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In Conversation With Kayla Czaga

 What makes the best caesar? Balanced tomato/vodka flavour, a pleasant amount of spice and a huge dose of LOVE. That’s what I am being treated to by the glorious Kayla Czaga at her new place in East Van.

Kayla was one of the first people I met when I moved to Vancouver in 2014. She was my creative writing program mentor. When we met up, we chatted in unexpected pouring rain at Wreck Beach with the odd penis parading by us and broke a sweat up the steep stairs afterwards. (For those that may not know, Wreck Beach is clothing optional.) It sounds like strange first friend date but we prefer to look back on it as special… memorable.

Kayla learned her caesar recipe from her dad. The rim is a mixture of cayenne and celery salt, and it’s definitely a spicy throat cleanser, in a good way! A caesar should aid in sinus maintenance, I think. Kayla provides vodka which she brought from her old place placed in a Tupperware container for easier packing. I can’t stop laughing as she ladles some into our stemless goblets. Pepperoni, crunchy celery, a colourful straw (I choose purple), ample worcestershire for Kayla, extra tobasco for me—and we have cocktails to be reckoned with!

We sit in her wonderful wilderness garden on a picnic table. In honour of Kayla’s dad, we cheers and name our drinks the

‘John Caesar.’

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I used celery because they don’t serve caesars with celery often at bars and I get nostalgic for the crunch element.

Yes, restaurants have gotten more pickley.

It’s because pickles keep longer. And they’re cheaper.

You’re so wise. So your dad calls this his “survival drink”? 

Yes. All you need is in this cup. If I was making my caesar recipe, I’d use gin. I’m not actually that fussy on vodka.

Well, this is delicious. But since trying a gin caesar with Beni at The Lido, I definitely like those too. Your new place is so great. I really love your yard.

Apparently they’re going to landscape it more cleanly, trim it down, but I love it as is.

Yeah, it’s got a secret garden, overgrown vibe I dig. So let’s not beat around the bush here– you just won Arc Magazine‘s Poem of the Year Contest with your poem “Harvest Moon Lantern Festival,” you angel! Congratulations!

Thanks, Mal.

I knew that poem was a contender to win. It’s haunted me. It’s so good. I’ve read it to all my students this summer.

And Arc is such a good, fun contest. I got to go to Ottawa last weekend for their issue launch, an issue you’re also in! I’ve known for months that I’d won and they didn’t announce it until recently. It was a secret.

Well, I knew!

How?

Saw it in your eyes. Kidding. I didn’t know!

Also, you can’t have more than one caesar because I’m out of ice.

I’ll have some tupperware vodka if I need it. What inspired that poem?

It was supposed to be a list poem. The background of the poem is about the Renfrew Ravine Moon Festival that happens every fall. They fill the ravine with lanterns. It kind of feels like you’re in a dreamworld. There were bell lanterns on the river, people on stilts and lots of lights and fire and it’s all really beautiful. 

My favourite line in that poem is when the little children become lanterns. How does that line go again?

Kids in neon windbreakers are excellent lanterns and continue burning past bedtime.

Love that. I’m so glad you were awarded for that poem. And now you have a good chunk of change to help you write more. How’s your new collection going?

Good. It feels more and more finished. I’ve sent it to some friends and they gave me some good feedback. But I haven’t looked at it in about a month.

Put it in the drawer method! Smart.

I find that if I do that, I’ll return to the manuscript with more clarity.

This is a full-length manuscript you’re working on but would you ever consider publishing a second chapbook? Enemy of the People is SO beautiful. I read it at a barbershop while Curtis was getting a haircut. It felt so appropriate to read in that setting for some reason.

Barbershops are pretty communist in a way…compared to female-geared salons. At barbershops, everyone gets the same three haircuts.

Maybe that’s why! What’s your working title for this new full-length manuscript?

Dunk Tank—which is a title of a poem in the collection that reflects a lot of themes in the overall collection.

What are some of those themes?

