THE CANADIAN POET Karen Solie is one of the most celebrated poets in her country, but the majority of American readers have likely not encountered her work. The author of five individual collections — only two of which have been released in the United States — Solie received the Griffin Prize for her third book, Pigeon, and her most recent book, The Caiplie Caves, was a finalist for the T. S. Eliot Prize. Her work is characterized by formal ingenuity, an acute attention to the materiality of everyday life, an associative restlessness, a searching and philosophical disposition, and an impressive ability to unearth the universal truths and questions that lurk beneath the white noise of contemporary culture.
Solie’s relative “obscurity,” as she wryly put it, in the American poetry scene is perhaps unsurprising. She has no social media presence, she is by nature uncomfortable with being in the limelight, and her poems require a reader’s deep attention in order to reveal their pleasures and wisdom. (I was fortunate enough to be introduced to her books as a PhD student; otherwise, I would not have discovered her work.)
One hopes that The Caiplie Caves, released in the United States by FSG during the COVID-19 pandemic, will finally bring Solie’s poetry the attention and acclaim it warrants in this country. The book is centered on the story of Ethernan, a seventh-century missionary, who withdrew to the Caiplie Caves on Scotland’s Fife Coast to choose whether to pursue a solitary “contemplative” life, or to live as an “active” and establish a priory on May Island. This apparently esoteric subject matter masks the intensely personal nature of the book, which is, for me, one of the few truly exceptional collections released in this century, or in any century. This is not hyperbole. I can attest from my repeated readings of the book that it has the power to unsettle deeply engrained assumptions, and to radically transform one’s perception of the world.
I spoke with Solie in early 2021 while she was Writer-in-Residence at Massey College in Toronto. Over the course of several Zoom conversations, we discussed her initial attraction to the figure of Ethernan, her approach to The Caiplie Caves as a book-length project, the importance of uncertainty and open-mindedness, the pressures of political realities on the poetic imagination, the conflict between faith and doubt, and the value of cultivating one’s capacity for attention.
MATT MORTON: When and where did you first encounter the figure of Ethernan, and at what point did you discover or decide that his choice between living as a “contemplative” or as an “active” was going to serve as the framework for your fifth book?
KAREN SOLIE: I was Writer-in-Residence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2011 and working on the poems for The Road In… at that time. I was also walking quite regularly along the Fife Coastal Path. I would often walk by the [Caiplie] Caves, their gorgeous remnants, beautiful multicolored sandstone, very striking and very weird. And inside the first thing I saw was that people had written their names, the way people do when they inhabit a place — “I was here.” I did a little bit of research and found that the Caves had been a site of pilgrimage and occupation by hermits, people passing through, from antiquity. Roman coins have been found there, all kinds of bric-a-brac and human remains, during excavations. And also in the cave walls are carved crosses, some of which are so old they can only be seen with special lights. It struck me that people are doing the same things today that they did in antiquity: they come to this place, they build a fire, and they carve something in the wall.
That stimulated an interest to find out more, and I came across Ethernan. And then, strangely, I was sitting at the window of the place we were renting which looked out at May Island, having just learned what I could find out about Ethernan’s story, and realized quite suddenly that this is what I wanted to do. It felt immediately like something that needed a longer treatment. I started writing some notes at that time and was actually very wary of the idea because I had never done a longer-form project before — the concept album was not really my thing. I thought to myself, “Well, you’d better just sleep on this for a while, like, a few years.” And when The Road In… came out, it was still there. I figured if I was going to write about it, I’d better go back there. And so I did, a number of times for five or six weeks at different times of the year, and all kinds of misadventures ensued, and although I was driven by this core idea, I resisted thinking about the book in terms of a long-form project. I was very wary of it for a long time, until it became impossible to deny that that’s what I was up to.
I wonder if you could say more about why your connection to Ethernan felt so immediate, why this project ended up taking on a sense of necessity. What about Ethernan’s agonizing choice compelled you on a personal level?
I suppose my interest in how one decides to engage with the world — how one decides to be, in the terms of that time, an “active” or a “contemplative,” and whether one necessarily even needs to make that choice — was a result in part of the era we’re living in. The urgency of political action, of community, of resistance. But that’s always been the case, so perhaps my age has something to do with it, too. Trying to figure out my responsibility to the world, and whether that also involves a responsibility to follow my own inclinations, which are toward a more solitary life.
