The Art of Healing: An Interview with Kyla Jamieson
Kyla Jamieson is a disabled writer who lives and relies on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Room Magazine, Poetry Is Dead, Arc Poetry Magazine, Vallum, Peach Mag, Plenitude, GUTS, and The Account. She is the author of Kind of Animal (Rahila’s Ghost Press), a poetry chapbook about the aftermath of a brain injury. Her work was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize and her first book-length collection of poems, Body Count, placed third in the Metatron Prize for Rising Authors. Find Kyla on Instagram as @airymeantime.
*I would like to call attention to the ableist language I used partway through, where I compare ‘disabled’ people to ‘normal’ people. This language others people with disabilities and is divisionary; the opposite of what I want this project to stand for.
Hannah Macready: Hi Kyla! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I’m so excited to have had the chance to read your book, “Body Count” and to speak with you directly about the work. Your poetry is raw and personal. I felt that each piece was speaking to me directly as if I was part of the narrative myself. It also reads like a memoir and I can’t help but feel as if I know you in some way after reading it. Many poets shriek at the idea that their poems are about them and it can be hard to draw a line between speaker and self. Yet, I think you painted your life beautifully on the pages. Was it difficult to be so open about such personal issues? Do you feel connected to the speaker or was she a vessel for art?
Kyla Jamieson: Thank you for inviting me to have this conversation! Throughout my BFA and MFA, I mostly focussed on creative nonfiction—unfortunately, since my concussion, I have had a lot of trouble with reading and writing prose, hence the shift towards poetry. Not having the option of writing nonfiction I think kind of pushed me to transpose my nonfiction impulses onto my poetry. I do think it’s wise to understand that the “I” of a piece of writing will only ever be one version of a person, but I don’t insist that the speaker is a completely separate entity.
I do find it hard to write about some things, but what holds me back is rarely an unwillingness to be vulnerable. I’m someone who’s always really wanted to know the truth about other people’s lives and experiences, perhaps because I can miss subtext and need things to be spelled out. I think we all create what we’ve longed for.
HM: I love the use of colloquial, millennial language throughout your book. You use short, DM-style phrases like “v.” and “rn” which places the poems in a distinct way. I find this style both honest and conversational, which makes each poem feel as if you’re talking to the reader directly. What made you choose this style? Is it natural or something you came to in time? Further, what does writing style mean to you, if anything?
KJ: It definitely took time to find my own voice and style. I love that it feels honest and direct to you. I always want my work to feel accessible, and I care way more about being able to connect with people than being able to impress them.
Using abbreviations and the same lexicon I use in text messages just feels natural to me. I do care about compression and not being overly wordy, and abbreviations help me achieve that. I also write on my phone a lot, and it makes sense to write in the same language I use while texting on my phone.
HM: Many of your poems follow a short sentence, quick line-break style that let’s them line up like towers on the page. Yet, in the titular poem, “Body Count” you take on a more prosaic form, using virgules to denote line breaks and taking the full page to express the work. Can you tell me a bit about the significance of form in your book? What makes “Body Count” unique from the other poems?
KJ: Yeah, that’s kind of been my signature form–I think the earliest poem I wrote in that form is “Five Parts Rape Poem One Part Self-Care,” which is in the first section. I gravitated towards that shape even more in the second half of the book, because after my concussion it was really hard for my eyes to follow longer lines of text. When I made the lines short, I could at least read my own work. So in large part, the form of my poems is driven by necessity, it’s a product of me making my own work accessible for myself, but in a way that also makes it accessible to other folks with the same brain injury-related visual symptoms.
Body Count was one of the earlier poems I wrote for this book. The structure I settled on is directly influenced by Liz Bowen’s book Sugarblood, which I highly, highly recommend. It’s also a product of the fact that my editor and I had very different philosophies about line breaks. The final form let me maintain the energy of the lines and gave the poem a cohesive structure despite the varying lengths of the ideas/vibes/lines.
HM: You tackle a lot of delicate content in your book, from rape to struggling with post-concussion syndrome. You also name people quite frequently, from your “Dear Kayla” poems to your relationships with Jesse and Frank. Can you talk a little about the emotional process of publishing such personal material? Do you find it helpful in the healing process and what kind of nuances does it bring?
