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Artist in focus - Erin Kyan

AAV speaks with writer, poet and podcaster Erin Kyan ahead of his appearance at the Digital Futures event at the Wheeler Centre on 22 October. Erin talks about the joys and challenges of accessible digital storytelling, and explains why vulnerability and hope are two of the most prominent themes in his writing about queerness and disability.

1. Can you tell me a little bit about your podcast, Love and Luck?

Love and Luck is a queer slice of life romance story with a touch of magic, set in Melbourne. It's about people who fall in love, learn they have magic powers, and use those powers to protect and contribute to their community. Love and Luck is explicitly a positive story – the good guys win, no one dies, and queer people of all kinds are loved and valued.

Queer relationships and stories in the mainstream media are filled with tragedy, and I wanted to combat that with a story where even if bad things happen, a happy ending is guaranteed. There is a cultural narrative that our lives are always tragic, and while unfortunately we do suffer a lot more than cis or straight people may, we can also have wonderful lives. I think that's a very important thing to remember for those of us who are LGBTIQA+, especially for us trans people. I have been with my partner for nearly 13 years, and we are so incredibly happy. And that's possible for trans people everywhere. We just need to be reminded of that sometimes.

2. Is there a reason you chose podcasting as the format to tell this story?

Podcasting has limitations that I find interesting – when all you have is audio to tell a story, how do you tell that story well, and in an interesting way? I love the challenge of working around limitations, and being restricted to something like audio. It’s not fully imaginative like reading text is, but isn't fully engaging like video is, and that's interesting to me.

The challenges of making podcasts that are as accessible as possible has been something I've enjoyed as well – all of our shows are available on YouTube with captions, for example. But even in smaller details – how do I mix an episode in a way that makes it easy to listen to for people with sensory issues? How do I include content warnings in the best way? How do I coach my actors to speak in a way that's both warm, passionate, but still clear and precise?

I've also always been interested in 'found footage' style fiction. That's why Love and Luck is told via voicemails – I wanted to use a method of letting the listener in on this fictional primary source. They are getting the story from the reality of the characters, rather than from a narrator or other third party. They're there with the characters.

Another factor is that podcasting is innately DIY punk self publishing. Podcasting is a lawless land of self expression, and that kind of freedom is incredibly gratifying when you're a marginalized creator. I didn't have to wait for an agent or publisher to let me create Love and Luck, which would have meant finding a LGBTIQA+ friendly one who was okay working with a very disabled creator, and who thought that a warm fuzzy romance set in Australia would be a profitable thing to make. 

3. Are you drawn to any other forms of digital storytelling?

So very much – this new digital age is letting us connect with each other and tell stories in ways we never could have until now. I think video games are actually one of the most wonderful mediums to appear over the last few decades, and I have actually written some short interactive fiction games myself. There is something about connecting with creators and audiences via something that you can access from your bed in your room that's just so special to me. Video games, web series, alternative reality games, geocaching, virtual worlds – there are so many new ways to connect and express ourselves in this digital age, and I am so excited to see where it all goes.

4. How do you deal with writer's block?

I plan everything and I exercise regularly. Not physical exercise – I am very severely disabled and actually spend most of my time on bed rest! But I exercise my writing muscles a lot. If I have to write something, even if it's just small, and I have a deadline I have to have done it by, that forces me to begin and it forces me to finish. If you do that often enough, writers block sort of becomes this thing of the past – you stop questioning where to go, or what to do, and you start to let the writing just come to you via muscle memory.

I also plan everything – when I'm writing a season of the podcast, I spend a long time planning out the story and writing a good outline. The outline often takes just as long for me as the first draft does! But once I have that outline, when I start wading into the story, I can't get writers block. If I feel stuck, all I have to do is look at my outline and ask myself, ‘Okay, I am currently here, and I need to get to there. So how do I do that?’

It’s a lot easier to figure those things out during an outline than during a draft – you don't need to know the details yet, you don't need to worry about making it read well yet, you just have to problem solve! So by doing it that way, it divides up ‘problem solving’ and ‘writing’ into two parts that don't necessarily have to happen together, which I find defeats a lot of writer’s block. I am a big believer in ‘every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft needs to do is exist’. Once it's there, you can fix it when you wade back in for the second draft.

5. You've produced 37 issues of your monthly poetry zine and podcast, Floodlight Viscera. That's a lot of poetry! Are there any particular themes that you are continually drawn to?

Some types of imagery are always there for me when I write poetry; the ocean, blood, sharp bones and crystals, mud and wet darkness. I'm a very positive person, but I think that poetry really engages that visceral, primal place deep in our guts that's much more interested in gore and gasping for air than for anything else. We are all filled with black tar and night air, just as much as we are filled with sunlight and sea breezes. Poetry can be a playground for all the parts of you that don't belong in polite conversation.

In terms of themes outside of imagery, vulnerability and hope fascinate me deeply, both in myself and others. When we go into the darkness with poetry, we are exposing deep parts of ourselves to the audience, and that's an incredibly vulnerable place to be. And as for hope – well, the fact of the matter is that I am, exhaustingly and against my own will, an optimist. I believe in the innate altruism of humanity, I believe in connection and relationships and community and people trying their best, and that soaks into everything I have ever written.

6. What other creative work do you do?

I perform poetry for stage a couple of times each year – often for Quippings, a queer disabled performing group, as well as for festivals such as Midsumma or the Emerging Writers Festival. I've begun creating one shot audio as well, that's not necessarily a podcast as much as a single piece of auditory art. I've also been making more steps into voice acting, which has been a wonderful adventure, and not something I ever thought I would be doing! But I've really come to enjoy it, it's a form of acting that's accessible for someone like me who's not able to do any live or television acting.

I also do sensitivity reading and consultation work, mostly for disabled and transgender issues. For those unfamiliar, sensitivity reading is kind of like a cultural spell check. When people are writing about marginalized people outside of their own experience – for example, if an abled person is writing a disabled character in their novel – they can miss things that are offensive or just simply wrong. A sensitivity reader is someone of the relevant cultural experience, who goes over the work and gives advice on how to best shape the work in a way that's nuanced and accurate to the experience.

As a writing consultant, I work with writers and producers to make sure that their project includes and treats marginalized people of my experience correctly and kindly. Consultation isn't quite the same thing as sensitivity reading, generally speaking – sensitivity reading is something I do for a work that's almost completed, such as a finished manuscript draft. If people want my input from earlier in the project, that's where consultation comes into play.

7. Can you recommend a book you’re reading or a podcast you’re listening to at the moment?

Only one? Oh boy. I might cheat a little on this one. Book wise, I recommend The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs, and the dystopian YA novel Thrive by Mary Borsellino, an Australian author. Podcast wise, I'm going to suggest Among the Stars and Bones, which is an Australian science-fiction production by Chris Magilton, and You're Wrong About... by Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall.