In When This World Comes to an End, Kate Cayley contemplates old photographs, imagines chance meetings in the afterlife, meditates on the nature of potential other worlds and what happens when they collide. She bravely questions and ponders and invites us to come along. The result is an innovative, intelligent and striking collection that surprises, allures and delivers.
WTWCTAE is your first collection and it’s comprised of poems about photographs and historical figures, hypothetical meetings and what-ifs. How did you go about choosing these photographs and figures? In other words, what drew you to them?
In the case of the photographs, I spent time in the Toronto Archives, which is an odd and underused building, flipping through binders in the William James Collection. William James was one of the first commercial photographers in Toronto (he arrived in Canada from England in 1906 and died in 1948), so the photographs are very wide ranging. Crowds, fairgrounds, politicians, slums, parks, rivers in flood, beaches full of people. I knew I was interested in the accidental imaginary stories that could come from the anonymous figures in photographs of cities, though as I went on I also became fascinated with the life of the photographer himself, which I hope to explore more at some point. The experience of just passively looking through sheaves of pictures and finding an image that strikes up against some kind of poetic impulse was amazing, though the poems that resulted were very uneven—poetry inspired by photographs risks being just descriptive, and it’s pretty hard to convey the power of the image in a way that makes sense to a reader. For every “photograph” poem that made it into the book, there were at least ten that didn’t, and some of them were really dreadful. But all those photographs weren’t really deliberately chosen, it was more like throwing slips of paper into the air and seeing what lands in your hat.
In terms of the other figures, the historical happenings, they were usually people or events that I’d been thinking about for years, like W. H. Auden or Simone Weil, who are both writers that I keep coming back to. Or I was drawn to the notion of disaster, like the literal disaster of Nagasaki or the psychic disaster of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s profligate life. I think as I was selecting poems for the collection more thematic connection emerged than I’d felt in the writing. Time, memory, tragedy, history, loneliness. But I’m not sure I can say that there was any coherence in what drew me to the subject of each poem.
Although the poems are generally short, what kind of research went into them? Take Charles Dodgson Looking at Alice Liddell, for instance.
Great example because it’s easy to answer! I am the artistic director of a company called Stranger Theatre, and have been for more than ten years now. We worked on a show called and what Alice found there, about Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll which we toured to the States and around Canada and also to Istanbul, this was in 2006 and 2007. I wrote and directed the play based on work between the performer/collaborators, and some of the research run-off from that made it into the poem. A poem is a great place to find a home for something, some lovely small moment or observation that a play just can’t accommodate. Plays move forward relentlessly. Poetry can pause and wonder.
Some of my favourite pieces are the narratives in the last section of the book. Why did you choose to write these poems in a narrative form opposed to the fixed and free forms that you use in the rest of the book?
I think because I’m so interested in the momentum of the fairytale—they have a terrible brutal logic, and a narrative flatness, that I wanted to capture in poetry. And the prose poem seemed best suited to that. The line break doesn’t come along and let you off the hook—you can be so immersed in the density of prose. Also I think there can be more humour in prose. And it just seemed best suited to the voice I was taking on.
What’s a normal day like for you?
It depends on the day. I have two young children and my partner and I juggle that. She’s incredibly supportive and I get a lot of time to write, but it’s still of course conditional on what has funding or a production planned and so forth. On a typical writing day I try to get between five hundred and a thousand words written or a certain number of pages revised and stick to it pretty closely, starting around nine thirty and working through till mid afternoon. But I have days where I get almost nothing done. Disconnecting the internet helps. So does having a clear focus and a feeling of what I’m working toward. Since I write plays and also increasingly fiction, poetry tends to be the thing that happens when I’m supposed to be working on something else. It slips in.
What kind of writer are you? Do you wait for inspiration? Do you diligently work at particular times every day? Do you have weird habits that make it all come together?
I don’t know. I’m a writer who hopes to keep working on being a better writer. Someone who veers between misplaced self-confidence and grumpy self-doubt. I don’t wait for inspiration, I’d be waiting so long! But I’m very happy when it comes—nothing makes me happier than that. And you have to already be diligent and disciplined for the inspiration to find you. A pianist needs to train their hands, a painter master basic drawing. You just need that practice, that habit, and then the inspiration can take form. I am trying to think if I have any charming weird habits that make it all come together. I wish I did. I am very superstitious. Rules of three, counting games, certain arrangements of objects on my desk, that kind of thing. But nothing that makes for engaging anecdote.
You are also a playwright. How did this affect your writing poetry?
I think they help each other. As in, both are forms that require a great deal of cutting away, a willingness to keep carving until you see the sparse and necessary thing itself. But plays are less forgiving. I’m not structurally innovative as a playwright, I’m actually relatively conservative (Chekhov, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn—these are big heroes), and the rules are really stringent if you aren’t temperamentally a brilliant rule-breaker. Poetry allows for a kind of introspection and stillness that theatre usually can’t find space for. But I’m certainly most interested in writing poems in voices other than my own—I don’t have a gift for personal voice. So both things allow me to take on a character. Which is really fun to do.
What have you been reading lately?
Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessey, which has some of the best and most unflinching meditations on parents and children that I’ve ever read. Sailing to Babylon by James Pollock, which has some beautiful poems, though I think he’s strongest when not writing about himself. Mothers and Sons by Colm Toiben. Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler. It’s a wonderful book when you stop being pissed off by it. And I just finished The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys, which I found extraordinarily moving.
What’s your next project?
I usually have several things on the go. Right now, a play called The Bakelite Masterpiece, which is in development with Tarragon Theatre. It’s about art forgery and war crimes. A collection of short stories, How You Were Born, which will be published next fall by Pedlar Press. Some poems that I hope to gather into a second collection, untitled as yet. A play for Zuppa Theatre in Halifax, also untitled, but very loosely inspired by the myth of the Erl-King.