Interview with Writer, Kayla Pongrac

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Photo: Kayla Pongrac

Brief Biography:

Kayla Pongrac is an avid writer, reader, tea drinker, and record spinner. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Vinyl Poetry, Split Lip Magazine, OblongHOOT,KYSO Flash, and Nat. Brut, among others. Her first chapbook is forthcoming in 2015 from Anchor and Plume Press. To read more of Kayla’s work, visit www.kaylapongrac.com or follow her on Twitter @KP_the_Promisee.

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s start from a description of your own self. You describe yourself as “a writer of trades who writes every day?” Could you comment on this statement?

Kayla Pongrac: I describe myself as a writer of all trades because I have seemingly done it all: column writing, grant writing, technical writing, editorial writing, feature writing . . . the list goes on. I am also a fiction and non-fiction writer, poet, playwright and humorist. I suppose you could say that I’ve never been able to dedicate myself to only one genre. I enjoy them all too much to just pick one, though I’ve noticed that I do go through phases: two years ago, I was focusing primarily on plays. A year ago, humor. Nowadays, flash fiction and prose poems.

As far as the “writing every day” bit, it’s true that I practice my craft on a daily basis. One aspect of my writing life involves working as a columnist and correspondent for two newspapers and a few magazines in my hometown. Each week for the past eight years (and counting!), I have been responsible for composing columns, feature articles, and even hard news stories. I don’t prefer to use the word “obligated” because I very much enjoy these freelancing gigs, but there’s no denying that I must sit down and write every day if I want my amiable mailman to bring me a check every month. The writing routine I’ve established as part of my day job has very much influenced the way I approach creative writing; I make time every day to compose or revise short stories, poetry, plays, etc. What it comes down to is a passion and an urge; I love what I do, and I can’t resist the temptation to create—it’s always present. So whether I’m writing to pay my bills or to satisfy my own creative impulses, writing every day has helped me grow and become a disciplined wordsmith.

Geosi Gyasi: For how long have you been writing?

Kayla Pongrac: I know this may sound strange, but I’ve been taking writing seriously since I was in fourth grade. I was born in 1989, which means that I grew up in the 1990s, which means that at one time, I was a little girl who was obsessed with boy bands: Hanson, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and 98 Degrees among them. In fact, in third grade, I was president and founder of The Hanson Club. We were rivals with The Spice Girls Club. (I am laughing as I type this.) What’s important to note is that these boy bands—with the exception of Hanson—didn’t just sing; their live performances and music videos also involved what I considered to be fantastic choreography. So in fourth grade, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea: if each of these boy bands were to hire me as their “main songwriter,” there was a high probability that I could also become one of their backup dancers. (What can I say? I dreamed big!) I feverishly began to write songs, but I’m sad to say that I never managed to contact any of those aforementioned boy bands. My interest in their music at least helped me recognize early in life that writing provided for me a great deal of joy. I’m also happy to note that I continue to dream big, and music continues to greatly influence my work.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you find the physical act of writing poetry boring?

Kayla Pongrac: I don’t find any type of writing boring because writing challenges and entertains me, and that’s a great combination. I always look forward to sitting down and writing, and not just because it often means that I’ve got a delicious cup of hot tea within reach.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem you’re writing isn’t going well?

Kayla Pongrac: I can tell that a new piece isn’t going well if I’m constantly hitting the “backspace” button on my computer keyboard. I’m spoiled in that most of my ideas take on a life of their own and march out of my head surprisingly effortlessly and quickly. When the march from my brain to my fingertips isn’t as aggressive and organic as usual, I need to stand up, stretch, make another cup of tea, and put on a new record. Then I return to my computer and get back to work. Persistence usually works in my favor.

Geosi Gyasi: What often distracts you when writing?

Kayla Pongrac: I’m distracted by my Twitter feed, text messages, phone calls, and emails. (Unfortunately this answer makes me sound like a social butterfly, but the truth is that I am more of an introverted caterpillar who hasn’t yet learned how to put her phone away when she writes.)

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific place where you sit down to write?

Kayla Pongrac: When I’m at home, my living room couch is typically my go-to spot. The couch is comfortable, and so is the atmosphere. Plants are blooming (oxalis! orchids! vines!) and I’m in close proximity to my record player. I also enjoy writing inside local coffee shops. Again, the atmosphere is welcoming, and I also have an opportunity to people-watch. People-watching might very well be one of my favorite hobbies.

Geosi Gyasi: You are a columnist for “Our Town” since 2012. Does your job as a columnist have any influence on writing poems?

