, Don’t.

 If I could hire someone to kick my ass, I want to finish my essay book this year as well: Voyeur Hour: Meditations on Poetry Art & Desire!

What are you reading right now?
As I said, I guess I’m always reading too many books at once…I just got the HUGE stack of poetry books for the LA Times Festival (what a  happy range of authors!) so I’m reading those, as well as What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe, When Einstein Walked with Godel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought by Jim Holt, The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn, Susan Stuart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Daniel S Lucks’ Selma to Saigon, Ross Gay’s new short essays Book of Delights, Enrique Martínez Celaya’s On Art and Mindfulness, and all of Ann Hamilton’s art books and books about her art (again! for my essay).


ELENA KARINA BYRNE is the author of three books, including Squander. She is a freelance professor, editor, poetry consultant/moderator for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and Literary Programs Director for The Ruskin Art Club. Her publications include the Pushcart Prize XXXIII, Best American Poetry, Poetry, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, Verse, Poetry International, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Black Renaissance Noire, and BOMB. She just completed Voyeur Hour: Meditations on Poetry, Art, & Desire.

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