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Isabelle Kenyon interviews Elisabeth Horan about her Frida Kahlo-inspired poetry collection

By Isabelle Kenyon

Released by publisher Broken Spine Arts on November 1, 2021, The Mask is the second collection of ekphrastic poetry written by poet Elisabeth Horan in response to the artwork of Frida Kahlo. This dual language collection interweaves the life story of Kahlo, her art, and the personal response of Horan to it. The Mask is passionate, intense, and demanding—and nothing is safe.

Elisabeth Horan is a poet, mother, and small press publisher living in the wilds of Vermont. She has previously stated that she feels a kinship with her muse, Kahlo, and this collection has been written against a backdrop of personal and societal upheaval. It offers us a glimpse into another person’s world. Behind the curtain. Under the mask. There is truth to be found here. Honesty and bravery, too! 

Elisabeth, at its heart, The Mask strikes me as a deeply personal collection, exploring the ties between yourself as an artist and a mother, and the work and life of Frida Kahlo as an artist and someone who desired to be a mother. When did you first come across Kahlo’s artwork, and when did you start looking into her personal life?

I have been aware of and appreciative of Kahlo’s art since college days (circa 1997!). But it was really during my MFA in poetry when I took an ekphrastic class and, of course, I knew I wanted to explore her art deeper. You see, I connect with her in parallel ways which one would not expect of a gringa and a Mexicana, separated by language, culture, time, country, and history—and yet we do… We have experienced similar pain, similar loss—pressure, artistic perfection, and total commitment—the men in our lives—the losses… And yet we go on. She went on, and I go on… In summary, I started writing for her in the spring of 2018, after I broke my back falling off my horse… and I haven’t stopped. 

How is the process of approaching and editing an ekphrastic poem different to other forms?

It’s completely different in my mind. Because you are not just writing your own truth, you are not just beholden to your own standards… With Frida—it is like being entrusted with her biography, over and over again, in every poem—and I take it so very seriously, as you may have noticed! But I also have to be very sensitive in that I am not Mexican, I am not Latina—I am not even a visual artist. So with every word I write, I am aware and sensitive—I don’t want to take any liberties… only to say that I feel I understand her, and that I want to share my interpretation of her voice. It’s important for me that I stay in constant communication with the Latino and Mexican community—for help with this—as if they could renew my borrowed license as a white American to be worthy of writing for Frida—and so far they have granted me that privilege.

In your opening poem, “Para Dolores,” you write:

I feel the arch of your lithe little foot

Delicate as a root; securing itself to my knee
It will not be ripped away  – will
Not succumb to the earth falling away

Into the mouths of men; they impose their
Vine of phallic truth - reaching for the sky
Strangling the earth - touching nothing
Of consequence
Except for themselves

It struck me that this “vine of phallic truth” seems relevant to this era of “post-truths,” but also seems to apply to patriarchal societies. Is patriarchal oppression something Kahlo was subject to, and fast-forwarding to today, is this oppression something you feel is still prevalent in your life? 

Yes, yes, and yes. Imagine 1920s, 1930s Mexico. This was a society, which was very much run by the patriarchy—plus add in the dynamic of the accepted “machismo,” which rules to this day the lives and loves of men and women. Frida was very much beholden to Diego Rivera for taking her in as a mentee—most women at that time would have been housewives and nothing more. Let alone her depicting in her artwork vaginas and Marxism and having such a strong voice to question the status quo. I mean, my goodness, her art was fearless! What she said in her paintings took absolute balls, and so that is what I try to do in the poems—match her intensity, match her fearlessness. She might have been afraid to send them into the public—as I often am with some of my poetry—but she did it anyway. She was most loyal to her art, more than to any man, or to any societal norm of expectation of her as “woman.”

In “The Mask. Vol 1,” I love how Kahlo interrupts the poem like so—

Oh that house; I’ve told Eli to make a new stanza - here
To describe how I have died in that flowering house
The way in which women have flowered in that house –

Did you feel there was a discrepancy in the way you as a writer wanted to portray Kahlo, and the way in which Kahlo may have wished to present herself to the world?

