Katrina Naomi on finding permission to write, violence in poetry, and what makes a happy life
When I was a child my mum used to read me The Cat in the Hat, which I loved. I also remember Now We are Six by A. A. Milne. I don’t think I knew this was poetry. But I wouldn’t say this got me into poetry at all. I remember hating it at school, finding poetry really boring, and very male, with nothing I felt I could relate to.
I began writing short stories in my late 20s. I was trying to write crime. My writing was pretty terrible. The stories were all girl meets boy, girl murders boy. I went on a short story writing weekend and wrote a poem by mistake. I had no idea it was a poem. I thought poetry was upper class crap. But the tutor suggested I enroll on an evening class and learn to write poetry, so I went to a class at the City Lit lead by the wonderful (late) Julia Casterton and began reading poetry.
The first poems we looked at were by Sharon Olds and Mark Doty. I remember Sharon Old’s poem, ‘I Go Back to May 1937’. The tone, the content, the everything of this poem. It hit me emotionally. I hadn’t read any poetry since school. The Doty poems were from his collection, Atlantis. Again, it was the emotion which connected with me. I didn’t know poetry could be like this. I remember their poems completely transforming my ideas about what poetry was and could be. I was smitten.
I was enabled to write about violence by Olds’ poem, ’I Go Back to May 1937’. The poem is not particularly violent. But it gave me a sense of permission. That resonant final line appealed, shocked and delighted me in equal measure.
I began reading and writing poetry in my early 30s, so I hadn’t been writing for very long when I won the Templar Poetry Pamphlet competition in 2008 with Lunch at the Elephant & Castle. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that that phone call changed my life. Publication made me take my writing (and possibly myself) more seriously. I was mid-way through an MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths at the time. I decided to take voluntary redundancy from a job I loved (I worked in human rights) and to focus on my poetry. It’s the best decision I could have made.
Templar went on to publish my first full collection, The Girl With the Cactus Handshake, in 2009. I remember being terrified before that collection came out. I think it was all the talk about how important a first collection is, how it gets built up. I felt incredibly exposed. Of course, that’s just your ego throwing its weight around but I didn’t know that at the time. My partner had to talk me out of pulling the book because I felt so anxious about it all. And then it was shortlisted for the London New Writers award. I was so happy and amazed.
I wrote my second collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, while studying for a PhD at Goldsmiths. It is a very personal book. I was attacked as a young woman and was writing my way through some of the issues that the attempted rape threw up. My PhD was on violence in poetry, (Beyond Gentility: Violence in the Poetry of Sharon Olds, Pascale Petit, Peter Redgrove and Robin Robertson) so the two issues melded.
I was enabled to write about violence by Olds’ poem, ’I Go Back to May 1937’. The poem is not particularly violent. But it gave me a sense of permission. That resonant final line, ‘Do what you are going to do and I will tell about it,’ appealed, shocked and delighted me in equal measure. The poetry appeared to deal with issues that resonated with some of my own experiences. It allowed me to start to make my own way in life, and reassess my childhood and my parents.
My mother, sister and I lived under the regime of a psychologically – and at times, physically – violent step-father. He controlled our lives through threats, the provision or withdrawal of money, and the fear that he would hit our mother again if we did not do as we were told.
My step-father’s abusive and bullying behaviour was something my sister and I were forbidden to discuss. Reading Olds’s and then Petit’s poetry in response to their families’ behaviour encouraged me to consider aspects of my own background as subjects for poetry. My mother only told me about my step-father’s cross-dressing shortly before her death – this was a huge family secret. While there is no taboo for me about transvestism, writing poetry about this aspect of his life, along with his violence, has been difficult because I am breaking a family code. Even though he is dead, and my sister welcomes my writing about all aspects of our lives, referring to his behaviour still feels like a betrayal.
Virtually every saint that I can remember seemed to meet her death via her eyes being gouged out, her breasts cut off or, as with my namesake, having her bones broken on a giant, spiked wheel
Prior to my mother’s relationship with our step-father, we had been brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition with its focus on guilt, patriarchy and obedience. Stories including grisly torture and death scenes are commonplace for young Catholic children, especially for a child with an inquiring mind and a love of reading. Virtually every saint that I can remember seemed to meet her death via her eyes being gouged out, her breasts cut off or, as with my namesake, having her bones broken on a giant, spiked wheel. In Catholic churches, statues of saints tend to be near-lifesize and colourful, blood oozing from wounds. Even when the images are small, as in the Station of the Cross, they are gruesome and pervasive. As Catholics, we also came to eat and drink what we believed to be the blood and body of Christ. I attended a convent until the age of seven and was physically punished by the nuns for various misdemeanours, so violence was part of my belief system as a young child. This was compounded by my mother hitting my sister and me when we misbehaved.
I was also aware from a young age of the potential for violence in the street. One man tried to force me into his car at the school gates and another tried to grab and kiss me when I was on the swings. The first local murder that I remember was of a teenage girl, her body left on the fields along my route home from school (I was five). I knew that men were ‘dangerous’ and that women were hurt by their husbands or partners. The first time I was aware of any danger to my mother was when she had a new (violent) boyfriend, John, when I was about nine. Some of these episodes may not be especially unusual occurrences for a child but I was sensitive to them. I later learnt that my mother had been raped as a young woman by a co-worker. I went on to be attacked in the street several times, and my sister left home to marry a violent man.
From my late twenties, I worked in human rights for thirteen years, commissioning and editing reports on genocide, war, torture, rape and racism in various countries, while also being the organisation’s gender officer. Violence, its impact and its aftermath, its countering and its prevention, became part of my career.
