Northern Poetry Review: Archived

Interview: Leigh Kotsilidis (2011)

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By Ingrid Ruthig

Leigh Kotsilidis grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario. LeighKHer poems have appeared in several literary journals including The Fiddlehead, Prism International and Prairie Fire and been anthologized in the publications I.V. Lounge Nights, This Grace, and The Hoodoo You Do So Well. In 2009 and 2010 she was a finalist for the CBC Literary Awards. A co-founder of littlefishcartpress, she currently lives in Montreal where she works as a freelance graphic designer while completing her MFA in Studio Arts at Concordia University. Her first collection of poems is Hypotheticals (Coach House Books, Toronto, October 2011).

Ingrid Ruthig interviewed Leigh in October and November, 2011.

According to the cover of Hypotheticals, this collection challenges the infallibility of science and those who “lean on it” as a metaphor to explain the world. It opens with echoes of the Big Bang Theory and “if a tree falls in the forest” via a comic quote from English novelist Terry Pratchett — “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded” — and the first poem “Origins”, which speaks of “the inaudible bang.” What set you on the road to binding poetry to science? And what were you looking for? When you began to write poetry, did the work already contain telltale signs of where you might be headed?

It wasn’t anything in particular that led me to binding science with poetry. I think it happened over time and naturally. I have always been inquisitive and interested in how and why things happen, it only seemed natural that I would extend this question into the world of science, but at the end of the day I’m not all that interested in sticking to the hard facts. I think this is why I end up using what I learn in my creative endeavours. I’m more interested in speculating on how theories and ‘truths’ might play out in our daily lives. It is in how we apply the information constantly buzzing around us that seems more relevant and revealing to me than the information in and of itself. A sort of blurring occurs between facts and personal stories, which leads to another type of truth or meaning. I definitely didn’t start off writing poetry asking these questions. I was a typical teenager when I first started writing poetry regularly, so I was probably asking questions about why so and so didn’t like me, and likely through a series of depressing, angsty and sentimental clichés.

That whole process of questioning and seeking understanding is part and parcel of a writer’s make-up. And I noticed that questions appear consistently throughout this collection. They remain for the most part unanswered and, it seems to me, they challenge a reader to examine herself IN the world, rather than just looking at the world. How deliberate was your approach? Or was it a matter of the focused subconscious lifting something unexpected to the surface during the artistic process? Did you discover anything startling along the way?

It makes me happy that you gleaned these notions of questioning and scrutiny from my book. I’ve been wondering lately if my project was a bit too subtle. Anyhow, I would say that my desire to have people examine themselves in the world was deliberate, but only to the extent that this is something I’m always thinking about and aspiring to do. I’m interested in how people see themselves in the world and how they construct personal meaning. I often think we rely too heavily on institutional knowledge for our values. To question these things also means questioning ourselves. I didn’t consciously set out to write poems about these specific things or with an explicit agenda, but I think my own preoccupations naturally emerged. I can’t think of anything particularly startling I discovered along the way, though, the adult cecropia moth doesn’t have a mouth to feed itself, its sole purpose being to reproduce. Some might consider this fact startling?

Well, if not startling, it’s certainly intriguing and rather odd in a world where eating is necessity driven and rewarded by pleasure. Another pleasure, at least for me, is play with language, and it permeates the poems of Hypotheticals. Strong images are combined with sound, and some will be familiar to readers. You often utilize idioms, such as those found in the poem “The Way the Cookie Crumbled” which lists common expressions, or in “Best Foot Forward” where “In a dog-eat-dog world, / straight from the horse’s mouth: / civilized dogs are top dogs.” Yet at times, you give things an unexpected twist – for example, in “Diagnoses”, “You say the road ahead / is marrow” and in “Making a Comeback”, “Around every end / there is chase. A turn of evens”. Usually, poetry is less about chance than the deliberate; each component gets weighed for impact, then accepted or rejected. What appealed to you about choosing everyday elements of speech and sometimes turning them on their head? How far are you willing to experiment with or push the form/language / meaning envelope? While you are writing, are you always aware of the possibilities of shaping image and music?

What appealed to me most about using everyday elements of speech in my poetry was based on a couple of reasons. Like I said, I’m interested in the everyday, in how people express themselves, often more profoundly than we realize, using common language. I think that too often we dismiss the meaning of what people say because it is expressed ineloquently or without sophisticated language. This is a real problem for me. I think everybody has something interesting and smart to say; it’s just sometimes a matter of listening a bit harder. My poems are often playing with notions of the profound and the mundane by using everyday speech combined with the rhetoric of science. I’m not sure if this leads to absurdity, but I hope not. The second reason I like to use idioms in my poetry is an interest in putting commonly used figures of speech into a context, which draws the reader’s attention to their literal meanings. There are so many expressions in the English language that we only use in a figurative way. Some of these expressions, if we look at them literally, make very little sense in the actual context they’re being used. By turning these expressions on their heads, so to speak, I’m attempting to redefine the figurative by first pointing out the literal. In terms of experimentation with form/language/meaning, I’m open to pushing it even more than I did in Hypotheticals, though I would say that I’m not willing to sacrifice all meaning for an experiment in form and language. Meaning is important to me, even if the meaning ends up being somewhat elusive. I think in every case my poems have a message or theme they’re trying to get across, though admittedly sometimes that message is meant to be confounding. And yes, I think I’m always aware of the image and music of my poetry. This is where it gets tricky — the fine tuning of images and music without getting too far away from the meaning.

