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Verse Stories: interview with Catherine Smith

Hi Catherine. You’re teaching a course this Autumn 2014 called ‘Verse Stories’. Tell us more about it.

Catherine: I’ve always been drawn to narrative in my own poems – I wrote short fiction first, poetry afterwards, so it seemed a natural progression – and  whilst I enjoy and admire all sorts of poetry, I feel most at home with narrative. So I want to explore different types of ‘narrative’ in poetry – including monologue; I’ve taught some day schools around this subject before and people who signed up seemed to get a real buzz out of them, so I’m hoping this course will also prove stimulating. I’ll use examples of different types of ‘narrative poems’ and encourage people to explore them, and perhaps use some of the devices/structures in their own work. But I don’t like to be too prescriptive, so it won’t be a case of ‘Now write your own version of this poem…’

Is it true that your favourite poetry quote is “A poem is a novel without the waffle” – Ian Duhig?

Catherine: I do love that quote. I’m also very fond of ‘Poetry is devil’s wine’ (St Augustine), and ‘Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat’ (Robert Frost).

Where do you find your stories? Do you have any regular inspiration sources?

Catherine: Anywhere and everywhere.  Being nosy and easily distracted plays a big part, I’m sure.  I was giving blood yesterday and, underneath the stern gaze of the chief nurse as I clenched and unclenched my thigh and buttock muscles (don’t ask), I was thinking, a blood doning session would make a great opening scene for a story about someone with a horror of needles….I also like odd stories in the paper and often eaves-drop in cafes and waiting rooms. I am shameless.

A lot of your poems work so well as stories and contain really vivid narrative moments (I will never forget the one about a burglar listening to Radio 4). They would work very well as mini-radio dramas. Have you thought about adapting them?

Catherine: Thank you. I am writing a radio drama at the moment and have several ideas for adapting longer narrative poems for radio drama. I am a big believer in literary recycling – some of my poems have also been explored in short fiction, and vice versa. When I write, in the very early, dreamy, messy, scribbly stages, I’ve stopped imposing ‘genre’ on myself – I just go with the idea and see what happens. It’s much more fun and very liberating. I’ve never defined myself as ‘purely’ a poet, or a short fiction writer, or a dramatist, so it feels natural to start with an idea or image or sound or whatever, and see where it takes me.

When did you first start writing poetry? What brought you to it?

Catherine: I was seven and, after a class trip to see Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle, our teacher instructed us to write a poem about it. I don’t think much was offered in the way of poetic technique, etc. I used every adjective I could think of and she was very impressed, and the poem was published in Teacher’s World (now The Teacher) and I remember feeling very pleased to see my words neatly typed on a white page. After that I wrote poetry all through junior school – not so much at my academic high school, where a poem was mostly something to be dissected and analysed, although I was lucky enough to benefit from the Poetry Society’s ‘Poets In Schools’ scheme for one dazzling, memorable workshop. What brought me to it… I preferred my imaginary world to the real one (still do!)

Are you a prolific writer? What’s your writing routine like?

Catherine: I try to write or edit most days, even if it’s just tightening a line or making a few notes on where a piece of work might go, but it doesn’t always work. I prefer a notebook to start with and lots of freely written images and impressions, or a random first line. I wish I was more disciplined and less easily distracted. I’m better in the mornings than the afternoons, and sometimes late at night can be liberating for the imagination. I teach quite a lot during term time, and try to strike a good balance between teaching and my own work, but I must confess it doesn’t always work.

What have been some of the stand-out moments in your career as a writer?

Catherine: Listening to my radio play, Jellybelly, broadcast on Radio 4, in 2006. Reading at Aldeburgh and Latitude. Being a guest on The Verb – I’m a huge fan of Ian McMillan.

Who are some good fiction writers that you’d seriously recommend that aspiring poets should read?

Catherine: Where to start! Margaret Attwood, Margaret Forster, Anne Enright, Ian McEwan, Jean Rhys, Sarah Waters, Ros Barber,  Arundhati Roy, JG Ballard, John Lanchester (The Debt to Pleasure is brilliant and beautifully written), Maya Angelou, Philip Roth, Jess Richards, Patrick McCabe, Sarah Hall…

What would be the first line in your imaginary autobiography?

