In Conversation with Kim Trainor

Kim Trainor’s first collection is Karyotype (Brick Books, 2015). Her upcoming work, Ledi, a book-length narrative poem on an Iron-Age horsewoman of the Siberian steppes, will appear with BookThug in 2018. She lives in Vancouver.

Interview by Doyali Islam

Doyali Islam: Your first book of poetry, Karyotype (Brick Books, 2015), was published one year ago. Congratulations! What has the year brought you?

Kim Trainor: Thanks! I can’t believe it has been a year already. Last year around this time I was getting ready to go on a northern reading tour with Jane Munro. I think that has been my favourite and unforeseen offshoot of having a book of poetry published. We read in some interesting places—Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, and Cafe Voltaire in Prince George. We had to rent a car in Fort St. John and Jane proved herself a fearless driver, as the car they gave us was more like a spaceship that might have held a dozen poets. In Dawson Creek we were hosted at a singer-songwriter communal dinner in an unheated barn—everyone was huddled under blankets to keep warm. In the New Year I read in Toronto and Calgary. More recently I spent five weeks in Banff at the Writing Studio last May, working on another manuscript. So the nicest effect of having the book come out has been the opportunity to meet so many poets along the way, like yourself, Al Rempel, Julie Joosten, Nick Thran, Jim Johnstone, Anita Lahey, Laurie Fuhr, Jennifer Zilm … to name just a few—it’s a long list!!

DI: How was your experience in Banff? I’m curious if your writing practices have changed over time— from very early poems to Karyotype  to newer work—and if the way(s) in which you wrote during your time in Banff were distinct, due to a change of p(l)ace? I also wonder if another process is at work in terms of writing: one hears about poets who make concerted efforts to cultivate and maintain regular writing routines, but do you think manuscript material itself influences the nature of an author’s writing practice?

KT: Banff was a great experience. I’ve never taken a creative writing course or program so it was my first opportunity to write in a more focused and workshop-like setting, and to receive feedback on drafts from fellow poets. Previously I’d only ever written on my own, until the editing process with Karyotype, when I worked with Don McKay. Regarding writing routines, when I first began writing poetry in 2008 I wrote quite steadily, often a poem every day or two—first love. Then as I settled into it, my experience has been that I don’t write at all for extended periods of time—often for many months. I don’t worry about it as I’m just too busy. I often have an idea for something I plan to write, but it simmers in the background. The only exception is that now and then I will write a ghazal as a kind of transcription of some particular moment in my life (usually heartbreak, alas!).

I work as a university, and now college, lecturer so during teaching terms I don’t have much time. I’m also a single mom with joint custody of my kids every other week. When I do write, it tends to be in very concentrated bursts. I think that my very limited time tends to influence my writing process far more than the manuscript material. Since Karyotype I’ve been tending more towards book-length poems/projects. The manuscript I went to Banff to work on is called Ledi, and it’s a book-length poem that narrates the story of the discovery of the grave of an Iron Age horsewoman in the Siberian steppes. It simultaneously excavates a relationship I had with someone who later committed suicide. I wrote the initial draft several years ago over a two or three-week period in May, but I felt it was incomplete. At Banff I wrote a new section called “Ghost.” Writing it some years after the rest of the manuscript, and in a different location (the rest I wrote in the Learning Commons at UBC) did, I think, create a different tone for that section—I use the second person pronoun to address the lover directly, and I incorporated some images into this section as well. It adds more texture and variety to the book as a whole. I think I would have stopped before the final version—it went through about three drafts—but Karen Solie encouraged me to take it one step further, and I’m grateful to her for that. I spent several days in my room crying and writing—it was intense. But the final version of “Ghost” is better for it, as is the manuscript as a whole. I sent it off to BookThug shortly after returning from Banff and Jay MillAr wrote a week later to offer to publish it.

DI: I imagine you wear several ‘hats’ in your daily life as a single mother, a teacher, and a poet. If your everyday experience requires participation in many kinds of labour—emotional, intellectual, economic—how do you strike the balance required to write? What challenges do you face as a wearer of said ‘hats’ in balancing these various acts of labour, and how do you resolve or not resolve them?

KT: I admit I’m awfully busy. I’ve been teaching basically time and a half at two different institutions as a sessional for the past three years—I average about ten to twelve courses in the fall/winter terms, and thankfully only one or two in the summer months. I have to do this because I don’t have job security, and I need the money to support my three kids. As I mentioned, I have custody of my kids every other week, so I’m lucky in that every other week I’m alone and that does give me some breathing room. I also have an amazing caregiver who helps a lot after school, and I rely on her tremendously. My kids are a bit older now too so we divvy up the household chores—I suddenly realized how much more quickly I could clean the house with all four of us pitching in—go figure! My older son is only 12 but he’s an awesome cook and actually cooks many of our dinners.

As for teaching, it involves not just a lot of intellectual labour, but also emotional labour, as I typically am interacting with over a hundred students each term, some of whom need a lot of help with things only peripherally related to the actual coursework, but which are affecting their studies. Then there’s the ongoing uncertainty of whether I will have a job in the upcoming academic year. There’s also guilt, of course: my impression is that women are by default still expected to be the primary caretaker. If women have custody of their kids, it’s taken as a given. If men have some form of custody, they’re amazing human beings and praised accordingly. The question I often get asked in one form or another is, “Don’t you miss your children terribly every other week?” And I feel awful when I say “no.” I love being with them but I also like the time I have alone. I cope in that I have help, I’m very organized, and although I feel guilty when I do want to reserve time for my own writing, I take it anyways.

