Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Katie Griffiths

katie Griffiths the attitudes

-Katie Griffiths

National Poetry Competition and Live Canon prize-winning poet, a singer-songwriter originally from Northern Ireland, then Canada, now based in Surrey. Themes of faith, mortality, ageing and wisdom. Deeply personal collection about the body, eating disorders and grief.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I first started writing poetry in earnest when a brilliant teacher walked into an adult education class. His name was Mark Smith, a Bloodaxe poet (The Fabulous Relatives) and the class he taught was a lightbulb moment. Even though I’d studied French and German literature at university, including of course poetry, the methods of approaching it seemed more a superficial hovering outside the work and regurgitation of time-worn critiques. Suddenly, with Mark Smith, poetry and its dazzling possibilities were cracked wide open. The engine was visible. I began to see poetry from the inside out, and became an active participant rather than a passive observer.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I suppose that would have to be my parents, with nursery rhymes and children’s books with infectious rhythmic cadence. Such a childhood imprint was for me, like for many others, crucial.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I went to school in Canada and, during high school, any poets we may have been reading were fully overshadowed by Leonard Cohen’s songs, played to us endlessly by an inspirational English teacher who would get us to read and study them as printed poems. In adulthood I’ve needed to plug gaps in my reading and catch up with the heavyweights. Someone only has to mention e.g. Walt Whitman to send me into a panic. (Note to self: read more Walt Whitman.)

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Ha! Erratic. I’m best in the morning, so if I can at least get drafts done before the chatter and noise of the outside world arises, then I am good. Redrafting and editing can be fitted in at other times.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

How the self negotiates its way through hard fact and hope. Where the so-called ‘real’ world collides with anything that can be labelled as vaguely mystical, sacred, illusory, paranormal. Where salvation is sought – is it outer space (c.f. Jeff Bezos) or ‘inner’ space and consciousness (c.f. Carolyn Myss, David Lorimer). History and current politics also intrigue me: what levels of awareness or social conscience are demonstrated by our politicians? Why or why not? What makes a Ghandi as opposed to a Trump?

6. What is your work ethic?

Accepting that the phrase ‘work ethic’ means an attitude of hard work, it’s perhaps a slightly different question if you are asking what particular ethics I bring into my work. At this stage in my life I am very conscious of the desire to ‘give something back’. This means, more than ever, to find opportunities to work in collaboration. It was a great pleasure last year (before Covid struck) to be poet-in-residence at a healing sanctuary in Surrey. I’ve also loved opportunities of marrying music I’ve written to the work of others to, hopefully, enhance or enlarge it, with e.g. Rishi Dastidar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiFIRKteyBI
and in Helen Dewbery’s film of the poem ‘Moonbather’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qjf0zgJp92g

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

My first reaction was to say, very little! However, the inflections you encounter as a child go very deep. It would be more honest to say that I’m much more influenced by writers I’ve read in adulthood, for example Sylvia Plath, rather than in my youth. And I’m hugely influenced and pulled by what I am currently reading.

8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

It’s very hard to single people out. I think the fairest way to answer this would be to mention those poets whose work I return to because I feel I have so much to learn from them. My copies of their collections are covered with pencil marks as I endeavour to work out how do they do that? At the precise moment of writing, my go-tos for this purpose would be Ilya Kaminsky, Ocean Vuong, Kim Hye-Sung, Geraldine Clarkson. But they change. I’ve also in the same way dipped heavily for endless inspiration into the poetry of Alice Oswald, Pascale Petit, Rachael Allen, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Kathryn Maris. There are writers I admire because they have something huge to say and their poems gather significance and importance across the arc of a collection: Dom Bury, Moniza Alvi, Malika Booker, Alice Hiller, Rishi Dastidar, Jericho Brown. Writers whose work is on my bedside table right this minute that I am loving are: Victoria Kennefick, Mark Fiddes, Julie Irigary, Sarah Westcott.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I have a friend who absolutely does not understand anyone’s need to write. Why sit at a desk, she would say, rather than using that time to acquire more life experience? In fact, the ‘need’ to write poses difficulties as well as bringing joys. On a day where I have penned nothing, I go to bed with a niggle of dissatisfaction. If the fallow period extends to several days or, heaven forfend, weeks, then I feel separated from a vital part of myself. Writing helps to catch a jumble of thoughts and feelings, and hold them up to scrutiny. The vast majority of these scribbles will not become full-blown poems – or full-blown anything – but are vital stepping stones to a potential discovery.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Take up a pen and notebook. Show up at the page, as Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way would say. By all means, attend classes and workshops to understand and be inspired by the possibilities of your art, and to form support networks. I’ve benefited hugely from being part of three poetry groups: Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, Red Door Poets and my original local group, Octavo. But I feel strongly that you need to avoid meme-writing or churning out poems too hastily to please a perceived collective. Become a writer by trusting that your own experience has something of value. That is all you can offer – and it is everything.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I am working on a memoir about my Irish grandmother’s violin, which was found in an attic after 65 years, and which is now in my possession. The memoir is not just a quest to solve some of the mysteries about the violin but a search for my grandmother herself, whom I never knew.
As a member of the band A Woman in Goggles, and of another (as yet unnamed) band with four female singers, I write songs. Work on my poetry collection The Attitudes took precedence last year, but I’m hoping now to sit down again at the piano. Incidentally, it’s challenging to put my own poems to music, as they are ‘wordy’ and a bit of a mouthful to sing. What seems to work is to write in parallel – for example, the title song for my pamphlet My Shrink is Pregnant (Live Canon) which has recently been put up on You Tube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvvWeflWLx0 is not a poem lifted from the book. Rather it’s an overall impression.

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