Karen Solie’s gaze is anxiously persistent, and piercing. Her work is characterized by critical investigation into emotional images, revealing how those images conduct the viewer, the landscape, and their histories. She reflects the modern world and the difficulty of living in it, the anxiety of influence and consequence, and, even still, the beauty. The Caiplie Caves, which is out on this interview’s day of publication, is her fifth collection of poems, and moves from the Canadian backdrop of her previous collections to the Scottish coast of Fife and, as well, from the modern age to the 7th century. It is an examination of myth, history, and mysticism, with a mundane saint at its center. But even in this movement, backward in time and across an ocean, The Caiplie Caves presents a compelling case for how history never leaves us, never really passes us, but stays with us and adds to the ever-increasing amount of things happening.
Kyle Williams: I don’t want to draw your work through the pandemic we’re experiencing very much, but the context does make me think about how precarious we are—culturally, financially, in health (if any of those are separate things). This precariousness is something I find in your work as well. I’ve always admired the knife’s edge of your verse, which walks out onto the increasingly unstable concept of “modernity” or “postmodernity.” These are impossible concepts I’m putting front-and-center, but I’d love to talk about that condition, its anxiety, and how you navigate it. To start, can you talk about what drew you from today to the 7th century, and its hermit, Ethernan?
Karen Solie: I’ve been interested in philosophy since I began reading it during my undergraduate degree – the ancients, existentialists, a rampage through moral philosophy, a class on reincarnation. And logic, which I was terrible at, big surprise. The experience was like when I first got glasses and was shocked that it was possible to see individual leaves and grass blades. Shocked and kind of freaked out. I’ve since developed a particular curiosity regarding the nature of speculation itself, the ways writers from very different schools and eras address the same questions in ways that overlap as well as diverge, the various routes and methods of approach. How, for example, philosophers have engaged with negative theology, negative capability, how they embrace it, resist it, or both. When I began writing poetry in my 30s this interest charged what I guess could be called my poetics, though I’m not entirely sure I own one of those. I’m not a particularly well-read or astute student of philosophy, but I find it a deep well of energy and solace even when I don’t agree or don’t feel I really “get it”. When I discuss it with people who are well-read and astute I’m sure I come off as flighty, and probably I am. I do just like to fly around in it and land on things, but then I stare at them for a really long time.
I was raised Catholic, though haven’t practiced religion for many years. Following a long period of outright rejection, I began to indulge again my attraction to some of the writings of the Christian mystics. This interest acquired another dimension when I discovered Simone Weil, whose writing is wrenching, beautiful, and of a devastating clarity. My Catholic upbringing also involved an early education that in my memory was perhaps overly in thrall to the violence of its mythology. Through Grade 3 I went to Catholic school, which featured some extraordinary punitive moments, and we all read a series of little books about the lives of the saints which included graphic descriptions and illustrations of their martyrdoms. Very lurid, which kids love; but also I remember being haunted by the idea of someone loving and feeling loved so deeply, being so secure in that belief, that they would give their lives to it, and for it.
While writer-in-residence at the University of St. Andrews in 2011, I often walked different segments of the Coastal Path from Elie to St. Andrews. The Caiplie Caves are alongside the path about halfway between Crail and Anstruther. They’re beautiful, multicolored weathered sandstone. I did some research and found that they’ve been a site of pilgrimage from antiquity, and that St. Ethernan is the figure most commonly associated with them. The preface to The Caiplie Caves goes into this a bit: basically the story goes that Ethernan withdrew to the Caves to try to decide whether to establish a priory on May Island, directly across from the Caves in the Firth of Forth, or remain in the cave as a hermit and dedicate his life to solitude. Sometimes May Island looks like a green and happy paradise. Sometimes it looks like the smoking windowledge of hell. Ethernan would have stared at it – and it at him – constantly. I imagine it as a time of ferocious fear and doubt as well as hunger, cold, and loneliness. To be compelled by belief is also to be compelled by doubt, and it was Ethernan’s doubt that spoke to me. How does one make a life-altering decision in the face of it? Ethernan is also someone about whom very little is written, which is odd given that the area through the ages teemed with saints and hermits, many of whom have elaborate stories associated with them. What little I did find was very modest. No miracles, no fabulous origin stories.
