Kayla Czaga is the author of For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Debut-litzer. Her chapbook, Enemy of the People, is published by Anstruther Press. You can follow her on twitter @kaylaczaga.
Photo credit: Janet Kvammen
This is a game for girls: putting a hat
on the cat, putting pants on
the cat, drawing a turkey by tracing
her hand. Little girls like cats.
A dress is a game with armholes.
A dress is played with a waistband.
A waistband is a game with a firm
winner and sore loser. A dress is
plaid or floral or polkas. Dispersed
vertically with gathers, a dress is
a section of flowers in a dancehall.
A waistband plays flat music a little
girl will twist. This is a set list. You
play a girl by flipping through her.
the girl crayons little girls are like that
the little boy is blue
the duck is yellow
the duck is yellow tumbles forever into the green lake
the beginning of the black cat waxes in the red tree
the little girl is a sweet sad colour–bruised or blushing?
the little girl holds out her blank hands toward the little boy is blue
the little girl holds out her hands filled with little girls are like that
the sweet sad colour accumulates in the pencil sharpener
the little girl tumbles forever into the boy is blue
the little boy is blue accepts little girls are like that
the little girl is faceless until she colours it on
A girl is game with how many licks
gets to her centre. Little girls like
a firm licking. Little girls play will he
call on the third or fourth day
after a successful date. Little girls
play Friday flip-up day. What did
he mean, keep it casual? What did
he mean, that girl is asking for it?
A girl replays twenty unsayable
questions in her head. Little girls
lose the game inside their heads.
What was she asking for, exactly?
This poem covers a lot of ground, from childhood gender indoctrination to rape culture apologists — I think it works partly because of the four-part structure. Do you ever pre-plan this kind of structure, or does it develop in a different way, when you work on poem sequences?
When I started writing the poem, I knew it would have sections. I was trying to make the content and language age throughout the poem, becoming older and darker, and it seemed that sections would make this progression more graceful. I didn’t preplan specifically for four sections — it just sort of ended up there. I’m glad it seems to work for you even though I think three or five sections generally feels more stable.
Every time I write a poem, I have to improvise a structure to contain its content. They never completely come out in the same way twice. I always have to ask, “why this length of line?” “sections or no?” “stanzas?” Some are more similar to other poems [in the book] — “for play” was similar enough to “gertrude stein loves a girl,” and “I forgot to mention the thunderball,” echoed “Gone is the VHS. Gone is the Whir.” enough that I could reuse formal elements between those pairs of poems.
This poem recalls Gertrude Stein stylistically, which is something many poets attempt and few pull off. I think it works especially well in the third section, which contains my favourite line in this poem, “the duck is yellow tumbles forever into the green lake.” You play with Stein-esque lines elsewhere in your book For Your Safety Please Hold On — can you explain why you chose to tackle Stein lines and what you had to do in editing to make them work?
There is something so subversive and sexual about Stein’s writing. I knew as soon as I read her that she was teaching me to write about some of the things I wanted to explore — sexuality, violence, the strange half-there memories of childhood. Her style and my subject matter were a perfect fit.
When I overthink and tinker with Stein, she falls apart. Instead, I read her over and over to absorb her music as if I was a sponge. It was like rereading picture books to learn language. Every time I reread her, her work felt new to me. Then I started mimicking her in a playful way tangential to my subject. I knew that if I tried to tackle sexual violence and gender roles head on, my poems would be too polemical and tract-like. I had to get there through images, through colour and music, in a more-body-than-head way.
Why did you break up the two cat games and the line “little girls like cats” with talk of the turkey drawing in the first part? Did you play around with other images here? Can you give an example of an image you cut from this poem and explain why?
I know there’s a term in music or poetry that describes when a piece deviates from a pattern to create tension and then returns to it for closure, but I’ve forgotten what it is. I was trying to do that.
I chose the cat and turkey for several reasons:
1) I did both of those things as a girl.
2) I think they sound like funny and musically rich things.
3) There’s mention of a turkey in one of my other Stein poems: “gertrude stein loves a girl.”
4) Stein also uses the image of a turkey (and a very large one) in “Idem the Same: A Valentine for Sherwood Anderson,” which is a poem I love.
3 & 4 b) In both Stein’s and my other use of turkey, “size” is referenced. I was talking about eating disorders and Stein was asking what the difference between a medium sized turkey and a very large one was. There are undertones of body policing in this poem (i.e.: the waistband), so the turkey was sort of meant tangentially to tie into that conversation.
Those images came out very naturally together, so nothing was cut in editing that section. I’m sure that I made cuts in other parts of the poem, but I don’t keep copies of my edits and the poem was written so long ago that I can’t remember.
The third section has a nice move from the child colouring to a woman putting on makeup, two images you suture with the verbs “crayons” and “colours.” You also parallel the phrase “little girls are like that” at the start and end of that section. How much of editing for you is finding and developing, or adding, these kinds of parallels? Or do you spend most of your editing time on other things?
I find most of my editing time is spent cutting redundancies and improving rhythm. I may have added a repeat of “little girls are like that,” but it would’ve been more for sound than sense. I find that most of those parallels that you pointed out are found in my primary writing process during which I throw a lot of things on a page and see what sticks and what echoes, where the ideas and images and emotions want to go. My editing process is more of the flower arrangement/pruning part.
Your line “the little boy is blue” obviously refers to gender stereotypes but it could also be read as an allusion to the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue.” I’m wondering if you intended that, and also: (a) if you did, does it matter to you if a reader doesn’t notice it, and (b) if you didn’t, does it matter to you if a reader reads that in? How much do you try to guide readings when you write/edit?
I didn’t intend that reference, but I think it works. My friend spotted the “pink triangle” as a reference to a Nazi concentration camp badge (also unintentional.) I think that every reader is going to bring something I didn’t intend to my poems as a result of their own unique experiences. I read an essay in which Mary Ruefle talked about someone finding some of her poems funny, when they were sad for her. I think it would be a never-ending and joyless mission to try to control a reader’s whole experience even though one might want to.
Part of the fun of poetry for me is its openness to interpretation. A poem is a game that both the writer and the reader get to play. It depends on the thinking and pattern recognition of both parties. I am sometimes sad when a reader doesn’t pick up on some nerdy thing I did in a poem, but that’s a result of those differing experiences that made her pick up on some strange unintentional allusion or technique.
I do have a group of peers with whom I share my drafts and whose feedback I listen to closely, so if they say, “hey, Kayla, this made me really uncomfortable,” or “I think you are being unintentionally offensive,” I’ll listen. Likewise, if they point out a potential reference that the poem could be using better, I will look into it.
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