News and Interviews

"Poetry is a Tool for Making Sense of Our Pasts" Kate Siklosi on Challenging Herself in Her New Poetry Collection

purple banner image with photo of poet Kate Siklosi and text reading "Interview with Kate Siklosi. I don't believe that poetry-or any art-seeks answers"

Kate Siklosi's Selvage (Invisible Publishing) contains hybrids and graftings, as gestured to in its title, mashing up self and salvage, two concepts that come together in powerful ways as Siklosi populates her hypnotic lyrics with trees, fungi, and roots both literal and familial. Weaving these natural backdrops with collage-like material as diverse as fragments from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and observations of pregnancy, Siklosi explores our relationships and obligations to the land, to family, and to ourselves. 

The writing in Selvage is deeply kinetic, evoking the stitching Siklosi does in her visual art as it dives down and comes up, repeating and securing, taking the reader through complex family issues, the natural world, and the strangeness of creating life. Past and future are explored in this sewing motion, a process that, like our stories, is moving ever forward while being anchored in what's come before. 

Siklosi's previous work has been deeply experimental and visual in nature (often using, as she says, "decaying natural objects"), so this collection, which features comparatively traditional lyric pieces as well as some of her trademark experimental work, represented a challenge to herself. The delight and energy Siklosi brought to her self-styled challenge infuses the work with energy and a bright, vibrant quality, even when she is tackling, at times, difficult and deeply personal subject matter. 

We're speaking with Kate today as part of our Line & Lyric series for poets. She tells us about how she approached that challenge of a more traditional full-length collection, shares how becoming pregnant while writing shifted the project in some ways, and details the fascinating potential setting—one largely unexplored in fiction—that she's considering for her novel-in-progress. 

Open Book:

Tell us about this collection and how it came to be.

Kate Siklosi:

Cover of Selvage by Kate Siklosi

This collection was a long time in the making—it’s not my first full-length book (my first is leavings, put out by the wondrous Timglaset in 2021), but it is my first full-length that is not exclusively visual poetry. I love experimenting with different mediums, processes, etc., and I tend to get really obsessed over something for a short while and then move on, which is why I tend to live in the world of chapbooks because they are smaller in scale and thus allow for you to get lost in one thing for a hot minute and then move on to something else.

However, I really wanted to challenge myself to step outside my comfort zone and create a full-length collection that encompasses not only my visual experimentations, but also the traditional lyric poems that I had also been writing but not really publishing. I wanted to see how the friction and conversation between these visual and lyric modes would yield something that was a bit unsettling, a bit challenging, and yet speaks to the sometimes unspeakable and messy modes of our being. I create a lot of visual poetry using decaying natural objects, some pieces of which are in this collection and my previous collection leavings. In fact, while I was writing this collection, I was making these visual collages and by the time I was done with the manuscript I had a full-length book of them to publish! So leavings is largely a companion to Selvage in many ways as I was writing / creating them both simultaneously.

The collection took me a few years to write due to both its form and content—it was the first time I was writing more “traditional” poetry of this sort of volume. It’s also a collection that was quite vulnerable and emotionally taxing to write, as it contends with the trauma and forgetting of my family’s complex history. The work of this book began with me creating some visual collages using leaves and other detritus, as well as fragments from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to investigate our relationship to the land we call home and the laws and statutes that govern our existence here. It then began to take a more inward trajectory as I was working through some of my personal relationships to this land as a daughter of immigrants with a traumatic past, and, as a becoming parent myself, how these current relationships will come to affect future generations.


What was the strangest or most surprising part of the writing process for this collection?


The most surprising part of the process was how much the manuscript changed over the course of editing. The book evolved quite substantially and is very different from the manuscript I originally submitted. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I had the help of editor extraordinaire Helen Hajnoczky, whose keen eye really helped this collection come into its own with more clarity, consistency, and strength. I was also reaching out to others in my poetic community to get more eyes on it. It was really my first time editing a work of this magnitude and scope, so I am so fortunate to have had the mentorship of Helen as well as others, such as Gary Barwin and Brian Dedora, who leaned in and came on this journey with me to where Selvage is now.

Another thing that happened between when I submitted the manuscript and it being edited was me getting pregnant. And considering that the collection deals with our precarious relationship to the land, as well as our often tenuous relationship to family and to our pasts, it seemed right to explore my burgeoning parenthood as another poetic thread in the work. I really jumped on that instinct and created an entirely new final section of the book, “radicle,” which takes up the themes and conceits of the earlier sections and brings them together in concert with my feelings about becoming a parent.

So yes, it was really surprising to have the work transform so radically and involvedly over the course of the many months that I was editing it. It was also surprising how my transforming pregnant body and self were such influential forces in the creation of this work: as I was growing a tiny human, the book was also evolving and growing.


What advice would you give to an emerging or aspiring poet?


I always advise writers to just send stuff out that you’re not sure about, stuff that’s not your best, stuff that scares you to be seen by others. Find some small presses you like and submit your work. Small presses are a great way for emerging and established writers alike to try stuff on and experiment. Also, get as many eyes on your work as you can—feedback is so critical to grow and develop as a writer.

