Crossing the Divide: Elizabeth Bachinsky and Kayla Czaga in Conversation

The following is an excerpt from What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, just published by Nightwood Editions, a collection of conversations between millennial and Generation X poets focusing on the role of poetry and poets in the twenty-first century. The collection includes conversations between Armand Garnet Ruffo and Liz Howard, Sina Queyras and Canisia Lubrin, Marilyn Dumond and Katherena Vermette, Tim Bowling and Raoul Fernandez, and many more. Here, Elizabeth Bachinsky and Kayla Czaga discuss UBC Accountable, and the impact of #metoo on their work, and their experiences of the poetic community.

What the Poets are Doing. Cover image via Harbour Publishing.

What the Poets are Doing. Cover image via Harbour Publishing.

Czaga: When I first started as a writer I felt like everyone you met around the country was safe… You know, everyone was thoughtful and then—it wasn’t until I read that wonderful Emma Healey essay, “Stories Like Passwords,” and the UBC Accountable stuff started happening—you realize there’re these shadowy people that you don’t actually know in your community. It was a big turning point for me. And so your book is very different to read now. Has the shift in perception in our community affected you?

Bachinksy: Yeah. It’s fucked up. Last night I was up until four in the morning reading about Junot Díaz and Sherman Alexie and all the shit they’ve been up to. It’s awful. You know, the week I gave birth to Lydia was the week that the allegations about Jian Ghomeshi came out. He’d just put out his creepy letter saying that he was taking responsibility for things and we would get past this. It had that air of “this will pass.” Do you remember what he said?

Czaga: He said something about how “I’m just into this BDSM stuff and people misunderstand me and I’m sorry if people felt hurt by actions”—a very non-apology.

Bachinksy: Yeah, so there was Jian Ghomeshi and others, and then there was another one… Well, they all just started to go down like dominoes. I’ve been saying to my husband that if I like a man’s writing, it probably means they’re a sexual predator. I mean, I’m standing in front of my bookshelf now and going, “Oh. God. Who else am I going to have to take off my syllabus?”

Czaga: Who was that guy who supported Steve?

Bachinksy: Oh, yes. Steven Galloway. There was Steven Galloway.

Czaga: There was Joseph Boyden. Fake-Native Joseph Boyden.

Bachinksy: Jian Ghomeshi, Joseph Boyden, Steven Galloway, David McGimpsey.

Czaga: David McGimspey—that was hard to take.

Bachinksy: Yes. Very. And then nothing, just radio silence. Here’s the thing: I knew that Jian Ghomeshi was choking women years before the allegations because I knew women who worked at the CBC who had said this about him and we still all listened to Q in the morning. I was always in the car commuting somewhere. I loved groaning at Ghomeshi’s stupid monologues and then you hear this stuff and you’re like, “What the fuck?” And sure enough the truth comes out. This was all obviously a long time coming.

Czaga: I feel naive but I was unconnected and quite young when all this stuff started happening, and it seemed to come from nowhere.

Bachinksy: Maybe we could turn the table a little bit and ask you about your experience as a student going through university, having the experience of this coming out.

Czaga: Well, I am extremely lucky to have had wonderful mentors, most of whom were female, but some who weren’t. I worked with Tim Lilburn, Lorna Cozier, Steve Price and Carla Funk at the University of Victoria. Wonderful mentors who were not creepy with their students. I lived in a bubble and thought CanLit was wonderful and supportive—maybe a little bit mean sometimes because they were hard-nosed about good poetry—and then I came to UBC for my MFA and worked with Rhea Tregebov, who is the most “CanPo mom” in existence. I worked with you, and Sheryda Warrener was my second reader. I was having a pretty good time out here on the west coast. Our matriarchs are Jen Currin and Amber Dawn and you. I thought I was in a paradise. Something you were saying about being a member of a community and volunteering, and when I was coming up it felt so worth it to go to all the events, to volunteer all your time because CanLit was this thing that I believed in. Then, the chair of my department, the year after I graduated, was fired for breach of trust and very serious allegations. I’ve kind of been saying “fuck it” to a lot of things since then. I know it’s important to volunteer and go to all these things, but it’s also okay to say…

Bachinksy: No.

