Try Poetry: Lent + Kate Cayley

Kate Cayley tells us about when she first started writing poetry and provides some recommendations for readers that want to explore their poetic side. Cayley gives us a glimpse into her poetry collection Lent (Book*hug Press) with ‘Mary Shelley at the End of Her Life, Recalling the Monster’. Read poem in full below.


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Interview with Kate Cayley

ALU: When was the moment that you decided you wanted to write poetry? Describe it for our readers. Was it reading another poem? Was it listening to a poet read? Was it something different entirely?

Kate Cayley: I wrote truly awful poems as a child and adolescent. They were full of nostalgia, which is hilarious considering I was expressing nostalgia for some idea of the past when I barely had a past. Maybe I was starting to get at something that would be important to me later about time and memory (we only get a few thoughts that we just keep digging deeper into for as long as we have on earth). Or maybe I was indulging a pose because most of the poetry I had read was Victorian/Edwardian verse in old anthologies we had around the house, and nostalgia is a powerful thread in a certain kind of kitsch. Probably both a pose and a genuine expression, like most initial literary efforts. One of my earliest memories is trying to dictate a poem to my very patient mother, making her write it on a napkin. It was about my pet rabbit. I definitely wanted to imitate poems I loved, so of course everything was derivative. I think that’s a necessary stage. So is being really bad. Then I wrote poetry more seriously, though very privately and still very badly, in university, and that was interesting. But the feeling of actual commitment came to me late. I was working as a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre. I had just turned thirty. Writing poetry was concurrent with a theatre practice but definitely secondary. I was walking to the theatre, under the railway bridge above Dupont, and I noticed something about the dirty metal bridge and the winter light and had a banal but profound revelation that something about this experience (walking, breathing, looking at the old bridge and the cars sliding under it, looking at the light) could only be expressed in poetry. That was the thing that could carry it. So that was it.

ALU: If you had to pitch your featured poem to someone who had never read poetry before, how would you do so? What kinds of things do you think the new-to-poetry reader might find fascinating about it? What could you share about the poem’s writing process?

Kate Cayley: My poem, “Mary Shelley at the End of Her Life, Recalling the Monster” is just what it sounds like. Mary Shelley, dying of brain cancer, thinks of her younger self imagining the monster, and the relationship between women and monsters, between the creator and the created, and what responsibility the artist has toward what they imagine. What if the invented creature shows up on your doorstep and demands an explanation? It’s about philosophy, eighteenth century proto-feminism, Romantic reactionaries, sex, birth and death. The poem came about when I was asked, in 2018, to be part of a group of female-identified playwrights commissioned to write on Frankenstein for the acting students at Simon Frasier University. I hadn’t read the book in twenty years. I was amazed by how much it stood up to scrutiny and also what a mess it was: the work of a brilliant teenager trying to figure out the world. How much it’s grappling with colonialism, with the hubris of “scientific frontiers.” With the body as a territory to be mapped. Mary Shelley is a sharp critic and an ideologue whose revolutionary preoccupations get in the way of her characters. Yet there’s so much there. She was writing it as a young girl who’d just lost a baby and was married to a genius self-involved aristocratic brat. He was a great poet but also a pompous melodramatic walking catastrophe. She wrote while perhaps wondering if she’d made a terrible mistake. And she never created anything that good again. I tried to get all that into the poem. So I like to think the poem is a huge drama in a very small space. A compressed explosion.

ALU: What’s a poetry collection or individual poem that you’d recommend to anyone looking to get into poetry?

Kate Cayley: This Be the Verse by Philip Larkin, also known by the first lines. They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do. It has broad appeal and it’s bluntly funny. I love it even though I’m quite close to my parents and they fucked me up less than some other parents I can think of. I quote it to my delighted children who agree with it even though they need to change it to mum and mum, which ruins the rhyme scheme.

‘Mary Shelley at the End of Her Life, Recalling the Monster’

From Kate Cayley’s collection Lent.

I wrote myself into the pristine hysteria of a young woman
that summer when it rained and rained.

Dodged a series of nightmares which sought to swallow me up.
In the end, it was I who ate everything and swelled accordingly.

That summer I was the conduit for the electricity of great men
And conveyed them on their journey towards one another.

I was set at liberty, which meant sitting in a chair waiting for the rain to end.
The neighbours peered in with spyglasses, hoping for the great men, who chased

Laudanum visions up and down the stairs while I dreamed relief: the destruction
Of the drawing rooms and staircases, the great men dashing themselves

On the shoals of their understanding, the afterbirth floating in the chamber
Pot, slopped into a hole by the midwife, earth kicked over it, the treatise

On political economy or religious freedom and the flat gravestone of my mother
That I would lie on, imagining her body under it. But all this was arid.

After so much unhallowed fornication, on gravestones, staircases, braced
Against the backs of chairs, pregnancy made me, I assumed, a woman.

But nothing of womanhood made sense.
What to do with the death I’d birthed?

When I dreamed now
It was of a figure with a face seen only by lightning.

A composition of parts, no more a man
than I was a woman.

It lumbered toward me. The creature had found me out. I thought
We had an understanding but he accused me of carelessness.

My folly as commonplace as the great men’s, that I thought
I could draw borders on another, circumscribe a territory

That fitted my dream. He showed me his scars, confessed to standing at my window
Sick with longing. I was taken aback. We took tea.

He held a perfumed handkerchief to his nose. I began to itch in the nethers.
He asked me to dance. When I offered to show him my own stitches

He demurred. Fair enough, I thought, nothing wrong with modesty,
Though I resented, slightly, his more visible seams. Still
We jigged with vigor.

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Kate Cayley is a poet, playwright and fiction writer. Lent is her sixth book. She has won the Trillium Book Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry for the title poem in Lent, and been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the K. M. Hunter Award for Fiction and the ReLit Award for both fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Poetry, Best Canadian Stories, Brick, Electric Literature, Joyland, and The North American Review, and her plays have been produced in Canada, the US and the UK. A tenth anniversary edition of the award-winning short story collection, How You Were Born, is forthcoming from Book*hug Press in 2024. She lives in Toronto with her wife and their three children.

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Remember, if you purchase a copy of Lent or any of the other featured Try Poetry collections, you’ll receive a free digital sampler containing all of our featured poems. (Purchase from All Lit Up or from your local independent bookseller; send proof of payment to if you purchase from your local!)