Poetry for Southern California


Elena Byrne



By Mary McIntyre Brown

You can find the extraordinary eight-time Pushcart nominee Elena Byrne hosting readings at MOCA or at the Ruskin Art Club. If sheís not there, she could be working on her collection of essays on poetry and culture. You might even find her making a visual art collage or working on a film project. That is, of course, when sheís not teaching class or spending time with her family. When I caught up to the busy Elena I had to find out what was going on behind the many hats that she wears and the masks that she writes about.  To sample her excellent words click here!

Q: Your new book is called Masque and looking at some of your work thereís a theme of masks, with titles like ďNecropolis MaskĒ and ďIrregular Masks.Ē  Why all the masks?

EB: I just chose this artifice for myself, in a way to give myself permission to write about anything. So they are principally adopted personas, but a lot of them are not literal personas. Some of them are indirect or abstract. It was an amazing freedom and kind of fury for me. I wrote almost 200 of these and then I had to cut it way down. But itís the most Iíve ever published in my life. Somehow, really putting yourself forward without looking at the consequence and maybe sometimes trusting that process is hard to do, but in this instance, it was very rewarding for me.

Q: Is it kind of like an actor being able to use a character to explore something?

EB: Absolutely and thatís what it felt like, thatís what the whole book feels like to me. Itís a lot of layering of personas. A lot of the addresses Ė itís an address to someone and itís an address to the self, and then itís also sometimes speaking from the voice of someone else. So sometimes itís like a triptych picture.

Q: When you start a poem with a quote from someone else, does that open the gate to creativity for you?

EB: Absolutely. I know that a lot of people say, ďOh donít use too many epigraphs,Ē I kind of did the opposite. Every single one relied on the epigraph in the sense that, for me, sometimes a single word or a quote will inspire an entire poem. So a lot of the poems were engendered because of the epigraphs. Some of the poems are speaking to the epigraph, so itís like a dialogue. In that way, it made the process easy. Also it allowed me to write about subjects without making the definitive poem about the subject in a sense, as if you were having a discussion with someone and it was an unfinished discussion. They are somewhat elliptical, though I do like hard endings.

Q: Reading your poems, your line breaks seem very natural to me. Is it easy for you to find those places in your poetry?

EB: Itís easier now, I think, than it was in the beginning. But I had a really good teacher for that in particular, Thomas Lux, my first professor at Sarah Lawrence College. The thing about Tom is that he really immediately insisted from his students that they cut out all the bullshit, that they have an ear for lines and for their own voice. So I picked that up pretty early. Sometimes I will deliberately wrangle with a line, but I hope that the music keeps pushing it forward.

Q: How does a poem happen for you? Does it come out perfect and youíre done, or do you keep tweaking it?

EB: Not to sound middle of the road, but it definitely varies. I work well under the state of chaos and itís very similar in my writing. I like to put a lot of things together. I like to make relationships between a lot of disparate elements and sometimes that gets me into trouble. The revision process is usually best when I leave a poem alone for awhile to get distance from it. Then I come back to it and go ďWhat the heck was that about? What am I saying there?Ē But I will have poems that will come out in a mad rant, so to speak.

Q: What do you rant about?

EB: I rant about relationships and religion and different things sort of come out. I have a poem called ďRant Mask.Ē A lot of it is an amalgamation of feeling that becomes translated into several parts and eventually all the parts sort of make a whole.

Q: What else inspires you?

EB: Recurring subjects that inspire me are things like deep sea and the universe and the language itself, seriously like a single word or a group of words. My friends kind of tease me, they call me the ĎQueen of Quotes.í I get so excited when I read some weird fact or some quote about an origin of a word that I never knew. I have a "Cinderella Mask," that came about because I read that the story we all know of Cinderella had been translated incorrectly and it was originally meant to mean Ďsquirrel fur slippersí ó it was never meant to be Ďglass slippers.í So I wrote this poem about Cinderella being terrified of shoes. Little things like that trigger me.

Q: When did you first have an interest in writing?

EB: My parents were artists and they both were very smart, but I was not read to as a child. It is sort of a puzzle to me that I was so attracted to language. But it came on very late, around 8th grade when I thought I was going to be an artist. But I decided, at that point, to be a writer. It was like a challenge for me. I needed to articulate the world that I saw visually. Everything for me sort of comes visually first even though Iím very involved with language itself.

Q: Arenít you a visual artist too?

EB: Well I play with it. A lot of mixed media of drawing and collage, principally painting and collage. Some of my influences were like Rauschenberg and Hannah HŲch ó she was a German Dadaist. Actually, her work was one of the reasons that I was drawn toward the idea of the Masque book.

Q: But youíre also bringing the visual and the words together. Donít you have a film project in the works?

