PRISM Poetry Editor Rob Taylor talks with Kayla Czaga about her debut poetry collection and that moment when your Mom catches you saying the F-word…
Song – Kayla Czaga
Outside my window, seagulls and crows continue
the discourse on language, insisting it need not be beautiful
to be song. If song accompanies their shallow black
and white bickering over garbage at 5 a.m., do I still believe
language needs to be beautiful? Their insistent discourse
pecks holes in the morning. Here I am still trying
to believe, at 5 a.m., despite the bickering over garbage
because faith describes perfectly how my mother is dying.
Here I am still trying to peck holes in the morning;
song is just another word I use for wanting
faith to describe how perfectly my mother is dying
thousands of miles away, in a small town I rarely visit.
Song is just another word I want to use.
Illness is just another word. Mother is just a word
thousands of miles away, in a small town I rarely visit.
The winter light pours slowly into my window.
Illness is just a word. Mother is just a word
with someone in it. Can I sing without words?
The slow winter light pours through my window.
Long after I’ve stopped making sense, I’m just a sound
with someone in it. Can I sing without words
and still be song, accompanying the crows, shallow and black,
making sense with just sounds? Long after I’ve stopped,
seagulls and crows continue outside my window.
(Nightwood Editions, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.
Full Disclosure: Kayla Czaga is an editorial board member at PRISM international. That doesn’t stop her debut collection of poems, For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions), from being fantastic. And it certainly doesn’t stop you from attending Nightwood Editions’ Vancouver book launch on Sunday, October 19th, which will feature readings from Kayla and three other Nightwood authors: Matt Rader, Alex Leslie and Elaine Woo.
In anticipation of the launch, Kayla and I exchanged a few emails about her book. The conversation wandered (as they do) from kicked in front doors, to pigeons and coffee shops, to an overabundance of “fucks.” Enjoy!
|Kayla Czaga, holding a beam of light (in baby form). Kayla stresses that this is not her beam of light, just borrowed for the photo op. Don’t worry Mom and Dad!|
In reading For Your Safety Please Hold On, especially the poems in the “Mother and Father” and “The Family” sections, I got the sense that what I was reading about was your “poetry family,” a family adjacent to your actual family, stretched and transformed however your love of play and language suggested. In fact, it feels like you’ve built an entire “poetry family” cosmology (Mom, Dad, Grandparents, Not-Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles), which is probably what Paul Vermeersch is referring to on the back cover blurb when he says reading your book “feels rather like an initiation into the clan”.
Does any of the above ring true? Has your family seen the book? What has been their response?
It’s interesting that you use the word cosmology. I think I focused on family as a way to locate myself. Each of the family members expresses a different way of being in the world. In writing about them, I got a chance to try on their language, see how they fit, and decide how I wanted to live in response.
My dad has seen a few of my poems and he likes to “correct” details and tell me that he doesn’t quite “get” them. We have long talks about what he thinks is going on. Once, during a hockey period break, he wrote “his kind of rhyming poem” and mailed it to me, hand written on a piece of loose-leaf. So, he’s trying to participate.
Last night, my mom phoned and asked me to explain, “Poem for Jeff,” the poem in my book in which I use the f-word about a hundred times. “I’ve never heard you talk like that,” she explained. I think I actually offended her. I felt pretty embarrassed, but I think she likes the book, otherwise. She said she was going to read it again and call me back.
Ha! Yes, my first book had one “fuck” in it and I definitely hear about it a disproportionate amount (though my mother’s never mentioned it). Your answer got me thinking about the speakers and voices in the book. Would you say this book is written in one common voice/from one common speaker, or does it change from section to section, poem to poem? When your mom says she’s “never heard you talk like that,” do you think of it as “you” talking in the first place?
Sometimes it’s me. Sometimes, as in “My Father, Winning me $242 dollars at the Kitimat Golf & Country Club, Last Christmas,” I’m trying to speak as my dad, or someone else. More often, while writing, I feel like I’m just this device that poems get downloaded into on their way to the world. The poems are not me speaking, but speaking through me. I realize that sounds very strange, especially given the amount of details in the poems that come from my life, but that’s what it feels like.
One of the great pleasures of your book is its sense of play. Puns abound (“She was a hoot, owling outside / the barn”, 30) and so many of these poems are steeped in jokes and turns of phrase and a general relishing in language. Many of the poems, however, also deal with heady subjects – death, murder, grief, isolation, etc. What purpose does inserting playfulness into heavy poems serve for you? Have you written any poems, in the book or otherwise, where you felt that such play would detract from the poem, and avoided it?
Last summer, when my grandfather died, my father (who is in his 60s) had to kick down the door of his house because my grandfather never gave anyone a full set of keys. Sad, yes, but also very funny—all of us sweating in the driveway with our suitcases. I believe in the old maxim about light making the darkness darker. One of my favourite quotes goes, “How goofy and awful is life,” (Dean Young).
