Katrina Naomi is a poet, tutor and poetry mentor. Her first collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake (Templar 2009) was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award and received an Arts Council England Award.
A second full-length collection The Way the Crocodile Taught Me was published by Seren earlier this year.
Hi Katrina. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest book The Way the Crocodile Taught Me earlier this year. Can you tell us a bit more about the collection and in what ways you feel it is a continuation of or departure from your debut The Girl with the Cactus Handshake?
Thanks a lot. I’ve been working on The Way the Crocodile Taught Me for several years and it’s great to have the collection finally out in the world with Seren. I wrote the book at Goldsmiths as part of a creative writing PhD. I was really lucky to have Stephen Knight as my tutor and he pushed me to write beyond what I thought I was capable of.
There’s a lot on relationships but not in a hearts and flowers kind of way, there’s more of a focus on violence, love and sex. The collection has three sections. The first focuses on issues of family – in all its dysfunction. The second picks up on some on the issues I’ve raised and takes these off in different directions. The third part is made up of one longer poem in which I aim to pull all the themes of the collection together.
The Way the Crocodile Taught Me develops some of the issues of The Girl with the Cactus Handshake – for example, there’s usually quite a lot about women’s lives in my writing – but I think the new collection is braver in a lot of ways (at least that’s how people seem to be reacting to it) and I’ve worked so much harder on making the new collection flow. I wanted the book to read as if there’s a narrative running through it, so I hope that’s how people will see it.
Your pamphlet Hooligans delves back into your family history and is inspired by your great-grandmother who was involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union. Can you tell us a bit more about how the project came about and how much did you have to research into this suffragette movement before writing the poems?
Hooligans was published last year by Rack Press. I came up with the idea for this pamphlet of poems while applying for a residency at Gladstone’s Library. I was really chuffed to be chosen, it gave me two weeks of uninterrupted writing and research time.
I found out as much as I could beforehand about my great-nan’s involvement with the WSPU, although to be honest, because she was a working class woman, there wasn’t that much to go on beyond what my nan had told me, but I worked with what I had as well as researching other, far more famous, Suffragettes.
I really enjoyed writing about my great-nan, Eliza, as well as other working class Suffragettes. A lot of the WSPU’s methods, both of political activity and of gaining publicity, were way ahead of their time.
I understand you were involved in a writing residency on the Isles of Scilly towards the end of last year which resulted in you writing some new poems. Can you tell us a bit more about how the residency came about and what for you were the highlights of your stay there?
I always find writing residencies really inspiring and the opportunity to write on the Isles of Scilly was just wonderful. I had started researching poets and poetry from Scilly, and Goldsmiths (I’m a post-doc researcher there), offered me the chance to go.
I live in Penzance in the far-west of Cornwall and hear the Scilly Islands’ ferry leave every morning, yet had never been to Scilly. It felt like a mythical place. I went in winter, with brilliantly stormy weather, which suited me just fine as I find it so much harder to write when it’s sunny (I want to be out walking and exploring).
I wrote a lot (not always in response to Scilly, I often found myself writing about other issues entirely) and I’ve just begun sending some of these poems out to magazines. I’m went back to Scilly recently to work with the Five Islands School, which was a new departure for me.
Judy Brown discussed in her Poetry Spotlight interview how in recent years she had collaborated with you in a task where you wrote poems back and forth to each other in a call and response fashion. I’m curious in what ways you feel you benefited from this exercise?
Well I’m a huge fan of Judy Brown’s poetry. Collaborating with her has been great. Our poetry is quite different and I think we’ve both found that really useful as we’ve sort of ‘tricked’ each other into writing on themes we might never have chosen to write on.
I love the idea of writing really quickly in response to whatever art postcard Judy sends me, as well as in response to her latest poem. I also like the fact that neither of us is fussed if the resulting poems are good or not, we’re just both quite geekily into the whole process of it, and we’ve also become really good mates, which is lovely.
I do like collaborations. I’ve just started two new ones – a collaboration with a film-maker and another with a flamenco guitarist. These are both very new collaborations and I’m pretty excited by them. I hope they’ll both lead to new work and some fresh kinds of performances, though that’s part of the joy of them, you never quite know where they’ll take you.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed recently or are looking forward to?
I’ve been to quite a few festivals and run quite a lot of workshops recently. I’m really grateful for all of these opportunities. Still, I think the highlight poetry-wise was reading at Ledbury alongside Sarah Howe.
I’ve just had a couple of great bookings through for next year too which is exciting.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
‘Concrete Overcoat’ is from The Way the Crocodile Taught Me. I’m interested in violence and gender in poetry, and the poem runs with some of the stories I was told about the Krays as a child. I grew up in Margate, in Kent, a lot of my family are Londoners, but I could never understand the fascination for the supposed ‘glamour’ around the Krays.
I was told Ronnie and Reggie used to start
at the feet and work their way up,
bulges rising in their matching trousers,
that they took such care not to splash
their suits, their matt black shoes,
as they mixed and shovelled, as they thundered
wet stones and sand over ankles, legs and chest,
arms and neck. I was told how their victim’s
pleas were drowned by a larger mouth,
its heavy tongue slopping round and round,
while the twins sculpted the man’s hair
(grey overnight) to a perfect quiff –
just like Ronnie’s. Was told how they set
each eye, the colour of steel, how they funnelled
liquid concrete, the steady porridge of it,
into a throat: like an Aztec pouring
molten gold down a gullet;
a farmer force-feeding a duck.