Well, the poem “Dunk Tank” ends on a liminal note where the speaker is about to be dunked…The second before you fall. A lot of the poems are about being a sad, northern girl, a loss of innocence and discovery of the world. My speaker knows a lot but is still inept in so many ways. I thought I knew everything as a teenager and what I thought I knew didn’t really equip me for the world!

So your second book is speaking back to your first book?

A little bit, yes! I guess I wasn’t done being a sad, northern girl in my poetry after For Your Safety Please Hold On. I talked about family and girlhood a lot in that book but Dunk Tank will tackle more adolescence.

That seems like a natural trajectory. So maybe by your third manuscript, you would write about adulthood…or just throw us all off the trail— write STALIN’S Childhood.

GOOD IDEA. Actually the way Dunk Tank moves is that by the end, I’m in the adult phase of my life. Wow, I’m so confessional. Weird.

How do you feel about the people you write poems about reading your work?

Good and weird.

I’m going through that motion a bit myself with my forthcoming book’s confessional elements. Did you send those individuals the pieces about them before they were published?

I went to a panel at CCWWP (The Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs) in 2014. At this panel, Priscilla Uppal and David Chariandy discussed writing about family. Priscilla said she thinks it’s actually an aggressive gesture to hand a family member your manuscript and demand they read it because it’s based on them or about them or for them.

So with my family, I just didn’t. They’re not really readers of poetry but they have read my book. It felt more organic that they could seek it out and read it once it was out in the world. I showed my friends though because it’s a different speaker-subject relationship to me than my family members in that I am closer with my friends.

Also I think friends who are writers, regardless of genre, understand the concept of being included in another writer’s work. What did the “religious aunt” in your first book think of the poem about her?

Interestingly enough, the religious aunt is completely fictional! I created her off of a certain stereotype of the overbearing, female figure. But the “Drunk Uncle” in my book is real. I spoke to him on the phone last year when I went to Niagara Falls and all he told me was that he hoped I went over the falls. I think he took the poem I wrote quite personally. I think he’s slightly kidding in being curt with me but I also do think he wanted a more respectful portrait of himself.

That’s tough. But you can’t skirt around the core of a character, even if it is someone you know, if you need those details to explore and write your best work. I wonder about privacy in poetry. For example, as I’m talking to you about your work I should be saying “speaker” but I’m instead thinking of your book in purely nonfictional ways. That isn’t the right way to do it but my mind still goes there.

Right. For my work, the speaker and poet are pretty interchangeable. But other writer’s write things that are very sensitive to them so assuming it’s them in their work in conversation can be a little violating and confrontational.

What about the amalgamation of time in poems? Do you play with time?

Yes, absolutely I do. I’m very influenced by poets who are able to jump around in their work and I try to do the same. I have poems that are strictly childhood poems or strictly adult poems but mostly, there’s a blending of the two in a single poem. That’s how events occur to me and how memories play out in my head. For example, what I ate today, a childhood memory and something my mom said could all fit in the same poem for me!

So you try to connect unlikely memories or thoughts together.

I get poem amnesia. When I’m done writing a poem, I totally forget how I wrote it or how it formed. And I always fear it will be the last poem I ever write!

I take a lot of notes and connect concepts during the writing process. Sometimes, I won’t realize when a certain idea or topic is sitting really heavily on me and note-taking helps show me. Sometimes, poems just shoot right through me—they just kind of fall out. I’ll be reading over my notes and it will occur to me that the things I’m writing down can and do go together. I don’t really think linearly. I don’t write a poem narratively from beginning to end. I jump around quite a bit. That’s how I tell stories in general! My girlfriend, Angela, always catches me omitting the whole middle section of a story when I’m speaking.

Right. And you’re like, hang on—this story is better told beginning, end, middle!

Or I just forget the middle altogether. Omitting narrative in poetry is “profound” or “interesting” but in real life, it’s just annoying to your girlfriend!

Well, so far with your work, I’d say the literary world is able to keep up with your stories and nonlinear way of writing. We’re happy to do it!

