Kamila Rina is an autistic and multi-disabled immigrant Jewish non-binary bi demi-ace poet and a sexuality/gender/disability educator, living in Treaty 13 territory. They have been published internationally, including in Room Magazine, Breath & Shadow, Monstering, Deaf Poets Society, We Have Come Far, Carousel, Augur, Frond, Mary, and Queer Out There. Find them at KamilaRina.com.
My marvellous friend, the award-winning writer Jade Wallace interviewed me this week from 4 hours away (so, via email) about my writing career.
Jade: What has kept you writing over the years?
Kamila: The first answer that occurs to me here is: tenacity. Not tenacity as in: making it a priority to write, even when life is shit — but: trying to survive life being frequently shit, by all means necessary, which often includes writing.
I started writing poems when I was a sad, lonely, and abused eight-year-old, whose double weirdness as a traumatised + autistic child put them achingly out of touch and mutual comprehension with their peers. Writing brought me a sense of purpose, structure, emotional containment, and a lot of positive feedback from outsiders. My language arts teacher started keeping a file of my poems and making inquiries with poetry book publishers on my behalf; that was a hell of a lot of validation. Then we immigrated from Poland to Canada, and I stopped writing — I had no audience for any new work in Polish, and at the time English seemed to me a very pedestrian language, quite unsuited to poetry. Even when used to only translate my poems, English seemed to impoverish them. So I put ‘writing poems’ in the box of ‘things my immigration experience has cost me’ and closed the lid.
But when new hard things happened, I needed to write again. At first my poems were quite rough, and I only used them to help me survive, to bleed my distress or intensity onto the page. But one day I brought that kind of ‘survival poem’ in to my therapist, who said it was the best piece she’d seen from me, and maybe I should get it published? I had finally somehow grasped the art of being poetic in English. I date becoming a working writer back to that moment. I do, still, write to cope when things are hard. Last week someone in my life died, and I’ve written 2 poems so far, and more will come. The writing helps, hugely, to slowly make sense of, or make peace with, the unbearable and the unexplainable.
Jade: Of all the poems you have written, tell me about the one of which you are most proud.
Kamila: I would say both “Anaphylaxis, Heartbreak, and Other Oxygen-Stealing Disasters” and “Stagger” — and for the same reason. I’d been trying to write those very poems for years — one comparing my experiences of anaphylaxis and heartbreak, covering the things they have in common (spoiler: they have a lot in common); the other trying to combine: disability, being non-binary in public, vulnerability, and the sexual harassment I experience when I am visibly disabled and coercively feminised — all in one piece. I managed to fail a lot along the way; there were so many unsuccessful versions of both poems. So I had Such a Sense of Accomplishment when I finally produced them in a way that worked. Incidentally, despite how hard I kept failing along the way, the versions that finally succeeded seem…kind of great? I’m so ridiculously proud not just of succeeding at those pieces, but also of the quality of work they ended up being. (I submitted AHAOOSD in the writing sample for all 3 writing grants I was awarded over the last year.)
Jade: What would you most like people to know about you as a writer?
Kamila: That I write what I know. That everything I say comes from my own, often tangled, often visceral, experience. And that I write to keep the reader company, not to teach them anything (as some poets are credited with doing). I am not particularly wise. I am figuring my shit out as I’m writing; it’s an act of containment and insight and pattern-spotting and self-calming, not of conferring lessons. But I am great at keeping folks company, especially if they are bumbling through life as I have been, especially if they have struggled with what I have.
Jade: Writers are often asked for the best writing advice they have ever received, but good advice is often circumstantial, so I’ll ask you a different question: what writing advice is most useful to you right now?
