Trevor Ketner
If You're Not Your Own Favourite Poet Then What Are You Doing?: An Interview with A.Light Zachary

Light and I “met,” if we can call it that, when we were both taking part in Lambda Literary's virtual 2021 Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. I don’t know that I had prepared myself for the strangeness of a poetry workshop via Zoom, and ultimately found myself a bit

flustered and out of joint for most of the retreat. But Light, in their small square, looked serene, always attentive even when not speaking. When they did choose to come off mute, they were kind, thoughtful, and incisive. Their poems had startling clarity and an expansive, omnivorous approach to form both abstractly and in the physical shape each poem took on the page. I knew, without any doubt, they’d have a book out soon. Thankfully, I was right! And now the world has the pleasure of hosting Light’s debut collection More Sure: Poems and Interruptions published by Arsenal Pulp Press in April of 2023.


After my first reading of the book, I knew I wanted to talk to Light about More Sure. As people who share poetic and creative interests and some lived experiences in common, I thought there was a lot we could do to unpack the incredible intentionality of this book’s construction, the intensity of the emotional gesture in these poems, and nuanced critiques I don’t see happening in other work today. So I set up a shared Google doc with a few questions and over the spring and early summer, Light and I would contribute to it. This is what that process yielded.

-- Trevor Ketner


TK: Form feels central to this book in some really interesting ways. Firstly, there’s how poems literally sit on the page and relate to each other in ways that feel nearly physical (I’m thinking of the two sonnets that are both physically and syntactically reversed mirror images of each other in “Why bury yourself in this place you ask” but this happens throughout More Sure). As someone who is interested in the physicality of language and has craved seeing more work that  approaches language in this way, the sculptural aspect of the collection is deeply satisfying.


Secondly, throughout the collection you return to circles and loops and cycles as forms and images and gestures, often as a kind of rejection of a linear understanding (of gender, of biography, of history).


Can you speak to one or both of these formal impulses? How do you relate to the physicality of a poem? What is the power that circular form holds for you? For poetry? For gender? For understanding different (perhaps better) ways of existing within ourselves and with others?


ALZ: A poem should only look like most poems do (left-aligned, lineated) when the poet has decided that is the best possible way for it to look. I often make that choice, it’s a fine choice to make, but it’s intellectually weak to just leave this unconsidered… Every aspect of a poem, including how it appears on the page, should uplift every other aspect. Every decision I make about form is towards a sense of orchestration.


How often do you think you’re looking at a circle when you’re actually looking straight down at a helix? You can’t go home again.


Both of these are also answers to your question how do you relate to the physicality of a poem.


TK: I’m really fascinated by this idea of a circle as a helix from a different perspective. At one point, I remember (or perhaps misremember) a poet describing one possible gesture of a poem as a spiral or corkscrew following a central axis to which is gets closer and closer as it moves forward. With a helix, this axis still exists, but there is, literally within the image, no “point” as there is with the corkscrew spiral. I’ve found lately that I’m interested in poems that are “pointless” in this way, which is to say, in a more generous framing, poems that remain open to the fuller possibilities around their axes. And a helix as circle when looked at from the top, seems like such an apt image for a poem: something that appears to be a complete and perfect shape but, in actually, never actually closes on itself.


I would also love to sit with the idea of circles with the gesture of return. Many poems in the book touch on the idea of returning, whether it’s the speaker returning to their home and family (as complicated as that is) or returning to memories of past selves and relationships. If we can’t go home again then why do we return?


ALZ: To have a conscious experience of personal growth. Such experiences are fine starting points for poems. Alternatively, masochism.

TK: Like just about any collection, the poems in More Sure are haunted by the work and aesthetics of others. I found myself thinking of Whitman, Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson (Why bury yourself…” put me immediately in mind of The Glass Essay), film and pop culture (“Friday nights at the non-binary drive-in”) while reading. What are some inspirations (poetry or not) that readers might not immediately recognize but were deeply (in)formative for these poems?


ALZ: I am happy to know you see Whitman (whose poetics of self-determination are important to me) and Carson. Other poet-influences are Callimachus via Stephanie Burt, Jos Charles, Jennifer Espinoza, bpNichol, Octavio Paz, Souvankham Thammavongsa. And the artists Cassils, Felix González-Torres, On Kawara, Cy Twombly.


Everything I’ve learned by osmosis—scraps of quantum mechanics, phenomenology—from the physicists and philosophers I have always had in my life.


When I think of how to structure a poem, I look to short pieces by C.P.E. Bach or Liszt, or Fiona Apple or Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, or Sigur Rós or Mount Eerie. Or myself (I am a public writer and private musician). When I thought of structuring this book as a whole, I looked to Sibelius’ symphonies and Rachmaninov’s concerti, and to J.S. Bach, and the great contemporary concept albums like The Black Parade and MBDTF… Always I am interested in motifs and movements.


