Judy Brown and Katrina Naomi: ‘Loyal to the letter’

When poet Katrina Naomi wrote to let us know about the role that the regular exchange of poems by letter plays in her friendship with fellow poet Judy Brown, we felt sure that Something Rhymed readers would be interested to hear about it too. Here, they share their thoughts in our last guest post of 2017…

If the stamp escapes franking, an increasingly shabby envelope can travel between us for months, ferrying cargoes of new poems, images and a letter.

We met a dozen years ago in London, bonding over confessions of how much we wanted our poems to be good – and to publish. For years we met monthly to share vegan cakes, new work and discuss what we were reading. When Katrina moved to Cornwall in 2014 we reluctantly gave up the cakes but added the Post Office into the familiar mix – along with an agreement to write a brand-new poem each month in response to one written by the other.

Judy Brown – image by Colin Francis

We quickly became addicted to the process. We found it so fruitful that we added a second, more visual, conversation in which we exchange images to write from, again on a monthly cycle. We also critique a batch of each other’s poems each month. The envelopes keep getting fatter, and tattier.

We’re loyal to the letter, only using email when we’re abroad. Plotting the trajectories of our poem exchanges would require a moderately complex SkyMap: Japan (Katrina has just returned from an Arts Council-funded project); Grasmere (Judy spent a year as Poet-in-Residence at Dove Cottage); Hong Kong (Judy’s old home); Katrina’s residency at the Arnolfini (Bristol) and the Brontë Parsonage (Haworth); and our residences at Gladstone’s Library and Hawthornden Castle (but at different times) – plus London, Derbyshire and Cornwall.

Katrina Naomi -image by Tim Ridley

We were both committed letter writers before we met, but our poems and our processes differed considerably. They still do, despite the transference of ideas such a long-term collaboration catalyses. Yet if something gets skimped from the envelope, it’s the letter not the poems.

This is partly because the poem exchange is also an exchange of information. And it’s exciting – not just because of time pressure and the surprising (and often uncomfortable) triggers, but also because of anticipation about what the other will come up with. Sometimes what our poems have to say is pure trickery or excitement about technique. They may spin off of current preoccupations or whatever we’re trying to hit in our own process.

It’s great to have a trusted recipient for this, but even better to have one who lobs back something fresh and alive in answer to our own puzzles, poetic and personal. It can be a refutation or refusal of a technique, a subject or a pronoun – you never know what’s coming! But you know you have to respond to the other’s poem and visual image, whatever you’ve made of it, mostly because of our shared urgency to write but also because we promised.

Both our recent second books contain many poems which have emerged from this deadly serious game.

Deep familiarity with each other’s process and the differing ways we transform material has increased our respect for each other’s work but our critiques aren’t soft. As friends, we may know a little too much about the underlying raw material, but that too helps us see what’s a real poem and what’s just diarising.

Sometimes the line blurs for us – is this two women talking or something more impersonal, two poems talking to each other? Do we care? Not really, as long as we get a proper meet-up once in a while and can go to the pub or on a walk, have a dance or a curry, leaving the poems behind for – well, at least for a couple of hours.

Crowd SensationsJudy Brown’s most recent poetry collection, was published by Seren in 2016.

Katrina Naomi’s most recent collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me,  was also published by Seren in 2016.

Final Salon in this Something Rhymed Series

We had another full house last night at our second Something Rhymed Salon, when we talked about the devaluing of so-called women’s issues. Our speakers fed us a gloriously varied platter of food for the mind, and the conversation continued over madeleines, sparkling water and plenty of wine.

Emily and I were pleased to welcome both men and women to our shindig, and we were particularly happy to hear people comment on the friendly atmosphere created by our fantastic panellists: Arifa Akbar, Sarah LeFanu, Karen Maitland and Michèle Roberts.

Do join us for our third and final salon, next Thursday May 12th at 6.30pm, when we’ll have an equally stellar line-up:

Melanie Abrahams: Founder of Renaissance One – a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts.

Jill Dawson: Orange Prize shortlisted novelist.

Louise Doughty: Costa Award shortlisted novelist and former Booker Prize judge.

Varaidzo: Arts and Culture Editor at gal-dem – an online magazine comprising almost fifty women of colour.

To grab a place, please email us at SomethingRhymed@gmail.com.

Something Rhymed Salon 3 p1 flyerPlease click on the image below to enlarge:

Something Rhymed Salon 3 p2 flyer

Something Rhymed Salon 3 p3 flyer

Michael Caines to Speak at First Something Rhymed Salon

Introducing the final guest in Thursday’s line up: Michael Caines.

Michael Caines

Michael works at the Times Literary Supplement. He has edited an anthology of plays by eighteenth-century women, and written a book about Shakespeare and the eighteenth century. He is currently working on a very short book about the failings of literary prizes. Perhaps he’ll reveal more on Thursday!

Something Rhymed is keen to include both men and women in the conversation about gender equality, and, in order for the salons to be more than just talking shops, it’s crucial that we have panellists who have associations with some of the publications that appear to come out poorly from the VIDA survey.

Emily Midorikawa will be hosting this salon at New York University London, and I will be chairing the discussion between Michael Caines, Maggie Gee, Harriett Gilbert and Salena Godden.

Please join them and us this Thursday for drinks, snacks and fruitful conversation.

  • Salon One:VIDA Count 
  • Thursday April 28th, 6.30pm-9.00pm 
  • New York University in London, 6 Bedford Square (Gower/Bloomsbury Street side), WC1B 3RA
  • Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road. Holborn, Russell Square, Goodge Street and Warren Street are also close by.
  • Disabled access and facilities. Please do let us know if you have any access needs.

RSVP: SomethingRhymed@gmail.com