Kaie Kellough

Kaie Kellough Picture | Omniverse Project

Kaie Kellough is a novelist, poet, and sound performer. His work emerges at a crossroads of social engagement and formal experiment. From western Canada, he lives in Montréal and has roots in Guyana, South America.

His books include Dominoes at the Crossroads (short fiction, Véhicule 2020), Magnetic Equator (poetry, McClelland and Stewart 2019), and Accordéon (novel, ARP 2016).

Kaie’s writing has been awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize and the QWF Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.

Kaie’s vocal performance, recorded audio, and electronic narrative explore migration and the suspension of arrival. Kaie creates mixed media compositions with saxophonist and synthesist Jason Sharp, and graphic designer Kevin Yuen Kit Lo. Their collaborative audio-visual performances have been filmed and broadcast by jazz festivals across Europe and Canada.

Kaie’s work has traveled to the UK, Australia, Asia, the Caribbean, and continental Europe. He continues to craft new passages.


Key Points:

  • Identifying the sources of our ideas
  • Identifying our traditions and lineage
  • Charting our artistic course

There exists a difference between a writer’s immediate artistic family and their influences. A writer’s artistic family consists of those artists who speak directly to them, who inform them on a personal level. More precisely, it consists of those artists who come from a related background, who examine a similar set of social conditions, who struggle with a similar complex of ideas, and who approach language in a related way.

I would loosely consider my artistic family to be the artists whose work proceeds from and examines the same historical exigencies that motivated my early interest in the arts. That interest came from a persistent question, which was: “How did I get here, what am I doing here, in this city, in this country, at this time?” Also a concern for me, growing up mixed-race on the prairies, was how my daily experience of life differed from that of my white peers. I rarely saw reflections of myself, or of people like me in Canadian popular culture. My experience did not seem to be part of the narrative of “Canada,” and that concerned me. How could I be born in this place, grow up here, yet somehow feel that I didn’t fully exist? Naturally, the artists to whom I gravitated were those who confronted similar conditions: African American and Caribbean writers, as well as Black writers living in Canada and the UK. Those resemblances, however, were not sufficient to qualify an artist as “family.”

Equally important was the artist’s technique, their ability to manipulate the material of their chosen art form, and their ability to conceive of what they were doing in terms of form and structure, their knowledge of how their art form worked. Concept, technique, and knowledge of the relationship their work bore to that of other artists in their tradition.

A literary or artistic family can resemble a blood family in some ways. One such way is that new members are always being produced, so in exploring new writers in that family tradition, you will acquire new family members, new ambitious nieces and nephews, perhaps. And it is important to think of a family as a constantly growing and evolving entity. New members are added, estranged ones mysteriously return to knock on your door, new connections are discovered, and entire new branches of the family may be uncovered. A family is not static, is not just the immediate members to whom you might be closest, and in familial relations there can also be varying degrees of conflict and distance, and that is fine, because neither conflict nor distance can invalidate the familial bond.

Influences are a second category, one that can potentially be wider and more varied than family. Anyone can be an influence. Here, I count major and minor influences, but I am grateful to all of them for having taught me something, even those who have taught me what (and who) to avoid. Time, or duration of the relationship is one property that, for me, distinguishes between a major and minor influence. There are some writers, for instance bp Nichol, or Lisa Robertson, whose writing I’ve returned to over a period of years, and from whom I’ve been able to continue learning, writers who have taught me things that are essential to my craft.

When I was much younger, I read through many of bp’s works, and was particularly taken by his visual poems, the ways they could multiply meaning in such a compressed format, the way a single letter could stand for something greater than just itself. I was moved by bp’s investigation of language down to its smallest particles. I also loved the way bp would entertain and publish experiments for their own sake, whether the result of the experiment was “good” or not. The experiments obeyed unique rules, like those of the anagram, the lipogram, or the literal translation, (“Translating Translating Appolinaire,” for instance), and they succeeded or failed based on the rules they had set for themselves. The experimentation itself set the context for valuing the poem. To me, that was a rebellious gesture precisely because it questioned authority, and pushed us, as readers and writers, to consider how a poem should be read, and how it should (or should not) be judged.

