The lovely folks at Brockton Writers Reading Series are hosting me along with 3 other Ontario writers — Ryanne Kap, Waubgeshig Rice, and Marlo K. Shaw — for a reading this coming Wednesday, July 08. It’s happening on Glad Day TV, via zoom, starting at 8:30pm. Access is PWYC.
Leading up to it, my friend (and award-winning writer) Jade Wallace interviewed me about the Care and Feeding of Poets and other important things. As I’m kind of…verbose, I shortened the interview for publication on the Brockton Writers site — but here’s the complete version:
Jade: Describe your ideal writing space, real, fantastical, or otherwise.
Kamila: Oh I love this question! I always want to write among plants. Many many plants. Sooooo many. Occasionally I’ve perused Writer Instagram (a very different animal from Writer Twitter) to satiate my hunger for seeing writing spaces that I would like to inhabit but don’t (yet). I think my 1st place for Writing Spot Envy goes to a garden in the English countryside, with a laptop on a large wooden table, some climbing vines on trellises, and fields of No People Just More Plants stretching out around the writer. Lucky lucky writer. But I would also accept:
— a park with trees all around, or at least a lot of edible plants;
— a hammock hanging between large-crowned trees (though that one is definitely a fantasy, as my disabled body requires both a laptop and more physical support than found there, to be able to write);
— a large plant-filled room;
— a balcony with a plethora of planters and climbing plants (I have some excellent memories of my childhood balcony with a curtain of fragrant sweet peas climbing up thin fishing lines on all three sides); or
— a back deck overlooking fruit trees and a vegetable garden.
In reality, I write wherever I can, which is often on the subway between errands, or on my couch, with a side view of a shelf of some hardy succulents I haven’t neglected to death yet.
Jade: Reading spaces are important as well. You have written about, and worked toward, increasing the accessibility of various public events. What are some common hindrances to accessibility that you have noticed at literary readings in particular and how might they be addressed?
Kamila: Oh gosh, so many — and I know the (queer) literary communities I hang out in are currently putting in work toward disability inclusion, but accessibility is not yet nearly as much a cornerstone of our event organising as it needs to be.
Many reading spaces are cramped and crowded — which makes sense, considering how we as a culture systemically underfund the arts — but which is terrible for accessibility, especially for folks using any sort of mobility devices, from canes through walkers to scooters and wheelchairs. Some are impossible for walker or chair users to even enter, due to steps or narrow doorways. But if they can be entered, there are still trip hazards and too-narrow aisles and unusable washrooms. There often aren’t enough chairs, or the chairs available are too flimsy for folks needing solid support. Most readings also lack access arrangements for Deaf, hearing-disabled, and audio-processing-disabled folks, probably again due to budget constraints, but also lack of awareness and prioritising? Then there is the common lack of scent-free policies and of awareness of the space’s chemical load (from recent painting fumes through scent diffusers in washrooms to use of heavy-duty floor cleaners). Oh the amount of emotional/communication labour I’ve done as a writer whenever asked to perform somewhere, just to find out whether the space can safely host me. (I’ll never forget one organisation that denied my request to ask attendees to arrive scent-free, with “We don’t want to tell people how to smell!”)
Two other access issues, which don’t get mentioned enough: When books are sold at readings, they are often only available in (regular-size) print. But what would it be like if info on alternate formats was always available and publicised? What if we championed (way) more books to be printed in braille and in large print? What if every book had an audio version and an eBook version (which allows customisation of font size and spacing and contrast on page)? And — the high sensory loads in reading spaces (bright lights, high noise levels, a lot of visual clutter, in addition to various perfumes), that often exclude neurodivergent folks.
So in my plans for a Literary Community That’s All Accessible All The Time, I see a mandate for spaces with level entry, wide doorways, power entry buttons, strictly enforced wide aisles, designated wheelchair and walker spots, and large single-stall washrooms with grab bars, levered taps, and lap space under the sinks. ASL interpretation would be provided at all readings; it is expensive but what if we just considered it a necessary part of holding a reading? Events would have live captioners and/or project the reading texts on a screen. (Providing a text script is crucial for folks with audio-processing issues.) And would have attendant care and child care as a matter of course. Any books sold at a reading would be available in multiple formats. All folks intending to attend a literary reading would be mindful of the need to arrive stringently scent-free, the way most of us are currently mindful to keep 2m away from the nearest person not living in our household. Event spaces would make arrangements around their cleaning and renovations practices, when scheduling readings. And would make a plan for bringing down sensory loads in the space the day of.
Some of these objectives heavily depend on extra funding, of course. I hope/believe we will find ways to build that in over time? Passing around a hat for ASL donations? PWYC (including all the way down to $0 of course) entry to events, with proceeds going to the accessibility budget? Applying for grants?
But there are also things we can do right now, without much extra capital. Choosing level-entry venues. Scent-free awareness and policies, enforced. Designated accessibility greeters/problem-solvers. Providing or projecting the text for all material read. Wide aisles. Priority spots at the front for mobility device users, lip-readers, and scent-disabled folks. At least a few solid comfortable chairs, reserved for disabled folks. Sensory load decrease reorganising, done at the same time as putting out the chairs. Finding out about availability of alternate formats for the featured books, and pestering publishers to provide those formats.
I…honestly get teary every time I envision — and occasionally attend — a space that does accessibility super well. So I guess this is my soapbox moment, asking that all of us who work in or visit literary spaces prioritise access and agitate/plan for at least some accessibility features at every event we’re part of.
