Writer-in-Residence Kaie Kellough talks heritage, ancestry, & experimentation

Kellough sits down with The Journal to discuss his work 

Kaie Kellough is Queen’s Writer-in-Residence for the 2020-21 school year. 
Credit: 
Kevin Calixte

Kaie Kellough is renowned for the richness of his writing and his ability to weave narratives together across time and place. After winning the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2020 QWF Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, Kellough is now the 2020-21 Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s.

In an interview with The Journal, Kellough described his artistic influences, performance style, and experimentation within the literary community. 

Kellough creates dialogues and combines his experiences in Calgary, Montreal, and Guyana in his poetry. Raised in Calgary, he moved to Montreal as a young adult to become a poet. 

“In Montreal, I was exposed to writing in French and the French language in a much richer and profound way than the West,” Kellough said. “I chose Montreal because it’s where my parents met, and I thought it was the more unexpected and unusual choice compared to moving to Toronto or Vancouver.”

According to Kellough, heritage and ancestry are recurring themes in his writing.

“I have one side of my family that’s from Guyana, and my writing is trying to reconcile that connection with growing up here, and the way that Canadian culture—whether that’s Vancouver, Calgary, or Montreal—the way that Canadian culture has shaped me,” Kellough said.

“It’s an attempt at creating a conversation across time and across place, and through cultures that is really interesting to me.”

These themes grounded his book Magnetic Equator, which won the Griffin Poetry Prize. The book is structured as one long poem divided into multiple sections.

“Each section either starts out in Guyana or in Calgary, Alberta where I grew up. It moves back and forth throughout the book,” Kellough said. “The structure sort of came out organically as I was writing.”

On his website, Kellough describes his work as “emerging at the crossroads of social engagement and formal experiment.” In addition to traditional forms of poetry and novels, the writer has also published two audio recordings and is described as a sound performer.

To Kellough, formal experiment is “experimenting with different kinds of uses of language, different types of structures in poetry that are used to shape the movement of language, different techniques for writing poetry and fiction as well.”

He added the Caribbean influence on his mother’s side has deeply impacted his style of performance and perceptions of art, especially in recognizing the depth of oral traditions. 

“Coming from partly a Caribbean background on my mom’s side, there’s a strong relationship to oral traditions and oral poetry,” Kellough said. “And just in general, being Black in the Americas, one of the things that you’re introduced to when you’re very young as an artist is the breadth and richness of the oral traditions in the Americas.”

Kellough touched on the historical streams of Caribbean traditions, including the origins of spoken word poetry, jazz poetry, and musical expression, while also contributing to new forms of oral traditions in his work.

“I’ve always been interested in drawing from and being informed by those traditions, and also contributing to them,” Kellough said. “It’s also really interesting to cultivate a sound and deploy a sound.”

The writer’s first introduction to performing spoken word was at a poetry reading in his first year at the University of Calgary.

He recalled not understanding the context of a poetry reading because he had never been to one and being impressed by how polished the other poets were in terms of “practiced gestures, using the microphone, and modulating the volume of their voice expertly.”

“Even though I was the only Black poet at that event, it was a live introduction to the possibilities of oral tradition and the relationship that you cultivate to language orally.”

Kellough’s new role as Writer-in-Residence will allow him to bring his unique writing style to the Queen’s and larger Kingston community.

“I’m excited to exchange ideas with students, faculty, and members of the broader
community—especially on the intersections of music and literature.”

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