Katrina Naomi

An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett

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Katrina Naomi is a poet, teacher, mentor, translator and critic.

Originally from Margate and having lived in London, she now lives in South West Cornwall. Katrina has a PhD in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths and her poetry has appeared on Poems on the Underground and on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and Poetry Please.

She has three collections. The latest is:

Wild Persistence for which she received an Authors’ Foundation award, and of which Liz Berry comments, These are beguiling poems of letting go, of moving into a new light and a new landscape. Yet always the suggestion of wildness moves beneath them, the uncanny or darkly elemental ever present and waiting. Katrina Naomi’s eye is sharp and her voice fierce and lively. Wild Persistence is published by Seren, June 2020.

Katrina tutors for Arvon, Ty Newydd and the Poetry School.  www.katrinanaomi.co.uk

Maria Isakova Bennett: I’m so looking forward to this interview, Katrina. Although I don’t expect you to remember, we first met via an online Exeter course just after I had completed part of an OU degree about 12 years ago. Following this, or just before, you gave me advice on two batches of poems really building my confidence. All of this was before my MA, so before we start, I want to thank you for your teaching and encouragement, and I wholeheartedly recommend your teaching to others.

For the purposes of our interview, I’d firstly like to ask you to talk a little about your teaching/ mentoring – the many forms it takes and how you manage to ensure writing time for yourself despite such a generous and busy schedule.

Katrina Naomi: Thank you, Maria. I suppose like a lot of people, I was really worried when everything I was due to be working on collapsed last March but now I seem to be running a lot more workshops, though money’s pretty tight. Yesterday, I was asked to run a masterclass by Arvon, so I’m planning that today and tomorrow, as well as a workshop for the Poetry School, one for a lovely group of poets in North Cornwall and another that I decided to run on my own, to see if anyone would book for it – I’m amazed that it’s all but sold out in three days. I also put out a monthly poetry newsletter ‘short & sweet’, which over 500 people have subscribed to. I’ve always enjoyed attending workshops and I love seeing people’s confidence grow when I’m teaching or offering people mentoring. I’ve been lucky enough to have some tremendous mentors in the past – and I’m being mentored by a poet I really admire at the moment. I think it’s important to keep learning, to keep being challenged and to keep reaching for new things as a writer. I like running workshops and mentoring others but I also make sure that I plan my week so that I’ve enough time for my own writing and reading, otherwise I think there’s a danger of getting burnt out and you stop enjoying it, if you’re teaching too much with no time to focus on why you started writing in the first place. Do you know what I mean?

MIB: I certainly know what you mean. It’s very important to create a balance but I suppose it takes time to establish the right mix. I think that what you say is probably a timely reminder to many of us. Running a Masterclass for Arvon sounds wonderful. I’ll look out for that and spread the word. I know that you also collaborate with other creatives. I was fascinated by your collaboration with Tim Ridley at Brisons Veor for instance. Can you tell us about how these collaborations stimulate new work or sustain your writing?

KN: Hey thanks. I love collaborating with other people. I also collaborate with other poets and visual artists. I like how they force you into new subjects and ways of writing, and also ways of creating – with the residency at Brisons Veor we made a film together about our project ‘an hour from here’. I’d not made a film before; it was fun to do. Collaborations always give me a lot of energy. I began a new collaboration with a poet I love last year, we’re still going strong, swapping images and poems to respond to. We’re wondering if this collaboration might form the basis for a new pamphlet from the pair of us…We’ll see. Next, I’d love to collaborate with dancers, that would be amazing.

MIB: I was listening to your interview on Sound Cloud for the Poets Café KPFK, and you were talking about the importance of mystery in poetry, and about the cusp between mystery and clarity. Around the same time, I was reading some of Edward Hirsch’s thoughts on these ideas. He says, ‘I’m looking for a poem where the surface is clear, so you don’t have to guess what’s happening, but it deepens your experience in the world, which actually becomes stranger and more mysterious over time, rather than more familiar. In other words, I want total clarity in the dramatic situation of the poem, but a deeper sense of mystery in terms of what it reveals about the world.’

In your interview, you mentioned the importance of mystery in drafting/writing a poem; I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about how you as a writer might permit mystery to enter your poems and how you make a decision about how much mystery to include when the poem is redrafted?

