An Interview with K.T. Billey
by Laura Romeyn
Kara Billey Thordarson (K.T. Billey), grew up in rural Alberta, Canada. I first met Kara when we were both students in Columbia University's MFA program. Over the years we've workshopped each other's poems, co-taught a class, and shared countless walks up and down the length of Manhattan. As a fellow prairie girl, I was initially drawn to Kara's poems for their insistent rurality. But what I admire equally—and perhaps learn even more from—is her speakers' refusal to censor themselves. These are poems that present both the body and the landscape as challenging, animalistic, even dominating, and are at once bold and flexible in their approach: "What's the point/of freedom/of speech/if I'm not open/to any conversation?" Kara's poems confront grief and desire head-on, and ask readers to consider the physical and emotional complexities of being a human person.
A former dancer with a degree in the philosophy of the body, aesthetics, and nature, Kara worked in a sex shop before moving to New York. In this interview we discuss physicality, being a country kid, and Vulgar Mechanics, her first collection of poems (seeking publication), a finalist for the 2015 Pamet River Prize from YESYES Books and current finalist for Fordham Lincoln Center's Poets Out Loud Prize. This collection is being translated into Spanish by the poet Soledad Marambio, whose acclaimed translation of Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay" was published in 2015.
A freelance writer, editor, and Assistant Editor for Asymptote, Kara divides her time between Alberta and New York.
What does Vulgar Mechanics, the title of your first collection of poems, represent to you?
'Vulgar' has obscene connotations but it also pertains to the masses, the quotidian. In a culture that separates us from our bodies yet obsesses over sex, vulgar has come to be smarmy—negative. But we're in these bodies every day. Embodiment is the foundation we have in common. To get from place to place, to take up space, to present an appearance—these unavoidable constants depend on having a physical form. There are wonderful, fraught differences, but we're all composed of mostly the same mechanisms.
Bodily workings are also the site of the biggest mysterious happenings. Growth, death, love welling up. This book is how I dealt with the death of my mother, the sexual abuse she suffered, my own coming out, and the fact that I think she was queer, too—that everyone is, really, and no one. We need more words for these ideas. In this book I wanted to challenge our comportment because I wonder what she and so many others would have done with more freedom and perspective. Would have done, would do, be. Sexuality is huge—bodies express a lot of love and curiosity—but also beyond that. Vulgar acceptance is a kind of activism. Can bodily freedom be mundane? We don't know yet.
Do you think "vulgar acceptance" might speak to your tendency towards formal control and regularity?
I mean acceptance as a positive matter of fact—this is how we are, and it's fine. How much anxiety would that relieve? It does extend into the arts. Everything has a form and I can't help but want to wrangle things into this or that shape.
Three of the poems in your collection are titled "clutches struts & brakes."
The shared title implies an overlap in imagery, but could you explain your formal choices in writing this series? I'm interested in how you thought about spacing and lineation here, and how that allows for shifts in rhythm and momentum.
Clutches struts and brakes are the ear nose and throat of vehicles—they're serviced in the same shop that is called some variation of 'clutches struts and brakes.' I love when names are verbs, and with mechanical parts that is often the case. Naming things and places after action—there's power there. I wrote a few versions of this title because there's just so much going on. One deals with definition—strict, functional, and a clear metaphor for political human bodies. The second is more multi-textual, using spacing to get four poems in one. I love that layers that let us have more than one possibility at once. The third "clutches struts & brakes" looks back on the series and the book and art—saying what had to be said. Studying with Derek Walcott instilled a strict formal appreciation in me. When I got to New York that was honed by Richard Howard, Cate Marvin, and Timothy Donnelly. Lucie Brock-Broido's magic and Mark Bibbins' sharp humor balanced things out.
Vulgar Mechanics is full of mechanical elements: oil rigs, gears, and drill bits. How does the imagery of mechanics frame and inform this collection?
Alberta is often described as the Texas of Canada—agriculture, rigs, cowboys. Driving is essential and you learn young. There's major blue-collar pride and you have to be practical to deal with winter. A lot of my favorite memories involve garages, quads, Jeeps and trucks. My dad worked for a paving company, we drove past farms and derricks all the time. I'm grateful to have grown up in a world where people interact with the landscape in both work and play. It's not abstract. On top of landscape is what's being done to it. Pipelines, fracking. Dangerous practices and the hand that feeds.
Many of your poems insist on engaging with the physical environment. What role did physicality play in your life growing up?
I was a farm kid. Disheveled hair, playing in fields and gravel pits. My maternal family immigrated to Alberta from the Ukraine and my mom was the last generation raised on their homestead. Gardening was not a hobby, it was how they survived. I didn't realize until later how rare it is for someone my age, here and now, to have contact with that lifestyle.
I was 'active' and a 'tomboy' though it wasn't phrased that way. I was lucky to have a family that associated femininity with competence, and especially in redneck country, to have a great Scandinavian dad. Through years of sports I never heard him pin 'like a girl' to anything. Instead he'd yell on the ski hill, telling us to face down the mountain.
Thor, your father, immigrated to Canada from Iceland. How have you inherited or carried on this cultural mashup? Do you find that it influences the translation work you do now?
For sure. My reasons for learning Icelandic went from personal to professional. I wanted to read the sagas, then realized that Icelandic language, legends, and family history would be the site of future projects—my next book and upcoming translation work.
Travel also contributed to your writing, and understanding of place...
I wish I spoke Ukrainian but the time I spent in Spain was essential. It was the perfect counterpoint to my background. I became engrossed with how climate shapes the personalities of entire cultures. And of course I'm so glad to have access to literature in Spanish. Translating Soledad Marambio's book as she translates mine is so interesting—mine is about my mother, land, and 21st century bodies, hers is about her father in Chile, moving from farm to city under a dictatorship. The overlap is amazing.
When Natalie Diaz visited Columbia I recall her speaking about physicality and the writing process. She was a professional basketball player, you're an ex-dancer with a yoga practice, you rock climb. Could you speak to your own writing as it relates to being a "physical" or active person?
I might be at one end of the restless, libidinous spectrum, but we're all 'physical people.' That's what I keep trying to say. Activity calms what I think are universal nerves. I do like coming at the same phenomena from multiple angles. Thinking, sweating—part and parcel.
That makes sense. I like to think that poetry is layered in the way that you don't have to "get it" right away. I might love the way a poem makes me feel before I dig into the patterns of sound and movement and image that allows for meaning-making.
Right. Poetry comprehends thought and feeling. Abstraction, beauty—language can handle that. Poetry collects it and offers it to others. That's what appeals to me, especially as it hinges on negative capability. Wittgenstein had words and logic, but he also waved that poker in Karl Popper's face. A pointed piece of iron between two of the best minds of the century. Poetry is that scene, the argument with metal and sentences. The poker and the bodies holding and recoiling from it are key too. Can't forget those.