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Maintenant #29: Annie Katchinska

‘holy water, scratched airy crosses, spat
in my face and moaned at the floor’
– an interview with Annie Katchinska by SJ Fowler

Russian-born English poet Annie Katchinska is as highly touted as any active young British poet. Elegant and remarkably assured, her ability as a poet is only enhanced by her deferred, modest and unpretentious manner, rendering any hyperbole as well founded. Her precocious and varied success (2x winner of the Foyle young poet of the year, Faber & Faber pamphlet scheme participant) is resolutely well deserved & British poetry is fortunate to see its future in the hands of a poet so measured and considered.

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3:AM: You were born in Russia but seemed to have lived most of your life in England. I’m interested in how Russia has shaped your poetry, whether it has been an immense presence in your work, a background to which you are reminiscing, or merely a place of birth?

Annie Katchinska: I only lived in Russia for the first year of my life, but was brought up with its language, its food, customs, cartoons, songs, literature, sense of humour … it’s kind of inevitable that I’m really attached to the place I almost lived in but didn’t, that it inspires a weirdly intense emigrant’s love in me and occasionally that leads to me writing about it in some way. But that’s not to say I have any particular plan to write about Russia — I’m not going to force that theme, if it comes then it comes.

3:AM: Are you influenced by elements of Russian 20th century poetry? Your poetry often evokes elements of the silver age poetic style, perhaps the Imagists too. I’m thinking of Esenin, perhaps Akmatova.

AK: I’m influenced by loads of different poets, I wouldn’t say Russian poetry was any more influential to me than anything else. I find it quite difficult to approach actually, because I don’t really like reading poetry in translation — I always feel like I’m reading a different poem, that I’ve not got the sounds that the poet originally intended and if I haven’t got that then what’s the point? So I try to read Russian poetry in Russian. Maybe I do get influenced by it in that sense — reading this different language, hearing the totally different sounds in the poems, even seeing the Cyrillic alphabet shaped into poems on the page — maybe on some subconscious level all this makes me go back to poetry in English and come at it from a different angle. But I find reading poetry in Russian incredibly difficult — Akhmatova I can do, Tsvetaeva is hard, Mayakovsky is practically impossible. Reading a poem in a language you’re less comfortable with obviously requires a totally different kind of mental effort, different areas of your brain probably — maybe at some point all this will have an influence on what I write, but at the moment it feels like a huge forest I’m only just hacking into.

3:AM: You seem to utilise a form of lyrical, first-person stream of images in your work. It is extremely striking for the confidence of the images, but also the fluidity in which they are bound. The narrative voice you seem to inhabit is also disconnected and disjuctive, this seems to allow the images to build a sharp momentum and hone their continuity too. Is this a deliberate methodology?

AK: No, I don’t think so. I think I probably write the way I do because I have a ridiculously short attention span and when I’m writing I can only focus on one idea for so long before my mind just flits away — this is why all my poems are short, and these days don’t usually have any kind of narrative. My way of writing, I suppose, is to grab hold of some feeling or image or situation or object or whatever and just write straight about it, very fast, until I’ve exhausted it, and that’s where the poem ends. I would love to write a long poem, a poem that tells a story or that starts with one idea and moves on to another, but I don’t seem to think like that.

3:AM: Your titles, your use of an abstract but never surreal narrative, this points to a working method that begins with phrases and images and then grows. Is this the case? Do you draft your poets many times over or leave them in the mode of your original outpouring?

AK: You’ve got it absolutely right — quite often a poem will start when some sort of phrase or image appears in my head, which nearly always remains as the first line, and the poem spins out of that. That first line always feels very important, because it’s the feeling or the rhythm that kicks the whole thing off. And I draft a lot — but I can’t tell you what makes a poem finished because I’m still trying to figure that out.

3:AM: You have sometimes used neologisms, and seem to be free with an occasionally modernist use of language. Do you believe that poetry should be unrestricted, or if form of some kind vital? Do you, and do you think you will, utilise experimental methodologies, perhaps sound poetry, ala Khlebnikov?

AK: I’ll admit I had to look up the word “neologism” (and now feel really stupid because it’s a Greek word and I’m supposed to be a classicist), and I also don’t know exactly what you mean by my modernist use of language, or sound poetry. I’m not even sure about “experimental” — this will probably sound naive but surely every good poem is experimental in some sense? I don’t like the idea of labelling some things as experimental and others merely conventional. I don’t like theorising about poetry, I can’t say that there’s any big principle to the way I write, and I definitely can’t say how I’ll write in the future — this just isn’t how I think.

