Hi Katrina. You’ve got a new one-day workshop with us coming up called ‘The Bloodjet: Violence in Poetry’. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Yes, I’m really looking forward to it. For me, the idea of violence as a suitable subject for poetry was a reaction to the cute and the comfortable in poetry. I think one of poetry’s jobs (if I can put it like that) is to reflect the world we live in. And if we’re going to write about violence then I want us to write about it well. The day certainly won’t be all doom and gloom, and we’ll be learning from some excellent contemporary poets, people I really admire.
You’ve also got a collection just out with Seren, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, which seems to be richly bound-up with violence too. The poem Willpower, for example, concerns living in fear of an abusive stepfather.
The Way the Crocodile Taught Me was just published in April. It does contain quite a few ‘violent’ poems. The collection has two main concerns regarding violence – violence in the family (specifically from my step-father) and violence on the street (specifically sexual violence). People seem to have picked up on the ‘Willpower’ poem, I’m glad about that, it was quite a tough one to write and also I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on the title poem, which responds to being playful about sex and relationships after an attempted rape. It’s probably my most personal set of poems to date. It’s interesting, other people have picked up on the humour in the book. While I knew the collection would have an undertow of violence, it has a lighter side too.
What has been the experience of putting together a collection like this?
I wrote The Way the Crocodile Taught Me as part of a creative writing PhD at Goldsmiths. Stephen Knight was my creative supervisor and he really pushed me to visit and revisit issues I thought I’d finished with or thought I couldn’t – or, perhaps more honestly, wouldn’t – write about. It was a hard collection to write, seeing as I was revisiting some pretty tricky situations from my and other people’s lives. But Stephen was brilliant to work with and I’m glad I stuck at it. I probably wouldn’t have written a lot of these poems otherwise. One thing I would like to say, writing a collection like this isn’t cathartic – and that isn’t why I write – it was emotionally pretty draining. And I read and re-read the poets Sharon Olds, Pascale Petit, Peter Redgrove and Robin Robertson while I wrote the collection, they were my guiding spirits. It took me four years to write and I’m pleased with it.
In your PhD thesis, ‘Beyond Gentility’, you write of the “double gender and gentility bind on poetry”. Have you found you’ve had to fight against these attitudes?
Last week, someone said ‘I suppose these are all feminist poems?’ in a way that was clearly meant as a put down. Male poets don’t get that sort of thing thrown at them. And I have had people express surprise that I’m interested in violence, as if it’s a weird issue for a woman. If anyone would like to read more about this, my PhD thesis is online. I’m waiting to see what reviewers will make of The Way the Crocodile Taught Me. I hope we can move beyond that dreadful tag ‘confessional’, and discuss the actual poetry as well as some of some of the collection’s themes.
I’d like to put to you a question that you once asked Robin Robertson: “has there been anything you’ve written and you think, no I really don’t want to go there?”
Yes, plenty! Sometimes I’ve gone there anyway – I’m not always convinced that you get to choose what you write about – and I think it’s worth going with where your writing takes you. You don’t always have to publish everything that you write. And you might just surprise yourself. I have gone on to publish poems, including in this new collection, which I thought I wouldn’t dare to. And I feel a lot more comfortable with that now.
I don’t think you do. I’m happy to write about the Kray twins’ violence, for example, based on stories people told me. I think if you have empathy you can write about whatever you want. Obviously not everyone’s going to like what you write and the reaction to Plath’s ‘Daddy’ concerns her taking on of a Jewish identity, one that she couldn’t possibly own, and this was compounded by racist language, something I’m certainly not going to be in favour of. Otherwise, another of poetry’s jobs is exploring things, living vicariously if you like. I’ve written poems about being a murderer, for example, why not?
Following on from this, does writing about violence invite the personal?
Yes, it does but not exclusively. There’s still plenty of room for making things up. But I think the main thing for me is if you’re going to write about violence, do it well. Let us smell it, taste it.
How can writers be more honest in their depictions of violence and its place in our lives? Is it a matter of choosing less comfortable subject matter, the habit of ‘staging’ things that it’s tempting to put off-stage, or something else?
One thing that I’ve been interested in is the extent to which men write about violence that has happened to them. Quite a few female poets have written about physical violence that they or other people have experienced – take Kim Moore, for example. When it comes to sexual violence, I might think of Moniza Alvi or Pascale Petit. It’s harder to think of male poets writing about sexual violence but a few are, Richard Scott comes to mind, as does Mir Mahfuz Ali and Sam Willetts’s wonderful poem ‘Caravaggio’. So things are shifting, I sense more openness and I welcome this.
Of course, the opposite of reticence in this situation is gratuitousness. When – if ever – is violence in poetry gratuitous?
The question of what is gratuitous is all down to taste. Robin Robertson, for example, has been accused of being gratuitous, usually in response to his poem ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’. I think it’s a fantastic poem. I only have a problem with violence in poetry when it’s teamed with misogyny or racism or homophobia. I can certainly think of poems that are violent that I really dislike or find offensive on those grounds.
Violence in poetry is often used to shock – can it serve other purposes? Humour, perhaps?
I interviewed Sharon Olds about poetry’s ability to shock. I loved her response – that people can choose to be shocked, or not. On the question of humour, some of Peter Redgrove’s poems contain humour and violence, ‘At the Cosh Shop’ is one of my favourites. He’s such a good, and frequently underrated, poet. I’ve learnt a lot from him. I’d love to think that some of his approach surfaces in my poetry.
Is violence missing from contemporary poetry? Is there, do you think, a tendency to shy away from it? And if there is, why do you think that’s the case? Is it a problem?
Well I can’t help thinking that some people still feel violence, outside of war poetry, isn’t a suitable subject for poetry. Some people want their art to be pretty comfortable, so yes there can be that tendency to sidestep violence as a theme. There aren’t many taboos in poetry, at least I hope not, but one of the issues we seem to still find difficult is writing about our own acts (or thoughts) of violence. I’ll look forward to discussing this, and other such topics, at the workshop.
And what’s next for you in your poetry?
Well at the moment, I’m reading at quite a few festivals and will be launching the new collection with Seren in London on 17 May. But I’ve already started work on what I hope will form the basis of another book – picking up on themes of silence and when to break it. And I’d love to go to Japan. I’ll let you know if that idea gets off the ground.
Katrina Naomi is a poet, tutor and poetry mentor. Her second full collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, was recently published by Seren. Her 2015 pamphlet Hooligans, (Rack Press), was inspired by the Suffragettes.
Her poetry has appeared in ‘The TLS’, ‘The Poetry Review’, ‘The Spectator’, and on Radio 4. She received a PhD in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths in 2014 and an award from the Royal Literary Fund. In 2015 she became a post-doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths and was made a Hawthornden Fellow.
Katrina’s first full collection, The Girl with the Cactus Handshake, was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award and received an Arts Council Award. She was the first writer-in-residence at the Bronte Parsonage Museum. Katrina is a previous winner of the Templar Poetry Competition. She is a lecturer at Falmouth University and runs Poetry Surgeries for the Poetry Society.