I love that you highlighted this stanza—it’s one of my favorites. In this book, much more so that in Self-Portrait (my first poetry dedicated to the life of Kahlo, published by Cephalo Press), I am present with her… in my prior book effort, I stayed mostly in the background, peeking out here and there. But in The Mask I feel very present with her, and to the point to having her address me in this line—I’ve told Eli… I wanted her to dictate the poem… to show my reader how she speaks to me and that the poems are written in collaboration—her and I. Not just me looking from the outside in. I have quite certainly found my way… in. 

There is an ambiguity across the poems in that the reader could be reading a poem about Kahlo’s life and deep emotions, or your own. Did you actively seek this fluidity, or did you sculpt the chapbook as an intentional narrative arc?

Yes, what a great question—I address this a bit above—I didn’t know when I started writing this what my plan was, only that I wanted to write more poems for her. Writing “Self-Portrait” I felt, and still feel, I produced one of the most epic works of my life—and yet it was never noticed—and by golly I was not going to accept that… so I thought, let’s try again. The result: a new take on it, a new voice, a new level of melding of voices, which is different from what I did prior, and yet I am very, very proud of the intimacy of it. The risk and the dedication and commitment—I am very proud of. And I like to think Frida would be as well. 

In “Four inhabitants (of Mexico City),” there is a moving stanza—

To have had a child; to have kept my toes
Intact, my uterus intact; I would have had to
Praise the easel of a man;

which suggests that Kahlo was in a constant state of wanting to be a mother, and struggling with the pain of an unhappy relationship. What kind of research were you able to do into Kahlo’s life and dreams—was the information difficult to access—and are insights such as this, into Kahlo’s thought-processes, your own creative license, or informed by diary extracts and other materials?

I first started writing ekphrastic work for Frida’s paintings when I was at home in bed following my hysterectomy in February of 2019. I had been pregnant the previous summer, but miscarried the baby, then cervical cancer was found, and I ended up as I saw it in my mind: Barren. I went from fertile and pregnant to destroyed and barren in a span of six months. And I had plenty of self-pity for it all. I started writing poems about her paintings which depicted her many miscarriages and abortions she suffered through… it made me feel selfish and spoiled and unworthy of complaint—I had two healthy children, but I had wanted one more… Frida had none. She never was able to keep one to term because of the injuries she sustained in the Mexico City bus trolley crash she survived as a 19-year-old. Her injuries were horrific and damaged her for life, but she kept going. She always kept going… So, post hysterectomy, I decided I must also keep going, and pay tribute to her pain and strength following the loss of a child, fetus, baby—all of the losses we go through as women. 

I just realized I didn’t really answer the question! I have studied her—read about her life, but honestly I derive most of my retelling of it through the paintings… That said, it is all non-fiction. I don’t make anything up about her in these poems… it’s all based on true history. Amazing life she had, de veras.

Do you have a favorite painting by Frida Kahlo? If so, why?

Yes I think so—”Wounded Deer.” It is the painting that first drew me to her, many years ago… and I still long to hold her, help her—and I feel like I am her in that deer body with the arrows. I am so traumatized by deer hunting season here in Vermont, and I have always related that feeling of being hunted to sexual trauma at the hands of men. 

“The Wounded Deer,” 1946 by Frida Kahlo (courtesy of fridakahlo.org)

What do you hope readers take away from the collection?

I really just wanted to give Frida center stage—to let her speak once more to her fans, to the masses, to the women and male feminists—to see her. Really see her. She was just a person, a woman, trying hard to be noticed for her art, no different than me. She had a soul and a body, and both were wounded… but she carried on… always painting until the day she died. I hope my readers can be inspired by that strength. 

~~~

The Mask

by Elisabeth Horan

The Broken Spine £9.29 – £11.99

~~~

Isabelle Kenyon is the author of poetry chapbooks: This is not a Spectacle, Digging Holes To Another ContinentPotential, and Growing Pains. She is the founder and Managing Director of Fly on the Wall Press, a socially conscious small press of political fiction, poetry, and short stories.

I'm a fiction and CNF writer, an editor, and a blogger. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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