I was writing The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out at that time, but started to scratch a few notes for what would become The Caiplie Caves. I immediately envisioned it as a long-form project, which I hadn’t ever considered before. It’s weird. Some of those very first notes are in the book, which never happens to me. The epigraph by Horace was the first thing I wrote down. It’s been a talisman in my pocket all these years.
I was looking back at the email you sent me some three years ago. You were writing from Newfoundland but had just prior been living in Scotland, on the coast of Fife, “where my new ms. is – for lack of a better word – centered.” You’ve always written very beautifully about particular (and particularly) Canadian landscapes. I’ve always loved that you can trace the route driven in “Rental Car,” for instance. What made you reach across the ocean for the Scottish landscape? And what did you find there?
The Fife coast is very beautiful. I’ve spent quite a lot of time there now, and I love it. It’s also a source of pain, which always puts a spin on love. I wanted to locate the book in that place for the sake of the sustained attention at the heart of the book’s philosophy as well as its situation. Writing about landscape – rural, urban, or in-between – has always interested me. We love places that would just as soon do away with us. We are able to find beauty in bleakness, comfort in the fragile and insignificant. Our love is sometimes absent of real respect, is self-serving and obtuse. One person’s soulscape is another person’s hellscape.
An experience of landscape can’t be separated from the history and context of the perceiver. The relationship between the individual and “the natural world” has often been spoken of as fundamental and universal, but I don’t think that’s true. The relationship is complicated by and mediated through a number of factors. I’m getting a little off-topic here, but an interview with Lucille Clifton comes to mind. In it, Clifton recalls an article about Robert Penn Warren traveling across the country in a beater car. “He wanted to see the landscape,” Clifton says; “he wanted to look at this country. And I was understanding then that that’s why, maybe, I know something about the people in this country, but I’m not a landscape person. I don’t see landscape. I don’t identify that much with landscape.” When asked why she thinks this is, she says “Because it was not available to me. There’s no way a person of my age, who looks like me, could have got a car and gone across this country safely. It’s not possible. We’re talking about the fifties and sixties . . . . I don’t know how many African American poets are like Mary Oliver, who knows the landscape so well. It has not been available to us to know.”
So I guess in some respects what I found in the landscape of Fife, like what I’ve found in Canadian landscapes, was me. That is, what I found was conditioned by what I was looking for, my expectations met or not met, my ability to move freely, the privileges and challenges of being there. I don’t think I am capable of any revelations regarding what is “really there,” even if such revelations are possible. Nor did I uncover some essential truth about myself, I think that ship has sailed. I encountered my limitations, but also my capacity for attention. And I did learn things, and change. I researched names and historic uses for plants, what happened in places, the mythology of landmarks. My experience of the place became palimpsestic and kind of hallucinatory. Maybe especially because I was alone in a little fishing village for five or six weeks at a time.
You mentioned that you didn’t start writing poetry until your 30s – what brought you to it?
Just reading it, really. But I didn’t grow up knowing it existed other than the obligatory Wordsworth we read in Grade 12 in my small rural Saskatchewan school. I’ve been a reader of short stories and novels ever since I can remember, as both my parents are readers, and there were always good books around. It’s clear to me now that I did some pretty age-inappropriate reading over the years, but I don’t remember being particularly shocked or upset by any of it. I do remember marveling in an unformed way at image, figurative language, at how a simple sentence can expand with implication, seem beautiful, how the mood of a story can follow one around for days. I remember being very curious as to how it worked. There didn’t seem to be anything to do with that curiosity, though. I had a brush with the sciences in one year of community college after high school, but it didn’t take, so I got my journalism diploma in a different community college in another small Alberta city. It was the only thing I could think of to do with writing. I worked as a newspaper reporter in Lethbridge, Alberta for three years before deciding to go to university to pursue an English degree. I was playing a little music by that time and met friends who were musicians and artists, and some of them were reading poetry and philosophy. It wasn’t really until the third year of my undergraduate degree, when I took a course in modern American poetry, that I found my early curiosities made new in poems and began to read anything I could get my hands on. Though I scratched down a few things in those years, I didn’t make any serious attempts until I began my master’s degree in English at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Where, weirdly enough, I studied fiction and literary theory; but both have been crucial influences.