Czaga: No to things.

Bachinksy: I agree.

Czaga: It feels a bit selfish, but I didn’t realize what was going on for a long time.

Bachinksy: Now that we do realize what is going on, how’s that changing how you read or write?

Czaga: Well, I didn’t read male prose writers for two years. It was a conscious thing. All the CWILA counts were coming out about how often women’s books were reviewed. And then I just recently saw a thing about how women’s books are priced at 45 percent less than men’s books, on the whole. I’ve definitely changed; I don’t just read what the chair of the department wants me to read. I definitely think we need to support other voices and voices that are not getting the broadcasting they deserve because they don’t belong to this men’s club or because they don’t have a buddy in CanLit. What about you? How do you feel?

Bachinksy: I feel like since the whole Ghomeshi, Galloway, Jeramy Dodds mix—now joined by so many cultural icons—have been outed for creepiness, for sexual assault, that has put a temporary kibosh on my writing, that in combination with a toddler at home, that was really a double-whammy that made me stop and assess. I’ve been reading The New York Times like crazy—we haven’t even talked about the larger political moment we’re in that is so strange and not so unfamiliar to Canadians who lived under Steven Harper for a decade. It’s a very strange moment we’re in. But I feel like now, with the #MeToo stuff that has been coming out in the last seven months, I feel a real momentum that gives me a lot of hope and permission. So I’m feeling more hopeful. Last night reading about Díaz I thought, Wow, this is really going to change. They aren’t even giving a Nobel Prize this year. Did you hear about this?

Czaga: No!

Bachinksy: Yeah, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been cancelled because an academy member’s husband had eighteen allegations against him for sexual assault. So, no Nobel Prize for Literature this year and they’ll give two next year. We’re talking about major shifts going on in the cultural moment.

Czaga: Also, did you hear that Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer? Which was the first non-jazz album. Off topic completely but it does feel like there is a convergence. Like the institutional background is shifting away from a…

Bachinksy: A white male paradigm.

Czaga: Yeah; it’s interesting.

Bachinksy: It feels pretty awesome that things are changing, and obviously “God abhors a void,” so who is going to rush in to fill the void when these major male players are gone? It’s women of every lived experience and orientation. LGBTQ writers. We’re going to start hearing a lot more stories from writers whose writing has been pushed to the margins and those stories are going to become mainstream. I have to believe this because the thought gives me hope. If you think about your life, you’re a queer woman living in Vancouver and your lived experience is fully, 100 percent, mainstream to Kayla Czaga. Do you know what I mean?

Czaga: Sorta…

Bachinksy: I mean your lived experience is your mainstream. Why shouldn’t your stories be brought to a larger readership? They are stories that move people. My experience of living is not marginal. It is common.

Czaga: I do see a shift in what stories are being told, read and winning awards, but it is hard to be as hopeful as you are. If there’s a change of tide one way, there can also be one back the other way. Like, if we look at American politics, which is super disheartening, we can see how extreme those tides can be.

Bachinksy: It’s fucked up.

Czaga: Yeah.

Bachinksy: Now I’m thinking of He Who Shall Not be Named. Some of the hateful stuff he has spewed. But I’m even grateful for that because that type of misogyny…

Czaga: The rise of neo-fascism?

Bachinksy: …it is refreshing to hear the POTUS speak these misogynies so publicly because you can’t pretend it’s not there. The danger is in plain sight, unlike with people like Díaz or Ghomeshi who hide behind progressive rhetoric. Misogyny gives me a clear path, a real motivation, a constant reminder that writing is a serious matter. I take that freedom seriously. It’s such a privilege to be able to do it. But, also, it’s fucking fun. Writing is fun.

Czaga: Yeah!

Bachinksy: Or it can be.

You can find more info about What the Poets Are Doing on Nightwood Editions, and find it wherever books are sold.