Kayla Pongrac: I’ve been writing a weekly column for “Our Town” since 2012 and a bi-weekly column for another local paper since 2006. That’s a lot of columns (I started writing columns at age 16 and I am now 25!). While I wouldn’t say that my columns directly influence my poems, flash fiction pieces, etc., the columns are most definitely responsible for my development as a humorist. The purpose of most, if not all, of my columns is to make people laugh (I consider Dave Barry a big inspiration). Newspapers are mostly filled with bad news, so I consider my columns a consistent source of entertainment that allows readers to forget, if only for a few minutes, the horrors that take place around the world. That interest in wanting to entertain became important to me and inevitably led to me explore the other ways in which I could use humor in my writing. Here’s a link to a play called “The Feeling Down Check-Up” (graciously published by the literary magazine Axolotl) that serves as a strong example of how I’ve incorporated humor into my creative work: http://www.axolotlmag.com/the-feeling-down-check-up-a-play-in-one-act-kayla-pongrac/.

Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to write a single poem?

Kayla Pongrac: I prefer to write in one sitting. “One sitting” could be translated to a half hour or seven hours, depending on the piece. I’ve had writing sessions last as long as eight hours. Sometimes I’ve unintentionally skipped meals as a result of being consumed by my work.

In Michael Jackson’s book Dancing the Dream, he explained how he made his music: “I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So I stay in the moment and listen.” I can relate to this statement. I may be in the driver’s seat when I sit down to write, but my words do all the steering.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that many people are losing interest in reading poetry books?

Kayla Pongrac: I don’t think that people are losing interest in reading books of any kind—poetry collections, novels, memoirs, and the like have seemingly grown in popularity because technology has given us numerous ways to access them. Plus, there are so many great writers who are releasing brilliant work . . .

Geosi Gyasi: Do you anticipate that a time will come when poetry will no longer be relevant?

Kayla Pongrac: Poetry has always been relevant. I think the world’s interest in this genre isn’t anywhere near extinction. Poet laureates will continue to be appointed, literary magazines will continue to publish poetry, and teachers and professors around the world will continue to teach students about dactyls and stanzas and enjambment. That is my prediction. Poetry is here to stay.

Geosi Gyasi: You worked for some time as a Library Aide at Mary S. Biesecker Public Library. My question is, what do you love about the library? And what work did you do as a Library Aide?

Kayla Pongrac: The opportunity to work at a library fell into my lap while I was a college student. I was looking for a work-study job so that I could have some spare change in my pockets, and one of my close friends told me to apply for the library position; otherwise, she said, it would likely go unfilled. I was thrilled to have received the job because it came with some big perks. First, there was something comforting about being surrounded by books. Their spines staring me in the eyes. All day. I loved it. I also enjoyed people watching because some of the patrons who walked into that library were so interesting that I couldn’t help but become intrigued by their nuances and habits. One of my favorite perks was accepting donations—by donations, I mean boxes of books. I would sort through each box, discover some unexpected gems, and buy them from the library right away. It was comparable to getting first dibs on front row concert tickets. One of my favorite books that I pulled from a donation box was a copy of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”—the illustrated version published by Heritage Press. It’s a beauty.

Geosi Gyasi: Your play was performed in the Golgonooza Festival at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown campus. Could you tell us about the play?

Kayla Pongrac: “The Feeling Down Check-Up” takes place in a black-and-white world wherein what we would consider to be “healthy” foods are strictly forbidden. Rather, denizens of this world are required to eat candy, and lots of it. I don’t want to give away the plot, so I’ll just say that “things get complicated” and invite you to read the play over at Axolotl. It’s pretty fun. I should also note that there’s a video of the being performed at Golgonooza on my YouTube page. The quality is frustratingly low, but I’m glad that a copy at least exists. And you can hear the audience laugh, which is a good thing.

The Golgonooza Playwriting Festival is an annual event held every year on the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown campus. (“Golgonooza,” by the way, is the name of an imaginary city invented by poet William Blake.) The playwriting festival gives undergraduate playwriting students an opportunity to submit their plays with the hope that they’ll be chosen to be performed. A few members of the humanities faculty get together to choose four or so plays, and my one-act comedy titled “The Feeling Down Check-Up” made the cut (you can read the play above via the link I provided). I was elated because I could barely wrap my mind around the fact that all of these talented student actors were going to memorize my words and my stage directions. This was my brainchild, and I was giving it to a group of people to babysit, if you will. One of my friends who was active in the campus’s theatre department jumped at the opportunity to direct it, so I knew that it was going to be in good hands. When the play finally debuted, I was walking around feeling as though I was Neil Simon. My family, friends, co-workers, and even some former teachers filled the seats; the support and feedback I received really put a spark in my shoes.

Geosi Gyasi: Are plays more difficult to write than poems?

Kayla Pongrac: Plays are a different breed, that’s for sure. You really have to focus on dialogue and each character’s actions on stage. The dialogue has to be believable (developing a people-watching habit can really come in handy!) and you have to keep the audience intrigued by each character. They should want to know what each character is going to do next. They should care.

I wouldn’t say that plays are more difficult or less difficult to write, but when I begin the process of writing a play, I have to accept that I likely won’t be able to write a play in one sitting. It usually takes weeks or months. Playwriting is a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge. I’m so glad that playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, and Oscar Wilde accepted that challenge. Their works are brilliant, and I rely on them for inspiration and insight.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us about what you did as the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, Backroads?