This might be a chicken-or-egg kind of question, but, do you feel that philosophy drives your poetry, or perhaps that poetic form drives philosophical exploration? In your poetics, does the philosophy find the poem, or does the poem find the philosophy?
I don’t know that I can discern a direction the process typically follows, if it follows any direction, which I doubt. I can’t separate the two in my own imagination, but neither do I think them inseparable. A poem certainly doesn’t need to perform or refer to philosophical concepts or conceits, and philosophy doesn’t need to lend itself to being read as poetry. Do all poems enact philosophy in some sense? Does all art? Maybe. Going down this road I inevitably encounter the question of what philosophy even is. Whatever it is, it is an influence; but I don’t know that it’s any more or less of an influence than anything else I’ve read or experienced. All of it – from analytic philosophy and literary theory to jobs in a food court and cleaning rooms, from driving tractor on the farm to visual art, from solo road trips, experimental fiction, and weird motels to teaching, music, and the Christian mystics – is machined into the apparatus I use to perceive the world. This is by no means unusual. We all have our own lists, which are constantly added to. The hope is to incorporate new elements and be changed by them.
When you say the ship has sailed w/r/t/ uncovering essential truth about yourself, I’m curious about what that foregone conclusion means to you and your work. I’ve always felt your work attempts to decenter the Self while acknowledging the impossibility of the task. Does this ring true to you? Maybe this is a question about faith. Your answer feels like a tense one: Do you believe in an essential Self, that the ship has sailed on? Is the Self a material being, and is that why the ship has sailed on essential truth?
Personally, I don’t think there is an essential anything lying in wait to be discovered. That ship has sailed and there is no ship. As far as the self goes, I can’t speak to anyone else’s sense of it. I doubt there is something called The Self that, conceptual or material, applies universally. The Self might be the irresolvable question of what the self means. But what do I know? I like your use of impossibility here. I suppose that my own sense of self is, in a way, a sense of impossibility – of searching for what cannot be found, for what does not exist to be found, while also trying to answer questions about what it means to be a responsible person. An essential self sounds to me like something that doesn’t change, which I don’t find comforting. Though the capacity for change, the inevitability of it, has long been acknowledged as an essential truth . . . .
I find it really interesting that you were working on The Road In when you started Caiplie Caves, especially as reflections of their landscapes. Do you feel anything like a “home” landscape? Your bio always specifies that you were born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; do you feel that Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and/or Canada is the landscape of your work? And then, how does that Scottish landscape compare?
Because I grew up for the most part on the farm in the southwest of the province, that particular geographical and cultural landscape supplies a sort of primary map against which all others have emerged in relief. It conditioned my experience of perspective, of scale, of how long it should take to drive somewhere, and the experience of time in general. It determined what I considered a “normal” arrangement of objects in space and navigation among them. Each time I moved to a progressively larger city I wondered if I’d be able to manage. It took ages before I could use the subway in Toronto without panic. My primary map is in a palimpsestic relationship with others now, but it hasn’t faded. I still get out to the farm quite often, and feel the same settling of scale, of perspective, of time, inside me. I don’t think there’s anything mystical or elemental about it. It’s just what I’m used to, where I was when my brain was establishing crucial relationships to space and time. But I’ve lived in Toronto for a long time too, and when I return to prairie cities find them strange and alienating. “Landscape” is often applied to rural or wilderness environments, but cities are landscapes, too.
