Her debut collection The Floating Man (Picador 2010) was shortlisted for the Jerwood-Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and won the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize.
Katharine’s second collection The Remedies has been published recently by Picador.
Hi Katharine. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your latest collection The Remedies. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it compares to your debut The Floating Man?
Some first collections are a bit of a menagerie: all manner of things that have snagged one’s attention can find their way in. I think there’s scope for a second collection to be more choreographed. I certainly don’t find myself chasing after every will-o’-the-wisp idea that comes along like I used to. I think I’m saying that I hope The Remedies is a more cohesive book. I suppose I’m also saying that I have become less interested in lots of small ideas and more interested in a few large ones.
The second section features fourteen poems inspired by Dr Bach’s flower remedies. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of these poems and did you originally intend to write a poem for all 38 remedies?
I’m not sure where the thought originated that plants and flowers might suffer afflictions. But it seemed perfectly reasonable for imagination to encompass that kind of empathy.
It’s true – there are 38 remedies! Sometimes this dismayed me and sometimes it made me feel very energised. I never envisaged managing the full ‘set’ – mainly because I was very wary of the poems coming too easily. I didn’t want to start feeling comfortable. I kept on writing them until those little warning lights of familiarity started to flicker. I don’t think you can write a poem if you know where you’re going.
Having said that, I really hope there are more flower remedies to come. But it’ll probably be a good while before I venture near them again.
A couple of the new poems – ‘Brise Marine‘ and ‘El Desdichado‘ – reference the work of the French poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Gérard de Nerval. I’m curious what inspired you to write them and in what ways you feel they are in dialogue with the originals given that they are not straight translations?
Very unexpectedly, the dialogue in ‘Brise Marine’ turned out to be a linguistic one. The thing that delighted me most while I was writing was discovering the possible rhymes and half-rhymes between French and English words.
Who’d have thought ‘coeur’ and ‘more’ would sound so beautiful alongside each other? Or ‘tell’ and ‘seul’ and ‘soul’? In the end it was the sounds of the two languages that became the engine of the poem.
I studied French at university and I suppose it was inevitable that I would find my way back to the poems I loved as a student. But I didn’t write poetry in those days and I wasn’t interested as I am now in looking at poems from the inside.
I wish I could translate but I tried and I couldn’t – which seemed like a good starting point for a poem in itself.
Your poem ‘The Way We Go‘ was featured in the Poems on the Underground series. I’m curious if you got any feedback at the time on how the poem was received and do you have any Poems on the Underground favourites of your own that have appeared over the years?
The poem has been set to music by a composer called Laura Stevens. She saw the poem when she was travelling on the underground and got in touch to ask permission. That was one of the best things that happened.
In terms of personal favourites, I particularly love the Sappho ‘Two Fragments’ translated by Cicely Herbert.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
The Forward Prize readings! It’s extraordinary to be able to hear wonderful poets read their own work for the price of a pub supper.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve chosen a new poem that’s very different from anything in The Remedies – perhaps because it’s important to me to feel that I’m still trying new things. I’m sure Boethius never thought about being marooned in a desert but I was interested in the imaginative possibilities. What would he think he would think about? There’s something in that double conditional… Someone read it and said it was a funny poem but I find it rather sad.
Boethius Imagines the Desert
After he has finished picking the beige grains
from the silver grains he will spend many hours
counting the ups and downs of the dunes.
He will like that they are without ego and plain.
He will look long and hard for shade and stumble
on a spiny bush that bears a fruit he cannot eat.
He will like that he cannot eat the fruit.
He will chew for a while on the sole of his sandal.
At dusk he will potter about barefoot listening
to the one poor bird which will be an owl hunting.
He will like that a bird finds food where he cannot.
He will imagine the taste of owl.
When it is dark he will suddenly remember
Socrates – how he mused for hours on a porch
and missed supper with friends.
He will not like to remember the friends.
In the end he will sit down on the cold hard sand
comparing the word solitude with the word loneliness
and he will think: so this is what thinking is for.
He likes the thought of this thought.