Kayla Pongrac: Backroads is the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown’s official literary magazine. I was elected editor-in-chief by my fellow staff members when I was a junior, and I gladly accepted the position because I had an interest in learning more about soliciting, reading, and publishing submissions that we received from our campus community. I knew that it wasn’t going to be all roses and butterflies, but my staff was tremendous and we secured a decent budget from the school to print what I thought was a high-quality literary magazine. I had fun designing its innards and distributing it across campus. I also feel compelled to mention that Backroads’ headquarters was in an awesome little room in the humanities building that became my little cubbyhole on campus. We had permission to write all over the walls, so I felt like Beethoven and it was lovely.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you feel fulfilled as a writer?

Kayla Pongrac: I do feel fulfilled. Writing is what fulfills me. If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. If I’m having a bad day, I write. If I’m having a decent day, I write. If I’m having a good day, I write. The high that I get after I complete a new piece is a feeling that I can’t replicate elsewhere. I love doing what I love.

I also love to share my work, which is why getting some of my work published in literary magazines across the United States and around the world gives me a huge adrenaline rush (best of all: it doesn’t wear off!). I have no idea whose eyes will land on my work, but I’m pleasantly surprised when readers like you reach out and introduce themselves. Same goes for my newspaper readers—I’ve had strangers write me letters, send me emails, or call my parents (I’m not kidding) just to say that they enjoyed a column or could relate to a column or wanted to let me know that they sent my column to a relative several states away. I’m blessed that my work is often well-received and that there are readers who appreciate what I do. I consider that a “bonus” because as a writer, I’m first and foremost interested in fulfilling my own creative impulses and desires. I absolutely have not, do not, and will not consider my audience while I’m creating. I quote my favorite writer, Oscar Wilde: “A true artist takes no notice whatever of the public. The public are to him nonexistent.” I think this is important to mention because it seems to me that if you’re not creating for yourself and if you’re creating to please a crowd, you put your art at risk. I’m not and I’ve never been willing to do that.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax when you’re not writing?

Kayla Pongrac: When I’m not writing, I enjoy listening to music, reading a book or a magazine, or watching TV. I also enjoy spending time with my husband, pets, friends, and relatives. Traveling is also a passion—last summer my husband and I traveled to Ecuador, and that trip opened my eyes and changed my life. Oh, and concerts! I’ve been to over 80 concerts and I’m quite certain that I once made eye contact with Bob Dylan.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your plans for the future?

Kayla Pongrac: Writing and publishing-wise, I’m pleased to announce that my first chapbook, a collection of flash fiction pieces, is to be published next year by the wonderful Anchor and Plume Press. I can’t wait to share this collection with the world because I’m so proud of it.

In addition to promoting my chapbook, I intend to work in collaboration with some amazing artists to produce some fun literary/art projects throughout 2015 and beyond. One of these projects will debut on my website (www.kaylapongrac.com) in a few weeks.

Let’s just say that I very much enjoy experimenting and breaking new ground. (Insert winky face here.)

Geosi Gyasi: Do you gain enough from writing to pay the bills?

Kayla Pongrac: I wish that I could show you a $5 bill in my wallet right now, but it’s not there. I would be lying if I said that money isn’t consistently tight, but I make just enough to pay my bills and contribute to some household expenses. Other than that, I’m a legit starving artist. My husband was kind enough to take me in and feed me (I kid; I kid!). I very much live paycheck to paycheck, but I’d much rather live like that than be a millionaire who hates her job and doesn’t have the time to take her dog for a walk or eat dinner with her husband. The fact that I’m not only using my degree but also doing what I love means so much to me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m one lucky duck.

Geosi Gyasi: If you had a second chance coming into the world again, would you like to be a writer?

Kayla Pongrac: I would be a writer if I had a fiftieth chance to come into the world again. Besides, I don’t even think I’m good at anything else except for making tea and expanding what I consider to be a stellar CD/record collection. So, writer it is and writer it always shall be.

Geosi Gyasi: Is there anything more I should have asked you?

Kayla Pongrac: I’d just like to mention—just for good measure—that I have spearheaded some unique projects that will be available for purchase via my website within the coming months. I invite anyone who is interested in my work to come and meet my newest brainchildren. I also keep a list of my published and forthcoming publications on my website if anyone is interested in reading my creative and professional writings. www.kaylapongrac.com also features a regularly updated blog that may be of interest to some of your readers. In any case, I very much appreciate people taking the time to read my work. I also must mention how grateful I am to the numerous editors and publishers of the newspapers, magazines, and literary journals in which my work has appeared or is going to appear. They instilled their trust in me and that’s something that I don’t take for granted. I’m going to keep working hard and I’m going to remain dedicated to my craft because to do it well, you have to strive to do it better.

END.

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