So I would say that when it comes to writing, I have what I think has been called “fractured time.” In the past especially, I never knew how much time I would have or when it might be interrupted. When my youngest son was a baby and I first began writing poetry, I would often write while walking him in his stroller or while he played at the park. Many of the poems in Karyotype I wrote in the dark sitting next to one of my kids as they fell asleep, with a flashlight balanced on my shoulder so I could see my notebook. It has occurred to me that the kind of poetry I write—collagist techniques in my first collection, and ghazals now—may be the direct result of this kind of fractured time. When I was at Banff the subject of writing rituals and how to structure all your time came up in one of our weekly poets’ group discussions. I was greatly relieved when one of the faculty, Michael Dickman, mentioned that he and his wife had recently had a baby and now he just writes whenever he can because he’s so busy—you stop worrying about rituals etc. It was great to hear a fellow poet express my own experience of writing.

At this point, I’m so used to writing in these little spaces that I can’t imagine what I would do if I suddenly had a year to write—I think I’d freak out and not write a word.

DI: As I read Karyotype, the themes that cropped up for me were excavation and memory. The work seems to lie at the intersection of science and various histories, with small personal moments integrated into the text. And when you speak of Ledi, you use this word, “excavates.” What continues to draw you to excavations of actual geographical places?

KT: When I was an undergraduate, just finishing off my degree in literature, I had deep regret for not studying archaeology instead. I even looked into doing another degree at SFU and looked up all of the requirements. That’s when I realized I am not a scientist. My interest has found a different way to approach the past. The project I’m currently working on—besides intermittent ghazals—is tentatively called Glass, clay, Lascaux. Last summer I travelled to Chile to go into the Atacama desert. It is the driest region on earth and as a result the desert preserves things very well, including ancient human settlements and remains, from the Chinchorro mummies through the disappeared of Pinochet’s regime. The desert functions as a material record or archive of humanity. I guess I’ve always been drawn to the concept of excavation and geographical strata—not simply as a metaphor for the retrieval of memory, but most literally as the way in which we can read and touch our human past. I was told by a friend (and I’m not sure if it’s a quote or a saying) that in Chile if you want to go into the past, you travel North. I went North.

I was drawn first to the Atacama desert because my editor of Karyotype, Don McKay, sent me a documentary by Patrizio Guzman called Nostalgia for the Light—he felt that the documentary shared many of my preoccupations and aesthetic techniques. The documentary is in part about the astronomers in the Atacama desert searching the universe for its most distant past. (In fact when I was there I met a PhD student who was doing such research at the observatory on Cerro Paranal—he had been staying in a trailer originally used by the crew that filmed Quantum of Solace.) The documentary is also about the women who have been searching there for decades now for their missing loved ones, disappeared by the Pinochet regime. One of the women interviewed, Violetta, says, “I wish I had a machine like the astronomers that could look down into the earth—here, here, here—and find them.”

DI: At the heart of Karyotype is the Beauty of Loulan. She is on the cover, and the book opens with a scene of scientists “peel[ing] her desiccated beauty” and eventually “reach[ing] into her cavities” on television, while your family watches. What does ‘beauty’ mean to you? As women, we are constantly bombarded with certain representations of beauty and taught systemically what ‘beauty’ means from a very early age.

KT: The line “they peel her desiccated beauty” references the various forensics she was subjected to, including different narratives and claims placed upon her both by the indigenous group the Uighur who claim her as their own, and the Russian archaeologists who took her body away to dissect it. There’s no direct comment here on “beauty” in the sense of popular culture. But as far as stereotypes of “beauty” go (narratives and claims placed on women all our lives), I think girls should be given guerrilla training in how to say “fuck you” to “beauty.” The truth of beauty is in what you do. I’m not “beautiful” but I’m a fucking good poet. One of my favourite lines by Dylan goes “Beauty walks a razor’s edge / Someday I’ll make it mine.” That’s my definition.

DI:  Can you tell us more about your current projects?

KT: I’ve got two projects ongoing. Speaking of fractured labour, the first one is on the back burner as I really need a longer stretch of dedicated time to work on it, and I’ll hopefully have a few months this summer. As I said, I’ve been working on a manuscript called Glass, clay, Lascaux. The final section, which I need more time (or if I can put it this way, more of a mental “clearing”) to work on, is a long poem called “In the museum of memory,” which consists of a series of “rooms” (I’m gesturing towards the architecture of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile). Each room of my poem engages with various kinds of ephemera—textual archives, BC governmental “triple deleted” emails, redacted or “sanitized” CIA documents, accounts of the disappeared, whether it’s in South America, or along the Highway of Tears.

The second project began without any conscious decision. I mentioned to you that I write ghazals now and then, and this August I began to write ghazals where each ghazal makes some reference to one of the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. I’ve been calling them “hexaghazals.” They’re sort of bastardized North American ghazals; each ghazal consists of five somewhat random couplets. I don’t follow the more traditional refrain scheme of the Arabic, but there is some rhyme and slant rhyme that holds them together. I love the random, eclectic form: I include scraps of reading or signage that I encounter during the day, whether on the Sky Train or walking down the street; song lyrics; texts; newspaper headlines; overheard conversation; moments in my own experience or interactions with strangers, friends. I love that they allow me to work in the little interstices of time that I have, and they capture maybe the grain of my life, like a rough sketch or a transcript.


Doyali Islam‘s second poetry book is heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019).




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