So that was all roiling around. And because I became so interested in Ethernan and the history of the place, I did a lot of research toward that end and discovered, of course, that many of the same factors or similar factors influencing his decision, or that I imagine influenced his decision, are still in play in some form: Christian colonialism, wars for territory and authority. The Catholic Church was just coming into a realization of itself as a money-making venture. These forces would have been brought to bear not necessarily on him personally, but on people like him. Because who knows if he even existed as documented in the stories we have of him, which are not many. Accounts of such figures and what they accomplished are often amalgams of stories and myths and rumors written and rewritten, and multiple stories combined into the story of one person to make a point. So Ethernan’s biography, or the truth of Ethernan as a historical figure, was less at stake for me than the idea of someone in the position in which the stories place him: someone faced with an urgent decision and deliberately withdrawing to make it.
I’m thinking of something you once said along the lines of, “It’s not merely a question of who or what you are, but how you are” that determines one’s sense of identity and how one therefore perceives one’s place and time. Are there reasons why Ethernan’s story and its emphasis on uncertainty might have resonated with you during that particular period of your life or career?
Well, personal stuff was also going on … I don’t know how far I want to expand on that, mostly because I run up against the wall of, “Who cares about me and my situation?” It’s not special. But it was a factor. I haven’t had a place to live for a long time, and that was the case when I went to Scotland. I was feeling very much adrift, trying to figure out what I should do and where I should go. So the writing of the book was complicated by the fact that I was in a temporary situation without any home to go back to. Everything became more intense. Everything was very concentrated on the place I was in at any particular time because of that sense of provisionality. I’ll add that, whenever I say something like this, my immediate thought is, “Is that true?” [Laughs.]
You mentioned uncertainty, and there was a lot of it then! [Laughs.] I feel that, in some circumstances, the only way to cope with — or the only way to accommodate — that uncertainty is to become very interested in it. And that’s what I did. The value and challenge of uncertainty, uncertainty as a philosophy and an aesthetic, has long fascinated me — how it operates in poetry, in other art forms, other types of writing. I was also raised Catholic, and along with the answers the Church professes to give you, is the shadow of doubt that attends them. So I decided to immerse myself in reading different treatments of uncertainty, and think about what they could offer in terms of trying to find my way into the experience of writing the book, and also how they could maybe help me … not necessarily to understand the place that I was in, but really just kind of live in it for a while.
The book, ostensibly centered on Ethernan’s decision, ultimately presents or represents all sorts of subtle or implicit conflicts that would seem to require a decision between apparent dichotomies. And as a result, I would argue the book ultimately reveals itself to be “about” the process of making any decision — the process of reckoning with uncertainty, period. And the more a reader pays attention to the interrelationships between individual poems, the more one “hears” upon successive reads the ways the poems are talking to each other. Does that resonate with you?
Yes, and I hope the poems do talk to one another. I tried many different approaches before deciding to just write them and try to keep them all in the air simultaneously while I wrote the next one. It felt the most accurate to how things were happening at the time, a rather palimpsestic experience. Though I spent a lot of time thinking it was all going to be for naught, what can we do as writers but just write the thing we’re in?
That reminds me of Wallace Stevens’s assertion: “What is the poet’s subject? It is his sense of the world.” I tend to agree with this, that as writers we really can’t escape ourselves — even in a book like The Caiplie Caves that is made up largely of persona poems and that almost entirely eschews strictly confessional or autobiographical subject matter. The lens through which we’re experiencing this landscape and this historical figure is still your distinct sensibility, your precise angle of approach.
Absolutely. And it’s kind of a two-way mirror, you know? In a poem about The Battle of May Island, for example, or a poem about the murders of people accused of witchcraft in Pittenweem, it’s still me who’s choosing the details, who’s arranging them according to how I interpret them. And when we write autobiographically we still choose details and invent and arrange things, working through all the vagaries of memory, which is very selective and sometimes inaccurate, and construct a narrative of who we are, and then within that a snapshot of that person we sometimes call “the speaker.”
