Templar Poetry, 2008 £4.00
Reviewed by Nathan Thompson, Hannah Eiseman-Renyard and Lizzy Dening
I love the format of Templar Poetry pamphlets—they’re like real books only smaller. It’s as if someone has remembered that pocket books were a jolly good thing, thought ‘well, not too many people are doing this right now’, shrugged their shoulders and jumped right in. And three cheers for that. It’s a perfect format for exciting, even experimental, work: it gives just enough space for a reader to get their teeth into a poet, so to speak, and as it fits in your pocket you can puzzle over the poetry while queuing for a chai latte (or whatever’s hip to drink these days).
All of which makes it slightly disappointing that this pamphlet is pretty conservative. You could get through the whole thing in the (longish, 08:50 and probably late-for-work) queue and not really feel you need to go back over much of it in case you’ve missed something. You might even just leave it on the counter for the next hep-cat.
So, to begin with a gripe: shagging fairground attendants might be entertaining at the time but maybe you need some kind of angle (beyond pure description) to turn the activity into a decent poem (decent in the sense of ‘good’ rather than as opposed to ‘indecent’):
And he was thin
alert in a black t-shirt
little more than a boy.
Yet he looked much older,
cruising the dodgems with his sneer,
chipped tooth and tousled hair.
[‘Tunnel of Love’]
Setting aside for a moment that, from the ‘one-day-stand’ described, it’s hard to fathom how the narrator knows that he’s “little more than a boy” when “he looked much older” (unless she found his birth certificate during a trouser rummage). Beyond a very middle-class ‘ooh, well I never’ gossipy-type reaction I’m not sure what I’m meant to get from this poem. Flat tone, conventional description, vaguely outré subject matter and that’s it. So far, so Hollyoaks.
That’s the opening poem, and not a great choice, so maybe it’s unfair to pick on it further. The ‘(real)’ versus ‘(imagined)’ dichotomy in ‘Flight’ is more interesting and suggests an engagement with something beyond the the confessional:
I’ve a head full of icebergs (imagined)
and Newfoundland (real),
as I wake mid-air in this baby-blue scene,
gazing down from a mountain (imagined)
This is a bit more like it. I just wish there was more of this in the book and less of the confessional stuff. It’s not easy to get excited about lines like:
I stay on the train.
It jolts forward, almost empty,
I follow, head almost empty.
I carry on north, north, north
[‘Walking away from People, Lights, Tracks’]
As repetition for emphasis goes, that’s pretty weak. ‘I carry on eating my breakfast: bran, bran bran’ would at least have the purpose of emphasising boredom. Which, I suppose, ‘north, north, north’ does in its way but I don’t think it’s deliberate.
In the final analysis, this feels like the work of a writer who’s feeling her way and who’s not too sure what she’s trying to achieve. There’s real verve and talent on display in poems like ‘Flight’ and in Naomi’s more playful work, such as the prose poem ‘Birdsongs are Composed of Love Notes and Pleasure Notes’, which I really enjoyed for its wit and humour:
I’ve learnt basic Pheasant. Blackbird and Robin I’m struggling with.
I don’t have the right-shaped beak and my throat is too large.
There’s a robin who sits by me. I can’t understand if it’s love
and I’m worried.
I just hope this is the direction Katrina Naomi will move in. It’s a good direction, and she’s potentially a very good poet. Maybe this pamphlet came too soon. I understand she has a full collection out now from Templar, so it will be interesting to see.
This collection is a sassy mix of understated, delicate descriptions, and punk spirit. Author Katrina Naomi sprinkles her works with loaded similes such as a “My neat, white pencil skirt,/ Tight as a condom”—but never dwells on them, always moving on as quickly as she conjures.
The writing style seems to be universally calm, witty and wry, but within this the author has a pleasing tendency to write from the points-of-view of a variety of different characters—a hit man, one of Degas’ models, not to mention a variety of males and females—leaving the audience happily unaware which (if any) of the narrators is the author herself. This, I think, leaves you free to truly analyse each on its own merits—there’s nothing extra you need for each poem—it’s all on the page.
