Interview Series: Mandy Kahn

An author who breaches the typical boundaries that are set rigidly within the literary world. She takes words and forms poems that fall into a multi-media literature format, she molds sentences into both fiction and nonfiction. Defying current genres and boasting an eclectic roster, Mandy Kahn is a writer of poetry, prose, and libretti with recent projects including co-authoring Collage Culture, and writing the libretti for composer Ellen Reid’s opera Modern Odysseus. I was able to catch up with Mandy and what ensued was a stimulating conversation regarding her unique creative eye, projects, and future aspirations. Photos by Frank Ishman.

Mandy Kahn x Isman 3

Q&A

LF: Hi Mandy! Can you give Live FAST an introduction to yourself?

MK: I’m a writer of poetry and other things – nonfiction and opera libretti most recently – and I live in Los Angeles.

LF: When was it that you first realized you were drawn to writing?

MK: When I was very young my grandmother took care of me most afternoons, and gave me a 1940s upbringing instead of the 1980s upbringing my contemporaries were getting. So it was A.A. Milne, Mother Goose: all verse, and most of it very old. I entered school spouting extinct sayings that I assumed were normal, harboring odd-seeming, old-fashioned values, and with verse as my foundation, never changed. Whether I was going to write poetry as a career was a real consideration – it was either going to be my public occupation or my private one: that was the only decision to make. For a long time I did it privately. And then one day I simply couldn’t do that anymore: it was as if I went to sit in that old chair and it had vanished. And so I started sharing my work – at first very timidly.

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LF: What projects are you currently working on?

MK: I’m finishing up a collection of poems about 20th century composers and their works. So I’m reading biographical material on Bartok, Mahler, Schoenberg, Glass, and just sort of steeping myself in those lives, and the products of those lives. I’m also adapting an Ibsen play into an opera, which is due to go up next year. But the producers haven’t seen any of my work yet – I’ve been too shy to share it -so we’ll see whether it flies. It’s a bit of a wild interpretation, and it won’t hurt my feelings if it doesn’t stick – or, I should say, if they don’t stick with me. But I’m working on it every day.

LF: Who are your top five influences?

MK: Yeats, Robert Hass, Robert Frost, Thoreau, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

LF: Can you describe your creative process for us?

MK: Sure. First I go to a coffee shop and order tea. It’s necessary for me to be around people: the feeling of general industry – of community – removes the worry about the work: I let the steam from others carry me. I start by reading pages by a writer I admire, usually a chunk from the middle of a book I’ve read a hundred times – The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever or a collection of poems by Robert Hass, maybe – something with real music. Then I look at my notes from whatever project I’m working on and let whatever happens happen. I do not judge the output: I am happy with whatever comes, and when it stops coming easily, I’m done. The hard days are the ones when I feel I can’t fully plug into the flow, and I’m especially kind to myself on those days. The other days – when the stream arrives to carry me – offer endless rewards.

Mandy Kahn x Isman 1

LF: Your work is often collaborative in nature; for example, you co-authored Collage Culture with Aaron Rose as well as worked with No Age to create the LP release of the text. How do you approach combining different mediums of art with different artists?

MK: Collaboration helps with my shyness, first and foremost. It’s harder to speak about something that you made entirely yourself: too hard. But when you’ve made something in concert with someone else, there can be a playfulness, both in the making and in the discussing of it afterwards. If I hadn’t started with a collaborative work, I’m not sure that I would have been able to start, so I’m deeply grateful to those who have been kind enough to work with me, especially my collaborators on the Collage project – Aaron Rose, designer Brian Roettinger and the band No Age.

I approach a collaboration with non-attachment: I do my part and pass it along, and let what happens happen. I try not to want anything in particular to result: I trust my collaborators – with admiration, with awe – and practice letting go.

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LF: What is the last adventure you went on?

MK: I gave two readings in London earlier this month and had a couple of weeks to burn between them. My friend Michelle volunteered to go traveling with me – she lives in Paris – and I told her to plan whatever trip sounded good to her because I was too overloaded to even think about that chunk of time. So I turned up in Paris and said, “Where are we going?” She led me to the French Riviera—Nice, Antibes, Villefranche, Monaco – then to Milan and Venice – and every stop on our trek felt like a radical gift, a holy surprise: miracle after miracle. It helps that Michelle is lovely and incredibly friendly: we met strangers everywhere we went, and that’s my favorite way to move – encounter to starry encounter.

Mandy Kahn x Isman 8

LF: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

MK: Years ago, over lunch, a friend mentioned a phrase in passing that – slowly and then quickly – rearranged my life. I’ve since looked it up, so I can quote it exactly: Krishnamurti once said to a group of his students, “Do you want to know what my secret is? I don’t mind what happens.” When I first heard that quote, it seemed almost impossible that I’d ever feel that way myself -the idea of such comfort in the body, such casual non-attachment, felt so far from where I was that the best I could do was fix that phrase like a star towards which to set a course, and begin from where I stood.  I’ve used it that way – as a fixed and lighted point – ever since.

Just before I left for college, my father took me to dinner, to impart some final wisdom. I waited patiently for his advice, and around the desert course, it arrived: “When you go to a restaurant with someone,” he said, “never order two of the same entrée, because if it’s bad, then you’ll have two of it.” That gem – an easier one to employ – has been useful, too.

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LF: What is the toughest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

MK: The most important lesson I’ve ever learned is to be kind to myself. From there, I had to figure out how in the world to do it. That habit is a wall I built brick by handmade brick. But that’s the thing about bricks: it’s always worth the extra effort – and expense, and time – to build with them.

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LF: How fast do you live?

MK: I prefer to flow instead of to plan: when a door opens, I walk through it. So things change for me with striking rapidity – there’s always a new hallway, a new series of doors. As a result, the landscape of my life changes almost constantly, and almost entirely. Does that count as fast living? Perhaps it does. I don’t run, though, if I can help it: I float.

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