Kayla Czaga

Interviewed by Shaun Robinson

Kayla Czaga grew up in Kitimat, British Columbia and now lives in Vancouver, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Her poetry, nonfiction and fiction has been published in The Walrus, The Puritan, Room Magazine, Event and The Antigonish Review, among others, and she has twice been selected for inclusion in the Best Canadian Poetry in English anthology series. She is the author of the chapbook Enemy of the People from Anstruther Press, and the full-length collection For Your Safety Please Hold On, which won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Canadian Author’s Association Emerging Writer Award, and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, among others. She serves beer at “possibly the nerdiest bar in Canada,” according to the National Post.

Can you tell me about the first poem you ever wrote? What was it about? What led you to write it?

I wrote my first poem at age ten, after finishing A Ring Of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle, a YA coming of age novel. I closed the book and had the weird sense of needing to write a poem, like there was a poem trapped inside of me trying to get out. I guess it was my first experience of “inspiration.” The poem was long, awful, written in rhyming couplets and was about these jeans I really liked, my cat, and cinnamon buns.

How does a poem typically begin for you? Do you sit down and write it out all at once, or is it built up of fragments?

I wish there was a typical beginning to a poem. They would be easier to write if they had some sort of predictable pattern. Sometimes I’ll be staring off into space and then all of a sudden a poem will just arrive, start to end, with no warning. Sometimes I write down little bits on receipts for months and those sort of get knit together into something. Sometimes I write half a poem and then three years later write another half of a poem and realize they’re meant to be together. It’s super random.

What about endings? Do you know how your poems will end before they begin, or do you build organically to a conclusion?

It’s super random.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on ideas of truth and fiction in poetry. I asked you once about a certain incident in “That Great-Burgundy Upholstered Beacon of Dependability”—a friend sending you underwear in the mail—and you told me that you’d made it up. How often do you invent incidents in an autobiographical poem?

The underwear thing was true, actually, but avoiding him by skating wasn’t. We ended up hanging out, but I wish I’d been skating the whole time. Poems are not diary entries for me; they are objects I put a lot of hard work into before sending out into the world. Poems are these devices that readers experience. With lyric poems, the form I typically write, these experiences are primarily emotional. I am fine with inventing things for poems in order to create more effective emotional experiences for the reader. I’m not okay, however, with creating tabloid reactions by appropriatively embellishing aspects of my life. For instance, I’m not going to invent trauma to get sympathy from readers or to be more marketable.

Do you think a poet owes it to their reader to be “honest” or “truthful”? In relation to this topic, I’m thinking of your poem “Biography of My Father.” There are obvious fabrications in the poem, like the line “My father invented alligators,” but I think one effect those fanciful lines has is to make me assume the less fanciful lines are true. Am I being naive? Did your father really win a bowling tournament the night you were born?

I think a poet owes their readers good poems.

According to my family, my father really did win a bowling tournament the night I was born, but he obviously didn’t invent alligators. In my life, however, he did invent alligators and had mirrors lost inside of him. He occupies huge mythological space in my life, which is what I was trying to capture in “Biography of my Father,” which is why certain things were invented. I wanted to make a poem as magical as he is to me.

You studied creative writing at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Did school help your writing, or your career? Did you ever think about studying something else?

I was raised in Kitimat and I really didn’t know much about contemporary poetry when I started post secondary. My BA and MFA really sped up my education. I was fortunate to have so many amazing mentors—Tim Lilburn, Lorna Crozier, Carla Funk, Steven Price, Elizabeth Bachinsky, and Rhea Tregebov—who are brilliant poets and who really broke down the “becoming a poet” thing for me and showed me how it was done. I learned so many craft, professional, and daily things from them that I would not have been able to learn on my own without hard decades of work.

I thought about becoming a massage therapist for a while. I’ve toyed with library school. For a hot summer, I thought about going to law school. I loved history and art history and would’ve loved to have taken more courses in those departments.

You’ve published both a full length collection and a chapbook. The chapbook was written first, but published second. How did that come about?

I wrote the bulk of Enemy of the People in undergrad. When I came into the MFA program at UBC, I thought I would expand it and make it into a full collection, but I ended up writing For Your Safety, Please Hold On instead. I decided to publish the chapbook later when I realized it was unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future, that I would go back and make it into a full collection.

Do you think of poetry as a career? A vocation? What relation is there between writing and the other kinds of work you do to earn a living?

In a lot of ways, poetry has become a natural part of my existence, like eating or sleeping. While I don’t write poems as often or regularly as I eat and sleep, I can’t imagine not writing for any long period of time. I get antsy and anxious when I haven’t spent time with poetry in a few days. I was a very emotional and inspired teenager and I loved the feeling of writing, of making words sound and look nice on the page, of creating these weird word objects. I don’t operate on such a high emotional register anymore, but that energy was largely funnelled into learning poetry, reading and writing and thinking about it, and now it’s my default. It’s what I’ve programmed myself to do most of the time.

Can you tell me about what you’re working on now, and what you think is next for you?

I am most of the way through a new manuscript of poems. Like my first book, it’s mostly lyrics. I think I’m doing some weirder things in this book, taking a few more risks and stretching myself. It’s a lot about friendship, Vancouver, working weird service industry jobs, and there’s a big section about being a teenage girl. I’m also working on a long nonfiction project I’m really excited about, but it’s too soon to talk about it.

Shaun Robinson is the poetry editor for PRISM international and the author of the chapbook Manmade Clouds from Frog Hollow Press. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Mahalat Review, Poetry is Dead, Prairie Fire and The Rusty Toque.

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