INTERVIEW by Kate Hamer

NWR Issue 101

Interview with Katrina Naomi

Katrina Naomi’s poem, ‘The Woman Who Walks Naked’, is published on 1 September in NWR 101

NWR: Tell me about the concept of ‘the collection’. Yours include The Girl with the Cactus Handshake (short listed for the 2010 London New Poetry Award), Lunch at the Elephant & Castle (winner 2008 Templar Poetry Award) and Charlotte Brontë’s Corset. Does each collection have its own driving force, a centre around which all the poems are based? Is the collection a device for showcasing individual poems? Or is it more fluid than that – with one collection ‘flowing’ into another.

KN: If I’m honest, for the first book, Lunch at the Elephant & Castle I just put together my best poems and went from there. While I wanted each poem to ‘talk’ to its neighbours, there wasn’t any great concept, I’m afraid, more of a snapshot of what I was writing back in 2004-8. The Girl with the Cactus Handshake and Charlotte Brontë’s Corset are quite different. I worked really hard on the organisation of Cactus. It has three distinct sections: the natural/the city, questioning the differences between the rural and the urban; the sea/Margate (the sea’s really important to me as I grew up in Margate and write about it a lot), and darkness/light, poems which deal with darker aspects of the human psyche. The pamphlet Corset contains some of the poems I wrote while writer-in-residence at the Brontë Parsonage Museum – so they have a Brontë theme. There is now a force driving the way I work, which can be quite annoying as I find myself having to throw out poems I really like because they don’t fit that particular book – but I do think this makes for stronger collections. And I hope I’ve become a little more sophisticated in how I construct a collection. Stephen Knight, my tutor at Goldsmiths, told me that a poetry collection should be like a single poem. I like that idea and that’s what I’ve been aiming for with the new collection I’ve been working on.

NWR: The title poem of The Girl with the Cactus Handshake contains a very powerful central image: the hand metamorphosing. This sharp spiky hand is a fascinating image – was it one that you carried around in your head for a long time before writing the piece? Or once the image had ‘arrived’ did you feel the need to write it immediately? The first stanza of the poem references a painting with flat colourful images and shapes, indeed the whole poem is incredibly visual. How did you come to write it? You’ve run workshops specifically on writing from artworks: do particular ones inform your work? What does visual art bring specifically to poetry?

KN: I took myself off to Spain to write for a while and there was this huge cactus in a lemon grove. Every time I sat down to write, I couldn’t shake the cactus from my head. This may sound daft, but it was almost like the start of a relationship. I felt I needed to go and write by the cactus. I used to visit it every day and my imagination took over, it was like it was trying to tell me something. Well, that does sound a bit mad, but that’s the truth of it!

You also asked about the visual. I came to art before poetry. I remember a school trip to London when I was about twelve to see an exhibition of the Impressionists. I’d never really seen any art before. Margate was a bit lacking in that sort of culture – art wasn’t really something I was aware of – and I was completely uninterested in poetry; I didn’t get into that until I was about thirty. But that exhibition opened my eyes to a new way of being, to colour, and, I suppose, to ideas. But it’s not something I ever thought someone like me could do. Art and poetry were for other people.

Now, I enjoy painting, drawing and just messing around, though poetry always comes first. I’m inspired by all sorts of art, in the same way I’m inspired by all sorts of poetry. And I like collaborating with artists. I recently worked with my partner, the visual artist, Tim Ridley, on a sequence, which we called ‘The Argument: Art v Poetry’. We gave each other two weeks to respond to the other’s work, continuing until we had a sequence of five poems and five drawings/photos/collages. We didn’t allow any discussion as to what any of the work meant, you just had to go with it. I got a lot out of that, and we were chuffed to bits that the Poetry Café in London exhibited the results earlier this year.

NWR: Following on from that image of the spiked hand – you are currently completing a PhD at Goldsmiths in creative writing with an interest in ‘violence in poetry’. I find this absolutely fascinating. Often poetry is celebrated for its lyricism, and indeed your work often has a lyrical quality to it, such as in ‘New World’. Perhaps poetry isn’t the first place to which one would turn to explore violence, that might be other media such as film. How does poetry compare to other media in its treatment of this subject?

KN I’m really enjoying my PhD. It involves looking at violence in the work of Pascale Petit, Sharon Olds, Robin Robertson and Peter Redgrove – imagery and content, as well as gender issues. If we’re interested in reflecting or reinterpreting the world around us in our poetry, then violence plays a role just as love does. So yes, poetry feels a pretty natural place to find violence. And if you think of it, poetry has always been ‘violent’ – just look at Ovid or Homer or Beowulf. Some people do question whether violence is a ‘natural’ thing to write about, yet very few people would question whether a novel, for example, or an art work, shouldn’t discuss violence. Why should poetry be any different?

NWR: You’ve just finished a residency at the Gladstone Library in Hawarden, Flintshire, and have been writer in residence at other institutions, such as the Brontë parsonage. In such residencies, which have most impact on your work: the building, place, the people you encounter or the connection with other writers who’ve been there?