3:AM: To a certain extent it is a necessary evil, but how do you view the continued stress placed upon your age when your poetry gains press? It implies it is conspicuous for someone who is young in life to produce good poetry, and also seems to be aggregated as a selling point in the wake of few other selling points in the contemporary poetry market. The presence of brackets with an age in them, or the shock affected at the poets age often when younger voices come to the fore could suggest a consistent engagement with circumstance over content. Are you critical or this or does it play no part in your thought process?

AK: Well, circumstance can feed into content, can’t it? I AM young, and maybe that’s reflected in what I write, so if people want to make a note of that then I don’t really mind. I’m not the only person being called a young poet — there are currently quite a lot of poets around my age and people are noticing this and I think that’s good, it shows that it’s not conspicuous at all for someone who’s young to write poems, to care about poetry. I think that, although you might be right in saying age is used as a selling point, this whole “young poets” brouhaha actually shows that age isn’t important and you can write poems however old you are. And it gives me confidence — it makes me think, “OK, you’re 20 years old and you blatantly know nothing about the world … but people your age are writing, so there’s no age at which you’re supposed to start, so you can start now, so WRITE.”

3:AM: Your reputation has rightly soared over the last few years, how do you view some of the commentary given to your emergence – as a burden or an inspiration, or neither. I’m thinking of Todd Swift intimating you were precociously reminiscient of Dylan Thomas.

AK: Todd Swift’s articles that he wrote for that blog were interesting, but I think the poets he chose to write about were quite random and not intended to be definitive or anything — so he could have said that about pretty much anyone. I find all that very strange just because I don’t feel like I’ve done anything yet. There are loads of young poets around at the moment writing things that are about five thousand times more amazing than the handful of poems I’ve got, and I’m sure a lot of people are aware of this. It’s very hard to answer this question without sounding falsely modest, even though I completely mean it. To be honest, I don’t really understand how any of this stuff works, and I don’t even find it interesting, so I just don’t think about it at all.

3:AM: Can you describe the process of becoming part of the Faber new poets scheme? Has it had a noticable affect on your work being read?

AK: I was asked to send some submissions to Faber (after being nominated by one of the scouts they had used to select people). Then after they told me that they wanted to include me in their Faber New Poets scheme, I had to put together a pamphlet — which took a long time — and also choose a mentor to meet and work with on an irregular, informal basis. I chose Selima Hill, and I’ve met her once so far. And yes, I think it has made my poems more widely read.

3:AM: Does studying where you study directly influence your poetry, in the most experiental way? Is there a discernable community of poets at Cambridge?

AK: Cambridge is actually a place where I hardly ever think about writing poems, and where I’ve never really found any community of poets or even wanted to. The university poetry scene is too scattered and inconsistent to even be called a scene, and with a few notable exceptions (and I should really stress that) most of what I’ve found in my two years there has been stale, pretentious, irritating and dull. Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places. But I’ve also found that there is so much more at Cambridge that’s just more interesting than sitting in a room pretending to listen to a poetry reading — while I’m there I want to focus on my degree, my other interests, the huge melting pot of different backgrounds and people that Cambridge is. It’s a weird place, because it’s so inspiring but the whole environment of it just doesn’t let me write. So every term I’ll jot down a few things in my notebook but otherwise poetry gets pushed right to the back of my mind. I used to stress about that, but now I’ve just accepted it.

3:AM: To interview you in such a formative stage of your poetry, and yet with so much said about your future, it is difficult not to ask whether you imagine yourself writing poetry for the rest of your life? Do you envision it playing a central role in what you choose to do?

AK: I’m graduating next year, so I’ve got to decide how to answer this sort of question right about now. All I can say is that yes, I will write — that’s the simple, definite bit. But I’m not going to do a creative writing MA, and I’m not looking for a day job that’s related to writing — I know lots of people who do that and love it but I personally don’t think I’d do very well if I had to think about writing 24/7. Something will come up, and I’ll do it and keep writing — I have the hazy, unfounded confidence of someone who still has nine months to decide on anything.

sjfowler

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler
is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 26th, 2010.