EB: I went to Red Car Studios because I had done a project for them for poetry in the movies years ago. I called them up and met with the founder, Lawrence Bridges, and I said ďHow about we have little clips of famous faces up close, you know where youíre startled, in the movie theatres like before the movie starts, where they just recite a couple lines of poetry. Letís say Shaq recites Shakespeare and Anthony Hopkins recites Sylvia Plath, sort of what youíre not expecting of them.Ē He loved the idea. He kind of took that idea and translated it for the National Endowment for the Arts. We did something similar for ďWhy Shakespeare,Ē a little short film that was distributed to at least 60,000 schools across the country. It has actors, poets and kids reciting Shakespeare and talking about how Shakespeare influenced their lives.

Q: Sounds like youíre a pretty busy lady, arenít you?

EB: At the moment Iím the Literary Event Director for the Ruskin Art Club. I would say the Ruskin Art Club has a kind of haunting of the Chateau Marmont series, it has that intimate old beautiful room feeling. I co-sponsor some readings with Red Hen Press for their series.

Iím also doing other readings using USCís Doheny Memorial Library. Then out of the blue, MOCA got in touch with me and asked me to do this Saturday night Visions program with them through October. Those are readings in the gallery during the Basquiat show. Itís so much fun, itís been really wild and wonderful. I also do a poetry salon for the West Hollywood Book Fair every year. Iím also the poetry moderator and consultant for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books every year. So Iíve got my hand in a lot of pots.

I always joke that Iím sort of the ďPoetry Hostess of L.A.Ē Itís sort of like in the ďGodfatherĒ ó you know, when he says ďJust when I think Iím out - they pull me back in.Ē But I enjoy doing it and I love meeting new people all the time, thatís been the best part of the job.

Q: How do you find the time to write?

EB: My writing process sort of changed after I had children. Now I write in little stints. I write for sometimes 15 minutes in the morning or an hour on the weekend or whenever I can grab the time. Itís sort of a wild balancing act because I also teach part-time and I have two kids. My sonís in college which is helping a little bit with time. But my daughterís 14 and I spend a lot of time with her. But Iím also spending a lot of time on my own work. My first book came out in 2002. This last year I finished Masque. Itís my second book, in which Iíve published over six years of poems.

Q: What about that collection of essays youíre working on, what are they about?

EB: Itís kind of a wild mix of some things that were created out of my introductions and the relationships that I see when Iím writing about a poet or about a certain subject, or the relationship that I see between certain things in art and philosophy. I grew up with artists, so Iím trying to make some relationship to that as well.

Q: What is it about words that attracts you?

EB: Iím very interested in how language verbs out the subject in a sense, how language works backwards that way, that somehow language can bring you to a subject rather than the other way around, which I would say is also the way I principally work. I usually donít find my subjects first, itís rare.

I love Stanley Kunitzí statement, ďWords are so erotic, they never tire of their coupling.Ē And I think thatís so true. I mean we really have an indefinite number of possibilities. I always tell the teenagers that I teach, ďLanguage is your power.Ē The way language is manipulated, even poetically, is one of the powers of being human. This is just not art making, itís giving yourself an existence.

Q: But have you found that our existence and whatís happening in the world also influences our language these days?

EB: Yeah, thereís this surge of interest in poetry. But thereís also several different things going on in poetry Ė thereís the more accessible, performance-oriented spoken word poetry, and then thereís a lot of the language oriented experimental work thatís been coming out. I almost see that as a response, as humanity and as a society, to just kind of losing our sense of self, which happens also during a time of war.

Itís that sense of isolation and reconfiguring which I think, just in general, is one of the tasks of poetry, that never-ending quest of who we are and in reassembling language. I think we try to get closer to that sense of identity and persona.

Q: Speaking of personas, youíve been Poetry Hostess in Los Angeles for quite some time, havenít you?

EB: Yeah, actually since the beginning of 1992, when I was hired as the Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America. I ran the reading series at the Chateau Marmont Hotel for eight years there. Then when we lost the Chateau, they offered for us to come over to the Getty Center. Iím still doing a reading once a year for them for the Getty Research Institute. But, the Poetry Society, after thirteen years, decided that they couldnít afford it any more. Then Red Hen Press and the Ruskin Art Club sort of simultaneously found me, when I was leaving the Poetry Society of America and thinking I was going to be an astronomerís assistant.

Q: What do you think the secret is to hosting a successful reading and getting the seats filled?

EB: It is something I had to learn over the years. Obviously, being sort of inclusive and warm to people when youíre there, and then, you know making sure that you have a mailing list are important. Also, I think the best things for drawing audiences is pairing a local poet with an out-of-state poet, or a very famous poet with an unknown poet. I think those are the best combinations. I used to pair very famous actors with poets. Sometimes you would even get a new audience that way. I also love writing the introductions that I read when I introduce the poets at the events. I know that sounds strange, but I write these sort of creative book review style introductions. Itís kind of part of my interest in writing essays. Itís fun.