KN: Place is really important to me. I love London, where I now live, but it’s always great to go elsewhere and see if I write differently there, especially in more rural settings. And the best thing is that you can just really get on with it on a residency. Gladstone’s Library, where I was writer-in-residence there early this summer, is a good example. They just leave you alone to write in this wonderful place, where the library is fantastic. I went with a vague idea of researching about the Suffragettes for some poems. Two weeks there and I’d drafted a sequence of thirteen poems, which I’m editing at the moment. So residencies seem to really work for me.

I’ve been lucky enough to be writer-in-residence at other places too. At Hartlepool Art Gallery, I wrote poems in response to a series of portraits, which became part of their exhibition. And the Brontë Parsonage Museum residency at Haworth, West Yorkshire, was quite a turning point. It was meant to be a two-week spell of writing, plus running a workshop for National Poetry Day, but it turned into an on-off residency of nine months. I knew next to nothing about the Brontës before my interview. I think that’s why they chose me, because I wasn’t going to kowtow to the Brontë myth and would have a different sort of take. Thinking about it now, it sounds incredibly daunting but because I didn’t have any pre-existing passion for the Brontës, I was able to do something new and respond in quite a free, personal way. I’m really grateful to the Parsonage that they were open to this. And I ended up working with a brilliant organisation, Together Women, in Bradford, running a series of writing workshops for women who’d had quite difficult lives. I think this was the highlight of that particular residency for me, along with being able to walk on the moors most days. I was given a lot of freedom there and I really went with it, and wrote some poems I’m pleased with.

NWR Relating to your residency at the Brontë parsonage, it seems that it was the Brontës’ personal effects that resonated with you as much as the landscape or history. I absolutely love the line in ‘Charlotte Brontë’s Corset’:
I feel like a tabloid reporter, sniffing around the armholes of your life.
There is a playful feeling in the series of the family’s things having become almost holy relics. In each poem – on Anne, Emily and Charlotte – you end by relating to your own work and thoughts. Was your connection, during the residency, individual to each sister?

KN: I was initially asked to write in response to the Brontë’s effects so this does come through in the poems in the pamphlet ‘Charlotte Brontë’s Corset’ and yes, I did want to play with the ideas around how mythologised they’ve become, as you say, as though all of their things were ‘holy’. There’s so much I could say here but I felt I needed to try to relate to each sister – as well as Branwell and Patrick Brontë – to try to get to ‘know’ them in some way. So yes, I did sniff at their clothes as well as read their work. I said I knew nothing about them beforehand. I read Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall before my interview and that’s still my favourite Brontë novel, especially given its subject matter. It feels way ahead of its time, with themes of abuse, alcoholism and judgements on women. I think Anne’s really overlooked. I didn’t want to see them as ‘the Brontës’ but as individuals who were not only writers or artists. I don’t know whether I’ve achieved that but I enjoyed the whole process. It was a brilliant experience for any poet to have – though I should confess, I still haven’t read Jane Eyre.

You’ve been involved with many collaborations and workshops including Going Public with your Poetry that was part of the Gladstone residency. How much is this public platform important? Do you feel strongly that poetry should have this public platform and a life ‘beyond the page’?

I wish poetry did have a strong public platform. I don’t think it does [at least in England, ED], outside of those of us whose lives are wrapped up with it. I think most people go through life without poetry so much as tapping them on the shoulder. I know I did, until someone read me a Sharon Olds poem. Still, I think the ‘going public’ thing is all quite difficult. As poets, we spend a hell of a lot of time on our own, fiddling about with commas, and then we’re meant to be a larger-than-life character on the stage and be comfortable dissecting our work. The two personae don’t always go together. I’ve come to love performing my poetry and giving interviews, I really do enjoy those aspects now, but that wasn’t always the case. Also, the process of marketing your own work (which pretty much all poets have to do now) can be difficult, especially to start with. I used to feel like I was selling myself, giving too much of myself away, really resented time spent on setting up a website, or tweeting or whatever. Now, I think it just goes with the territory but still I’m always struggling to make sure that this doesn’t take over from the real work of writing, reading and editing. But it can, if you don’t watch it.

I came up with the idea of the Going Public workshop because I meet so many poets who are terrified of rejection so never send their work out, or are really frightened at the idea of reading their work in public. Show me someone who does like rejection! But if you’re going to be a poet you need to develop a pretty thick skin as rejection is something you just have to accept. Obviously it gets a little easier as your work develops and improves (and no doubt because you become better known) but for me, the focus always has to be on the poem and whether it’s any good and then I think about trying to find a suitable ‘home’ for it. I’ve run this workshop in north Wales and Brighton, it’s pretty high energy and I get a buzz out of seeing people’s confidence grow over a day. Maybe we all start out writing for ourselves, writing to find out what it is we feel (and that’s probably what I still think) but we also write to communicate, so if your poems are in a box under the bed, they’re only chatting with each other. I want to encourage people to be a bit less shy and get their work out there.