So in both cases there’s a measure of not just fact and fiction, but the interpretation of events real and imagined according to who we are as individuals in a context. That’s part of every piece of art: all of the things that create suggestion and tone and voice — there’s a mind behind all of that. It’s not something that descends from the heavens. To be in the presence of another mind is what we go to art for. We want company, we want to be spoken to, and that involves someone behind the scenes manipulating language, technique, materials. We know this as readers, even when the poem feels immediate, unmediated. And while attempting to write authentically, honestly — in whatever ways we might define that — we find ourselves curating facts and impressions, deliberating over form and technique to achieve certain effects, in order to also communicate that intent. One might write with honest intent, from the very depths, but if the work doesn’t communicate that, it doesn’t matter.
How do you reckon with this apparent conflict between honesty or authenticity and accessibility — the desire to remain true to your own vision and the desire to affect as many readers as possible? Is that still something you think a lot about?
I do wonder about it. In writing Pigeon, I became obsessed with the question of how one might write honestly. After the first couple of books, I was starting to feel odd about the voice. To think back on earlier work, the tendency is always to rain on one’s own parade and say, “Oh, you know, I wouldn’t do that again,” or, “I’ve so moved on.” I hope I have moved on, but I also look back on those books and see things I value, and maybe things I’ve lost. Afterward, however, I became uncomfortable with what I suspected was a way to sidestep or evade what I thought by way of wryness or irony or sarcasm or a kind of humor that was a bit rhetorical. I also suspected I was overly concerned not just with reception but with my place in the scene, I guess. With what was popular — how I fit into what was popular and how I could write something that people would like. And it began to seem onerous and limiting and confusing in a way, as though I was losing track of my real inclinations. It wasn’t the fault of what was popular at the time, certainly, but I was feeling a bit like I was trying too hard, and trying hard in the wrong way, in the wrong direction. In Pigeon, I decided to concentrate not only on what I thought, but on the way I thought — the way I really think. Results vary.
Of course, it would be disingenuous to say I don’t care if I’m popular, I don’t care if people like me — you know, that kind of “I’m not here to make friends” attitude, which is often a pose, in my opinion. Maybe not for some people. What do I know? But I also do need to pursue my real interests to what I feel is the best of my abilities. It’s poetry, right? It’s not like my vast readership is in peril or anything! [Laughs.] What else do we do this for if not to pursue something important to us? So, it’s what I hope to carry on from The Caiplie Caves into what I’m doing now. Whatever that is.
The question of accessibility is complicated. It can seem as though accessibility is perceived either as a virtue in itself or as a detriment, as if the fact that a poet is accessible means they can’t be good, or that if a poet is accessible it means they are good. It’s neither one of those — it’s not a virtue or a detriment on its own. And neither is difficulty — that’s not a virtue or a detriment on its own, either. What even constitutes accessibility and difficulty is up for grabs as well. The language of advertising, the language of politics, is meant to be accessible, but it relies on vagueness and generalities, so while it’s accessible in the sense that people know what the words and sentences mean, there’s nothing really to access at the heart of it.
Most poets do not write to be inaccessible. Do any? It surprises me to hear my work described as such because of course, being the one who wrote it, I can access it. But in going through successive drafts, I try to approach the work as a reader, try to read it as it actually appears on the page, which requires a little bit of distance, a little bit of time.
I do want people to get something out of the book, to not feel shut out. I don’t want to write something that has no knobs on its doors. Whether people like it or not once they’re in is a whole different story!
I’d like to return to this idea of The Caiplie Caves as a kind of book-length dialectic: dynamic and searching rather than merely declarative and reiterative of a central idea. The particular ways that adjacent poems in the collection converse with, undermine, support, or revise one another, “arguments for and against belief / volunteering in equal profusion.” Spending extended time with the book gives me the sense of engaging with an expanding consciousness, and vicariously agonizing over these decisions.
When I’m able to give the poems the attention they require, the reading experience is deeply unsettling. In part, this is because — as you suggested — the book seems more interested in asking questions than in providing answers, which puts the responsibility for reaching answers largely on the reader’s shoulders. We move from “this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape” in the book’s first line to the final poem, “Clarity,” but the journey from beginning to end is fraught with detours, red herrings, apparent realizations that are then revised or dismissed only to be picked up again and reconsidered against the backdrop of a new context.