My ref: (24:15 Line between mystery and clarity)

KN: I didn’t know that Hirsh statement, thank you for sharing that. I love doing radio and podcasts and great to do that interview from my little room, here in the far west of Cornwall and speaking to poets in Los Angeles. Just great. Yes, going back to that point in a poem between accessibility and mystery. For me, if everything in a poem is as plain as a plate, then what’s the point of it? It’s a bit like an artist painting a bowl of fruit, without any abstractions, without anything of themselves in it. Why do that? For me, the mystery bit isn’t necessarily a conscious thing, it tends to be something that I find that I’ve written that surprises me – and often a part of a poem that I’m not quite sure about. I’m becoming more confident in trusting the strangeness, when it appears, and going with it, pushing it even, seeing where it takes me.

MIB: I agree about the mystery. I always wondered about ideas around planning for novel writers too, and I arrive at similar thoughts to what you mention: if everything is planned why bother? I’m thinking about your development and wonder at this point if you could tell us a little about your decision to research for a PhD? What might a PhD offer in terms of development for a writer that might not be achieved by carrying on writing independently? It would be lovely if you could talk a little about your experience of your course and the theory/ practice divide in a Creative Writing PhD?

KN:  This might sound daft but I think it goes back to me being told by a teacher that I’d be ‘lucky to get a job on the checkout in Tesco’s’ (that’s to take nothing away from people who work in supermarkets, they do a bloody amazing job, one we’re mostly just waking up to). I think this statement says more about that teacher’s views on class and how she judged me, coming from a council estate in Margate. When someone has prejudices about you, you can go one of two ways – you can become the sort of person that teacher thinks you already are, or you can think ‘I’m going to show you.’ I chose the former for a while – and got expelled from school – then I decided to see where education could take me. As for what a PhD can offer for a writer, for me, it was about pushing myself as far as I could go. One of the most important lessons was on my first meeting with my PhD tutor Stephen Knight, when he said ‘OK, I’ve read your poetry, I’ve seen what you can do. Now, what else can you do?’ He really pushed me, encouraged me, made me go beyond my expectations. It was hard and I was really quite anxious about the academic side of it but I worked and worked at it, and I honestly enjoyed it. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – I was often being told (by another tutor) that my academic writing sounded like I was ‘chatting to someone down the pub’. Sometimes, you need to take these things on, why should I have to write using a language that isn’t mine? The best advice I’d give anyone who wants to do a PhD is, try to get some funding and make sure that you’ve chosen a topic that will sustain and surprise you. Mine was on violence in contemporary poetry, it’s available online.

MIB: Thank you so much. It sounds as though you had a stimulating experience and akin to how it seems post-graduate research should be. Well done on showing that teacher how wrong she was! You manage such a wonderful creative output in addition to teaching/tutoring/mentoring as mentioned earlier, and you have 3 collections and 4 pamphlets published over the past 11 years. I wonder if you could say something about how the start of a book, particularly a collection, might come to you. I know that some writers write toward a theme. It would be lovely to hear something of the genesis of your collections especially Wild Persistence.

KN: Thank you, Maria. Wild Persistence came out in June, mid-lockdown, which was tough, given how much this collection means to me. Usually with a collection, I just write without too much thought as to where the poems are going. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that? Perhaps I should say that I always have a theme in mind? I don’t. I write a lot. Most of it never goes anywhere but I like having a large number of poems to play around with when I’m starting to think about what the collection might look like, when I’ve got them all jumbled on the floor, like a giant jigsaw. Wild Persistence is the first collection that was written in Cornwall. Moving to Penzance has been such a happy move for me – I’d never planned to leave London but my landlord had other ideas – sometimes out of difficult times, you land on your feet.  I began to find themes emerging with the poems that would become Wild Persistence – themes of distance – both geographical and emotional – and closeness, as I moved away from London and embraced what lay ahead. It’s a happier, more celebratory collection than some, although (as with most of my poetry) there’s also a dark edge. I think it’s my strongest, perhaps boldest, work yet. I’ve had some great reviews for it, the Poetry Book Society said lovely things about it. I was really chuffed. Helen Mort says Wild Persistence is ‘Funny, moving, surprising, unflinching and, above all else...joyous’. And Liz Berry says: ‘This is a collection to win readers and then pull the ground from beneath them’. I also write about love in Wild Persistence – something I’ve found almost impossible to do before. I think there’s a greater freedom living in Cornwall and this has also found its way into the collection. With pamphlets, I do tend to write with a theme in mind. My most recent, Typhoon Etiquette (Verve Poetry Press, 2019), was written in Japan (after I received Arts Council funding to walk in Basho’s footsteps and meet the Japanese poet Itō Hiromi, among others). Japan was amazing, I’d love to go back. I’ve also published pamphlets on the Suffragettes and the Brontës, which have both come out of residencies, the former at Gladstone’s Library, the latter at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

