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Fertile Ground: An Interview With Mandy Kahn

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In her new book of poems—Math, Heaven, TimeMandy Kahn attempts to provide solutions to all of our problems. A poem called “How to Solve” answers many day-to-day, Angeleno quandaries. “Put tulips in the middle of the problem,” it starts. “Don’t clean if you can’t. Don’t eat / if you cannot bear the smell. Put tulips / on the table, beside the mail / and papers and coupons and trash.”

The poem continues on for a stanza, spreading itself across a little page. A poem called “Very Long Haiku” watches from across the gutter. There is also a poem called “Why There Are Dishes Growing Scales In My Wet Kitchen Sink” and one called “To the Couples Who Argue on Reality TV.” Likely the shortest poem is “No Bones,” a serious little analogy representative of her ability to fade into surroundings. It alludes to a self-aware shyness, a theme echoed in many of her poems, reiterating a keen observational outlook she has. Mandy’s poems are very much Mandy: understated, full of incredible wit, and lovely to encounter.

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She rumbles around the kitchen of her new Old Hollywood apartment, an equally as unassuming and delightful space. “Would you like some special nuts? (Unless you are allergic to them),” she asks. “I have a good friend who lives in Dubai and, when he comes to town, he brings these special nuts. I’ve never had nuts like them.” Are they some sort of uniquely seasoned nut or some sort of alien, foreign nut form? “You know,” she throws her voice high. “I can’t entirely answer that. I think they’re some kind of spicy nut…? I don’t know but I’ll keep them here, in the kitchen, if you’d like some.” The interaction very much represents her adorable quirkiness and underlying humor. She is a unique character very much representative of the Los Angeles creative.

Yet, she is an uncommon artist: she is a native Angeleno poet. “I grew up here, in Los Angeles, on the Westside,” she explains. “I went to the public high school in the Pacific Palisades and went to Berkeley for undergrad and then went to graduate school for creative writing, one of the MFA programs, but it wasn’t a fit for me. I dropped out eight weeks before graduation.”

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Dodging the tenure seeking, publish-or-perish academic path, Mandy returned to Los Angeles to do her own thing. “I didn’t see a lot of joy on the academic path and thought, there has to be another way to do this! I didn’t have a plan when I dropped out but I came back to LA and a friend was living in this house and I crashed there and got a job as an assistant and I basically had a sort of desk job for a few years.”

“I said to myself that, if I could write a certain number of books during that time then I could leave my job and write exclusively,” she says. “I thought, if I write two books this year, then I’ll be ready… and I did. So, I transitioned out of my job and moved to Echo Park and began writing full time. Then the Collage Culture book happened with Aaron and then this new book happened. In the interim, I’ve had all these collaborative creative projects come along like THE SERIES with Nicole Disson, which is a combination of performance art and experimental music and experimental dance and theatre: it’s sort of a live happening.”

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Mandy thanks the city for growing her into the creative that she has become. This isn’t only the geographic location of the city either: it’s the people and the places and the entire atmosphere present in town. “LA has been an incredibly fertile environment,” she says. “It’s been the safest place in the world for me to live and gain confidence in my field. It’s been a place where I could safely experiment and safely share my work and safely collaborate with people. There’s this incredible environment of people here who are making inspiring work and want to engage in that process with others. People give of themselves so freely and generously without a conversation about ownership. Everyone throws what they have into a pile that a beautiful land rises from covered in flowers. It’s a very enriching space. I was lucky enough to completely—by chance—land in the middle of it.”

“I’ve spent time in other creative communities, but there is something very unique about this one. It’s so supportive. For me, personally, that is indispensable because I’m really shy about sharing my work. For a long time, I wrote books for practice—I didn’t share them.”

As many locals will attest to, Angeleno creativity isn’t something that is easy to acquire: it finds you. Mandy’s growth as a local maker can be partially attributed to a group of women who really pushed her out into the city and out of her comfort zone. The group was the LA Ladies Choir, which she was a reluctant but eventually active member of for years.