Jade: How do you conceptualize the relationship between poetry and personal identity?
Kamila: I know it’s different for everyone, and I am not prescribing this for all other poets, there is a lot of amazing poetry out there that achieves different yet also valuable aims, but: I feel like I pour all of who I am into poems. All the anguish, all the joy, all the hard and impossible and not-yet-resolved and weird and sharp and soft and squirmy. At its best, my work shows all of me, imagines who I still want to become, creates a bridge or a way to accept parts of me that are hard or inconvenient, plainly provides representation/reflection for other folks with the same marginalised identity labels, and wrestles with privilege and witnessing. At its best, I hope it does for others what my favourite poets have done for me over time: holds up a mirror, says: here’s a hard thing, and/but you are not alone, says: here’s a way forward.
Jade: You are both a writer and an activist. Do you consider writing to be a form of activism? If no, why not? If yes, what political purposes do you see writing serving?
Kamila: Yessss, definitely definitely yes. I feel like great writing both communicates different lived experiences and visions to folks not living those realities, so they can be seen, engaged with, can provoke change and useful action — and does it in a way that’s visceral, immediate, accessible — and lets folks experiencing marginalisation and hardship see our/themselves, be accompanied, map ways to flourish and triumph. I can’t even tell you how many survival skills or coping skills or ways of growing resilience, of building community, of doing useful allyship, I have learned from reading other activisty writers. They raised me to (queer, trans, disabled, activist) adulthood far better than my biological parents.
Jade: What are your current writing projects?
Kamila: I am completing a really exciting full-length poetry manuscript! …Oh, but I can’t share much about right now because [bureaucratic reasons]. I’m also working on converting my chapbook, Multitasking with Feelings, into audio and eBook and PDF formats, which I am squealingly enthused about, because Increased Accessibility.
And I’m writing a few non-fiction soapbox-type (I know, hard to believe, right?) essays, including about “Why Are Starving Artists Starving?” Which is a riveting indictment of how our culture chronically underpays artists and throws us just enough bones in grant money to make sure that we don’t all die, and so The Art keeps being made, while fundamentally not supporting us even at a minimum wage level. Here are some short excerpts:
I know that’s a romantic stereotype. Artists being eaten alive by their muses, working in under-heated garrets and hovels, not caring about feeding the body or being physically comfortable. But really, every artist I know is starving because we are all grossly underpaid.
I dare you to find a way for a poet to put together a book-length collection of poems (usually the result of several years of work) so fast that that a ~$500 advance (usually all the remuneration they see) pays them even minimum wage.
Jade: Of the many available creative literary genres—fiction, playwriting, etc.—why do you find yourself reliably drawn to poetry?
Kamila: The first thing I think of is this quote from Audre Lorde: “…even the form our creativity takes is often a class issue. Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.”
I first read it as a queer teenage poetry-scribbler, in one of the very first feminist/radical books I got to access in the tiny town where I attended high school after immigrating to Canada. I’ve never forgotten it. As a young adult I used to write poems on scraps or reused paper — back when I was even poorer but also somewhat less disabled. I wrote on the backs of various flyers or handouts (I was so poor, that affording a fresh package of writing paper was a challenge; back then I took home every single handout from everywhere, and book excerpts and helping materials given out in my trauma support groups, just to be able to write), in (donated at said support groups) notebooks on transit, on the backs of receipts.
Then the disability that affects my arms kicked in, and I couldn’t handwrite almost anything; instead I needed to dictate with speech recognition software or (as I got somewhat better) type on a laptop with a really gentle keyboard. Both are super challenging to organise while poor; I spent half a year unable to write a single g-ddamn word. *insert remembered-horror face* Then, after a few years of using a lovingly donated desktop computer with speech recognition, and/but only being able to write at home! — I finally got my first laptop (it was a hand-me-down with a cracked screen, but it had the good kind of keyboard and I LOVED it), and I was giddy to once again be able to write on the subway, on the bus, while waiting in a doctor’s office, while eating lunch in a park. Time stolen from dreary errands. A way to process or capture something beautiful or distressing.
The first time I got a publication accepted into an Important Literary Journal, it was a poem I had originally furtively scribbled on reused paper on the subway, as the event I was describing was happening. Poetry is the most immediate of writing forms. As a poor and disabled person, I’ve never had the time and stamina to be able to write longer, more focused items, like novels or short stories.
And as an autistic, I find poetry most conducive to translating the pictures that my brain makes whenever it’s processing an experience or an idea. Sometimes all I have to do is describe my internal landscape vividly enough, and voilà! a way of making sense of my experience, but also Art.
Jade: Which foods do you find most conducive to writing creatively?
Kamila: Ooooh. Well, definitely edible flowers! Nasturtiums and pansies alone can be responsible for entire poems. But also anything else that makes my brain light up in happiness/is stimmy. Vegan cheese. (I recommend the Nuts for Cheese™ Artichoke and Herb cashew cheese.) Chocolate-chip or lemon-coconut cookies. Green beans. WILD BLUEBERRIES. Anything that makes my brain happy opens up my (metaphorical) metaphor veins, and makes the writing flow.
Otherwise, something proteinated and not too messy that can be eaten with one hand while 90% of my eyes’ and neurons’ attention is on the computer screen. Pre-seasoned tofu chunks. Almond butter eaten from the jar with a large spoon. Cinnamon-pecan Simply bars.