TK: I can see now why we get along so well (laughs). Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Cy Twombly are two major influences on my own thinking about art. My husband and I ate two candies from “Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) as part of our wedding ceremony. I’m in the process of writing a series of letters to dead artists and writers who have deeply influenced me and Gonzalez-Torres and Twombly are both on that list.


It’s funny you mention Sibelius. As I sat down to reply to your responses I put on a YouTube playlist of live violin concerto performances. As I came to this particular question the gods of the algorithm decided to write a bit of poetry and Hilary Hahn’s performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concert in D minor with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France came on.


I don’t know that I could have identified it before you pointed it out, but I think a great deal of what I love so much about More Sure is owed to the strengths it gains from this symphonic structure. The tasteful echo of recurring motifs, the rich changes in texture and color between sections, the evolution of these motifs and textures and colors as the book builds all coming together to create a sense of wholeness that owes its cohesion to a fundamental intelligence at its core in the way a symphony does. There is an internal logic to the structure that is, I can see now, on the scale of a symphony as opposed to, say, a playlist which is what most contemporary poetry collections feel like for me at this point. Which isn’t a dig! Playlists are great. But I do sort of crave and savor the grandness of the symphonic structure when I find it and, after your nudge here, I found it in More Sure. No real question here, just deep appreciation I guess, but happy to hear any thoughts you have about what I shared.


ALZ: One of those candies lives atop a doorframe in my house. I’m mostly attached to Sibelius’ second and third symphonies. And to Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus. Most collections of individual poems are terribly structured—poets tend to get the first and last poems right, and forget about the rest.


TK: Some of the more explicit references are in the poems that act as “interruptions” which is a term that appears in the book’s subtitle. You interrupt Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Juvenal, Seneca, the OED, Hadrian, and bumper stickers, These interruptions borrow or steal or repurpose what is given in a way that feels ambiently queer and specifically trans, but I’d love to hear more about them from you. I’m interested too in the choice to use classical (in the academic sense) literature as a jumping off point/pool of material here. How did the interruptions come into being?


ALZ: I spent my childhood reading Romans and Greeks who dispensed so much advice about how to live as a strong man, a useful woman; Harvard Classics in my Pokémon backpack. Like many children who want to feel like little intellectuals, I tried to guide myself by my favourite aphorisms. Later, after growing up and coming out, I thought back on those and wondered if I might twist them into maxims more relevant to the person I grew up to be… I found myself

imagining these figures into the present, and/or projecting modern ideas of gender into the ancient world, to ask: what societal ills might a queer Juvenal have spent their time bemoaning? What advice might Marcus Aurelius have passed down to non-binary citizens? I thought to present the results as “interruptions” to very explicitly claim space in that canon, and I decided to keep the passages very short to take them as far as I could out of context. I might have remembered Adorno’s writing on how a fragment’s abstraction from its whole imbues it with a force of the universal, or I might have just remembered that now.


Overall, this was a joyfully youthful, unserious, Romantic project. Maybe there is something of Cy Twombly’s approach to invocation. (The curator Christine Kondoleon: Twombly did not aspire to be scholarly, but rather embraced a Romantic approach to the classical world that was concerned less with facts than with impressions—moments of recognition and appreciation…)

TK: Some of these poems have a delightful contrarian/contradictory nature. They are what my husband might call “impish.” I’m thinking of poems like “The cake: Introductory questionnaire for a queer art event 2017” which pokes fun at some of the new, queered norms that ask us to explicitly categorize ourselves that feel perhaps antithetical to queer liberation. In answering, you simultaneously repurpose that space for your own queer liberation by choosing not to answer the questions, or not answering them directly, or at least not in ways that make you more legible in the ways a questionnaire is meant to do. There’s a questioning of what is, on the surface, an inclusive gesture but can feel like more of an interrogation. I really adore this poem and would just love to hear more about how it came about. What was the driving force in writing it? Does my reading of the poem have resonance or dissonance with any aims you had for how the poem would be interpreted?


Given we spend a fair amount of time discussing this poem, we have included the full text here:


The cake

Introductory questionnaire for a queer arts event, 2017


My name is:              burning out of me

My pronouns are:      taboo ⁄ do not speak them

                                                  ⁄ I will appear behind you in the mirror

My gender is:            “open the oven

                                   and the cake won’t rise”

My sexuality is:        fungal bloom on rotten wood

My disability is:        shouting over distance

My past:                    selves, I come to matriphagic

My future:                 is all I have

Photo:                        I am fading from old photographs,

                                   leaving only shadows.

