Home > Interviews > Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Saying “No” & Birding With Don McKay: Kayla Czaga in Conversation with Stevie Howell

Stevie for PrismStevie Howell is the author of the book of poetry, [Sharps] (fall 2014), which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. She studies psychology and works as a psychometrist in a hospital.

Howell’s poem “Birding in Wolfville” appears in PRISM 54.1 and Kayla Czaga caught up with her talk about birding with Don McKay and what a poem does.

In the signature of your emails, it says critic first, before poet. Do you consider yourself a critic first?

Um, no. I have to fix that. I started writing book reviews when we were assigned to do this for a class. The professor stressed it as a way to prioritize reading contemporary Canadian work. From there I started pitching and published reviews, and did that for about four years. I had some great opportunities, having written for Quill and Quire, Globe and Mail, and National Post, etc. But being a critic shrinks your world unevenly. You know that hypercompetitive phrase: “I didn’t come here to make friends.” I happened to come to poetry in order to meet people who shared my interests. So these days I am finding it more rewarding not to pass judgment.

imagesCan you tell me about your title?  It makes for a really lovely cover, but it’s unpronounceable.  You have to call it “Sharps,” and I’m wondering where that came from and whether or not there was any pushback from your publisher? 

The title is the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that represented waters, the letter “N,” and all sentence prepositions. I guess I wanted to call the book that because it represented how language is full of possibilities and also prone to misunderstanding. My grandfather was dying as I was writing the book, and I was thinking a lot about what constitutes a “good death,” and about the afterlife. That has a lot (but not all) to do with the Egyptian imagery.

“Sharps” is the name for the safe repository for used needles, and could also suggest a knife or a rifle, all of which make appearances, so… this AKA emerged not out of publisher push back per se, but out of practical considerations I hadn’t considered, like how a library would catalog it, etc.

I find that titles can be too prescriptive. Sometimes I read a way-too elaborate title and think, “Well, that was the whole poem, pre-capped.” I blame my attitude on that hippy in the 90s who worked the daytime talk show circuit talking about how he changed his first name to Trout Fishing in America, as a protest against the # of boxes for letters on government forms.

You mentioned your own discipline (psychology), which I noticed a bit throughout [Sharps]. You speak from various psychologies (i.e.: ‘Crunches’), whose voices felt distinct from the general speaker of the book—for instance, when you re-appropriated a comment thread. There’s a lot of inhabiting of different minds, and you also actually talk about mental health facilities, the methadone clinic, and pedophilia. How do your disciplines fuel each other?

Well, I wanted this book to be “peopled.” I agreed with Philip Levine when he said, “our recent poetry seems totally without people.” For one thing, I’m a city kid; nature is alien, an anti-muse. But even more, I often feel that with my background, the odds were against me becoming a writer. And as I get older, and as I get more involved both with academia and the arts, I find I almost never meet people who (admit they?) grew up broke. Or (admit they?) had traumatic times. I feel like I crawled up through the sieve. And there’s a whole host of decent people I’ve known and loved who never read—who only worked—and I wanted as much as possible to give them voice, and to bring them with me.

And then some of the things you mentioned might fall into the category of writing about things that scare you.

In terms of the field I’m working toward, which is cognitive neuropsychology, it is the closest thing in my life to something sacred. There’s a lot of writers with science-y backgrounds and, for them, drawing on their “other” life doesn’t involve going anywhere near the disclosures of others. But mine would. So that stuff is 100% off limits.

I heard you wrote a poem about bird watching with Don McKay, but I couldn’t find it in the book?

As part of the book tour I did about five dates with my friend Kerry-lee Powell, whose book was out in the fall too, it’s called Inheritance. Then a bunch of dates were with Don McKay because his new book is also on Goose Lane. He’s such an amazing reader. He’s so spontaneous. Even his old stuff he reads like it’s brand new. He gets right back into it. He’s one of those people you meet and think, no wonder you’re successful, you’re great at everything—talking to people one on one, the chit-chat between poems, of course the actual reading. He never goes through the motions. He’s always present. I think it was really a master class in terms of those aspects of poetry.

He’s had a lot of time…

Yeah. We went to Wolfville, NS. It’s these windy roads, it’s a valley, and it’s temperate—they grow produce there; they have vineyards. It felt a little bit like New England, the vibe of it—clapboard houses, seaside-things, leaves were blowing down sideways. It was cliché, a little bit like, “This is fucking beautiful, man. Did I die?”

He drove us—I don’t drive—and all I could think was, “I can’t believe I’m making G-d drive me here.” I didn’t really ever rise to the occasion of being around him. I just walked around crushed. We went birdwatching and I didn’t know what the hell to say, I was all: “I guess you’re over seagulls, huh?” So you know, after I wrote a poem…

Your book is very contemporary in its subject matter but I did notice that there was quite a bit of form in it, there’s refrains, a kinda villanelle, sonnetesque things, rhyme. What was your relationship, when you were building your book, to form?

Because the book is kind of about saying “no,” to a bunch of top-down things in this world, it didn’t make sense to rely on form, which I thought of as other people’s tools. That’s also why there’s no epigraphs. I had also wanted no blurbs on the cover—but that’s where I got push back!

It’s funny—the main use of form occurred around the few written-by-other-people things I referenced. The form of “The Last Dollar Store,” echoes the title song for The Last Unicorn film, which rhymed and had a chorus. “Fear is a World,” takes its title from cultural theorist Paul Virilo, and is a terzanelle. A terzanelle has an obsessive nature, circling back over lines, and the poem is about the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approach to anxiety—which aims to acclimatize you to the worst thing that could happen. But for the most part, I approached form as something that tends toward tyranny, like a corset, or logic.

This is a question that was asked of me in an interview that I liked: William Carlos Williams said that “poems are machines made of words” – so if you are seeing your book and your poems as machines, what function do they serve, what do they do?

What does a poem do?

Yeah, what do your poems do? Or what do you see as the function of your poems?

I can’t really picture that machine. I don’t know. Roger Ebert called the cinema an “empathy machine,” and all forms of art have that capacity. I’d say empathy, and outrage, are essential for writing. They’re as essential to writing as they are to living.

But talking about a function that applies to all my poems, or to make it mechanistic, it’s like how adults stress kids out by asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” You know, hopefully each one of them gets some kind of gainful employment and doesn’t wind up with the first drip who’s got a Firebird? Each poem, hopefully, has its own drive.


Kayla Czaga is the author of For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which won the Gerald Lampert Award and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and The Debut-litzer. Her chapbook Enemy of the People is out with Anstruther Press.