I’m curious about how this representation of a mind-in-motion relates to the process of ordering the poems and structuring the collection. Does the order of the poems correspond at all to the order in which you wrote them? Were you participating to some extent in the search for your own answers in tandem with your exploration of Ethernan’s quest to resolve his dilemma? Or was the book’s structure more deliberately mapped out, i.e., “I need a hopeful poem here,” “I need a doubtful poem as a counterpoint here”?
The quote from Horace that begins the book [“It is reason and wisdom which take away cares, not places affording wide views of the sea.”] was the first note I made in my notebook. In terms of structure, the poems are not exactly in chronological order, but they’re pretty close, which is weird, which is profoundly weird! That’s never happened to me before.
I don’t know. The book is quite long, arguably too long. [Laughs.] And a lot wasn’t included. But I wrote until the thought arose that “I haven’t written about this thing yet, I should probably write about that,” until I reached the point at which doing so would only be writing to satisfy the project. At that point I thought, “Stop.” Because that impulse has always felt to me like being hijacked by your own project, which is always the danger with this type of book.
Having said that, I am someone who second-guesses to a degree that is not really tenable as a way to live. [Laughs.] I find it difficult to make decisions because of this second-guessing — and it’s not because I’m an exceptionally thoughtful person, it’s just something I do out of whatever mechanism I’ve developed over the years. But you know, it’s funny to try to talk about things like one’s “process,” as if they are intentional when oftentimes they’re not. I do try to get those second thoughts and that second-guessing onto the page, because it seems more accurate to the experience. I don’t often write anything knowing what I think about it. I don’t necessarily need to feel a poem has some kind of conclusion or even a stable implication.
I’m no longer a religious person, but I believe in wonder as a way to live in the world, as a way to maintain one’s spirit. And to exist in that place where separate entities overlap with a sense of wonder, which is often uncomfortable — it feels to me like the place where one might understand or experience the difference between comfort and solace. To be comforted is to have our ideas confirmed, or to be offered a kind of answer, a summary or affirming narrative. It’s certainly not a bad thing to be comforted. We need it. It’s a place of rest. It’s shelter, however temporary, and can result from a connection to other people. But solace, to me, is more active, unstable, more outward looking and attentive. I could be splitting hairs here, manufacturing distinctions. I think we can find solace in that which does not necessarily make us comfortable, or let us rest. Perhaps comfort comes by way of other people, but solace is experienced alone. The way wonder can be a lonely place. Keeping these questions alive in a poem or in a book — not to settle on things — and to feel that my idea of who I am is somewhat provisional, or at least changeable, feels important to me.
One of the things I find fascinating about the book is that it both demands to be read as a unified work in the ways we’ve discussed, and simultaneously feels like a miscellany of sorts — part psychedelic travelogue, part almanac of Scottish mythology and history, part field guide of local flora and fauna, etc. Moreover, if you have Google Maps open while reading, the book also traces the geography and topography of the Fife Coast.
In addition to these things, individual poems in the book exhibit a remarkable aesthetic diversity, so that the book can also be read as a collection of forms. There are sonnet-length poems, there are the strikingly unpunctuated and right-justified Ethernan poems with their resulting ambiguous syntax, and then even more bizarre and idiosyncratic poems like “Whose Deaths Were Recorded Officially as Casualties of ‘The Battle of May Island,’” in which mimetic formal chaos paradoxically gives a poem concerned with accident and error real structural integrity. How did you go about discovering which forms fit particular poems, and in terms of the Ethernan poems specifically, how did you decide on the right-justified and unpunctuated lines?
The Ethernan poems were weird. I tried many approaches to those poems. (I go into this answer fully aware of how flakey a poet talking about how they come to these things can sound.) On one hand, I have a real need for symmetry, possibly because my own life is such absolute chaos. I would love to be one of those people who explodes lines and who uses the whole page and is experimental in that respect, and I have tried — I have tried and failed dismally — and come back to stanzas of regular lengths, sonnet-like poems, symmetrical patterns in which to contain some of this less certain content.