                                    Throw them out (and come take new ones ⁄

                                                        I’ll be on stage tonight)


ALZ: Yes. We struggle with how we’re expected to make ourselves comprehensible for our oppressors, but members of our own queer family tend to ask this of us, too. This is an impulse to unlearn, a product of power structures which advise how most of us are taught to move through the world; who goes there is simply not a galaxy-brained line of questioning, and I do not feel liberated when I’m asked to nail myself down like a specimen (prescribe pronouns, describe my sexualities) before I may join a conversation. Queer liberation must include liberation from the expectation to explain—justify—our myriad identities to anybody, ever. Let us give one another the freedom to be little neutrinos, the trouble in gender trouble, Carson’s unbearable…


“The cake” is one of the few poems I have ever written as myself, vs. through a fictionalized self or some other speaker. Or maybe I’m lying. Either way—I received this questionnaire when I tried to register for an informal workshop of queer and disabled writers. It was February, 2017, and I had publicly come out as [not cisgender] a few weeks earlier (a sensitive time). I wondered how I could use their framework to communicate as much about my actual self and lived experience as I could. At one point, I published a longer, worse version of this poem which did not include the literal questionnaire as a backbone; that was a mistake, so I brought it all back to the source material during final edits to the manuscript.


TK: “Queer liberation must include liberation from the expectation to explain—justify—our myriad identities to anybody, ever.” Yes! When I find myself frustrated by these requests for explanation, for justification, for legibility, I can often trace the root of that frustration down to the stony reality that this sort of definitive sorting is grounded in the need to neatly categorize poetry and, quite frankly, poets for the market as representatives and fascinations of any given

market. I find it difficult to willingly participate in the commodification of my own existence and boring to do the same for my art. It can understandably be tempting to simply leverage what the market has given us as a tool to attain influence in a system that oppresses us. But any version of a dream allowed by the market is not, I think, a dream of liberation. As you point out, that is simply a reinvention of the same structures and to see it replicated within communities of the oppressed can feel disheartening even when the intention in asking is a caring one. This sort of explicit testimony regarding oneself is also now an incredibly common part of most funding applications.


But to get to an actual question: can you talk about the journey of “The cake” from its initial state framed by the questionnaire to published without the framework and then back within the framework as it found its home in the book? I feel like it’s less common than it once was for people to discuss the lives of poems and the reality that, sometimes, you publish versions with which ultimately you aren’t happy, and that, as a poet, you have the power, maybe even responsibility, when working on your book to significantly revise, to re-envision, work that has made it into the world in other forms. In the next question I mention Whitman who very famously revised Leaves of Grass in quite significant ways between printings.


ALZ: It’s difficult to participate in that commodification, but it can be useful for reaching potential readers who share some identity markers with me. I have purchased books by e.g. openly autistic poets simply because I wanted to read a fellow autistic poet. I know others—autistic, trans~gender, queer, any permutation of these—are out there, picking up my book for the same reason. And like almost everyone, I am interested in being read by my peers.


I think I first wrote “The cake” into the questionnaire directly. Months later, I wrote a much longer version into a blank document, whose lines all began: “My name is…” “My gender is…” I published that in a good, now-defunct Canadian magazine called Poetry Is Dead. Others liked that version, but I realized it felt cowardly and ingenuine; I was doing the thing about the thing, instead of doing the thing. For the same reason, I decided to not simply write poems about queer reimaginations of ancient Mediterranean literature, etc.

TK: What is one thing about the book that pleases you that you didn’t expect when you were writing it? What is one thing you might have changed, now that you are on this side of publication?


ALZ: I like my own writing, so I have limited power to pleasantly surprise myself; I expect to enjoy whatever I accomplish. If you’re not your own favourite poet then what are you doing?


But: what might I have changed?—perhaps I would have held on to the book for another five years, perfecting it even further. I chose not to do that because (most writers, I suspect, choose not to do that because) I know I like anyone could die at any moment.




A. Light Zachary is a writer, editor, and artist who was recently awarded fellowships for their poetry by the Lambda Literary Foundation and the Banff Centre for the Arts. Their previous publications include the novella The End, by Anna (Metatron, 2016). More Sure is their first book of poems. Light lives in Toronto.




Found In Volume 53, No. 02
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Trevor Ketner
About the Author

Trevor Ketner is the author of The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire (Wesleyan University Press, 2023) and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021; Broken Sleep Books (UK) 2022) selected as a winner of the National Poetry Series by Forrest Gander. Their chapbooks include Negative of a Photo of Fire (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019), White Combine: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (The Atlas Review, 2019), and Major Arcana: Minneapolis, winner of the Burnside Review Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Seuss. They have been published in Poetry, The Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day, Poetry Daily, Brooklyn Rail, New England Review, Ninth LetterChangesDiagramFoglifter, and elsewhere.