My classmates have accused me of using humour as a defense mechanism when talking about emotional things. Maybe they are on to something, but I prefer laughing to taking myself too seriously.
No, I can’t “play” with everything. The poem you chose to stand for the book (and coincidentally the book’s only formal poem), “Song,” is basically as serious as I get, as is the poem “Victoria Soto.” It is sometimes disrespectful to be funny.
I had the pleasure to hear you read Gertrude Stein at a recent Dead Poets Reading Series event. In introducing Stein’s poems, you mentioned that she had had a great impact on your writing – that she had been one of the poets who gave you permission to do new things in your writing. I was wondering if you could expand on that a bit more – which elements of this book do you think most clearly demonstrate her influence?
I found Gertrude Stein at the right time in my life. I was pretty bored with lyric poetry and she set my hair on fire. I got shivers reading her. Still do. I think she helped loosen my fixation on “making sense.” Or, she helped me make a different kind of sense. The entire “FOR PLAY” section is a semi-homage to her and the influence of her writing.
Knowing a bit about your biography (born and raised in Kitimat, now living in Vancouver), I came to read the section “For Your Safety Please Hold On” as your “Vancouver Poems” – chronicling your shift from a small, intimate sense of community and family, to the big, chaotic urban mess that we rarely, if ever, consider familial. Reading poems like “23rd Birthday” and “For Your Safety…”, and lines from later in the book like “The Lord led me to a city / with a dripping, concrete sky / and fourteen thousand coffee // joints.” (82) gave me a clear sense of the city as seen from the outside. In what ways do you think your first book would have been different if you had never moved to Vancouver?
I spent five years in Victoria between Vancouver and Kitimat, so I don’t feel like my transition into Vancouver has been very extreme or disruptive.
I actually hadn’t even thought of that section as Vancouver poems until you mentioned it. You are right; they are predominantly set in Vancouver. I see it as my “I’m an adult now” poem section. I spent a while creating the poem-voice that speaks in the way that I think—that scattered, fascinated, shy way. That voice feels more like what that section represents than the background details that make up those poems, but I’m sure For Your Safety Please Hold On would be a completely different book if I had moved to Montreal instead, as I had planned to.
Montreal’s loss is our gain! Looking back through your book, are you able to better see or understand your own feelings about Vancouver? If so, what are they?
I wish I could just insert one of the poems as answer to this question because they do a better job of articulating my feelings. I am really fascinated by Vancouver—really excited about how much there is to do and how many pigeons and coffee shops and good bits of fish there are—but I’m also overwhelmed and I find myself less patient and willing to engage with strangers than in a smaller town because there are just too many of them and they are too often forced into my physical space due to overcrowding. I hope that comes through in the book.
It certainly does. Alongside the crowds and pigeons and coffee shops, God makes a few appearances in For Your Safety Please Hold On – mostly notably in poems like “Temporary” and in the long poem which closes the book, “Many Metaphorical Birds.” Could you speak a bit about whatever religious upbringing you might have had, and if/how your connection to religion has changed over the years? Has poetry come to compliment, or replace, any parts of your life that you consider (or once would have considered) “religious”?
My dad is an atheist and my mom is “spiritual” in a general way. I was a fairly rebellious teenager and one of the most effectively rebellious things I did was convert to Christianity. Since it’s always been a personal, rather than familial thing, I haven’t experienced the same falling out with it that some kids raised in religious homes have. My faith has changed and evolved, of course, as everything does all the time.
Spiritual traditions, family, and poetry—these are all ways of attaching to a bigger thing than the self, of plugging into a narrative. I think religion is a different barrel of fish than poetry, however, and I don’t think one can build a worldview out of a genre of writing, but it can compliment and help deepen many spiritual practices.
Now that you have your first book – now that it’s a real thing you can hold in your hands – what purpose do you think it serves? (i.e. if your book were a machine, what would be its function?) When you envision someone picking it up and reading it, what do you hope they get from it? And does your answer differ at all from the answer you think you would have given three or four years ago, when your first book was still an abstract concept?
Wallace Stevens said it is the poet’s job to help people live their lives. I don’t know if I can aspire to something so lofty, but that’s how poetry “works” for me.
Poems are little machines you pour your thinking into and your thinking comes out differently, hopefully better, from the dispensing end. Maybe my poems will be a partner in someone’s ongoing thinking, or maybe they will amuse someone on her long bus rides. Maybe they will be cut up into nice collages or used to line a litter box.
Years ago, I thought I would have more figured out by now, that by having a book I would have “arrived” in some way as a person. Nope. Still can’t find my keys. Still don’t know anything. I’m happier knowing nothing now, though—it means I can still be surprised.
Surprise Kayla by picking up a copy of For Your Safety Please Hold On from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website or Amazon. Or better yet, show up at her launch. She won’t know to see it coming.