And, don’t forget to have fun! Experiment, play, try something new. Many emerging or aspiring writers I talk to feel like they have to fit themselves into some kind of mould. Getting your hands dirty in the work, whether through experimenting with new mediums or new forms, is a great way to break down barriers in your creative process.


Was there a question or questions that you were exploring, consciously from the beginning or unconsciously and which becoming clear to you later, in this collection?  


Absolutely. In the beginning, I was seeking to explore three central questions (not answer, because I don’t believe that poetry—or any art—seeks answers): first, how might a poetic of radical care (both in terms of carefulness or even tedium with objects, materials, thoughts, ideas, and also care for the other, for community, for ourselves) be transformative in a world that encourages and rewards hardness, competition, productivity at all costs? Because a lot of my work is done by hand, especially my sewn collages using fragile materials, this mode of creation really takes care and time and patience, which are things that our current milieu doesn’t really value but to me, are critical creative avenues that allow for a greater connection to the world and the conditions that shape it.

Second, and related to that first question, I was also exploring how art, and specifically poetry, is a tool for making sense of our pasts, for wrangling with our fragmented memories. Poetry, and especially experimental poetry, has a way of contending with fragments not towards the end of making sense, by gesturing towards something larger, something unexpected, out of the absence and gaps.

Third, in working with fragile organic materials in this collection, as well as the laws and statutes that govern our land, I am exploring the ways in which our lives and selves are interdependent with our environment.

And, as I mentioned, over the course of writing the collection, I became pregnant, and that really shifted my axis both as a person and as a creator. It made me think more intensely about the questions that the book was already asking—in particular, the realities of parenthood in the time of climate crisis and political upheaval.


For you, is form freedom or constraint in poetry?


I love a grey area, so for me it is both! I create a lot of visual poetry using decaying natural objects, and so working with fragile organic materials (often also using the fragile medium of Letraset, which is dry transfer lettering) is a constraint because the medium and process of creation is so unforgiving. Moreover, this mode of creation does not allow for any editing: if that leaf breaks mid stitch, or that letter does not transfer properly, you can’t really fix it. You decide whether you want to keep the mistake and have that be the thing, or you redo it, or you move onto something else. However, for me, there’s a deep freedom in that constraint because it becomes a collaborative process with the materials I’m working with, and because I have to give up any semblance of control or even focused intention with that work, which is quite liberating. The piece develops as it will underhand, and there’s not too much I can “manage” about the outcome or process. I find that incredibly freeing.

For me personally, the form of this collection (a full-length manuscript that has traditional lyric poetry alongside more experimental works that I am more used to and comfortable putting out in the world) was both freedom and constraint. I was and am accustomed to visual poetry’s more gestural and tentative form, in that you are more creating something and showing the reader, inviting them to participate in whatever meaning or generative energy surfaces. Writing traditional poetry, on the other hand, often doesn’t feel free to me in that way—it feels much more like a constraint. So it was a challenge to create these really vulnerable, honest, and direct pieces and also have them mesh with the more experimental pieces and work all together as a collection.


What are you working on next?


I am always one to continue experimenting and challenging myself creatively, so at the moment I have it in my brain to write a novel about the Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario, where I grew up. The Valley is a 38-square-kilometre area with multiple petrochemical refineries and is home to over 40% of Canada’s chemical industry. I worked there as a teenager and young adult, and most people in my family currently work there or have for generations. It is a really strange and otherworldly place (and largely inhospitable to women, if you’re in the field) that not very many people get to see inside of, despite being reliant on its products to fuel our lives. A complex city of entangled, coughing, spewing pipes seems to me like a really interesting setting for a book, and while I was working there I met so many interesting characters. I also want to explore the refinery with a feminist lens, as it is a traditionally uber-masculine space. We’ll see how much energy I can muster with a young 5-month old, but I’ve been outlining it and starting to form things up and will hopefully start writing soon.


Kate Siklosi is a poet, scholar, publisher, and teacher who lives in Dish With One Spoon Territory/Toronto, Canada. Her work includes leavings (Timglaset 2021), which sold into its second printing, and six chapbooks of poetry. Her critical and creative work has been featured across North America, Europe, and the UK. She is also Sessional Faculty at McMaster University, curator of the Small Press Map of Canada, and co-founding editor of the feminist experimental small press Gap Riot Press.

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We don’t choose the stories we inherit, but we can stitch new futures from the threads of our past.

Selvage is a work of salvaging and selving, of salvaging a self from disparate elements. Fragments from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the language of trees talking to one another through mycelial networks, familial stories, and ruminations on the cusp of motherhood are literally and lyrically torn apart, spun, and sewn together to create a collage of what it means to be human, which is to say, what it means to be incomplete and fragmented. Mashing up the traditional lyric with innovative form and visual poetry, this experimental work is deeply personal, but it also attempts to gesture towards the human experience by showing the unfinished seams of our existence: the messy ends, beautiful twists, and unexpected new beginnings sewn together with intertwined threads of intergenerational trauma and love.