Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Jessica Moore Interviews Kate Cayley

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Kate Cayley

Kate Cayley is the author of When This World Comes to an End (Brick Books). Her fellow Brick Books author Jessica Moore conducted this in-depth interview with Kate on behalf of Open Book. Jessica, also a poet, is the author of Everything, now.

You can enjoy Kate reading from When This World Comes to an End yourself by checking out her YouTube video. She will be launching her new collection on May 11 and appearing live as part of the Art Bar Poetry Series later that month.

Read on to hear from Kate about the dark side of fairy tales, the surprising value of distance in poetry and what poems and photographs have in common.

Jessica Moore for Open Book:

In this collection, you climb inside familiar stories or figures and turn commonly-held ideas of them on their heads. These imagined inhabitations are a central part of the work. I was recalling a quote from Einstein about imagination versus abstract thought, in which he says that imagination has been far more valuable to him — would you say the same? Can you talk about your process of imagining in the writing of these poems?

Kate Cayley:

I remember a favourite professor in university saying that “reason itself is a species of imagination.” He was speaking about Blake, and I do think it only works in particular contexts, otherwise it’s just glib, but it has certainly stayed with me. I have a slightly troubled relationship to the act of imagination in relation to history or mythology, because in a sense it’s cheating — taking immense liberties with actual people and events. Yet without that cheat you’d have no art at all — maybe it’s better to think of imagination as something that creates sparks in relationship to the real, and the spark is what makes the third thing: the created real, the imagined real. For a long time I thought that what a historian does was “closer” to what had actually occurred than what a poet or a writer of fiction does, but now I’m not so sure it’s that simple — since even the historian requires a kind of imaginative sympathy with the possible past, which in the act of writing of course becomes a created past, faithful to the original but also requiring a leap, an act of making. I think both the history and the historically-minded poet are, hopefully, trying to be faithful to the past, just in very different ways. For these poems, I was usually inspired by a chance fragment or image — not the work of Simone Weil in total (that would be an amazing presumption!) but Simone Weil sitting at the desk, waiting. So imagination for me in the act of writing poetry is concentrated on the small intangible moment, something that flies out at you unexpectedly and then becomes the poem.

JM:

“Watchful of all human love” (from the poem about Auden) is a phrase from the collection that stands out for me. It seemed to me that watchfulness, or fear, kept coming up and played a strong role — perhaps a stronger role than love in many of the pieces. Can you speak to the theme of fear in relation to love in these poems?

KC:

I think for me watchfulness is slightly different than fear, though I agree fear is a big touchstone in the collection: fear of death, fear of other endings, fear of the dark wood in the case of most fairytales, which I think are always influenced by the most basic fear—of the landscape itself, the otherness of the forest. In the case of Auden, his watchfulness is part of his love, since he loves through patient observation, and also part of his heartbreak, his aloneness at the end. Most of the historical figures in the collection are people of staggering loneliness, and that is what makes them watchful. Also if they are writers like Auden, watchfulness is part of their work, which then adds to loneliness. I don’t mean only writers are lonely, everyone contemplates loneliness, skirts at the edge of it, is afraid of it. And of course fear is fear of the end, which everyone lives with, and I don’t mean just the personal end, also the end of love or the absence of the loved one or the end of the world, which is something that has happened over and over, it’s already occurred.

JM:

Considering the title of the work, it is not unusual that fear/watchfulness is a central theme. What made you choose this as your focus? And are there certain works that center around prophecy and world’s end that have influenced you deeply?

KC:

I’ve moved on to this question mid-point because I think I was getting to it in the last question. In terms of specific works, I think of mythology — the end of the gods in Norse myth, which a powerful and terrible imagining of the end of all things, and of course the Christian ideas around end-time. I open the collection with a quote from the folk-song “Signs and Wonders” because of a trip through the Appalachian mountains I took nearly ten years ago, passing all these churches, staying in this very small town, and pondering the American Christian relationship to the idea of the end, as a very literal event. Also Jean-François Lyotard’s essay on the paintings of Barnett Newman, in which he says that Newman’s work is the hope that “something is happening” coupled with the fear that “nothing will ever happen again” — the unbearable tension of desire and horror which Lyotard I think also connects to the Holocaust as an “end of the world” moment in history. As I said above I think of the end of the world as something constantly happening, over and over — for someone who died in the camps, for someone who ran through the burning streets of Carthage, their own end is also the end of civilization, forever. For all they knew.

JM:

I would like to ask about fairytales. I know that you are (or have been in the past) a storyteller as well as a poet, with an intimate knowledge of certain fairytales. It’s clear in this collection that you know some of them
deeply enough to give them a new bent, a new direction. Even family history becomes fairytale in one poem. How have fairytales shaped you, and what is your relationship to them?