NWR: I’m always fascinated by imagery both in poetry and prose. Like many writers, I often start with one central image and work around that. It’s interesting that images are so fundamental to literature. Could you describe a little of your own relationship with imagery?

KN: I was talking about this with another artist friend the other day. I think imagery is key to poetry but if you asked another poet, they might say the musicality is the most important. I suppose it depends if you are a visual or a sound sort of person. Much as I love music, I’m very much a visual person. Some of my favourite poets – such as Pascale Petit and Peter Redgrove – are tremendous imagists, and it’s interesting that Petit trained as a sculptor first. But both Petit and Redgrove are inspirational and that’s mainly down to their use of imagery and their daring. I’d like to pretend I’m one of those poets who starts out with a brilliant image, but I don’t. I just stare at the paper and try and conjure things up, try out different ways of ‘seeing’, and then try to bring in the musicality after that. I don’t have any musical training, I was thrown out of music class after the second lesson and I’ve never played an instrument, but I have always danced, so that’s helped me with the rhythm of poetry. But imagery has to come first and if I’m stuck with what to write about, I either read Redgrove or go to an art gallery, that usually gets me started.

I worked recently with a great visual arts group – Accident & Emergence. They asked me to coordinate the poetry side of a thirty-strong poets’ and artists’ collaboration. It was amazing to work with so many different types of visual artists, from photographers to performance artists to film makers. Artists and poets can learn a lot from each other. We had some really interesting conversations about how so many of the artists started with a concept and how so many of the poets just sat and wrote without any idea of where it would go. I’m trying to put a bit more concept into my work now, and will see where that takes me. Conversely, I hope some of the artists might be encouraged to just go with the flow…. Still, some great work came from that project and it was lovely working alongside a lot of poets I really admire.

NWR: Turning to the poem published in NWR’s latest edition (published 1 September 2013), ‘The Woman Who Walks Naked’. This powerfully communicates the desire to be unencumbered. The female figure walks naked without a problem at first, but it’s not long before the spell is broken by the dogs, the inhabitants of the café. There are such strong images in this poem, it reminds me of a de Chirico painting – the heat, the dark shadows and so on. Did the naked figure occur to you first and then you traced her journey back? Or did it start elsewhere?

[KN:] This woman came to me one August in Portugal. The heat was just incredible. Sometimes you’re not quite sure where a character in a poem will lead. She just wanted to throw off all her clothes, so I let her. And yes, it was a very freeing poem to write, as she’s not just throwing off her clothes but trying to be rid of all of the constraints that are placed on her in public places. So yes, there’s quite a lot of metaphor on the go here and your word ‘unencumbered’ is spot on. In writing it, I found myself going back to Spain, where I lived for a while, which was a time of great exploration for me but my freedoms were often threatened by some unpleasant characters – I think you mentioned ‘shadows’. It’s quite a feminist poem. It will be interesting to see what others make of it.

NWR: Your work often appears intensely personal – you write about your family for example. I wondered how much poetry invites this. It could be seen as a form where there is ‘nowhere to hide’. Whereas in prose the personal can be cloaked in ‘story,’ poetry perhaps calls for a starker approach. How does this play out in your own work? Is there some kind of line in the sand that you draw? Or do you believe that to do so would bring a degree of falsity into the equation?

NWR: Yes, I write about my family quite a lot and I do draw on personal experiences. But then these experiences need to be transformed if they’re going to become a poem. I also draw a lot on my imagination. I like making things up. I think the ‘line in the sand’ is different for everyone. I’ve recently written two sequences about two family members, my nan and my stepfather, with whom I have very different relationships. I decided to ask my sister what she thought of the poems. I’m not quite sure what I would have done if she’d said she thought I shouldn’t publish them. They are tricky, I can see that. But I think I may well have gone ahead anyway, because they are as close to the truth, or my truth, as I can get, so I’m glad my sister could relate to them. Memory is a weird thing, full of holes and imagination, and a poem should allow you to breathe – or at least gasp for air.

I haven’t tried to write fiction for years but I did write a play, The Water Skiing Diaries, loosely based on my grandfather’s life. He was quite a character, someone I loved a great deal, despite his extremely dodgy politics. I did feel a good deal more freedom in writing that than if I’d tried to write a poem about some of the events he lived through. I hadn’t really thought about that until you asked this question. So I’m thinking on my feet here, but I feel there is still room for manoeuvre in a poem. I could write a poem loosely based on my grandfather, I could take some of the aspects of his personality and beliefs, and use these as launching pads for a poem, but you are right about the starkness. Poetry needs to be pared right down – maybe unless you are Pablo Neruda – he can get away with just about anything! But for the rest of us, then yes, paring down is essential for a poem to capture an essence, and hopefully to resonate.

Katrina Naomi’s poems have appeared in the TLS, Poetry Review and The Spectator. This summer she was writer-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library in Flintshire. Her latest collection is The Girl with the Cactus Handshake (Templar, 2009). She is completing a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Kate Hamer is completing an MA in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. She won the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition in 2012.


previous interview: Interview with Lloyd Jones
next interview: Hayley Long


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