You also work as a graphic and installation/animation artist. Strong images, coupled with sound and movement, appear throughout your poetry. Coming back to the poem “Diagnoses”, the lines “Night // scrapes by on its poles. Swans / launch into flocks of bicycles”, caught me, and I stopped to listen, then to visualize and savour the images. For you, how does the visual inform or play off the auditory, or vice versa? Do you feel there is, or can be, a fruitful exploration of the overlap between various media, say, between language arts and visual arts? Or do they remain fairly separate things for you?

Huh, that I combine the world of sound with visual imagery is an interesting observation. I have always been sensitive to the sounds in my environment. In fact, I moved away from Toronto (years ago now) because I was starting to have sensory overload. I think I regularly relate to the world through sound, as well as visually. For me they are nearly always inseparable. For example, I can’t hear a lawnmower without visualizing it, nor can I visualize a lawnmower without hearing it. I imagine this is true for a lot of people; it’s just a matter of paying attention to this. From this point of view it makes sense that these two perceptual experiences would often be fused in my poetry. Even so, I’m still not sure how my art practice, specifically my stop-animations and installations relate to my poetry (or vice versa). Over the years, I have come to recognize some thematic parallels — for one, I can say that they’re both speculative — but during the process of creating the works themselves, it feels very different. In fact they almost seem like opposite processes to me: writing feels a bit like taking the literal and making it figurative, whereas, visual art feels like I’m taking the figurative and making it more literal. This isn’t to say I’m not interested in the intentional overlap that can happen between various media. I actually really admire artists, writers, musicians, scientists, et cetera that have successfully integrated perspectives. Christian Bök and Daniel Barlow are two such creative people that come to mind. Maybe at some point my work will naturally move toward a more integrated aesthetic, who knows?

For a few years now, as you have been developing your poetic voice, you have worked closely, as both poet and publisher, with three friends — Jeramy Dodds, Joshua Trotter, and Gabe Foreman — each of whom has also released a first collection. Can you describe what you have shared as a group, and how you have influenced each other over time? As an individual, how would you like to see your work develop? In other words, what’s next?

Yes, over the years I have worked closely with Jeramy, Josh and Gabe, mostly editing each other’s work. More recently Linda Besner and Daniel Renton have, on occasion, been involved in these editing sessions. It’s been an amazing experience to work with all of these poets and I owe so much to them. I think all of our work has benefitted from working together, which may have something to do with our approach to editing. We often spend an hour or more going over one poem. We discuss at length possibilities and we all bring something slightly different to the table. At times these possibilities are disparate, but that’s the advantage of working with more than one editor. I recognize that our situation may be unique and pretty special, as working with even one editor can be difficult. But I think why it works for us is we all have such deep respect and admiration for one another so we don’t let our egos get in the way during the editing process. I often wonder if this would be the case if I were to work with another group of poets. It could be that we found one another at a crucial time in our writing lives. I think we’ve grown a lot together, or at least I feel that I have. It’s true though that we’ve also spent a lot less time editing together over the past couple of years. We haven’t all lived in the same city for quite some time now, either that or have spent extended periods away from one another, which has meant (for me anyway) sitting with poems for a longer time before they go through a group editing process. This has had some real advantages. In part I’ve realized that I’ve somewhat internalized Jeramy, Josh and Gabe’s editing voices — they’ve become a part of my process. As a result I would say that I’m a sharper editor of my own work. But, I also recognize the potential limitations this can have on my work. Time away has allowed me to take things a bit further away from what I was doing before. Presumably the same is true for all of us, so when we do get back to the editing table, we’ll all have something new to offer one another. Right now I’m working on a sequence poem, or maybe it’s an experimental novel in verse — it’s hard to say yet. In any case, it’s tentatively titled Flukes of Nature and is still looking at science as metaphor, but has also broadened its scope to include other classifications of ‘knowledge’ as metaphor. It’s been fun and it keeps me open to a lot of different topics.

Author: Alex Boyd

Alex Boyd is the author of two books of poems: Making Bones Walk and The Least Important Man. He also writes essays, reviews and fiction. His first novel, Army of the Brave and Accidental (a modern retelling of The Odyssey) was published in 2018.

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