Writer Mandy Kahn on Melding Poetry and Music, Artistic Risks and Interpreting Barry Manilow

Poet Mandy Kahn explores creativity, collaboration, and Barry Manilow in this unorthodox discussion on how to let your life runneth over with Harper Simon. She shares the influence of Einstein On The Beach, perils of taking artistic risks in public, and her newest works which meld music and poetry.

Guest Bio

Mandy Kahn is a writer of poetry, prose and libretti. She is coauthor, with Aaron Rose, of the book Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century’s Identity Crisis (JRP/Ringier), which had its official launch at Colette in Paris, and subsequent launches at Motto (Berlin), the Shoreditch House (London), Printed Matter (New York City) and Family (Los Angeles). Math, Heaven, Time, Kahn’s first collection of poems, was released by Eyewear Publishing in May of 2014 in the U.S. and in July of 2014 in the UK and Canada. Kahn wrote the libretto for composer Ellen Reid’s opera Modern Odysseus, which the wild Up orchestra–under the direction of conductor Christopher Rountree–premiered in February of 2014 at Art Share in downtown Los Angeles. Kahn has collaborated with many composers to create pieces that fuse verse with new works of classical music. Recent collaborations include a piece with composer Daniel Corral for the LAX/Live Arts Exchange Festival, a piece with Ali Helnwein and the Traction Avenue Chamber Orchestra that premiered at the Last Bookstore, a piece with Becky Stark and the ∞ Angeles Ladies’ Choir that premiered at the Satellite, a piece with Matt Kivel that premiered at the Standard Hotel, and a piece with marimba soloist Ariel Campos that premiered at Perspace. She is writer-in-residence for THE SERIES, a live event that pairs artists for cross-genre collaborations. For THE SERIES, she writes text to accompany works of contemporary dance, performance art and music. She lives in Los Angeles.

Mandy Kahn – writer of poetry, prose and libretto and writer of Math, Heaven, Time, – discusses how she fuses classical music and poetry, plus outlines her approach to being an alternative artist, and gives her interpretation of some lyrics of pop music icon Barry Manilow.

Kicking off the interview, host Harper Simon asks Mandy – who interprets lyrics – about the song Mandy by Barry Manilow, specifically the chorus, which includes, ‘Oh Mandy, you came and you gave without taking.’ Harper poses the question of whether these words could have been referring to the act of oral sex.

“That sounds like the kind of close reading that any college professor is likely to support,” Mandy responds. “I think if that were a poem that you were studying in Poetry 201 at a college, and those lyrics came in, that’s what you would hear. You would hear, that the veiled references to oral sex were brimming just below the surface.”

“Okay, let’s now move onto the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Harper says, after provoking the Manilow reference. “Oh, great, I wonder if that’s the first time that Manilow ever led into Millay,” Mandy jokes. “Manilow to Millay, I just hope she’s watching.”

Speaking about the current state of contemporary poetry in Los Angeles, Mandy says that she personally only reads poetry of non-poets. “I tend to be at events where there’s classical music, or contemporary non-classical music, and dance and a sort of cross-genre events,” she says.

That revelation takes the conversation to an event called The Series, which Mandy explains was a live event that was conducted once a month for a couple of years on the rooftop of a hotel in downtown L.A. “It was this crazy circus-like event where there would be contemporary dance, with a difference choreographer every time, a different director every time, experimental theater, fine art, performance art, classical music, you know, the kitchen sink, all of the above.”

She explained further that this would provide the opportunity for artists who had never worked together before, to be paired in collaboration to make new art pieces relating to a particular theme.

“They’d would work together maybe for about a month on this sort of new, premiere piece, and then sometimes there were 60 or 70 contributors – there would be a dance piece happening in the pool of the hotel. And then we’d premiere all these new pieces in this circus-like happening that combined fine art and performance art and all that other stuff with nighttime atmosphere.”

Mandy also speaks about the impact of first seeing the stage production of the innovative opera Einstein on the Beach, which she says was like “a bomb going off in my life.” She says the first time she heard music from the production, she was driving in her car and upon hearing it on the radio, had to stop her car on the side of the road for 45 minutes to keep listening.

“I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard,” she said, revealing also that tears were streaming down her face. “That was a wildly life-changing event for me. It completely expanded my sense of what could be done – not just with text and with music – but with dance, and with opera in a performance space, and it just innovates on every level.”

Returning to the theme of Barry Manilow’s hit Mandy, Harper once again seeks clarification of the pop song’s mysterious lyrics – including the phrases: “I sent you away,” and “Mandy, you came and you gave without taking, and I sent you away.”

“I think he is full of regret, you know he didn’t really appreciate what he had when he had it, and I think that’s it,” she says. When asked whether she considers the lyrics to Mandy poetry, Mandy responds, “Absolutely yes.”

Addressing the book Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century’s Identity Crisis that she co-wrote with Aaron Rose, Mandy described it as “an examination of the decade from 2000-2010, where as artists we moved into an era where we were less likely to make a new work from scratch, than we were to take a bunch of things that we liked, and pull chunks from those things and arrange them.”

She added: “And the job of the artist as likely to be making something that was new, as it was to be a person with preferences, and cut things up and borrow things and arrange them. So we sort of looked at how we’d stumbled into such a collage-heavy art, making practice as a culture, and how is was affecting us – both as makers of art and also as an art-watching public.”

Watch the full interview to also learn how emotions inspire Mandy’s poetry.