#DogEarFeature: Exploring the Depths of Existence: A Conversation with Poet Kyla Houbolt


In an illuminating dialogue with poet Kyla Houbolt, we delve into the intricate layers of her poetry, exploring themes of nature, survival, and the ephemeral versus the eternal. Houbolt’s profound connection to the natural world, her experiences with transformation, and her insights into the role of art in challenging times paint a vivid picture of her creative universe. As she discusses her latest collection Surviving Death, she reveals the unique processes, inspirations, and societal influences that shape her poetic journey, offering a glimpse into the mind of a poet deeply engaged with the complexities of life and art.

Nature appears frequently in your poetry. How does the natural world serve as a backdrop or metaphor for the exploration of life, death, and the human experience in your work?

This morning I want to work on poems but must first go out and water the comfrey. I hear something before dawn, something scrabbling on the porch, and remember I was told yesterday, “oh yes, there are coyotes here.” It was not noisy enough to be a deer; they have stopped coming, because they’ve eaten all the plants on the porch and recently been fenced out of the rest of the yard and garden. Once I finish watering there will likely be other tasks. The impulse to poetry already sinks down beneath the more immediate needs of the day. This is all “Nature”. Any of it might appear in a poem, or not. As for death, all of these thoughts will die, some by the time I’ve finished my coffee, and some eventually.

Your dedication mentions “breathing wildfire smoke” and the unique perspectives it brings. How has your personal environment and experiences influenced the poems in this collection?

Yesterday morning, again, fire smoke, but it turned out to be from controlled burns, and not wildfire. I can say, and have in a very old (not very good) poem, that what we breathe in “comes from everywhere” but with smoke the experience is brought more to the surface. One can think about what burns, while the body processes. Most of these poems (in Surviving Death) were written before I lived in this particular spot, and they all draw on what I had breathed in, or was breathing in, as I wrote them, wherever I was at the time, or had been. Burning is an alchemical transformation. What is burning? What remains? What is changed?

Your poems touch on the idea of art as a form of survival. Can you elaborate on how art, and poetry in particular, can provide solace and insight in challenging times?

“Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so they are changed…enriched, enabled, encouraged” ~ Leonard Bernstein

Audre Lorde on poetry as the artform of working class consciousness: “Of all art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the most secret, requires the least physical labor, the least material, and can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.”

What do we do when we are deeply pressed, as in challenging times? Once we’ve met any immediate particulars, and the pressure continues or increases, we tend to look more deeply for relief. Some people pray. We ask each other “how can we stand this?” Or we turn to what feels like it exists on a plane other than the immediate, crunching needs, and often that is art. Our eyes may happen to fall on a photo or painting, or we may recall a line we’ve read, a song that uplifts; we may pick up a favorite book that we know has transported us, or one may come our way. Or, we may release that inner build-up in a creative act of some kind. I think at a certain stage of pressure we are likely either to create or to destroy. We can now witness around us these expressions and how they work to make change or preserve conditions. Solace and insight come when we are able to find them in ourselves, by reflecting and questioning. Poetry, art, can stimulate that.

Surviving Death covers a wide range of themes, from mortality to societal issues. Could you discuss your choice of including such diverse topics in a single collection? The title is both intriguing and evocative. Could you share the significance of this title and how it relates to the themes explored in your poems?

This goes to the core of my experience of existence. The fact that everything is, in some way, both ephemeral and eternal. Hence, surviving death means to cling to the eternal and do our best to cherish and respect the ephemeral while also learning what it means to release it as it disappears (as in the death of loved ones).  Always, this is my theme.  Words that express the momentary, the particular and the small, become poems as they also carry a breath of this ultimate dance between the moment and the unkillable essence.

Can you walk us through your creative process when crafting the poems in this collection? Are ther especific rituals or inspirations that guide your writing?

Accurately describing the process would be to write a poem. But I will give it a shot. Inspiration arrives via the words I encounter, or the experiences that show up in my days. There is a moment when I feel the “life” of a potential poem, and begin to put my own words to the experience. That feeling is essential for me. If it is absent, anything I write will be dull and have no spark.  (There are times when I have come up with a good poem without that initial spark, but managed to “lure it in” later in the process, but this is not my usual experience.) At best, once I respond to the first impulse, I am carried through associations from one line or phrase to another and another — until it feels a complete poem has come about. Each step involves internally hearing the rhythm of the words and their syllabic or percussive music. I edit as I go along, to maximize that music as best I can. Sometimes to align with the mood of the poem it’s best to avoid obvious musicality, to keep the potential of a reader’s attention active by using a shift or a surprising sound or verbal twist. I also edit later after letting the initial expression sit for a while, and sometimes that requires a long time and multiple passes. Not always.

You’ve mentioned sharing your work on Twitter. How has the platform influenced your writing, and do you think social media plays a unique role in modern poetry? Your acknowledgments highlight the importance of the poetry community. Could you expand on how collaboration and community have impacted your journey as a poet?

Twitter, now Xitter, is no longer what it was. But when I joined in (I think?) 2018 it was full of poets and people sharing inspiring excellent poems and I learned so much from them! I also encountered all who have published my work — periodicals and presses — on Twitter-that-was. Previous to joining Twitter, and overlapping a bit, I shared poems by posting them on trees in the local greenway, anonymously at first, as the Greenway Poet. That was well received but at a certain point some objected by means of tearing down the poems. My identity had been disclosed by a neighbor, and so when opposition arose, there were many there who encouraged me to keep sharing the poems! But eventually I had to stop. Twitter became my trees, then.  As you’ll no doubt have noticed, changes are rapid these days. I am grateful to have a few small collections in the world which, I hope, will have longer life spans than my posts of poems, either on trees or social media.

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