When I left Saskatchewan, left the prairie, I began to see it differently, because I was able to put it in relief – not only against other Canadian landscapes, but against its own history as I learned more. Each made my first place new to me in different ways. And the prairies still influence how I perceive other places. I’m enamoured of bodies of water. Too many trees make me nervous. Hills are great. Mountains are nice to visit, but. In the Scottish Highlands for the first time, I nearly lost my mind at how beautiful it is. The hills, the water, and few trees, so you can actually see everything. It’s ridiculous, I know. I love trees. Who doesn’t love trees? But there was something exhilarating in the confluence of difference and sameness, of a landscape simultaneously dramatically different from and dramatically the same as my primary landscape. There’s a very powerful principle of pattern and variation at work in this kind of experience that also operates in representations of experience, poetry being one. It’s interesting to consider also how an affinity for a landscape might be complicated by, for example, the fact that much of Scotland’s forests were cleared for shipbuilding and agriculture.
The coast of Fife is a very different geography. But it is farming country, albeit on a smaller scale than I’m used to. It was very weird to see cultivated fields on the edge of the sea, as the two had previously seemed almost antonymical. So again, I could look landward and identify a field of barley by the seedheads, and recognize equipment in the fields, then turn seaward and not understand anything. So I suppose these are part of why I find Scotland beautiful, that mix of tensions and contradictions and identifications it inspires in me, though it’s also just astounding generally. If you like that sort of thing.
From a northern country myself, I suppose I’m also drawn to the north. But just as there is no one Canadian landscape, there is no Scottish landscape, no one American landscape.
You wrote earlier that the question of modernity / post-modernity interests you. The thing I get most from your poems, I think, is the tension, anxiety, and difficulty of actually existing in the (post)modern world. The anxiety in your poems is doubled by its reflexivity: they are anxious both for the world and for their own anxiety, as a kind of double-bind. I think you write this beautifully in the last poem in Caiplie, “Clarity”: “Much of what I feared then / has happened, // though not always / as I’d feared. // And so much more to fear / than I’d imagined.” How do you think about this reflexivity? Do you see it as the “crisis of modernity,” as it were? Is it an intentional part of your process, or does it come regardless of your intentions?
I think that sort of doubled state – an anxiety both for the world and for one’s own position in it – is as old as humans. The scale might change, but it’s the crisis of every age. Whatever self-reflexivity my poems might express is both intuitive and intentional. I don’t make much sense in isolation, and don’t expect that people should care about my speakers’ anxieties; but I do hope a reader might feel accompanied by the poems, that there’s a collaborative thinking possible in them.
We’re continually faced with evolving experiences of, and questions as to, what constitutes the world and the self. Leaving philosophical questions of the nature of reality, the behavior of matter, and the stability of the “Self” aside, each new trade route changed the world, each new fruit arriving in the market, each traveler with a new story, each war, each new method of communication, each pandemic. Climate crises and environmental disasters are going to change the world quite literally. We need new language to account for the passage of time; and we like to, perhaps need to, bracket periods and eras in language we recognize as both arbitrary and functional.
I realize this is arguable, but I suspect “modern” and “postmodern” signify less the character of an age or a leap in insight than the time period in which certain events occurred. There’s no doubt wars change us. Colonialism has damaged entire societies and peoples. The internet has rewired our brains. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that we move past anything, as the “post” would suggest. Most people, I would hope, recognize that we’re not “post-colonial” by any stretch of the imagination. The church might not assume control of your resources to sell out from under you, but Nestlé does. Ask the Six Nations in Ontario. There are many glaringly obvious ongoing examples. And although this particular usage of the prefix is one of the most troubling, I don’t really think we’re post-modern, post-Romantic, post-Enlightenment either, except in that we accept that the period called The Enlightenment “ended” in the late 18th century. The Caiplie Caves is concerned with the ongoingness of consequence, how things that have happened are tangibly still happening, whether we know it, accept it, or not. The question of how one might make decisions in the light of past error, in the light of the possibility of future error, is at the heart of it.
The Caiplie Caves
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
July 7, 2020
Kyle Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an MFA Candidate at UT Austin’s Michener Center, Interviews Editor for Full Stop, Director of Communications for Chicago Review of Books, and A Public Space’s 2019 Emerging Writer Fellow. He is on Twitter @kylecangogh.