The writing style is almost minimalist in some senses—always very neat and precise in which details she picks out, and never over-egging the point. In some poems such as ‘My Fathers’ Naomi draws excellent character sketches of two men, based entirely on juxtaposing their differences “one read Orwell, the other The Sun/ one sported a tweed jacket, the other leather”. These lists sum up the two men and draw parallels between their differences, while also putting the reader in the shoes of the child who observed them. Quite a feat in thirteen lines.
The final lines, or couplets in this collection always seem to pack a punch. Poems such as ‘Fightback’ and ‘Tulips’ finish in ways which add a whole new dimension to the piece just read—leaving more to linger and churn over in the readers’ minds.
A quick word on the layout—occasionally the line-breaks and indentations left me with no clue where to put the pauses or how one would read these out aloud. A friend took one glance at ‘Sound and Vision’ and said he felt drunk just looking at the page. Luckily, the words are more than strong enough to smooth over this fact, and ‘Sound and Vision’ remains one of my favourites in the collection.
There’s a definite warmth in amongst the daily disasters, running through poems such as ‘Learning to Love Beer’ and ‘Lunch at the Elephant and Castle’—while a quirky kind of cuteness emanates from poems such as ‘Birdsongs are Composed of Love Notes and Pleasure Notes’—“There’s a robin who sits by me. I can’t understand if it’s love,/ and I’m worried. How would we kiss?”
I don’t think I’m projecting too much when I sense a strong feminist streak in this collection, and a certain tendency for retro and alternative lifestyle. It’s a rare combination to find something which seems, on the one hand, very art-school, and yet also so accessible. The cover copy has a quote from James Byrne about the collection making you want to meet the author. I would like to shamelessly copy and extend this invitation myself. Katrina Naomi—if you’re reading this—coffee some time?
This gorgeously designed pamphlet from Templar belies the wicked nature of Lunch at the Elephant and Castle, which, like the best nights out, is packed with blonde women and alcohol.
Reading the opening poem, ‘Tunnel of Love’, I was struck by how some of the particularly sleazy details (“I sat on his lap./ My neat, white pencil skirt,/ tight as a condom”) reminded me of elements of Tracey Emin’s childhood in her autobiography, Strangeland. One would hope that not all girls growing up in Margate lose their virginities on a fairground ride, or on the pier, to a youth on a “shag break”, with his “hormones masked by Brut,/ £1.99 from the precinct”.
Like Emin’s artwork, Naomi’s writing can lack subtlety. Certain closing lines seem to cheapen otherwise intriguing poems. For example ‘The Håmeflost Mittens’ contains beautiful phrases (such as “Like two battered beaver wings/ the mittens sag”) but feels clumsily ended:
I don’t tell my city friends this,
or of the call of the north.
I felt similarly about the slightly bewildering ‘Fightback’, which focuses on the rape of a 17-year-old boy, and peters out with:
You’re not fucking worth it anyway.
I’ve set out to prove just how wrong he was.
Where Naomi excels, however, is in her cinematic ability to create a believable scene. In her strongest poems the quality of writing is maintained right through to the end. I relished ‘B Movie’ (which stars one of many blonde characters) and its faux-glamorous leading lady, whom I could imagine peering from a café window like an Edward Hopper muse:
You’ll smoke at all hours:
first thing in your silk camisole,
4am in your fox fur.
And I was delighted to find that this poem ended with some weight behind it:
You know you’ll live
in a series of apartments,
each less elaborate than the last.
Another wonderfully atmospheric moment was ‘Learning to Love Beer’, my favourite piece in the book. Set in her grandparents’ lounge, testing grotty glasses of home-brew, the poem is nostalgic but unsentimental, whilst reminding us why making our own beer has gone out of fashion! Delightfully grimy details include, “filthy oceans of yeast” and “a brown film/ of nearly-beer”. The poet’s affection for her grandfather is poignantly demonstrated:
I’d only drink in the shed with Pa,
at first, the froth lining his clipped naval moustache,
the scummed tide bursting on the bridge of my nose.
Where Naomi is able to lose herself in a scene, as in these poems, she draws the reader into a world as grimy yet glitzy as the lights of Margate pier.