Photos by Shelby Duncan
Mandy Kahn is a very busy poet. Her can’t-put-it-down collection of poems Math, Heaven, Time is about to appear in paperback, having nearly sold out its initial hardcover run. She spent the month of November attending every finale of Hopscotch, an opera-in-cars that prompted a glowing feature in the New Yorker, for which she wrote the libretto. This Monday, a poem from her collection will appear in former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s syndicated column American Life in Poetry, which has a circulation of just over three million readers. And in April, Arianna Huffington tweeted her essay “Thirteen Thoughts on Poetry in the Digital Age” to a Twitter audience of two million. We visited Kahn at her book-filled apartment in Hollywood, where she’s hard at work finishing a new collection.
GAL: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a lifelong reader?
MK: A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young.
GAL: Do you have a current—or forever—favorite book?
MK: At certain points in my life there’s been a book I’ve hovered around, or circled—a book that I’ve needed, over and over again, in a way that’s deeper than story. But as I’ve changed, that need has changed, and a new book—a new author—has come into my hands.
The books I’ve needed like that have included an illustrated edition of Thoreau’s essay "Walking," a collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Richard Hugo’s poetry collection 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, Sharon Olds’ poetry collection The Gold Cell, Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and the collected poems of W.B. Yeats.
This week I seem to need The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris like some sort of fix: I saw a show of Harris’s paintings at the Hammer Museum and can think of little else.
GAL: How often do you read? Every day? Six hours a week? Please estimate.
MK: I read every day, and throughout the day for different reasons. In the morning I read to implant certain truths, and certain voices, into my thinking. In the morning I focus myself on light things, and kindhearted things, and universal things. I’m careful about what I read in the morning because this is a very impressionable time for me: I’m at my most alert, my most vulnerable, my most able, and my thinking is at its clearest. I can do more in the first hour I’m awake than I can do the rest of the day. So it’s a sacred time of day for me.
I read again before I start working. If I’m at a coffee shop, I’ve usually brought a stack of well-loved paperback volumes of verse, and flip to the poems I’ve marked as my favorites. I read for half an hour before I start writing, and sometimes longer. I like to enter somebody’s voice, and somebody’s project. I like to start by marveling at what a person can do with words. Most of the poems I’ve marked have an emotional impact for me, and even if each is a ride I’ve taken before, it’s a ride I don’t tire of.
If I’m engrossed in a new book, I read it in the evenings, or in the late afternoon if I’ve finished my work. If it’s light outside, I walk over to Plummer Park, spread out a blanket and take breaks watching children run across grass. There are usually card games going at the picnic tables, and the players and watchers are talking and arguing and betting. I like reading under an elm, inside my neighbors’ sounds.
GAL: Who is your favorite author? (If impossible to choose, please name two).
MK: In high school, my two favorite authors were Henry David Thoreau and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In Thoreau I found a kindred spirit. In Millay I found a towering, clear, brash, lyrical voice that led me down wooded paths to ponds loud with crying frogs. Thoreau was my lake, my woods. He validated everything I’d ever believed. Millay was more than human: she was a winged sylph moving just above the ground, from lover to lover, from thought to musical thought. She felt, and lost, and spoke with her whole person. She was tough and sure and brave and plain and free. Thoreau was those things, too. Neither of them waited to be allowed, or invited, or told.
Other favorites come and go, but there’s a special seat at the table, I think, for my two first—and also most formative—favorites.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
MK: I couldn’t write a memoir. Every poem is a memoir anyway, and writing those is hard enough.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
MK: Literature is where I go when I’m at my strongest. Reading poetry especially requires of me a certain health of body and mind. But when I’m at my most vulnerable, I go to my stack of friendly colorful, comforting books by SARK, a nonfiction writer who lives in a cottage in San Francisco. Her books evolved from her journals: they’re full of watercolor sketches and portraits of her friends and tales of her experiences meeting strangers in bright corners of her city. Those books are a sort of salve for me, and that salve comes from the person that SARK is: a big-hearted, generous sort of person. Her kindness and her gentle view of the world are carried in those stories and those drawings like a bit of DNA. To read her books is to walk with her a block or two over the cracked sidewalks of her San Francisco. It’s to sit with her in her cottage, where her watercolor drawings hang from clothespins on laundry lines.
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot? Where is it?
MK: I’ve already mentioned Plummer Park, which is my favorite place to read. Otherwise: reading in a nice café—one with marble tables and cups on saucers—makes me feel that I’m living life well. I like the ritual of cup on saucer and small spoon and fine napkin very much, and like it best with a book and a bookmark and a pen with a smooth glide. Another deep luxury is reading in a hotel lobby, someplace where I’m a guest. This happens so rarely that I’m shy to admit it, but when it happens, I count those hours among the world’s keenest pleasures: guests coming and going in their sandals and woven hats, luggage rolling in and out on carts, and all the while a few good oil paintings hanging above us in ancient frames—and the book, the pen, my legs folded under, my own woven hat, my cup, my saucer, and my spoon with its small brown drying lake.
GAL: Or, can you read anywhere—place is not important?
MK: I can read anywhere that isn’t moving—that isn’t a car or a train car—but place is important.
Place colors the reading, but more than that, it colors what surrounds the reading: the day, the life. I don’t read to escape,
I read to enrich what’s there. Place is what’s there.
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold a book you read? Or can you read on a device with no problem and no impact on the experience?
MK: I don’t read on devices—I love paper too much. But it’s more than that. A screen is a page that can be permeated you can move through that page with a click and go down any of a thousand corridors, into any of a thousand other rooms. There’s a part of the mind that never rests when you read on a screen. There’s a part of the mind that always says: but what about those other doors? So I prefer the paper page. I want to be two places only: the story, and within myself, considering the story. I don’t want a third thing: the question of whether to go somewhere else, somewhere further. True concentration is powerful: it means all else is put to rest, and we can go deep, deeper, deepest down one hallway, into one room.
I always choose one thing deeply.
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
MK: I’m very careful with what I read because I’m very sensitive to the energy of a thing. If I start reading something and it gives me a clotted or dark feeling, I close the book and donate it. If the text seems to believe in a series of limiting rules, I donate it. If it’s a text that believes we’re in a room without a roof, if it’s a place that feels light—if it’s a kind of glowing hearth of a place, that book, an old living room with candles lit and fragrant stew on the stove—I stay.
Kindness is something one can feel: it’s in a text’s cells, as it was in the author’s cells. I linger in the kind room.
GAL: Do you prefer nonfiction to fiction? If so, why?
MK: I love fiction because I love the sentence, and my favorite fiction writers are masters of the sentence. My favorite works of fiction are long prose poems: lyrical, attuned to timing and the sounds of words. They’re symphonies with stories. Fiction is right for certain days. But not every day is the right day for a symphony. I don’t have a favorite genre, or a favorite book. There is a right book for every day, for every moment. The moment chooses its right book.
GAL: Please name a few books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
MK: I believe we are drawn to the next right book for us. The right book is the one we hold the key for. The wrong book is a stone wall. The right book is a door.
Here are some doors I’m grateful have opened for me.
Words Without Music, Philip Glass.
All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers, Larry McMurtry.
Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds.
Delights and Shadows, Ted Kooser.
Fire to Fire, Mark Doty.
The Essential Haiku, Robert Hass.
The Ticking, Renee French.
The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever.
Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait, Alfred Stieglitz.