Interview by Gregory Betts
Contemporary Canadian Literature is thriving because of infusions and experiments by writers like Montreal poet Kaie Kellough (pictured left). Kellough is a dynamic performer who brings a rich musical vocabulary to his performances of his poetry, with hints of free jazz, scat, dub poetry, and spoken word intermeshed. It might seem abstract or conceptual, but there is always something delightfully playful and smart in his approach to language. Kaie’s shows celebrate the sounds of the words and the letters we take for granted in daily speech, but also draw attention to the politics of social inclusion via language.
Your poems all seem to cycle back to a root engagement with the individual letters and sounds of the alphabet. What is your interest in the alphabet? i like that the alphabet is a linear 26-step sequence that we have all so deeply internalized (digested?) that reciting it happens naturally, as effortlessly and thoughtlessly as a biological process. consequently, when that sequence is ruptured, or parts of it are rearranged, when suddenly the recitation halts as it advances and riffs backward, or sounds the letters out of their “natural” order but in a way that is much unlike spelling, and that doesn’t in fact spell anything, the effect on the person hearing that rupture/recitation can be very profound. it can reach to the core of a person’s relationship to language, and i think that that level of human engagement, through language, is one of the reasons why we produce poetry and is one of the aims of poetry. and this is further interesting to me because it tells me that any similarly profound engagement with language might require – or at least can be achieved by – destabilizing the familiar structures and mechanisms of language. creating a climate of systemic alphabetic instability…
This destabilization makes for playful, challenging, and evocative art, but are there other consequences? basically, there is a social destabilization that corresponds directly to the linguistic destabilization. the two are related, in that one is an attempt to study, explore, and articulate the other without flinching from it or glossing it over.
Does this destabilization of language connect to your wider project of creolizing Canadian language, or politicizing the play of the sounds in your work? i live in québec, and while i am fluently bilingual, french is still my second language. i carry out a large proportion of my daily interactions in french, at least 50%. this means that i’m often at a slight disadvantage when communicating – i’m slightly destabilized myself. i’m less articulate, less swift, with a smaller vocabulary and a stiff sense of humor. it takes a lot of time to become familiar with that feeling. that feeling of lack is a heavy counter-weight to the experience of full expressiveness, to the sense of being entitled to that fullness, and to the casual performance of that fullness, which is a kind of virtuosity. uncertainty, lack, and destabilization force a person to admire that virtuosity in others, to really listen in order to pick up necessary linguistic and cultural cues, and to be hyper-aware of the diversity of expression and being that inform a culture at large.
Is this linguistic position, then, of being at a disadvantage, useful? not particularly, but it’s familiar. i grew up in calgary in the 1980s, and back then there was almost no discussion, aside from pejorative and/or dismissive discussion, of race in canada. in the face of that absence, that silence, a person has to find a way to articulate themselves as clearly and completely as possible, just to achieve some measure of self-realization. it is a condition that can push a person to become extremely daring and linguistically creative, to desperately search for and adapt varied modes of expression to the purpose of making themselves heard – or more to the point – the purpose of speaking or writing themselves into being. one advantage of this situation though, is that it yokes any creative play to a very definite social and political immediacy. this can be burdensome at times because it can feel like always having to “represent” and to address the same lack. further, after 20 or 25 years of writing and performing and seeing/hearing first nations artists, caribbean-canadian artists, francophone writers in canada, and artists of color around the world articulate from the same place, in defiance of the same enforced silence, it can feel defeating and tortuously repetitive. so it’s a complex position to be in, one that is very familiar and that fashions how i (and others in similar positions) write and perform, but beyond that familiarity, the position is largely undesirable.
Kaie Kellough is performing in St. Catharines at the Border Blur Reading series on Friday 17 September at the Niagara Artists Centre (354 St. Paul Street).