But with the Ethernan poems, I tried that and it didn’t, for lack of a better phrase, sound right. For me, a lot of this depends on what the poem sounds like in my mind’s ear. It’s like listening with the eye, if that makes sense. Because in some respects I am quite conventional — formally, syntactically — it took me a long time to right-justify those lines. But when I did it seemed to create a shift in tone, a shift in the voice. Almost like a reorientation. My hope is readers in those poems feel that another voice is speaking from a different part of the stage, which is also a time, or a kind of time/no time. And when I moved the lines to the right and when I double-spaced them, I felt like I heard it, felt that voice off to the side.
I enjoy tinkering with the machine. I fooled around with the lengths of lines in the Ethernan poems and tried to open up my syntax a little, tried to introduce some air to open up the voice, introduce some chaos. I tried punctuation and then removed it, and I capitalized and then I didn’t. I worked until I heard it beginning to approximate the voice I heard in my head. But that those formal choices felt like a risk is a signal of how pattern-oriented I am. Because I was looking at them on the page going [performative gasp], “Oh my goodness! Dare I?”
It strikes me that one of the initial hurdles a reader might encounter when engaging with your work is the subtlety of the voice in terms of tone — and the resulting fact that many sentences can “mean” very differently depending on how one hears them. After enough exposure to your voice, one becomes acclimated enough to recognize this ambiguity as a deliberate polytonality, one that signifies simultaneously competing attitudes — doubt and faith, for example, rather than one or the other. As a result, the poems implicitly emphasize the value of negative capability, even when that acknowledgment of uncertainty is accompanied by tinges of frustration or self-deprecation.
How can we position ourselves vis-à-vis the page in order to engage with uncertainty as an experience but without becoming wedded to it as a foregone conclusion (i.e., “I already know I don’t know,” or — worse — a kind of hapless postmodern “Well, who could say?”)? Or in one’s life more generally — how do we reckon with these competing interpretations of our own existence? “Am I isolated and separate, and this acute sense of connection I feel is all just a trick of the brain and wishful thinking? Or is that doubt itself the product of an over-reliance on science and a misplaced faith in rationality?”
I don’t know. I have no idea! We are limited by the mechanics of perception, by how our brains work, by what we are physically capable of in that regard. We are limited by language. But while these are limitations in some respect, they’re also perspectives, and the source of creativity. Creativity is an engagement with limits. Spirituality is generated by the machinery of our brains — we can’t really transcend that machinery, you know? [Points to her head.] We’re stuck in here! There’s a reason people feel like the center of their own universes — because we sort of are, in terms of perception. It’s bedeviling.
Uncertainty also only goes so far, though. I mean, we have to live in the world, and there’s uncertainty and then there’s uncertainty. I fairly recently wrote a screed about Toronto housing costs — when you’re evicted in a pandemic, that’s a different kind of uncertainty. There are experiences not uncertain in terms of what they mean and how they have arisen and from what conditions.
Art can’t exist, I have trouble imagining it produced, in a pure airspace of negative capability, uncertainty, whatever you want to call it, as though it occupies a separate, rarefied realm. I grew up on a farm in a relatively isolated, rural place amid work, and that is foundational to me — just the nuts and bolts of work. On a farm, there’s no real work-life balance, you know? It’s sort of, “You are what you do.” There is a rootedness in detail and in work and, to some extent, in class and the reality of not having money, and being aware — not necessarily as a kid, but realizing afterward — what that means.
The way I can most honestly approach the less tangible things I am interested in is through paying attention to the details of the world. That’s always where I have to start, and really that’s always been my way in — through those details, the particularities and specificities of experience, as far as I can apprehend them. And sometimes that’s enough.
I’d like to push a bit further into this relationship between the concrete particulars of the world and attention. In an interview you did after publishing The Living Option, you said, “Sometimes the very fact of two seemingly mundane things in proximity can generate a significance that feels — to me — just there, waiting to be attended to.” Setting aside the potential metaphysical interpretations of that phenomenon, do you think the ability to attend to those relationships between proximate things is an ability one cultivates over time? Is there any deliberate process by which you enter that headspace?