Despite this, my interest in violence is not something that troubles me, or should, I believe, trouble anyone else. As Eavan Boland states, ‘[A] woman poet […] has an obligation to tell as much as she knows of the ghosts within her’. Several of my violent poems, such as ‘Crocodile’ and ‘The History Teacher’ have a sense of fun. I enjoyed writing those poems, and found them liberating. I am reminded of Peter Redgrove’s quote, ‘if you know your dark side you have a fair chance of being human’.
The Way the Crocodile Taught Me is a book I am proud of. I’m pleased that I was able to include personal poems, especially those which draw on that sexual assault. Writing things ’aslant’ is an important way of working for me, it enables me – and other writers – to express things we might not otherwise be able to. I’ve been very heartened to hear from readers who say that some of those poems have helped them to think about, or write about, sexual violence that they have experienced. I don’t regret anything of that book.
I moved from London to Cornwall in 2014. I feel a greater freedom now, and my writing reflects this. There’s perhaps more space in it and dare I say a little more wildness?
As Eavan Boland says, ‘A woman poet … has an obligation to tell as much as she knows of the ghosts within her’
My third collection, Wild Persistence came out in June 2020, in the middle of lockdown, so I still haven’t been able to read from it in public, in the flesh, which I’m longing to do. It’s the book I’m most pleased with. A lot of the poems draw on Cornwall (but not necessarily in a way that will be obvious to anyone else). But that’s where the ‘wild’ comes from. I’m also negotiating distance – distance from what I knew and from what I’ve come to love – both geographically and emotionally. There are a lot of poems about relationships. I think Cornwall is seen as a person in a lot of these poems. And I’ve been able to write about love in a way I’ve never managed before.
Amy Wack really helped me with nerves when I was handing the manuscript in. I felt so close (and involved) with the poems I honestly had no idea whether the poems were any good. She helped me with my confidence when I started questioning every poem, she told me that she loved them and refused to remove to any of the ones I wasn’t sure about from the manuscript. Now, I know she was right. I do feel it’s my strongest collection yet.
During the UK lockdown of 2020 I started collaborating on a project with Helen Mort. It began as a way for us to reach out to each other and keep writing during these strange, stagnant times, sending writing prompts and visual images from Penzance to Sheffield and Sheffield to Penzance. We weren’t thinking about publication, only experimentation and enjoying the process. Same But Different will be launched on 30 September 2021, and offers a year of poetic dialogue, friendship and sisterhood.
I can write anywhere. I often write outdoors, at least to get things drafted, or some ideas down. Most of the time I write at my desk at home in Penzance. I’m quite a disciplined writer, I write most days and I definitely don’t wait for inspiration, it’s just a matter of sitting down and getting on with it. I write most mornings, after I’ve swum in the sea. I tend to start with a word, or an image or an idea that interests me and write to see where it will go. I suppose I write to find out what I think about things, or sometimes, even what I don’t yet know about something. If I knew where a poem was heading, that would be boring, both for me and for a reader.
If the poem is a commission, then I tend to do a lot of research and a lot of free writing. Otherwise, I just sit there with a bit of an idea and bash out a very rough first draft – always by hand. I then rewrite it twice, at the same sitting. Then I put the poem away for a couple of months before typing it up. I have a couple of poets that I workshop poems with, and I’ve been a member of Falmouth Poetry Group since I came to Cornwall. It’s always good to see what others make of a draft. I’ll then begin editing. Most poems go through quite a few edits over a number of months. I can think of about three poems that have come fully formed. They’ve all been really short and I’ve not trusted them, because they’ve come so easily. But I’m learning now that sometimes poems that feel as though they’ve just appeared should be trusted, because they’re on the back of a lot of hard work. I write a lot, and I jettison about half of it.
Sometimes a form begins to make itself heard even during a first draft. I always listen out for this. I’ve become far more interested in form. Wild Persistence has a variety of more formal poems – including rhyming sonnets and a ghazal – and another form I made up to explore ideas of dualism. I remember writing the poem ‘Dualism: A Manifesto’ (in Wild Persistence) and knowing that I was writing different sides of myself, different personalities, and examining how class has impacted on me and continues to impact on me. This dualism form suggested itself early on, so I went with it. But I’m not interested in making the content fit a form. The content always comes first.
It’s important that poets are paid for their work, otherwise poetry will just be something for the middle classes. I want to see real diversity in the poetry world
I was working for an international human rights group – as editor and gender officer – before moving to writing full time. When I was a child, I wanted to be a dancer. I still love dancing but I wasn’t good enough to dance professionally. I think if I weren’t a poet, I might be a potter or a sculptor. Now I scrape a living from poetry. I don’t have another job. I love what I do but there are times I wish there was more support for poets in the UK. I’ve recently become chair of the Society of Authors Poetry & Spoken Word Group. We campaign on rights (and money) for poets. It’s something I’m quite passionate about. It’s important that poets are paid for their work, otherwise poetry will just be something for the middle classes. I want to see real diversity in the poetry world.
Defining what success in poetry means to me is hard, and something I struggle with, if I’m being really honest. However far I come in my writing, I know that I always look to go further. Now that can be seen as a good thing, in terms of not resting on laurels, but it also leads to disappointment, when you don’t win that prize or get chosen for something. So I suppose success in poetry, for me, is in the writing, in turning up at my desk and getting on with it. And enjoying that process. Obviously if that leads to your book being shortlisted for something, or winning something, so much the better. And I always make sure I mark every prize or accolade, it’s great to mark these things. But it’s also important to keep your feet on the ground and not to believe the hype. It’s important to keep writing, to keep reading poetry and to enjoy other things in life too. I’m a big lover of sea swimming, dancing, film, art, jazz and walking. These and my partner and my friends are also key to a happy life.
Pre-order Same But Different, by Katrina Naomi & Helen Mort (Hazel Press, 2021) from the LRB Bookshop here.