The Power of a Name: Kain Stewart Interviews Kayla Czaga
KAYLA CZAGA is the author of two collections of poetry—For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions, 2014) and Dunk Tank (House of Anansi, 2019)—as well as the chapbook Enemy of the People (Anstruther Press, 2015). Her debut book was awarded The Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and nominated for The Governor General’s Award for Poetry, The Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, and The Debut-litzer Prize. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including The Fiddlehead, The Walrus, ARC Poetry Magazine, and The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry in English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and lives in Victoria, B.C.
Kain Stewart: Thank you for spending the time answering some questions. In your poem “Bibliophilia,” there is a statement about the speaker’s relationship with writing: “So it is my birthright to defile / the written word.” This aspect of defiling is what many poets strive for with the written word. Words, sentences, and meanings are created only to be turned around (defiled?) later on in the poem when expectations are changed. In the title poem of Dunk Tank, the narrator knows what will eventually happen: She will fall into the water below. Despite knowing the inevitable, the speaker is pleasantly surprised by a change in her expectations. You have a clear mastery in the change, and denial, of expectations and showcase your skill throughout the poems of Dunk Tank. How do you want readers of Dunk Tank to have their expectations challenged throughout their reading?
Kayla Czaga: I originally cringed when I read this question because the word “defile” has such negative connotations. I used it in “Bibliophilia” because I was criticizing owning things for the ownership’s sake instead of experiencing them. But you’re right, the act of “defiling,” of taking things out of their normal files and putting them into new files (or eliminating files completely) is crucial to what I want to do. Poetry is all about metaphors, which is a form of lying to the reader—saying x is y when it’s clearly x! But it’s also y. I’ve made it y in my head, so it gets to be y in a reader’s head, too. And y is often truer than x or at least more interesting. The poetry I’m most drawn to creates these new connections and wakes me up to the world, allows me to see it freshly. Readers can expect me to lie to them continuously for their own imaginative good the way my favourite poets have lied to me!
Dunk Tank is also a coming-of-age collection. Failure, denial, change—these are all things inherent in that genre. I wanted to capture that moment when the switch flips, the speaker plunges, to show the mind being forced to open up to a new reality, so that I would better understand it and myself.
KS: Many poets actively avoid using names in their poems, but you don’t shy away from using a name. Poems like “Inventory,” “Dunk Tank,” “Money,” and many more state names. After all, a lot of power rests in a name. Where does your desire to name come from?
KC: Early on in the writing of Dunk Tank, I read “I Love Dick” by Chris Kraus, which is a series of love letters to a man named Richard. That Dick is short for Richard makes the project really funny and more poignant. Around the same time, my friend Kyla Jamieson was writing a series of letters to her friend as an artistic project. In “I Love Dick,” Kraus recounts a time that Dick had an answering machine message from a person named Kyla and, when I read that part, the whole Kyla section in my book took shape in my head. I knew it would be about names, what they mean, how they get confused for other things (people constantly call me Kyla), texting and emailing, the intensity of the epistolary form and the daily details that people put in their letters.
More generally, I love the way names sound—the music of them. Often they pop into my head along with some words or phrases (like “Matthew, the bathroom in this place,” in “Salmon and Potato Salad.”) My poem, “Michelle on Instagram,” couldn’t have been written about anyone else. “Michelle” and “Instagram” sound so good together to my ear. There’s also a documentary aspect. I want to record my experience and these names and their corresponding people are deeply a part of that.
KS: Risk is an important part of writing. One of your past University of Victoria professors, Lorna Crozier, did a lecture on writers and risk back in 2018. Suffice to say, risk is always on the mind of writers. What risks did you take writing Dunk Tank?
KC: In For Your Safety Please Hold On, I wrote a lot about my family and some about my life, but the poems about my life weren’t super personal. In Dunk Tank, I actively wrote about some of the things I’d avoided. And it was hard to write and publish those poems about being an awkward northern youth. It was really embarrassing, but those stories felt necessary. “LIVEJOURNAL.COM/LONELYRADIO” is a really risky poem for me.
I also tried a more direct voice that bursts in and says what it means. In one poem I said, “Fuck what people think,” which isn’t something I would’ve done in For Your Safety Please Hold On. I don’t know if that directness is something I’ll keep, but it was an important risk to take for creating the atmosphere in Dunk Tank.
Another thing I did was try to complicate my portraits of people. My father, a big presence in both books, is always admirable in For Your Safety Please Hold On. In my long poem “Mosquitos,” which ends Dunk Tank, I still try to capture the admiration and respect I have for him while also showing some of the less perfect aspects of his personality. To me, this was an act of love, and a risk, capturing the flaws of someone alongside the affection.
KS: You currently serve as the online poetry mentor for Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio. What is the importance of mentoring other writers? How does it appear in your own work?
KC: When I was first starting writing, I had such wonderful mentors! And it wasn’t until much later when certain stories surfaced about other programs that I realized how lucky I was. The poets who helped me get started (thank you Tim Lilburn, Carla Funk, Lorna Crozier, Steven Price, Rhea Tregebov, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Sheryda Warrener!) truly wanted me to thrive and weren’t creepy or harmful. They saved me years (possibly decades) of trying to figure things out on my own. I want to do the same thing for emerging poets. Poetry is sort of a niche interest and to be able to talk to someone further along in the field and be in a group of similar-level-as-you folks who also care about it can make all the difference.
I recently wrote my first poem about mentoring, but it’s not a big subject for me. Having students, though, and having to talk regularly about poetry, has been keeping me honest. When I give my students writing prompts, or offer suggestions, I also try out these things. It’s important to me to try and model what I lecture in my own practice. And my students are so excited about poetry that they often rekindle my own excitement.
KS: A friend of mine posted on his Instagram about how Dunk Tank served to inspire many of his own poems. What poets continually inspire you?
KC: I constantly reread everything by Aisha Sasha John, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Rick Barot, Chen Chen, Anne Carson, and Matthew Zapruder. Also, I’m fortunate to live on the West Coast around so many poets who are writing breathtaking books—folks like Amber Dawn, Ali Blythe, Laura Matwichuk, Sonnet L’Abbe, and Raoul Fernandes. I feel like BC is definitely having a poetry moment.
KS: All writers revise their work. Some, more than others. What does revision typically look like for you?
KC: I revise a lot while I’m writing a first draft. I have to read my new poems out loud to myself many times. I catch a lot of awkward stuff that way. Typically, I look at a new poem over and over for the first week or two and then I let it sit. I also always ask for a second opinion. Sometimes my partner’s, sometimes another poet’s.
I do more focused editing in bursts, once or twice a year. I’ll print everything out and underline the parts I don’t like—words, lines, whole sections. And see what occurs to me. I brainstorm in the margins. Sometimes I tape everything up on a wall and let it hang there. I’m notoriously bad for coming up with endings. One of the poems in Dunk Tank was virtually done except for the ending, which took three years of coming back to.
A thing that helps me is to break down my editing into “tasks.” I’ll say, OK today I’m going to look at my verbs. Then I go in and only work on my verbs—or adjectives, or line breaks, or some other little part. Separating my poem into smaller parts allows me to be less precious or protective about it.
KS: A year has passed since the publication of Dunk Tank. What is next?
KC: More life! More poems!
Kain Stewart lives in Victoria, BC.