I guess I just do a lot of reading. I like to read around in what I don’t know much about. And that probably makes me a dilettante in some respects. But I do love research — if that was a job I would just do that, some kind of Walter Benjamin Arcades Project. And when I was researching for The Caiplie Caves in the Scottish Fisheries Museum, in little local museums and galleries and in the libraries — I can’t count the number of times I was reading and thought, “Oh, it’s all coming together. Eureka!” And then discovered someone made those connections in 1640 and there are books about it. [Laughs.] So that happens, and I probably do spend a lot of time excited over connections I’ve made between what has already been connected. But I enjoy it. If you put things in proximity, they are going to seem connected. It’s what our brains do. In terms of poetry, it can be lovely, even when it’s complete bullshit.
But in terms of getting myself into that headspace, it depends on occasionally being afforded the privilege of time, the benefit of time, which is so valuable and in such short supply. It takes me some time to sink to that midpoint where I can read, look, make notes, think, without any pre-determined end-product necessarily in mind. And I guess that’s the crux of it. That kind of freedom doesn’t come around very often, but I feel my best work has come out of it. Though also sometimes nothing comes of it. Most often it’s a matter of grabbing what little time there is between paid work.
When I think about The Caiplie Caves, I always find myself wondering about the implications of this type of attention. Each time I’ve read the book, I put it down acutely aware that my own vision has been clarified. And a number of the poems in the book could be said to be “about” attention, itself. For example, at the end of the flora catalog in “A Plentitude” [originally published as “An Abundance”], the speaker admits the only flowers she was able to recognize by heart — the only ones she was able to name without looking them up “after the fact” — were “the banks of wild roses, the poppies you loved // parked like an ambulance by the barley field.” It’s a powerful statement about what we attend to — or perhaps what we should attend to — and why. It’s the things that we love and the things that are loved by the people who we love that really stand out to us.
But at the same time, as you’ve said, attention itself can be slippery, subject to confirmation bias and, therefore, not necessarily an authoritative tool for understanding experience. Earlier in the same poem, the speaker asserts “look for lies and you will see them everywhere,” which of course neither confirms nor casts reasonable doubt on the existence of ubiquitous deceit. Similarly, in the closing lines of “Spiral” from The Road In…, the speaker recalls how, during a walk along the beach, “Sandpipers materialized / through tears the wind made, chasing fringes of the rising tide. / At first there were two, then three appeared, but when I began / to pay attention I realized they were everywhere.” It’s not even clear in that poem if this is the recognition of additional threat or the recognition of some pattern or beauty —
Well that’s the thing — yes, to both! Maybe this needlessly complicates the idea, but — Is it threat? Is it solace? Can it be both? Sometimes this, sometimes that? Even both at the same time?
Absolutely. That notion of simultaneity also ties back to the polytonality I referenced earlier, especially in the case of last lines that can be heard and, therefore, interpreted in very different ways: “It appears it could go either way.” “I prayed it might happen to me.” “No doubt, they’d say the same about us. / Which only serves to confirm what I’ve been telling you.” There can be an ironic or self-critiquing or hapless tinge to those lines, but they can also be read as entirely sincere, i.e., “I really did pray it might happen to me.” How one hears a given line may say more about the reader’s own attitudes in that particular moment; again, we can’t help but be primed by our own preconceptions.
I do admit to liking endings like that. What interests me about those thoughts — because a line should always be a real thought — is that they can be ironic, absurd, but sometimes there’s a real fear underneath them. And that’s often why we go to that tone. When revising drafts and looking at some of these lines, I have to figure out if they actually suggest that depth. We have to pay attention to the idiosyncratic workings of our own minds and expressions, and try to represent them. But in revision I do have to make the decision, “Is this line just here because I think it’s funny?” And sometimes it is!
I don’t want to suggest the type of polytonal ending I mean necessarily includes wry humor. In the case of other poems, a particular line might express competing types of pathos. For example, the end of “Migration” — I’m deeply moved every time I watch your reading of that poem at the Griffin Prize ceremony. The speaker’s ultimate admission, “I don’t understand it either,” is simultaneously a kind of throwing-up-of-one’s-hands in genuine lamentation and confusion, and a suggestion that the means by which the Arctic terns navigate — even if it’s inexplicable to us now — is evidence of something mysterious that we might later understand. In fact, the line can be read as an indicator of some buried hope in the speaker that death is not an ultimate end but rather some sort of spiritual migration.