Q: What about reading your own poetry, do you enjoy it?

EB: I have to say, I donít think Iím one of the best readers of all. I can give a good reading, especially if Iím prepared. If Iím not prepared, I can falter a lot. Iím still not comfortable after all these years. Iím much more comfortable giving an introduction to 600 people at the Getty than I am reading my own poetry. I think part of it is that no matter how many times you read it aloud to yourself, when youíre reading aloud to an audience, it occupies your body differently.

Q: Do you find that audiences can make a difference, like sometimes itís dead out there and other times like a communal experience?

EB: Yes, and of course in those dead silences, you project all kinds of things. But usually, Iíve found over the years, itís better to just address individual people or small groups, because youíre going to get varying experiences. But Iíve had all kinds of experience, people uproariously clapping or people standing up and reciting their own work by heart suddenly. Iíve done the live guerilla-style Poetry in Motion readings. One time this one man grabbed me around the legs because he was a little drunk and wanted me to read more. He also thought that I was falling over and he was being gallant, you know.

Q: You have been recognized a lot for your workó youíve won awards and have been nominated eight times for a Pushcart. What does it take to get that kind of recognition?

EB: I think having a first book helps. I got great publications of my first book over a long period of time, literally over a 12-year period, in good magazines. Then something happened when I decided to do this Masque book, and it just like ate me up like an animal. I knew a friend who published a lot and I basically realized that one of the reasons she published so much was because she sent out so much. I thought, ďIím going to be hapless about this and Iím going to send out tons.Ē I had a lot of Masks and I sent them out. I never got so much published in my life as these last two years. I have to believe that part of that is perseverance and part of it is, I hope, the work.

Q: So you donít have a collection of rejection letters like some of us?

EB: Oh I do, I do. I would say for every one that I get, I get about five rejections at least.

Q: So whatís your rejection letter remedy? I always have to go to Baskin Robbins.

EB: Well, I can tell you Iíve been better about magazine rejections letters, although I still get very sad. But I applied for an NEA the last time around, and for some reason I just thought with all these top publications Ė and I donít know, I was sort of feeling high at the time, I thought ďOh, I should get one.Ē And I didnít and I cried. Then recently I sent to the National Poetry contest and the Tupelo Contest and to Sarabande and got rejected to all, didnít even get in the finals and I cried! So I donít know, I think the best remedy is to keep doing it. I really do. You have to have the resilience because thatís not why youíre writing. I mean you do, I mean if you look at it as a career and you say ďOkay, I need to do this.Ē And Iím saying to myself now, even with all that I have done, I feel like Iíve done very little. I feel like I have so much more to do. You know, it really is a clichť, you write because you have to. So you might as well keep slogging on.

Q: Did you ever have like a dream publication that you thought, ďOoh, if they publish me I can die happyĒ?

EB: Well, I did, Paris Review was at the top of the list. Since 1979 I sent to them almost every year and finally got one of the poems published before I had my first book published Ė I was so excited, I was so pleased. But then on the next round I still got rejected by much lesser magazines. Then, suddenly right after that, I was dying for Tri-Quarterly. In fact I even did this weird superstitious thing. I put it on my list of credits, but it was blank of course, and I just waited, waited and waited. Then I got the letter and I got it.

Q: Do you find people have a certain expectation of you because of the recognition youíve received?

EB: Well itís been, not a sensitive subject, but itís been one Iím aware of in a sense. Red Hen Press came to me and said, ďOh you are the Queen,Ē or something like ďWe said we have to get hold of her.Ē I thought that was so funny because Iím very approachable and I donít believe in being exclusionary in any way. I also have been very careful not to use my position in doing these readings. But have I used it to my advantage? I really havenít because someone said to me once, ďWell, the four most important people in poetry are Jorie Graham, Richard Howard, and Edward Hirsch andÖĒ oops, I forgot who the fourth one was! But Iíve met all of them and I never intentionally befriend those people, as some people do. A lot of people get what they want, but it feels icky if it happens that way. You want to earn it.

Q: Do you have any tips on getting published?

EB: My feeling is that you have to believe in the work and you just have to keep pushing it, and you have to pay attention to what the magazines like. I got a real sense of what Paris Review liked. There were certain poems that I knew they would like, for example, that Prairie Schooner not might like or American Poetry Review might not like, you know? Tom Lux once said to me, ďThrow it in an envelope. Simultaneously submit because youíre not going to have a problem with that. When it comes back, put it in an envelope and send it out again.Ē

Q: So thereís no incantation or talisman for getting in the big mags?

EB: My girlfriend, Cathy Coleman, and I sat down one summer and forced ourselves to finish our first books. Then we both got published within that year and she won the Felix Pollak Prize. We both said, ďOkay, maybe there was luck involved, but thereís also something to breaking the spell,Ē so to speak.

Copyright 2005 Mary McIntyre Brown.