Catherine: “Why are you reading this?”

One of the things I like best about your poems is how you balance humour with often quite dark and serious subject matter. Is this voice instinctive or are there controls you use to make sure your poems don’t get too light or too perverted? What’s the key to getting the tone right?

Catherine: I think the voice probably is instinctive and I try not to self-censor too much – I have stopped analysing my own work, that way madness lies.

It’s interesting that you haven’t written more prose poems, given strength of narrative and sentence structure in a lot of your poems…

Catherine: There are some a few prose poems in each of  my collections. I love the form and admire it when it’s done well – see Patrica Debney’s How To Be A Dragonfly (Smith/Doorstop) – would like to write more prose poems. It’s on my to-do list…

Who do you show your work to before you send it out?

Catherine: I am lucky enough to know some very good poets who are willing to cast an eye – Ros Barber, John McCulloch and Clare Best are my regular go-to ‘early editors.’

Your work is wonderful to read aloud. Do you enjoy performing?

Catherine: Thank you, and yes, I love it – especially now that I’m so short-sighted that I can’t see the audience!

The title poem of Otherwhere felt like a breakthrough. Is this an important poem to you?

Catherine: Yes, because it was much more experimental and risky than my ‘default’ style. A friend had a grand mal seizure, just after we’d been discussing the seemingly random nature of horror and accidents, and something clicked – I’d been wanting to explore/write about the experience of being physically present but mentally ‘otherwhere’ (the old word for elsewhere) for a llong time. I did ask my friend for permission to publish the poem, and she kindly agreed (she’s a poet too).

You’ve spoken in the past about how after the success of The Butcher’s Hands you struggled to get new work accepted. I wonder if you had any advice you could share to other poets who might also be suffering a confidence crisis in their craft?

Catherine: Kick yourself up the bum and get on with it. Don’t read anything about poetry publishing until you’re through the dark wood and out the other side. If it all feels too much, down tools and do something completely different for a while – learn a new skill or go on lots of long walks.

What are you working on at the moment?

Catherine: I’m re-drafting a radio play script and fiddling about with the final edits for a long narrative poem, The New Cockaigne, which will be published by Frogmore Press later this year. It’s part of a Live Literature project with Lewes Live Literature ( It’s been great fun and I’m really looking forward to working with actors and musicians for live performances (hopefully in pubs).

And finally, are you actually, in fact, Kate Bush? The evidence is everywhere: sexual themes, surrealist gestures, use of multiple voices and characters, colloquial language, domestic detailing, the politics of desire, a fascination with the sometimes scary and visceral underside of life, demons dancing on the living room carpet, etc.

Catherine: I am so flattered I have just exploded.

That’s not a ‘no’ then?

Spend a term channelling your inner storyteller and snuggling up with a good poem or two with Catherine’s new course ‘Verse Stories’. Book here or give us a ring on 0207 582 1679.

Catherine Smith’s first short poetry collection, The New Bride (Smith/Doorstop) was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, 2001. Her first full-length collection, The Butcher’s Hands, (Smith/Doorstopwas a PBS Recommendation and was short-listed for the Aldeburgh/Jerwood Prize, 2004. In 2004 she was voted one of Mslexia’s ‘Top Ten UK Women Poets’ and one of ‘the twenty most exhilarating poets of her generation’ in the PBS/Arts Council ‘Next Generation’ promotion. Lip, (Smith/Doorstop) was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2008. Her latest poetry collection is Otherwhere (Smith/Doorstop) She also writes short fiction and radio drama and teaches for The Creative Writing Programme in Brighton, Varndean College in Brighton, The Poetry School, the WEA and the Arvon Foundation. Her first short fiction collection, The Biting Point, was published by Speechbubble Books in November 2010 ( In 2010/11 she adapted three of her short stories for a Live Literature stage performance, Weight, in collaboration with Lewes Live Literaturewhich was performed to critical acclaim in Brighton, Reading and Lewes. She is currently working on her next poetry project, for which she has received Arts Council funding - a pamphlet-length surreal, supernatural ballad, The Ballad of the New Cockaigne, which will be adapted as a Live Literature stage show in 2014.

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Image: Page from the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, published in Russia,1890-1907.

Image credit: Mary Marget