I get told I’m an accessible poet but sometimes I worry that accessible is interchangeable for weak or unintelligent. I also feel like it’s not super vogue in Canadian poetry to be accessible a lot of the time. Do you notice that?

Yes, but I also think when people use the term accessible, they mean there’s a less gauzy appearance to the poems—they’re the right mix of colloquialisms and image. I think if anyone labels your work as accessible, it’s because the poems tackle coming of age themes and moments that people can maybe resonate with but not quite touch. There’s so much complexity to your work.

Writing lyric poems about your own life is, in a lot of ways, more accessible than heavy academia, philosophical poetry. I do love the Greeks though.

I once knew someone who told me not to write an Icarus poem because everyone has one, including himself, and he says it embarrasses him like a bad tattoo.

I feel really inspired by the New York School of poets. I don’t know why they’re not called confessional. Their work is like “I got up. I went for lunch. I had a feeling. I drank some coffee. Someone died.” I think because they’re so plain and often slightly funny, they’re not seen as serious enough to be categorized as a confessional poem.

Confessional poetry seems like it originated as more of a way to discuss deep anguish and personal trials. We don’t really get to know what Sylvia Plath had for lunch. Mundanity seems less in unison with emotion in confessional poems. And your work strikes more of a balance between mundanity and emotion.

Part of my first book was written for my family who don’t read poetry. My dad didn’t get it at all. I think maybe being a reader of poetry is helpful to access my book? But even then, I do know non-readers of poetry who enjoyed it. My dad is an immigrant from Hungary and he didn’t learn English quickly. He went to school in a tiny town in northern Alberta where they probably didn’t read a lot of poetry and so in his mind, poetry should be traditional rhyming couplets that say something about life by the end. So my book not rhyming and not explicitly saying anything to sum up life at the end lost him. He just kind of hoped I was writing John Lennon songs!

Well, that’s MY hope for your next book!

My dad did love my chapbook though.

I get why—historical research, poetry rooted in historically accurate events.

He told me I write history really well.

I agree! So tell me about the massive crate-based shelving project you have going on in your new place.

I found crates at Home Depot. I’m working on staining and sanding them.

How are the crates going to stay in place? There are so many!

They stack really nicely. We’re going to bolt and screw them so nothing topples.

You’ve got enough books to fill it, I bet.

Yes, and we’ll have space to put board games, craft supplies, that kind of thing.

You craft?

Yes. I do a lot of needle-felting. I’ve done cows and sheep. And I do a bit of knitting but I’ve been working on a blanket for the past 3 years that isn’t going anywhere.

So you write books faster than you knit blankets?

Yes! And every six months my mom phones and asks me how the blanket is coming along. I should have never told her about it. I’m knitting socks with my writer-friend Michelle Brown who lives in Toronto. She came and met me in Ottawa when I was just there and we went to a yarn store and bought matching colours.

You’re not working on the same pair long-distance, are you?

No! That wouldn’t be super time efficient I don’t think.

I was thinking this is very Sisterhood of the Travelling Socks right now. I make a stitch, mail it. You make a stitch, write a letter about your summer, mail it. Michelle Brown and you are friends from your creative writing undergrad at UVIC—You had a really “tight-knit” cohort!?

I had a really good year. Everyone went off to do such amazing things!

Do you ever send each other work?

Michelle Brown just sent me her manuscript and I sent her mine. Her book is coming out next Spring with Palimpsest Press. We used to do online workshops but less so lately. I’m totally burned out on workshops.

I think the workshop module is so important when you’re starting out but after awhile, when does it pull away from your own process and self-realization?

Yeah, sometimes you’ll write a poem that’s in a good place and maybe publishable and you hand it into workshop and people pull it apart because they feel like they have to say something critical. But it can also be nice to also have affirmation if your poem is well-received.

But if it doesn’t go that way and you thought the poem is working, it can be really confusing. It’s a subjective process. But I’ve benefitted from poetry workshops and still do!