MIB: I like that you admit to your way of bringing together a collection. Thank you. It’s so interesting too to think about the different ways a collection and pamphlet might come together. I love Wild Persistence, fitting for these times – celebratory in many parts– something to remind us of what we had and hope for again. I loved hearing you read from it in summer and tried to pick out favourites but there were too many, each for different reasons, and for the subtle darkness. In Wild Persistence you talk of leaving London and how you ‘…cried and cried at leaving you,’, but, ‘…I’m sorry/ dear London, it’s over….’ [London: A Reply], and you decided in University that you ‘...do not want to look up to an aluminium/ balcony ever again. Give me windows/ I can open….’ When you moved from London and settled in Cornwall, I wonder, can you tell us - What did you find particularly unsettling/ comforting? I’m thinking of both letting go of things that mattered in city life, and of adapting to new rhythms and priorities that may be open to you such as nature and the seasons.

KN: I’d had no intention of leaving London but circumstances led otherwise. I was initially anxious about moving to Cornwall, worried that I might not make friends, or that Penzance would have no multiculturalism whatsoever. I shouldn’t have worried. I’ve made brilliant friends here and I feel I’ve been embraced by Cornwall. I’ve been learning Kernewek (Cornish) for 5 years now and much as it’s bloody hard, it’s important to me. Whenever I’ve lived in a new country, I’ve tried to learn the language. Cornwall does have a different culture to England and I’m still learning. In terms of what I miss from London, it’s the Poetry Library, the British Film Institute, South Indian restaurants and Carnival. Penzance has a lot of great festivals – pagan and drunken – though sadly, not this year. I’ve found one South Indian restaurant in Cornwall, nowhere near where I live but I love going there, when I can, usually when we’ve taken the train and gone on a big walk (we don’t have a car). I walk everywhere, I’ve always been a big walker. What I love here in Penzance, apart from the people, is that I can walk to the moors in half an hour and I’ve got into swimming year-round. I swim most days – and all of this swimming is finding its way into my writing at the moment. I also volunteer for Cornwall Wildlife Trust, swapping my 50s frocks for wellies and muddy waterproofs. I love the seasons, I even love the storms. I feel incredibly lucky to live here and to have been accepted by so many wonderful people.

MIB: I love that you enter so fully into all you do. Learning Kernewek from the little I have seen of it certainly looks demanding, but I have seen your progress occasionally via social media. Well done! It’s been so good to talk to you about all aspects of your work, Katrina. I feel sure that your energy and drive will be inspiring to others and I certainly recommend your poetry, particularly Wild Persistence to those who don’t know your work …and to those who do! Thank you so much for sharing so generously here.

Further links to Katrina’s work and teaching:

Poets Café on KPFK: https://soundcloud.com/poetscafe/katrina-naomi-poets-cafe-kpfk-9202020

Collaboration with Tim Ridley, Brissons Ver: https://www.katrinanaomi.co.uk/an-hour-from-here/

For mentoring from Katrina: https://www.katrinanaomi.co.uk/mentoring/

The Girl with the Cactus Handshake, published by Templar, Nov 2009,was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award and received an Arts Council England writer’s award https://www.katrinanaomi.co.uk/the-girl-with-the-cactus-handshake/

The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, published by Seren, April 2016, was chosen by Foyles’ Bookshop as one of its Foyles Five for poetry  https://www.katrinanaomi.co.uk/the-way-the-crocodile-taught-me/