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.
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.
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.