K.T. Billey’s poetry collection Vulgar Mechanics is a finalist for Fordham Lincoln Center’s Poets Out Loud Prize and being rendered into Spanish by poet Soledad Marambio, the translator of Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” (Cuadro de Tiza Ediciones). Originally from rural Alberta, Canada, Billey won Vallum’s 2015 Poetry Prize and her poems have appeared in journals such as CutBank, Denver Quarterly, The New Orleans Review, and Prelude. An Assistant Editor for Asymptote, her translations from Spanish and Icelandic have appeared or are forthcoming in the Harvard Review, Circumference, the Council for European Studies’ CritcCom, and Palabras Errantes. In addition to arts and culture essays, she is writing an autobiographical comedy about a woman working at a sex shop in cowboy country. See more at ktbilley.com.
What would you do if you weren’t involved in literature?
In another dimension I’m a sex educator-theorist-activist sliding into drag and performance art. Actually, that’s now/the future. I love teaching and working with kids. Environmental/human rights law was on the table at one point.
Where did you grow up?
In the country west of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.
Within the context of your poetry, do you tend to be more interested in emotions or in ideas?
Emotions. There are many ways to express ideas. Emotions are elusive and complex, and poetry is a great way to explore those subtleties. My poems are often idea-driven, trying to figure something out or force a question into the air, but I think (ha ha) the most interesting ideas are emotional, whether or not we admit it.
I felt the weight of trauma and secrecy in some of the poems in your collection, Vulgar Mechanics. Where did these poems begin for you?
Some are more easily parsed—my mother died when I was young, there were deathbed revelations of sexual abuse and a tonne of fallout. Writing was a way to give voice to what she lived with for decades, to acknowledge, at least. These poems began by questioning how we can both remember and move forward. Despite intense trauma my mom raised three daughters who take no shit, and I like to think of that as a legacy to live up to. Writing is a way to call out misogyny and rape culture, but also to outline better. To describe the future, the adults we want to be and the world we want to live in.
I see ‘better’ as freedom and possibility so a lot of these poems range around pansexuality and gender-body dynamics. I spent years pushing into experiences partly because I wanted to ‘make up’ for my mom and others’ lack of freedom. If not make up, and least to not waste mine. Heartbreaks fraught with distance and orientation.
By the end of the book I’d dealt with the major wounds and was writing to bust out. I love semantics but language isn’t a cure-all. It looped back to the body.
Do you feel like you’ve embarked on a journey with each poem you’ve written?
With poems that clearly come from a situation the journey isn’t mysterious. There are others that burble up from notes taken over time, usually triggered by language taken out of context, or good reading. With those I don’t know where I’m going when I start, but often can look back, in a week or a year or more, and see that ‘oh, this was a combination of this and that and then.’
As a prose writer, I struggle with inhibited language and so I usually read poetry to shake off my uptightness. As a poet, what do you struggle with and where do you find relief?
I know that sometimes I leap a lot of frogs in the comparisons or images I pile on top of each other and that can leave readers in the dark. I’m not shooting for obscurity but also don’t want to explain. Ultimately you have to just let those more mysterious ones be.
I find relief in the space, in being beholden to nothing. Poetry has its own logic. I can land on something like ‘A glacier in a grain of sand’ and it can stand on its own in a stanza in a way that’s difficult for prose to approach. That image came in one of the last poems of the book, in a line about how that is the goal. It resonates as accurate even though I can’t articulate exactly what it means yet—but the poem will hold it.
You are also a translator. I imagine being a poet is beneficial. In particular, I’m thinking of how a translator has to reinterpret from one language to another while attempting to keep the poetics of idiomatic expressions. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a translator? Do you collaborate with the author? If so, how?
Yes, that’s one of the best parts! Asking questions, offering options, explaining my choices learning the secret origins of lines—the stuff behind the writing. I feel a deep responsibility to the work so it’s a big relief to be able to ask the author. The main challenge is capturing every element.
I recently finished translating Stormwarning, the third book by Kristín Svara Tómasdóttir, a fantastic Icelandic poet. There were places where it was impossible to get the meaning across while retaining her original wordplay. Sense and flow were my highest priorities, along with her dark, understated humor. You can’t preserve everything, but what is lost in one line might re-emerge in another. Stormwarning also has allusions to cultural events and stories that Icelandic readers would easily catch—I add what an English reader would need to understand a few layers but the poem is no place for explaining everything. I like those reminders that ‘hey, this came from somewhere else’ and I’m a big fan of notes sections that give cultural background.
Which do you most enjoy, writing poetry or translating it?
Writing poetry is a unique activity. Translating I enjoy because it lets me crawl into another language’s sleeping bag, to play with the zippers—to realize how many there are. It thrills my brain to be in another language world. There’s also the satisfaction of increasing access to work I admire. Translating poetry is the ultimate crossword puzzle. I love the challenge and having results to offer in the end.
What are you working on now?
A mass of notes went through mitosis and those will be my next two poetry projects. One is a novel in verse whose main character is Silfra, the fissure in Iceland between the North American and Eurasian continents—the only place where a human can dive between two continental plates. The other is linguistic/etymological. I’m also editing a multilingual feature on Canadian Poetry in translation for Asymptote. I’m really excited about it—there is so much great First Nations and immigrant writing to showcase.
Where would you want to be tomorrow?
Getting into more interdisciplinary projects. I trained as a dancer and with all the bodies on my mind I’ve been meaning to get movement and performance back into my life. I’m also lucky enough to know some very talented visual artists—my sister Layla among them—and I’m looking forward to future collaborations. Or, you know, in a forest.
Thank you, K.T.!