KJ: I think it was Anne Michaels who said “the shortest poem is a name.” Frank, though, is a pseudonym–it’s actually my best friend’s ex-boyfriend’s dog’s name. I wanted a name, but I didn’t want it to be a complete fiction. A couple of the friends I named in this book had actually drifted away by the time I got to editing and publishing the book, so that was bittersweet in a way.
In terms of healing, I think it happens off the page. The healing happens, and then the writing happens–I’m someone who can find writing ecstatic, and I think experiencing that feeling is healing, but I don’t think writing is inherently healing. I do really value writing as a place to be honest with myself, and through that process begin to see myself more clearly. I think that’s always a worthwhile pursuit.
In terms of the content, it is vulnerable to disclose a disability in our culture and our literary culture in particular. A lot of writers have faced this choice and chosen not to disclose, which means we have less writing about illness and disability, and I think that’s a huge loss but I completely understand why people make that choice, because disclosing can be risky. For me, my concussion so completely dismantled my life, and I was so impaired and incapacitated, that for a while there wasn’t anything else in my life to write about.
HM: Your book got me thinking a lot about ability; what it means to me and how I see it in the wider world. I think, as writers, our idea of ourselves is often tied to production and “the hustle” is all too common. When I think about that, I’m confronted with my own ableist upbringing; one that values doing over not doing and faults the self for rest. I want to change that mindset, in myself and in others. How do you think the CanLit community could better support disabled writers? Do you think we need to shift our focus from production to something more widely sustainable? Are there ways we can better support the overall wellbeing of our artists?
KJ: Oh yeah, grind culture is totally ableist. And literary culture is also classist. Like, we are still not having a real conversation about class in CanLit. And there is a lot of performative class posturing that really irks me.
I truly think that the ableist ideas we’ve all internalized do *everyone* a disservice–their negative impact is primarily, but not exclusively, absorbed by disabled bodies. It’s incredibly liberating to unlearn ableism and capitalism and all the frameworks that reduce humans to mechanisms of production. That’s one way that we can all support ourselves, and it’s something allies can do to be better peers to disabled writers and artists.
I think it’s important for granting bodies to recognize disability. The Canada Council for the Arts does but the BC Arts Council doesn’t–they don’t have any assistance for disabled applicants, they don’t have any disabled juries evaluating grants. You have to explain your work differently when you’re talking to people who might have no clue about disability. With a disability, you’re not necessarily less productive, and I don’t think anyone should be required or expected to be productive, but sometimes the issue is just that you don’t have what you need to be able to spend time or energy making art.
As a society, we need to ensure that disabled people have dignity, and our basic needs are met, so we can have freedom of self-expression, and can be as artistically productive as we would like to be or as our bodyminds allow us to be. The Canada Council for the Arts does a lot to ensure that disabled writers have a chance to access funding and obtain support for their funded projects. We do have to recognize that our whole world is designed to accommodate able bodied/minded people, and some different accommodations need to be made to facilitate the work of disabled writers and artists.
HM: Your book recently celebrated its international release and will now be spreading its wings and flying across the globe. How has the publishing process been for you? What have you learned from this first book and what knowledge will you take with you if you begin the process again?
KJ: Having this book published feels very transformative for me. It’s really special to be able to share my work in this way.
The publishing world operates on normative time, while I live and work on sick time. It can be difficult to manage expectations, and maintain the boundaries that support me. I definitely learned a lot from my first book, but also my chapbook, that I’ll be carrying forward to my future projects. Working on Body Count made me face self-doubt in a whole new way, and I think it made me stronger.
HM: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Kyla. Since we’re here to celebrate Amateurs and all the delicate pieces that make them unique, can you tell me what being an amateur means to you? Is it empowering, anxiety-inducing, intriguing, terrifying? What makes you excited about emergence?
KJ: Having a book out honestly makes me feel like I’ve “made it”–there were so many stages to go through to get here. I don’t think I necessarily have better ideas than I did five years ago, but now people are listening.