Lisa Robertson is another writer to whom I regularly return, because of how she approaches the poetic line in works like 3 Summers. Her line is not long, but it coils away from our apprehension. An unexpected “twisting” movement shifts the line, at the level of meaning, outside the range of our familiar expectations. A cumulative effect is produced over the duration of a work like 3 Summers. The effect is wave-like, as if each line were re-drawing the map of the movement of the previous, and the overall feeling is one of constant motion, a resistance to fixity, meaning sliding and shimmering along the surface and never crystallizing. That impression of recursive movement lingers long after the book has been closed. In a way, Robertson’s poems led me to realizing that the way a poem unfolds, formally and structurally, is a narrative itself. The narrative is not just the story that the work tells, but rather the way the work develops formally as we read. These are abstract impressions of an effect produced by a work of poetry, so your experience of them may be different, and I would urge you to investigate Lisa Robertson’s works, but they are nonetheless qualities that I felt when reading her work, and that I wished to incorporate into my own.

Minor influences are countless, unnumbered. They include the writers from whom I might have learned one thing, in one moment, and nothing else. That thing may still be of use to me now, but that one thing may be the only thing I took from their work. Over the past 25+ years, I have learned immeasurably by attending poetry readings and concerts. I have been impressed by some quality of how the voice emerges, some ability to shape a particular vocal effect or note, some surprise produced by a sudden shift in the register of delivery, from rhythmed speech to casual speech, from formal address to the vernacular, perhaps, or a spike in volume, a unique application of movement and physical presence to the performance of the poem. But it is important to collect the minor influences, because they do add up, and they can be encountered in any anthology, at any open mic, or any university reading. They are the gems that we unearth by simply being curious about our art form.

History Prompt

Compile a list that identifies those writers (and perhaps artists at large) whom you consider to be your artistic family. Please feel free to distinguish between immediate and extended family.

Compile a list should identify the writers/artists you consider your influences. Please feel free to distinguish between major and minor influences.

For each artist on each list, identify and write out the one major idea, technique, or property that you learned from their work. Try to be as precise as possible when writing about that property.

Craft & Writing

Key Points:

  • Awareness of a closing structure
  • Slow growth: thinking versus writing
  • Attachment to process and detachment from outcome

During the publication process, editors will set a timeline for writers and will request a complete first draft, and later a complete revised draft, and finally, if all appears to be moving toward completion, a stable manuscript. I always worry about the moment when the two words “stable” and “manuscript” will come together, because once they do, it becomes very difficult to make major structural changes. Once the work is stable, whether it is a work of poetry, fiction, memoir, or creative non-fiction, stability means that the overall structure of the writing, and the ideas that govern its development, are fixed. Once they are fixed, then as a writer I am less able to manipulate them, and instead of being outside of the conceptual dome of my writing, I am now inside the dome, working within a more restricted scope, working with whatever uncertainties or structural fragilities my writing has produced, essentially working within the confines not of my own creative process, but of what my process has constructed.

At that point I can still make changes, certainly, but major ones will have a much greater impact on the overall work. Their repercussions will be felt throughout, almost like seismic shocks, and I will have to reinforce much of the work with re-writes and additional revisions. If I am resigned to the overall structure, I can still make changes that will have an impact on the quality of the book I deliver to my editor, and eventually to the public, yes, but those changes are also more cosmetic, more decorative, and more technical than they are conceptual or structural. The decorative is important, because it produces the fine detail that brings the poem or narrative alive. The technical is equally important, because it shapes the reader’s immediate and ongoing interface with the work. But the technical and the decorative inhabit the work, they don’t shape and structure it.

I do think that the structural system of a work closes long before the stable manuscript is produced. I feel that it happens around the time when the first draft is close to completion, when the final major ideas have been thought out and are close to being implemented, when the work gains its own momentum and knows where it is going, when it starts to guide you, the writer, instead of you pushing it where you wish it to go. 

Once the structure closes, you are working within the book. The book is not complete, but major qualities have already been decided, and now your work as a writer is no longer to make something from air, but to make the most of what you’ve already created, to refine the detail.