Same.

I know people who haven’t—where it just doesn’t work for them, it’s discouraging, it’s an extra weight.

Too many voices. It took me a long time to learn to edit my own work and filter out a lot of excess feedback. Workshop isn’t always the right method for every author.

But they’re good in that they force you to be open and vulnerable, able to share your work. Which can be really scary at first but so invaluable.

I used to feel like I was going to barf in my second year every time before workshop. But by third year and definitely now, I’m fine with people seeing work that isn’t fully done.

Raw poems. I think you cook your poems medium-rare.

I do like seeing my poems when they’re fresh and not cooked at all and then I get to marinate them.

My poems are always over-seasoned at first and somehow I scrape off the salt in time to save them. Would you want to work in editing or publishing?

Currently, I’m on the editorial board for Icehouse. We meet 3-4 times a year and I really enjoy it. We are all scattered around Canada so we meet on Skype, Google Chat, that kind of thing. It’s really cool to plug in every 3 months and discuss some amazing manuscripts. I definitely prefer publishing to magazine editing because I like seeing a whole voice take form.

You really helped me with my book when I had a first draft. Who is your book For Your Safety dedicated to again?

My parents. Who will yours be dedicated to?

My sisters. What did you want your cover art to look like? Sometimes what the author envisions is different than the result. I’m so nervous and excited about my book, I have no vision for cover art at all! I black out with feelings because I can’t even picture having a physical thing I wrote in the world like that.

I thought that I wanted really bright, summery popsicle-type colours for my book but when they sent me a draft of that, it didn’t suit.

And you originally wanted your book to be called For Play? Or Foreplay?

Two words, Mallory. But I do like For Your Safety Please Hold On though I would like my next book to have a shorter title.

But for people who take public transit, we see your book every day multiple times a day!

Yes, but that’s Vancouver-specific. I’ve had so many people come to Vancouver and then understand where the title comes from. Free advertising. And it’s a very ‘Vancouver’ book. A bit of Kitimat but overall, it’s a west coast B.C. book.

When was the last time you were back in Kitimat?

It’s been three years. When I was nominated for the B.C. Book prize, I was sent back to speak to students at my old high school which was awkward for me but the kids seemed to like it. I delivered a speech and read poems to different classes in the library, classrooms and theatre. I wished I had led some workshops with the kids but I was new to the experience so I didn’t think of that until after. Some of my old teachers who are still there came up and hugged me. I’d graduated eight years prior to that.

Amazing! They must’ve been so proud of you. Did you sign books?

I did. You know how at every high school there’s a handful of artsy kids who are eager to leave their hometowns? Some cornered me afterwards asking a lot of questions and it kind of felt like I was doing good to my younger self in some ways.

Right. If young Kayla in Kitimat met a visiting poet from Vancouver who used to attend her high school, she would’ve been the one asking a millions questions!

Exactly! And also I would’ve been inspired to see a poet out in the world at that age who isn’t dying and able to keep afloat. My parents didn’t want me to be a writer because it isn’t always stable or lucrative.

It’s a hard career but I do believe in it. I believe people can stay afloat while pursuing an art they truly love.

It is hard in B.C. We have the lowest Art’s Council funding per capita.

I know! It sucks. Why is that?

I have no idea. I wonder if it had to do with the Liberals being in power for 16 years. I don’t know if it was better before that though! Do you know?

No, but it makes me sad. Let’s eat some sunflowers seeds. Also, this caesar is delicious.

Could have used more worcestershire or even horseradish.

I’m not in a horseradish mood right now. It gives a caesar a funny oceanic vibe sometimes. So tell me more the serving job you have and love at Storm Crow! You make a killer cocktail– I bet you’re loved there.

I had no idea you can make money in restaurants like this! I would’ve started serving a long time ago. But I’m not in it just for the money. I love having a physical and social job.

Are most people nice?

Oh yeah the “nerdy” clientele are so great. Everyone is friendly, happy to be there. It’s a fun environment. There’s always going to be people you can’t please but for the most part, people are great.