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“I happened by chance into the LA Ladies Choir, which was started by my friend Becky Stark,” she explains. “The first couple of months, I was asked to join and I said no: I didn’t think there was a place for me since I’ve never been in a band and I’m not particularly a singer. But, eventually, I ran into my friend Rachel Kolar—who was in the choir—at the library and she said, ‘You need to be in the choir and I won’t take no for an answer and I will drive to your house and put you in the car and take you to practice. You’re in the choir. Don’t argue with me.’ She strong-armed me into it! And I showed up and immediately knew it was the exact, perfect place for me to be.”

“Being in a choir and singing with these women in practice and in shows around town was incredibly useful for me. I became more and more comfortable in front of crowds. The first performance I did with the choir was a sold-out show at the El Rey. It was packed to the gills! My lips started trembling, I was so nervous. When you’re doing that regularly, eventually you don’t get nervous anymore.”

“It was an extremely formative thing,” she adds.

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Mandy’s participation with the choir helps to contextualize the geography of her work. Mandy’s writing—from style to substance—is born of this city. From the Case Study houses referenced in the poem “Always, It Is Afternoon” to the fact that she is a working fixture at her home-away-from-homeFix, Mandy exudes the city that she loves. “My work is completely of LA,” she says. “It’s in every aspect of what I do because of the warmth and generosity that is in this city.”

“If it weren’t for the generosity of this creative community, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to share my work publicly at all. It’s completely of this place and this time—not just LA but specifically a neighborhood like Echo Park, which is a center of gravity. My work is 100% made possible by the energy and generosity of that place and the people that I’ve come to know there. There is so much inspiration available there! If I go to Fix on a Tuesday afternoon with my laptop, I run into fifteen people who are doing projects that inspire me. It’s such a fertile ground: that is miraculous.”

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“The work that is produced here naturally travels all over the globe, too,” she says. “People are drawn to what comes from Los Angeles because of the generosity it was made with. There is a magnetism to generosity.”

This has kept Mandy going, creating anew and working in broader, multi-disciplinary ways. In doing this, she isn’t just reflecting her interests but the landscape that surrounds her. The way she makes and who she is making with is a response to Los Angeles. These projects focus on repurposing classic forms of creating, from audial enhanced textual projects to rethinking how we use words now. “I’m doing projects where I work with composers,” she says. “We make collaborative pieces that have verse layered over classical music. I write poems that are naturally in four-four time, though they aren’t rhymed or in heavy meter—they just naturally have rhythm to them and layer easily over classical music. Sometimes these composers provide a sort of symphonic answer to a poem I give them—making a sort of conversation—and other times they write sort of a sonic translation. Then we perform the resulting piece with an orchestra.”

“I’m doing more and more of those now,” she says.

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“I did a panel at the SXSW Interactive festival called ‘Not Dead Yet,’” she echoes, switching focus. “It was about how to build a bridge between classic forms of culture, like poetry—the kinds of culture one must consume slowly and with an old kind of consideration—and a new generation of readers, who are used to consuming information in a fast, cursory way. I spoke about how we can build these hybrid experiences that incorporate both technology and classic forms, like poetry, and these hybrids can serve as sort of introductory experiences for new listeners—a series of bridges to the classics.”

“I think a lot about this,” she muses from her couch. “I think about how we can expose new generations to these gems from the history of our culture—to masterworks of poetry, opera, classical music. I mean, we’ve been building upon them century after century and—because of the length of time it takes to consume these types of works, because of the brand of attention they require—there might be a disconnect with the next generation of users.”

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She pauses: “Users? Viewers? Are we supposed to call them users now because of the tech generation? Well, I mean humans.”

She resumes, posing a question inward, to her work and to herself and to everything she encounters: “How do you make a bridge experience that appeals to new minds and works in concert with new physiologies? Technology trains us to consume in a certain way, a fast way, and that training affects cognition. So how do you make something that delivers classic culture in a format that works in concert with the new sort of body?”

“So, anyway,” she tosses her hands up with a smile. “That’s what I’m working on now.”

For more on Mandy, visit her website for more information. You can also buy her new book Math, Heaven, Time here.

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