Naturally, I like to take as much time as possible to reach the point where the structure closes, to keep it open on paper, but more importantly to keep it open in my mind. In order to do this, I do a lot more thinking than I do writing. I construct a work slowly, and I always leave my writing or rehearsal sessions open-ended, and never at the end of a chapter or of a passage. My goal is always to re-focus myself on the process and not on the outcome of that process. An investment in the process, and patience with its unfolding is the only thing that can produce a competent literary work. Outcomes are for editors, publishers, readers, and reviewers to consider.

Craft & Writing Prompt

Take one of your poems that you consider to be complete, preferably an older poem.

Imagine that the poem was to be published in an anthology that would be circulated worldwide. What revisions would you perform on the poem, how would you change it?

Identify the characteristics of a complete work. What lets you know that a work is complete? What drives a work toward completion? Is it a precision of language, a clarity of articulation, or a structural unity, or otherwise?

Longer-term thought prompt: The aim of this longer-term exercise is to encourage us to allow our writing to persist in a state of incompletion. As poets who perform, we may collaborate with artists who work in other disciplines. We may need to adapt our work to forms of presentation other than literary publication or solo vocal performance.  Versions of the same poem can exist in multiple formats, but this depends on our ability to keep the work open. This longer-term contemplation is directed toward thinking of our work as variable, as adaptable.


Key Points:

  • Distinguishing between page-directed presentation and performance
  • Deconstructing the hierarchy of page versus performance
  • Adapting work from page to performance

Why should what’s printed on a page determine what happens in a performance?

I’ve asked myself this question on numerous occasions, and it hovers in my thoughts whenever I prepare for a performance event. Asking this question has nothing to do with whether a person stands up on stage with a book or with a paper, or whether they perform from memory. Indeed, I’ve seen countless performers present work from memory, and yet as a listener we can still hear that the work isn’t yet liberated from the page. It’s still primarily a text that’s being voiced, and the performer is following the direction of the text word-for-word. This is precisely the situation I’d like to break from when in performance. I don’t want the text, or even the idea of text, to precede the idea of performance. If the work is being performed, then performance must come first.

This separation is necessary because a performance obeys different laws than a text. A performance takes place in a different medium than a written work. A written work’s words are fixed in place on a device that is used for reading. The words don’t produce sound. The reader’s eyes move as they engage with the words, and the words suggest sound, ideas, images, movement to the reader, but they don’t produce any of these things on their own. In addition, the reader reads at their own pace. The text does not set the pace for the reading.

Performance is different. An audience member does not see the words on the page or device (unless these are being projected as a visual device). They see the performer in front of them, moving and delivering the work. They see a body in motion, in performative exertion. They hear the words as they are shaped by the performer’s body and inflection, as they are shaped by the space in which they resonate, as they are amplified or modulated by technology. Sound travels through the air to the performer’s ear. Finally, the performance happens in time. The audience member experiences the performance as it happens, and unlike reading a book, they cannot speed or slow the experience to suit themselves. They cannot pause it, unless experiencing it digitally. They must experience it in the moment, at the pace it sets. The mediums of text and performance are as distinct as paper and air.

It is crucial that a literary performer understand these distinctions, because that understanding produces greater freedom and ease in performance. The ability to unfix the performance from the page also enables the poet to better adapt the poem to different collaborative contexts.

Performance Prompt

Take one of your shorter poems, maximum length of one page, and read it through once, as you might read it in performance. Time that reading. Using the same poem, double the length of time for which it must be performed. Do not write down any instructions for yourself, and do not worry about the performance being “good.” Aim only to extend the length of the poem by finding new pathways through it. Make sure that the performance bears some relationship to the poem, even if that relationship is as tenuous as using the sounds of only fragments of the words in the poem.  

Using the same poem, further extend the length of time for which it must be performed. Draw out your improvisations. Use repetition and vary your volume and emphasis as you stretch the performance. The aim here is to simultaneously move deeper into what is possible with the poem, while moving away from the poem as a lyric object that must be read from beginning to end in a specific word-order.

Write down the different techniques you used to extend the length of the poem. Aim to create a catalogue of the oral techniques with which you’re working, and to understand how they come into being during performance, yet they do not necessarily exist in the written work.