With the publication of her new collection The Way the Crocodile Taught Me imminent in April, Literature Works catches up with Cornwall poet Katrina Naomi.
Your new collection The Way the Crocodile Taught Me comes out next month. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I often write about my own life and this new book, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, is possibly my most personal collection of poetry to date. While the predominant theme is ‘the family’, in all its guises, there’s an undertow of violence to the collection. There’s a lot about women’s lives – the good and the bad. I also seem to find humour in some quite bleak situations.
Did you have a particular approach towards this collection – were you working from the very beginning on a grouped sequence, or did all the poems work their way towards each other? Can you tell us a bit about how you selected the final poems – was that an agonising business?
I wrote the collection over four years. I knew I wanted to write in response to various issues within my family, to break a few silences. And I felt freer to do so, given that my mother, step-father and nan had all quite recently died. While I don’t think you can control what you write, I tried to urge myself into writing in response to particular themes – sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. But if you keep trying on a theme, gradually something seems to come through – often not in the way that you intended, and that can be all the more interesting. As Robert Frost said, ‘no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader’. I wrote the collection while I was studying for a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths. My critical writing for the PhD concerned violence in poetry, so of course, I picked up on this in my own poetry. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems but selecting which poems ‘worked’ and also which ‘worked’ for the collection is quite a different business. I had to discard a lot that I liked because they didn’t fit the themes of The Way the Crocodile Taught Me. I was also really lucky in working with my PhD supervisor, Stephen Knight, at Goldsmiths, who pushed me further than I thought I could go in really opening up in this collection. And yes, making the final selection of what goes in to a collection is always agonising. Still, I’m really pleased with the end result.
For poets who might be beginning to think about moulding their work into a collection for the first time, do you have any advice?
I’d say don’t rush at it. Also be prepared to lose some of your favourite poems along the way. It’s a really good idea to work with an established poet to get some feedback as you go. I think structure is important in a collection. I’ve tried to structure The Way the Crocodile Taught Me to read as if it’s one long poem, albeit having broken the collection into two main sections with a longer poem at the end, which reads as a coda. I want to be taken on a journey with a collection, so I’d advise thinking about the highs and lows of emotion in a collection and where you want particular poems to be placed. Also think about the white space, how do the poems looks on the page – might your reader want some variety of form and subject matter throughout a collection?
It looks like a busy schedule ahead of the launch of the new collection – where can we catch you reading from the new work?
Yes, it’s going to be a busy time but then I love performing my poetry. I’ll be doing launches in Cardiff, Penzance and London, and then reading at several festivals – including Wenlock, Ledbury and Bodmin Moor. I keep my website updated pretty regularly – you can visit my website for a listing of where I’ll be and when.
The cover of The Way the Crocodile Taught Me is very striking. Can you tell us a bit about how this image came to be chosen?
I’m glad you like it! The image is by Gianna Pergamo, a Brooklyn-based artist and illustrator. When I saw the image online, I had a weird feeling in my stomach and I knew that was the one. I wanted something retro-ish, an image that featured a crocodile and ideally a woman – but everything Seren (my publisher) and I kept finding had women standing on crocodiles or taking them for a walks on leads, which felt pretty abusive. I think the cover of any collection is important – it needs to be eye-catching and ideally give some indication of what the poetry might be like. I’m delighted that Seren like the image as much as I do, and that Gianna was happy for us to use it. I can’t imagine the book without it now.
What’s next for Katrina Naomi – what are you working on now, and what can we look forward to?
I’ve been working on a series of poems in response to silence – quite different to The Way the Crocodile Taught Me – so I’m interested to see where these new poems will take me. I also sense a shift in writing styles and think this has come about since I moved to Cornwall over 2 years ago, this might be in response to learning Kernewek (Cornish) but also Cornwall in general – I’m a big walker. I absolutely love Penzance, it’s a great place to live and write in, and Cornwall has a really friendly and inspiring group of poets – including Penelope Shuttle – Penny and Falmouth Poetry Group have welcomed me and helped me to find my feet here.
I’ve also finished my PhD, so that’s a real relief. Doing a PhD was a great experience but it’s also good to have it done – and to be open to new experiences. I’ve just come back from a week’s residency and collaboration at Brisons Veor with the visual artist Tim Ridley – we’re working on an art and poetry project called ‘an hour from here’, I’ll be interested to see where my writing goes as part of this collaboration, we think it might turn into a performance, we’ll see. I’ve also started to work on poetry in translation, (translating a young Mexican poet’s work).
Just finally, can you recommend any new collections by other poets we should check out?
Some of my favourite collections over the last year or so have been (in no particular order): Judy Brown’s Crowd Sensations (Seren), Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade (Chatto), Jack Underwood’s Happiness (Faber), Neil Rollinson’s Talking Dead (Cape) and Rosie Shepperd’s The Man at the Corner Table (Seren). I’d also recommend the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, edited by Sasha Dugdale. Reading poetry from other cultures stops me from getting stale in my reading, writing and ideas. I find it energising – and of course you learn so much.
Thank you, Katrina! All the very best for the launch!
Katrina Naomi was the first writer-in-residence at the Brontë Parsonage Museum and recently writer-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library where she wrote a sequence on the Suffragettes, published as Hooligans. Her debut collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award. Her pamphlet Lunch at the Elephant & Castle won the 2008 Templar Poetry Pamphlet Competition and her pamphlet Charlotte Brontë’s Corset was published by the Brontë Society. She is a Hawthornden Fellow and runs Poetry Surgeries for the Poetry Society. Katrina’s recent work has been broadcast on Radio 4 and published by TLS, The Spectator, The Poetry Review and Poetry Wales. She enjoys performing her poetry and collaborating with visual artists, musicians and film-makers. Her exhibition at London’s Poetry Café ‘The Argument: Art V Poetry’, followed a collaboration with the visual artist, Tim Ridley. She is originally from Margate and lives in Cornwall.
Katrina Naomi’s The Way the Crocodile Taught Me is the eagerly-awaited second collection by this lively and popular poet. With warmth, flair and a certain ferocious wit, Naomi tears into her subject matter: a childhood fraught with dislocation and violence but also redeemed by more tender memories of a sister and a kindly, although at times comically obtuse, grandmother. In the first half we meet the family which also includes: an often glamorous mother, a truly scary stepfather and the sort of relatives where one can expect fistfights to erupt at family weddings. The second half of the book is informed by the tragi-comic events of the first and includes: a bleak hotel, an attempted rape and a description of the sadistic relish
with which the Kray twins dispatched their victims. The Way the Crocodile Taught Me will delight people who know Naomi’s work and undoubtedly win new fans for her courageous and unabashedly entertaining poems.