KC:

It’s an amazing moment to think about that, because fairytales have always been central for me, and now our eldest, our daughter, who is five, has just started to be really drawn into fairytales, so it’s a new way in for me, to that kind of wonder and fear. Thinking about Snow White again while reading it to her — it brings home all over again how dark and terrible that story really is. When the wicked Queen is made to dance in red-hot shoes until she falls down dead, that’s a world without forgiveness or redemption, pre-Christian in a sense, in a way that the beautiful fairytales of Anderson or Oscar Wilde aren’t. Anderson and Wilde have a complicated relationship to the “Christian virtues,” tempered so much by their humour and wonderful irony, but in the real old stuff it just isn’t there. Nothing but wickedness and vengeance and just desserts all the way down. So that has always fascinated me. That darkness. I’m also very interested in the work of Angela Carter, who was so inspired by fairytales, and the historian and critic Marina Warner, as well as A. S. Byatt’s relationship to fairytales, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that all these writers are women — fairytales also have a lot to say about the body, about the female body. In a less political way I aspire to write poetry that has the quality of fairytales, not the sappy rewrites but the originals — their strength, their economy of language, and most of all their strange internal logic, in common with dreams, which is very suited to the demands of poetry.

JM:

There seems to be a constant play between distancing and drawing near in the collection — in one of my favourite pieces, “The White Horse Divers, Lake Ontario, 1908,” we begin at a distance and then are brought in so close as to finally be commanded to “Be the horse.” I loved this moment. I felt that there was something in the expansion and then the contraction within the poem that allowed me to be moved. Did you, in this and other pieces, consciously use distancing/nearing as a device?

KC:

Yes. Pulling away and drawing near is something I hope to achieve for a reader — you can’t pull too close or the impulse is to pull away, I want the pulling in to be a surprise coming out of a certain distance, a calmness, and then the sudden approach has more astonishment to it. You read to be astonished, I hope, and I hope to write to sometimes offer a moment of astonishment, if I’m lucky.

JM:

In reading these pieces again, I was noticing how time — the slipping past of it, the halting of it — and segmentation keep coming up. Photography, which has a central place in the collection, obviously bears a very specific relationship to time and segmentation — it gives us this (potentially false) sense of having captured a moment, and what is chosen as a subject is necessarily
segmented. We might say the same of poetry — in the sense that a poem can frame and capture a moment that otherwise would be allowed to dissolve.Is there anything you would say about time and segmentation in relation to
these poems?

KC:

I think a poem for me is a witness to a moment that is too large to be forgotten but too small to sustain any more significant kind of memory. Not a monument, more of a flash. And so like a photograph more than like any other kind of writing. I think of fiction as a pretty wide unfolding through narrative, and a play as something that runs along a line, very much in the ongoing tension of unfolding time, but a poem is this odd suspension, which is why I’m so interested in isolated objects, instances, or the figures in photographs. They are also caught moments — not stories, poems.

JM:

A related question — photographer Ansel Adams writes: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” Talk about how you used photographs to focus your words, and please also tell us a little about your process in the city archives. What was that experience like?

KC:

Strange and wonderful. I spent about a month a few years ago just combing through the old photographs in the City of Toronto Archives (bless you, Toronto Arts Council) and then writing responses to those pictured faces, those buildings, those objects, in a state of high excitement. Of course most of the poems were terrible — it’s hard to write well about a photograph, especially a photograph the reader will of course not see. It becomes repetitive and descriptive, what seemed so specifically poetic while staring at that odd blank dead face becomes trite when you try to write about it. So the process of making it poetry was tricky. But the photographs were poems. All in these blue binders, with something scribbled below them, often pretty vague. Crowd scenes, individuals, architecture, the whole record of the city, but in isolated bursts. It was history and the opposite of history — the perfect subject, for me, for poems.

JM:

You are also a playwright. How does the process of writing plays differ from that of writing poems?

KC:

Concentration. I’m not good at sitting down with the solid intention of writing x number of poems, seeing the shapes and themes unfold in a planned way, I think if I can say this without sounding too affected that poems have to “happen.” Plays are planned and approached strategically, they are written over an apportioned period, plus of course poetry is very private, right up until the moment it’s ready for readers. Plays have other people involved in them usually from the beginning, involved in the hypothesis of the complete thing long before it happens, and then of course involved in bringing the play to life, often to a terrifying degree. When I’m working on a play I’m always thinking about the influence of other people. Something else of course is that plays are communally experienced — you need an audience for the play to work. Whereas poetry just needs a reader, even one reader, to be experienced exactly as the writer intended. A more modest proposal, which is a joy. But something they do have in common is the need for rigour: for me the process of making a play or making a poem involves knowing what to discard. Cutting away until you see the shape, fighting one’s own ornamentation. Struggling against your impulses in a sense, and that tension is what brings the thing into being.


Kate Cayley’s poetry and short stories have appeared in literary magazines across the country. Her play, After Akhmatova, was produced by Tarragon Theatre, where she is a playwright-in-residence, and a young adult novel, The Hangman in the Mirror, was published by Annick Press in 2011. She is also the artistic director of Stranger Theatre, and has written, directed and co-created eight plays.

For more information about When This World Comes to an End please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book directly from Brick Books or at your local independent bookstore.

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