You guys are donating a package to our Rahila’s Ghost Press fundraiser party August 18th. K WHATEVER I KNOW I totally just plugged an event.

It’s going to be such a good event! And yes, Storm Crow is great. Super community-oriented. We have a great staff. Actually, I just read poetry at a staff party last week.

Do you prefer that or a room of strangers?

Strangers! But it was super fun. I do like keeping my work and life separate but I don’t mind bridging those things once in awhile. I think my reading went over well.

My parents loved seeing you read! They’re your top Ottawa fans!

Your parents are so nice. And young-looking. But yes, I thank Lorna Crozier for my good reading habits. She said my poems were great but I needed to get better at reading them. She told me that my voice was too high pitched and airy at times. 

Do you still feel anxious or nervous reading even though you’ve performed a lot the past few years?

Depends. I am usually able to get comfortable and speak well. This is off-record, but I am really worried that I sweat too much when I get nervous.

Me too! But I think that’s a pretty normal bodily reaction when public speaking?

Okay, then put it on-record—I’m a nervous sweater.

I thought you meant sweater like a sweater you wear. You are also a good, cozy sweater.

People tell me I don’t sweat as much as I think I sweat but I feel like I’m super clammy when I read. One time when I was lecturing, I looked down at my hands and saw the marks they left on the table and the fog around them. I’m so gross. 

I was so sweaty when we went to Wreck Beach that time.

Oh my god. I was drenched.

Well, I was new to Vancouver. You should’ve warned me those stairs are a bit of a commitment!

I thought you knew! And when we were down there, you almost got a high-five from a penis passing by and I remember saying welcome to Vancouver over-enthusiastically.

Well, I’m still here so it must’ve not traumatized me too much. Oh, I had a question for you about your poem called “Poem about Jeff” in your book and also published by The Maynard—in which the word “fuck” integrated throughout. How many fucks are there?

14! Which I love because it reminds me of a sonnet.

A sonnet that gives some fucks. New title idea? Or next book title?

How about 14 Fucks About Can Lit.

Or I Don’t Give 14 Fucks About Can Lit.

That’s better!

Yeah, I’ve been thinking so much about Can Lit, reflexively. When it was all happening at UBC and students were in the the thick of this awful mess, we just held hands and got through it. In hindsight, it was all so fucked up.

Historically, issues in academia like that have always happened but now there’s dialogue and change, I think, surrounding them to work toward a better future, however bleak it is and how horrible it feels in the moment. There is more accountability and people thinking what the hell is this? we can’t have this.

Social media dialogues too. Helped us to be more informed, even if it was strange or painful.

I definitely got into a bit of a Twitter quarrel with someone regarding Margaret Atwood.

YOU AND THE WHOLE WORLD! Kidding. What was it about?

I was responding to Margaret Atwood and another writer responded to me instead and the tweets got weird and wordy and I was thinking we only have 140 characters—this can’t be the best method to exchange viewpoints. I’m not on Twitter to argue. 

I wasn’t in a place to participate too actively in how I was feeling or how my friends were feeling so I am glad for the voices in our community who did articulate the alumni/student/emerging writer perspective.

The shitty part was no matter how much we wanted to help through conversation, I think our voices and views further crystallized some people to be stuck in their ways.

Feeding the fire! The problem with the internet is that it can be overwhelming for people and it feels like people are talking at you which is way more violating than having the exact same conversation across from each other at a table.

Right and tone is lost on the internet. And there were a lot of trolls/fake accounts that weighed in during that time. I think a lot of time was lost for community members and writers because they could have been doing their other important, passion projects and writing but they took on a heavy role to challenge, help, converse and get involved.

Right. Which was needed. The waste of time aspect comes into play when voices fell on ears that weren’t listening and weren’t planning to. Especially I think about emerging writers or new MFA Students who needed to use their time to develop their craft, make new friends, earn money, and not feel like they have to refresh their Twitter and be caught in a crossfire or have their feelings hurt.