Right, that’s a complicated aspect of negative capability. Does resisting the irritable-reach-after-fact-and-reason suggest those facts and reasons exist, though hidden from us? Or does it mean they are products of wishful thinking? My knowledge of the mystical tradition and its theology is primarily drawn from the Christian tradition, so that’s what I speak out of. And my interest follows avenues within negative theology from the Gnostics forward that consider how one goes forward with a kind of faith, however that is conceived, that is an inquisitive momentum without the expectation of something at the end of it other than more mystery. Do we need to keep alive the idea that it might be possible to arrive at an answer? How does one simultaneously act in the understanding that, even if it were possible to perceive meaning, there may not be anything there at all to be perceived, and still move forward keeping alive the possibility that there might? The mind reaches the end of its flat earth and peers over the edge at that point because there’s only so far your brain can walk before there’s no more ground. That doesn’t mean it stops trying, backtracking, circling, trying another route. It’s why art continues to be made. But it’s fascinating, isn’t it? To think about how to keep those ideas, those possibilities, simultaneously in play. It feels hard, it feels like exercise. You can almost feel your mind physically trying to work around it.
Do you practice any sort of meditation, or have you approached the Christian mystics primarily through reading texts?
No, but I’ve wanted to try to start a meditative practice for a while. Having said that, in Scotland I walked miles every day, and there is a walking meditation — the monks used to do it. For me, it was a matter of trying to simply look at things, to turn off the objective correlative part of the brain that insists, “The sadness of the trees reminds me of my own bleak existence.” That’s as close as I have come to any kind of formal contemplative practice.
We arrive at the questions and experiences we’ve been talking about from many different directions, which interests me because I have a very strong practical streak. I’m interested in science, and in the material facts of the world, in work, in what we need to do to make a go of it. One of the weird and destabilizing things about writing the book was the emergence of the book-length project. Of course, I thought, “Oh God, here we go, the mid-life project book!” But at the same time I was following a trajectory embarked on from the very first one, following a through-line. There were times I felt an absolute charlatan. I sat in the Caves and thought, “Okay, Ethernan, I’m here, tell me something,” as if I were going to suddenly become a person who gets direction from the universe. That’s not me. It didn’t happen. [Laughs.] I had the idea I was going to spend the night, and then it got really dark and really cold, and I was like, “This is ridiculous.” And then had to find my way back in the dark, there aren’t any lights on the Coast, it’s very dark, and no one around. The event I describe in “A Miscalculation” actually happened. That was a different occasion. There were a few. It takes about half an hour to walk from Crail to the Caves, and it took me over an hour to get back because I couldn’t see anything, and I’m inching along thinking, “Karen, for God’s sake, get a grip!” So I struggle with an innate skepticism always with me in pursuing matters of the spirit — however one conceives of the possibility of a spiritual life — and the importance of admitting uncertainty, of existing in a place where the experience of failure is important as a way to move forward. Especially when it’s difficult to literally move forward.
I am attracted to the beauty of some of the ideas in the mystics that I’ve read, and also to the difficulty they describe, and the value of that. One of my favorite poets is Fanny Howe, and she is a person of faith, although I have read recently she doesn’t like that word. But she talks in her work about spending time in temporary places, going off to Ireland, struggling with belief, with how to live, about spending time in a monastery. And even though she is, I think, a believer, the poems often emphasize how difficult belief is. Kept active, it’s genuinely hard and brutal. But strangely enough, I find that it makes work a solace. So that practical aspect of myself and that skeptical materialist part of me — it doesn’t feel at odds with being someone who is fascinated by Saint John of the Cross.
Your work is often described as “philosophical,” and you’ve spoken about the ways your experience as a philosophy student has influenced your work. And your poems do frequently gesture toward or directly address philosophical or (apparently) theoretical problems — questions concerning the definition of the self, the nature of perception, subjectivity, time, and solipsism. The word “appear,” for example, always feels like a kind of playful wink at the reader. Based on other conversations I’ve had, my sense is that, for some readers, this type of “intellectualizing” might seem — if not out of place in a poem, then at least less familiar than subjects like memory, love, grief, the beauty of the natural world. I don’t see philosophy as being opposed to those subjects, but I think there is something about that potential resistance that’s worth attending to. Do you see a conflict there, and do you ever struggle when attempting to treat subject matter we might associate with Platonic dialogues or deductive treatises using the poetic imagination and poetic forms?
