Humour & Darkness: Curtis LeBlanc interviews Kayla Czaga

Kayla Czaga

Past contributor Curtis LeBlanc talks with Kayla Czaga, this year's Open Season Awards poetry judge. They discuss writing from your own experiences, the importance of voice, and finding humour in truth.


Kayla Czaga is the author of three collections of poetry: For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which won The Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for poetry; Dunk Tank, which was nominated for the BC & Yukon Book Prizes’ Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize; and Midway, forthcoming from House of Anansi in 2024. Recent writing has appeared in The Fiddlehead, CV2, Room Magazine, and Best Canadian Poetry in English 2024. She is the online poetry mentor for SFU’s The Writer’s Studio.
[photo credit: Erin Flegg]

Your work, like the work of so many poets, deals often with the processes of recollection and reminiscence. What is the value for you, in your own writing, in exploring your speaker’s past experiences?

I didn’t make a conscious choice to write about my past. It just kind of happens. It’s easiest for me to begin writing from my own experiences, but I generally don’t have enough distance from the present to write about it and the future is even harder to see. Having written about several people who have since died, I find it helpful to have those poems as documents, to remember them and to feel like they still exist in the world in some way.

On a similar note, your first two collections never shied away from paying deference to youth and the perspectives of young people. Is there something about those tender teenage years that you feel drawn to as a poet?

I just finished reading Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. One of the characters is a thirteen-year-old girl. She’s a very powerful character, partly because of her age. Near the end, the protagonist comments, “Girls of that age can change in the blink of an eye, physically and emotionally. I might not even be able to recognize her in a few years.” I love the possibility of adolescence and the sheer amount of transformation that can occur over those years. It’s so intense and metaphorically rich.

Humour is everywhere in contemporary poetry, but there seems to be a divide between sincerity and irreverence—each being used to their own desired outcomes—in its usage. I think your poems are funny, and I also find them to be incredibly sincere. How does humour factor into accessing emotional honesty in your writing practice?

I don’t believe sincerity and humour are mutually exclusive. As we mourned, my mother and I often made fun of my father, as a way of remembering him, laughing and crying at the same time. I would be deeply offended if someone didn’t make a joke at my funeral. Most of the time, I am trying to create a speaker who sounds somewhat like me, so being able to balance humour and darkness without having the sentiment too too far one way or the other is very important.

Another thing I noticed is that I don’t always know when I’m being funny. There have been a few times at public readings I’ve been surprised by audience laughter. Sometimes people find the truth very funny.

Is there a specific audience you imagine for your poems when you’re writing them? Who are they and why are they who you imagine your speaker is addressing?

No. When I am writing, I try to just let the poem arrive on the page. As I go back and edit, I imagine a reader a bit more, but the image isn’t very specific. I’m really just writing for people who like lyric poems, which is kind of a niche audience of thoughtful, language-loving humans. There are a lot of incredible poems out there, so I try as hard to make mine as good as I can.

The first burning question: can you give readers an idea of what you’re working on currently?

I’m just finishing up copy edits for my third book, Midway, which is coming out in the spring.

And the second: what is it that you’re looking for in a winning poem?

I’m always looking for a sense that the poem I’m reading is necessary in some way and that there’s something at stake for the poet by writing it. Beyond that, I have aesthetic preferences but I’ll try not to let them lead me too much in my judging, though voice is pretty critical.


Curtis LeBlanc

Curtis LeBlanc