Q&A with Kaie Kellough

In my previous post I introduced you to Kaie Kellough – Montreal-based poet, spoken word artist and educator – via his new book Maple Leaf Rag. Recently, Mr Kellough was kind enough to grant me an email interview, speaking candidly about his life, work, and literary influences among other things.

Photomusicography: When did you start writing poetry, and what inspired you to begin?

Kaie Kellough: I made some early attempts to write poetry at around 18 or 19 years old.  I’d experimented with prose, and I found that the sound and rhythm of the language often hijacked my sentences, so I started looking more closely at that sound and rhythm, condensing it into shorter units, moving it around the page.  I can’t say that there was any single event that made me want to begin writing, but there were circumstances.  I’m mixed: my mother is from Guyana, my father European-Canadian.  I grew up in Calgary in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city was nowhere near as diverse as it is today, and when there was much intolerance in the school system and in the community at large.  By my late teens a good deal of anger and resentment had built up in me, and instead of talking to a parent, a friend, or a therapist (none of whom would really get my point, or be able to change the society), I started writing.  It was a way of exploring what I felt, and it allowed me to believe (naively) that I was challenging and changing the world.

PMG: What made you want to “break” the English language? [It’s the first time I’ve come across a statement like that!]

KK: Well, to put the statement in context: It was uttered during an interview with the journalist Stefan Christoff, who had asked me about the play with sound, the use of misspellings, and the punning that sometimes goes on in my poems.  I told him that it came from a youthful desire (born out of anger) to wreck the English language, to do it damage, to hurt and humiliate it.  At the time I was very concerned with whether poets of color could use the language of a colonial and enslaving power to articulate their experience, or whether that was a self-defeating prospect.  By writing upright lyric verse in the Queen’s English, we might as well be silencing ourselves, I thought.  I was searching for something that I later came to recognize as a hybridized or créole language, one that incorporates the different expressions, dialects, slang terms, and levels of language that we find throughout the Americas, and one that is constantly in flux.  I still haven’t found that, but I have tried to gesture in that direction.  Québec is a great place to get an ear for what that may sound like, because you often hear English, French, Créole, Spanish weaving in and out of one-another.

PMG: Were you always bilingual, or was French something that came after moving to Montreal?

KK: I was in French immersion from my early days at Hollyburn Elementary in Vancouver, so I’d always studied French.  But in moving to Montréal I became more adept at conversing and interacting with others in French.  I think the hardest thing to acquire in a 2nd language is the use of your sense of humor.  Humor depends so much on timing and intonation and the “mot juste” that if you hesitate for an instant, or if you stumble (as speakers of a 2nd language often do), your punch line can be ruined.  I am bilingual, but I’m still learning and adapting.

PMG: Do you think that being a bilingual writer gives you a wider canon to reference from?

KK: While I can write in French, I’m more of a French reader than writer.  That may change, but again, French is my 2nd language, so I don’t have the same ease that I have in English.  But being able to read in French provides a great advantage. Since I’m a poet who often privileges sound, I’m able to absorb the sound and rhythm of another language, and to incorporate that sensibility into my English writing.

PMG: Who/what are you reading right now?

KK: Right now I’m reading Musicopilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks, also looking at some modern Canadian concrete and visual poets, and doing a lot of listening.  I’m revisiting some favorite jazz albums: Black Unity by Pharaoh Sanders, Old and New Dreams by Don Cherry, and The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette ColemanI’m also really enjoying an album called Endless Boogie, by John Lee Hooker, which the poet Ian Ferrier suggested to me.

PMG: Music, and especially jazz, seems to be an integral part of your poetry and your live performances. Are there particular musicians who inspire you?

KK: I guess there is a specific period – the 1940s, the early bebop days, when the music was aggressive, daring, and challenging because it was so new.  Big band swing was then the popular, commercial music.  The bebop pioneers weren’t trying to create a commercial sound, and you can still hear that in their work.  They were creating art that was rebellious and exploratory, art that didn’t flatter and woo the marketplace.

PMG: Do you think there’s a distinct connection between culture (in terms of literature, music, etc) and politics?

KK: I think the connection can be made, but I am wary of art that endorses a political agenda, advocates for a cause, or supports a partisan perspective.  I enjoy art that occupies its own distinct territoy, and that dissembles, questions, and explores possibilities.

PMG: Who normally influences your writing? [Some of your work reminds me of e.e. cummings, as well as the consistent use of lowercase letters, so I wondered if he was one of them?]

KK: I’ve read some cummings, but I can’t say that he is part of my lineage.  I’m most attracted to writers who employ interesting and uncanny structures to govern their writing, and writers who engage with the visual and sonic aspects of language.  I’m a big admirer of Harryette Mullen (Sleeping with the Dictionary) and Douglas Kearney (The Black Automaton).

PMG: Did you create, or have a hand in creating the cover design for Maple Leaf Rag? [Because of the use of your word sound system as a motif on the cover]

KK: Yes, in that I knew I wanted a design that alluded to the original cover for the Maple Leaf Rag sheet music.  I proposed that to the designers, and they took it much further, even creating a sleeve for the book, adding the word sound system motif, and using a larger book size to turn the page into something of a canvas, and to emphasize the visual aspects of reading.

PMG: Your bio lists you as an educator – what do you do, in that sense?

KK: I conduct language workshops with students of varying ages, from high-school to university levels, and I’ve contributed curriculum material to the Québec Ministry of Education.

PMG: Do you spend a lot of time doing spoken word performances? [And if so, will you be in Toronto anytime soon?]

KK: I do perform pretty regularly, and I was in Toronto a few months ago for the Diaspora Dialogues series, which is an excellent series.  Once I know the next Toronto date I’ll communicate it to you.  But at the start of this year I completed a studio recording.  It’s called Vox Versus, and it’s a collection of conversations between 1 voice and 1 instrument.  There are pieces with drums, upright bass, trumpet, piano, a dj’s free-jazz sound-collages, and other voices.  None of the pieces are songs.  They are loose and improvised, but they have jazz, blues, and reggae inflections.  The musicians were outstanding, and the recording should be released in 2011.

PMG: Finally, what happened to pages 46 – 48 in Maple Leaf Rag?? In my copy, it has only the title “glib bilge-for g.e.c” and then two blank pages! I thought it might be a printing error and I meant to find another copy to compare, but I just thought I’d ask you 🙂

KK: Aha!  The invisible poem.  Well, it’s a few blank pages, and I guess it’s up to the reader to disappear into those pages.


Photo by Terence Byrnes, courtesy of http://www.kaie.ca


When did you start writing poetry, and what inspired you to begin?