“Philosophy student” would in some respect overstate my course of study. I did study philosophy as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student in English, but I still don’t feel particularly well read in it. Still, it feels immediate to me; it doesn’t feel theoretical. Its questions are present in everything — they don’t feel like a separate realm of experience for me. This question dovetails with the mixing of registers in my work that some readers find annoying. You know, there’s a tendency to think that some writing is “high” culture and that some is “low.” I don’t believe that. So when I approach philosophy or theology or literary theory or history, I approach them the same way as I do field guides and the language of work and the political realities of trying to find a place to live. Television shows, repair manuals — it’s all language. And we use the language that we have. So I don’t think experience with philosophy, for example, is any more foundational than my knowledge of the machinery that’s in the yard on my parents’ farm. We’ve been talking about attention, and philosophy comes from the attention to the particulars that animate all of these larger questions. That’s how it feels to me: everything is part of the world. It’s all language. It’s all thinking. It’s all present before us when we write. And any writer has to use the language that feels right for them as an individual, and to pay attention to how it influences the way they think.
There’s a lot of work out there that doesn’t explicitly reference philosophical concepts or philosophers but has deep philosophical weight to it and opens up to the same sorts of questions. The poems may not include those references, but they do contain those concepts. So when you’re reading a lot of poetry, you’re inevitably in the presence of thinking about representation, about perception, about beauty, about identity and how it changes over time — a lot of very consistent philosophical questions. But the work itself might be anecdotal. It might be political. It could be a love poem. It’s not as though those poems don’t have philosophical content. I think there’s a lot of work out there that’s deeply invested in philosophy that doesn’t necessarily flag itself as such.
What has it been like to come up for air, so to speak, after being immersed for so long in Ethernan’s story, the Fife Coast, and questions about uncertainty and decision-making? Looking at the book from a distance, does it feel like a step forward in some way? How has it affected the way you think about your poems, or poetry in general?
We talked about the specter of the “mid-life project book” being somewhat horrifying at the time, but I do miss it now. I cringe in saying these kinds of things, but I miss Ethernan. I miss thinking about him. I’m not a particularly sensitive person who feels the presence of spirits or whatever around me, but you know, I miss being that involved and interested in and invested in something. I also had the benefit and privilege of time when I was writing the book. I received a travel grant so I could actually afford to go over there and spend some time. I had contracts that I could manage online, so I could take my work with me when I went to Scotland. And I haven’t had that kind of time, haven’t had that ability to read and write for my own work in a while.
I don’t know if any book feels like a movement forward because by the time it actually comes out, it’s a ways behind you, and you’re a slightly different person. I’m not entirely sure yet what to do with that; I guess time will tell. In some ways, I feel like The Caiplie Caves has thrown me back on myself rather than moved me forward. It’s thrown me back to a place of being unsure all over again what I think, and how to write a poem, and what poems mean.
You’ve probably participated in or have been an audience member for poetry panels that are structured around the question “What is poetry for?” And, again, I think attention is at the core of that. It’s at the core of it personally, and politically. We write to communicate. We pay attention to the people around us and what they need, as well as to ourselves and what we need. We want to make people’s lives a little better the way reading others has made our lives better. Writing, and reading, are ways of coping. We need solace sometimes. We need comfort. And the act of paying attention to the small things, “the lesser stone,” is to give of ourselves. That feels expansive, hopeful, to feel ourselves gesture outward rather than have everything always brought to bear on our idea of ourselves. And also we need to have some fun. Details of the world are interesting, and there are remarkable things to be learned from the small, everyday, and banal. Not just objects, not just the natural world, but even something like a gesture someone will make when you’re out walking. Or overheard speech that might be anything from the ridiculous to the sublime. It’s just variety, you know? So there are several levels on which attention is important: from the personal and the small and the temporary to the political and the inter-relational and what we need to pay attention to as human beings in a society — as people who are aware of how our lives affect other lives, human and nonhuman. If there is anything at the heart of what I’m trying to do as a writer and as a person, I suppose it comes down to that.
Matt Morton is the author of Improvisation Without Accompaniment, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, selected by Patricia Smith (BOA Editions, 2020), and a forthcoming chapbook, What Passes Here for Mountains (Carnegie Mellon, 2022).