August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Katrina Naomi by Fauziah Ahmed
1. What was the first poem you read? How did it affect you?
I remember doing some poetry at school but I didn’t like any of it, I really couldn’t see the point of it, except for ‘Beowulf’ – although I didn’t realise this was a poem. I saw ‘Beowulf’ as a story and really enjoyed the monster and the gore of it. I was probably about 7 or 8. The first poem that I would say really affected me was Sharon Olds’ ‘I Go Back to May 1937’. It was read to me by the late Julia Casterton – a wonderful teacher – I was probably about 30 and I remember thinking, if this is poetry, then I’m interested. I loved, and still love, the dare of it, the sense of ‘I’.
2. Did you always want to be a poet? When did you know that you wanted to be? When did you start calling yourself a poet?
No, I didn’t have any interest in poetry until that tutor suggested I’d written a poem on that short story course. And I didn’t think poetry was remotely interesting until I heard of Sharon Olds. I wouldn’t say that I knew then that I wanted to be a poet, but ‘I Go Back…’ ignited something in me, something I knew I wanted to explore. It’s hard to say when I was brave enough to start calling myself a poet, I still sometimes say I’m a writer – it seems easier and I worry that people may think I’m pretentious. Still, it’s something that we all have to just get over. I probably started calling myself a poet with just that bit more confidence after I won the 2008 Templar Poetry Competition and my first pamphlet Lunch at the Elephant & Castle was published.
3. How do you support yourself financially so that you can write?
I took voluntary redundancy from my gender officer job at a human rights group back in 2007. I had a few problems with the director and also saw it as a time to focus on my writing and see if I could do anything with it. Because I’d been there 13 years (part-time), I received some redundancy money that I eked out over the next few years. I’m good at living frugally! I was also lucky enough to get two paid writing residencies recently – at Hartlepool Art Gallery and at the Brontë Parsonage Museum – and again, I’ve been spreading that money out, if rather thinly, ever since. I teach creative writing for the Open University and poetry for Goldsmiths, and that pays my rent. I also run workshops for the Poetry School and other places. And I do some film extra work, which is good fun and I often get to read lots, because there’s so much sitting around. But I’m first and foremost a poet, while I enjoy teaching, I don’t want to do too much of it, I need to keep selfish – and ensure I’ve got the time I need to write. Writing has to come first and money’s something I try not to worry about.
4. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/from memory?
I usually write first thing in the morning in my room, although I’m happy to write anywhere. If something bad is happening, then I do write about it at the time. I’ve found myself thinking, oh I might get a poem from this, if nothing else. Not great to admit to, but it’s the truth. I also write about previous events. For example, I’m writing about my step-father quite a lot at the moment, writing primarily about my teenage years, so yes, a lot of looking backwards, which isn’t always so healthy. I also take myself off on writing retreats to spend a week or more on my own, where I write, read and walk. These retreats are really important to me. I try to do one or two a year, whenever I have the money. It’s great to be alone, with no internet or phone, or commitments.
5. What inspires your poetry the most, and why? Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?
When I’m stuck for something to write, I read. Peter Redgrove’s poetry usually helps provoke fresh ideas. Failing this, I’ll go to an art gallery or head out walking on my own. Certain types of art – and dance – have a freedom that I find really attractive and allow me to see things in a different light. I also like working in collaboration with others. Currently, I’m working with the visual artist, Tim Ridley, on ‘The Argument: Art V Poetry’
I’m responding to his artwork within a 2 week timeframe, so this is making me write far quicker than usual and setting me certain topics, or ways of looking. I like the challenge. I’m also writing a ‘poetry conversation’ with Judy Brown, in which we pick up on something from each other’s poem and respond with a new poem. We’ve been doing this for almost a year, and this has taken me into quite different territory, which has been great. In addition, I write quite a lot about my hometown, Margate, and my upbringing. I have a love-hate relationship with Margate and it keeps pulling me back. I also write about some of the violence I experienced as a teenager, this is something that I keep exploring, whether I like it or not, and is forming the backbone to my creative PhD.
6. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?
Blimey, that’s a tough one. I’d say that you could express exactly the same emotions in a painting or in contemporary dance, say, as you could in a poem, providing you had the expertise. Still, a poem’s something that you can easily carry around with you, either in your head, if you have a good memory, or in your pocket.
7. ‘The New World’: can you retrace your thought process when writing and/or editing this poem?
I drafted this poem really quickly while on the Jerwood-Aldeburgh week-long poetry seminar, with the tutors Michael Laskey and Peter Sansom. That week was a brilliant experience, with great tutors and great poets. One day we were asked to submit a poem for a game that night in which we all had to guess who had written which poem. Now, because we’d all been together for the best part of a week, we were beginning to recognise each other’s writing styles and subject matter, so I decided to write something that day that I hoped was quite different to my usual style. ‘The New World’ was the result, although the first draft had a really boring title, ‘Sophie’s Caravan’, I think it was. Not many people guessed it was mine and I realised I rather liked it and decided to keep working on it after the Jerwood-Aldeburgh week. It already had something of a Latin American theme, albeit mixed in with Margate! I tried to up the Latin America and lessen the Margate. It went though many, many drafts and ended up being one of my favourite poems in my first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake. It felt like a breakthough poem, one that enabled me to begin to forge a new direction.
8. What keeps you writing and sharing your work in a society that listens less each day?
Well, on one level, it’s not something I have much of a choice about. I write, it’s what I do. If I don’t write, I don’t feel right. Also, I want to improve as a poet and to do that I need to keep writing and reading other people’s work. And also, I enjoy it. Performing is also slightly scary but a lot of fun – and you get instant feedback, so I can tell if a new poem’s ‘working’, or not.