Kamila: Ooooh, good question! I’ve recently taken a bunch of online poetry-writing classes with Ellen Bass (super highly recommended! and Ellen offers a real sliding scale to struggling writers), and the guidelines I am currently most benefiting from, that I collected at those classes, are:
1. No piece of writing is wasted. If you’ve tried to write the same poem 7 or 12 times now, over a period of 40 years maybe even (Ellen has a story about that!), those efforts are not pointless. You don’t yet have the writing muscles to manage the task you are attempting; those failed poems are helping you grow those muscles. Don’t let shame or disappointment spook you into giving up.
2. It’s always better to overwrite than to restrict yourself at the drafting stage. Throw everything into your poem that you want to: the kitchen sink, your grandma Genia, the pangolins you’ve been researching, the way the sun hit your ex’s face on your first date. You can always take them out later — but in the meantime you don’t know where those disparate pieces might take you. If you remove everything that doesn’t seem to fit now, you might be impoverishing your poem and stunting its growth.
3. In order to improve at writing poetry, you have to read a lot of poetry. I’ve always considered reading poetry a soul-nourishing (and occasionally indulgent) experience, but now I also see it as (necessary) homework. And the weeks when I read a lot of other people’s poems, I also draft more work myself! Both because their work inspires me — “yes I also want to write about this topic, or about this other thing that this tangentially reminds me of!” — and also because it teaches me, by example, skills in writing & choosing & imagination — “oooh, I didn’t know you could write about this subject this way?! what if I write about this other thing in this other unusual way?? also, wow neat word, must go look up.”
Jade: What is a writing project you have always wanted to do but have not yet gotten around to?
Kamila: I wouldn’t say ‘always’ — I think my project-planning abilities are lagging behind my writing skills, and any ambitious plans are recent — but lately I’ve been wanting to write multilingual patchwork poems. I can write in 6 languages. Not all of them fluently, mind you, but all enough for me to be enchanted by some words or expressions in them, to admire the language for its unique style and personality. I love the bluntness of Yiddish, the extra-ness of French, the way Russian abjures the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense. And I’ve long been admiring the way some multilingual writers include untranslated words from another language in their poems, in ways that, if you speak that language, enrich the poem, but if you don’t, the poem still isn’t wasted on you. And I’m wondering about trying to write poems that include several ‘visiting languages’ at the same time: what would that be like? How would I construct a piece like that to still be comprehensible to English-speaking audiences? How can I get those languages to, with just a few words, contribute their unique personalities to the poem?
Jade: How do you hope your writing will change over time?
Kamila: I think my hopes for my writing are the same as my hopes for getting older: I hope one day I am grown enough and sturdy enough that there is nothing I’m not able or willing to say. There are things I currently can’t write about, because I don’t yet have the skill or the imagination — and things I don’t know how to write about, because of trying to protect privacy (my own or others), or not wanting the poem to be hijacked by the inclusion of unusual or horrific details, or because the subject matter seems ugly or pedestrian or trivial. So I aspire one day to be able to literally write about anything, and make it meaningful and relatable and companionable (but probably not ‘wise’), while still honouring emotional limits and boundaries and my own sense of style and creativity.
Cheryl Wheeler, a queer folk singer-songwriter, once wrote a lovely, amusing song about “Cow-Patterned Clothes”, at the request of attendees at a song-writing conference. Anne Sexton described having diarrhea as a small child in a poem. Sonnet L’Abbé used a Shakespeare sonnet as a scaffold to share a tender questioning of their gender. They are my role models :).
Kamila Rina visits Brockton Writers Series via ephemera series on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 starting at 6:30pm alongside Prakash Krishnan, Carrianne Leung, and Kiran Bhat. Our guest speaker Sonia Vaillant will talk to us about, “Audio books 101”.
Special note: As we adapt to current social distancing regulations, we’re happy to announce our event will be hosted by the wonderful ephemera series! They have already done their show online multiple times, so we are thrilled to benefit from their technical expertise, while also increasing collaboration within the literary community and growing connections between organizers, authors, and audience. You can attend the event by watching on the ephemera series YouTube channel. Please log in at 6:30.