Totally. It was unfair. I felt really betrayed during that whole time when I saw people I admired come to the aid of a side that represented a lot of harm. I came out of the program before things went wrong so I learned that while I was there, that environment held a lot harm and I never saw it. Anyway, when the news broke, I’d graduated, was working at Storm Crow.

What are you working on right now besides poetry?

I’m semi-working on a collection of essays with the working title “How to Write a Dinosaur Porno.” The reason for the title is this year, I was asked to write entertaining dino porn for fun bar reads workplace.

What makes up the genre of dinosaur porn?

Well, sadly a traditional dino porn consists of a dino “man” and a human woman. The big unknown scary beast and the damsel woman.

Got it. I find sex really hard to write.

When did you write sex?

There’s a virginity loss in my novel. Which is almost cheating as an author because you know it’s going to be awkward for the characters so I thought readers could ignore my awkward sex choreography and blame the characters!

I find words we use for sex don’t really suit sex that well. But I wrote about giant prehistoric dinosaur penises, which was fun?

But a dinosaur having sex with a woman isn’t sexy—it’s logistically unsound.

I know but it’s more for a bar-humour project. I have some ideas for more sexy dinosaur erotica — I wanted to write “Rex and the City.” A lady T-Rex doing her thing.

Wearing beautiful lipstick and smoking cigarettes like Carrie! Love it. What’s the society like in your dinosaur porn?

Well my characters are Tanis, a farm girl, and an allosaurus, Big Al. I invented a future in which we’ve reincarnated dinosaurs to do menial tasks. We’ve brought them back as labourers. So there’s a dinosaur suffrage movement in the stories.

Big Al is being exploited by his society.

Yes, he works in the oil fields so he’s a dinosaur mining the blood of his ancestors–the fossil fuels. But ultimately, he’s kind of an asshole.

Amazing. So your essay collection obviously wouldn’t be about Big Al but that happens to be a funny, side writing project that came into your lap this year.

Exactly.

How do you feel about writing nonfiction? 

Sometimes when you write a poem and there’s too many lines, it turns into a personal essay. In my poems, I have extraneous elements, societal or historical background context, so they can kind of turn into micro nonfiction essays.

Have you thought about braiding poetry with essays kind of like Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life memoir?

Maybe! And I also love Bluets by Maggie Nelson which sticks with one form the whole way through.

What’s your research process like for your essays?

I don’t mind heavy research when it’s stuff I want to learn more about! But research is harder. With a poem, I can make stuff up and with an essay, I can’t.

Essays have to be more rooted in the truth.

I feel weird because I’ve been reading poems forever and I know where to go to access new work and with nonfiction, it’s daunting because I have less of a frame of reference for those resources.

Well, put a call out requesting some creative nonfiction recommendations and I have no doubt, friends will rush to your aid!

 

At this point, a cat behind Kayla’s house has a verbal battle with what sounded like a raccoon. Kayla and I investigate. The cat is fine and prances off confidently with swag and so we finish our drinks with swag. The stars are out. We drape blankets on our legs. We chat a little longer. Kayla, your work always challenges and inspires me to persevere, float and dream wider with my poems. Your presence always brightens my day and I love chatting with you. Thank you for a fiery, flavourful, fancy time!

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My ‘John Caesar’ Caesar Ratings:

Flavour: 7/5

Rim: 6/5

Garnish: 5/5

Patio: 6/5

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Kayla Czaga is a Canadian poet, who won the Gerald Lampert Award in 2015 for her debut collection For Your Safety Please Hold OnThe book was also a shortlisted nominee for the Governor General’s Award for English language poetry, the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Canadian Authors Association’s Emerging Writer Award.

Kayla Czaga graduated from the University of Victoria in 2011 with a degree in English and creative writing before pursuing an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Her poetry has also been published in The PuritanThe WalrusRoomEventThe Malahat Review and The Antigonish Review.

@kaylaczaga 

 

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