Katie Griffiths

Interview with Katie Griffiths, guest poet at the Fire River Poets Poetry Evening on Zoom, 3rd March 2022

Annie Fisher (Fire River Poets) Thanks very much, Katie, for agreeing to this virtual interview! I’d like to launch straight in by asking about the title of your debut collection, ‘The Attitudes’. I was immediately struck by the playful ambiguity of the title, because of course the word ‘attitude’ has several meanings. It could mean how we think or feel about something; or it could mean a stance we take – mentally or physically. Used informally, it could mean stroppiness! But your title is ‘The Attitudes’, plural, and I notice that the title poem takes its form from the Beatitudes (be-attitudes?!) in St Matthew’s gospel. Could you say something about the title, and about the title poem itself?

Katie: Delighted, Annie, to have this conversation with you. 

The original working title for the collection was, in fact, ‘A Priest in my Attic’– not because I’m a Catholic (I’m not) or have an attic (I don’t) but because it was a way to invoke the weight and resonance of a religious culture that continues to tap on the overhead floorboards. In large part, I see ‘The Attitudes’ as a debate about notions of faith and trust. What exactly can we put our trust in? The mind? The body? Something concrete outside ourselves? Something unknowable outside ourselves?

If there is ‘playful ambiguity’ in the title it is there to underscore, I hope, the fact that our perceptions and then the resulting stances we adopt – whether rigid or malleable – are key. Take, for example, a painful or excruciating event in a person’s life. This can be considered bad at the time, although the very same situation can lead to profound learnings and awakenings. So can the original event be said to have been bad or good? Point of view is critical.  

I wanted the title poem, The Attitudes, to mimic the sound of the Bible’s Beatitudes, by substituting other adjectives that end phonically in the stressed ‘ed’ end of ‘blessed’, and by using a cast of characters some of whose names are made of compound nouns, such as the Peace Makers of the original. When these word choices were played with, they suggested to me a kind of parallel instructions manual. I have huge respect for the resounding quality of The Beatitudes and my take, despite its possibly harsher moments, was done with a kind of irreverent reverence. 

Annie: ‘Irreverent reverence’ – I love that. And a priest in the attic is a great image! Maybe when I said the title seemed playfully ambiguous, I simply meant that the word is open to different interpretations, which is, I suppose, a bit obvious! But that leads me on to something else I wanted to ask you about, which is to do with not being obvious in poetry – as in Emily Dickinson’s advice to ‘tell it slant’. It seems to me that your poems are ‘unpindownable’. Words and lines can shift their meanings across a single poem – a sort of ‘now you see me, now you don’t’. You handle complexities with a light touch, I think. Could you maybe talk a bit about how much of yourself you choose to reveal or conceal? (I was, by the way, convinced you must have been brought up Catholic!)

Katie:  Ooo that is such an interesting question. I think as a poet I have grown away from wanting to employ reportage as a technique (which is possibly more in evidence in poems contained in ‘Primers Volume 1’, also from Nine Arches Press). Of course, there are truths … and then there are truths. The poems that form the sequence ‘Dough must not not enter the body’, and several others, stem from an uncomfortable relationship with food. In writing these, I tried – forgive the pun – to scrape the bottom of the bowl, and consequently they are, for me, a very big reveal.  But equally, over the years, I’ve come to a much greater understanding of this condition, by a long process of acceptance and ultimately forgiveness. So while these particular poems in a sense totally define who I am, at the same time they do not.  

It doesn’t surprise me that you thought I had been brought up Catholic! Yet this is quite the paradox, given my Ulster Protestant parents and forebears. Having grown up in Canada, I was at some remove from the sectarian ideologies and difficulties in Northern Ireland – although my attendance at school there for A-levels and my continuing visits to family in the province mean that I have long been aware of them. That I seem to carry a kind of Catholic guilt, or perhaps more precisely lapsed Catholic guilt, is odd, yet wholly and strangely in keeping with things that have popped up in my life. For example, during the time of the war in the former Yugoslavia, I signed up to go on an aid convoy to that part of the world. Only on the day of departure, as vehicles were being loaded, did I fully realise that our destination was to be none other than Medjugorje, a famous Catholic shrine, and that the journey, for at least 50% of the convoy participants, was in reality a Pilgrimage Plus.

The territory of paradox intrigues me, the eternal push/pull, where all is, as you might say, Annie, ‘unpindownable’. And that is precisely where I think I reveal rather than conceal myself – in the messy and tricky negotiation through this.

Annie: ‘Poetry and Paradox’ could be an interesting workshop! Which reminds me of your poem,  Prayer Workshop. It’s one of my favourites from ‘The Attitudes’ – I love the quality of the humour in it, and the surprising, dare I say, miraculous ending. (I don’t want to do a spoiler here!) Faith is a theme in lots of the poems, and picking up on your mention of pilgrimage, I wonder if your work as a poet could be seen in any way as a sort of pilgrimage?

Katie: It would be an enormous pleasure to run/ be involved in a workshop on ‘Poetry and Paradox’!

So. Pilgrimage. What a sonorous word and concept. The idea of setting out with purpose and preparation on a path that will inevitably bring blips, bumps and blisters fascinates me – as well as embarking on said path with the mindset that everyone you meet will have something of import to impart. In other words, having the humility to keep eyes, ears, and heart fully open.

So much in our lives, our technology addiction for instance, lulls us into the painless and brainless. Pilgrimage is perhaps exactly the opposite. Goals are hard won. And I’m talking here too about ‘secular’ pilgrimage, which is simply an attitude of mind.

If there’s anything I hope for my poetry and for myself as a poet, then, it’s that I do the work, go the distance and wear out a few soles before pressing ‘send’ on a (let’s hope) finished piece. I’m not drawn to ‘meme poetry’, to bandwagons or to flavours of the month. That doesn’t mean I’m not engaged with the overwhelming and sobering issues facing modern society, because I absolutely am. It’s just that before I can pronounce on them, I do have to venture out and figuratively travel a bit. There has to be discovery, and not a little creative hardship. I need to search for a nugget which will ultimately affect and change my outlook.

So pleased you like Prayer Workshop.  Maybe it’s not a silly idea to leave a wee bit of room for the miraculous…

Annie: That’s beautifully put, Katie. And the Poetry and Paradox workshop might have legs—I’ll store that thought for now, but watch this space!

I’d love to have a much longer conversation with you about your poetry and about the care with which you craft it, but for now could I ask you to take just one poem from ‘The Attitudes’ and say why and how you came to write it?  Poems that are lingering in my mind include Moonbather, Minor chordstheir place in the pecking order and She withholds her babies, so maybe one of those, but I’d love to hear about the genesis of any poem in the collection and the process you went through.

Katie:  Yes, I wish we could have a longer conversation, too, Annie. I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity to be made to think more about my poetry!

Shall we take Minor chords – their place in the pecking order? Overall, I’d say that this is a poem about belonging. A number of events and images had been playing in my mind before I started to write it, and they grew into a kind of earworm, actually a persistent keening. Working out precisely what constituted this sadness was the task of the poem.

As well as a deep connection to Canada – its vastness, its sharp seasons – my Irishness has always been fundamental to me.  During my childhood in Ottawa, my ancestral heritage was constantly reinforced, by family stories, and by weekly communications that came from grandparents and relatives.  We were constantly looking back across the Atlantic.  A couple of amazing holidays in Northern Ireland (one in particular when I was five when we had the opportunity of living for a month on a farm with a beloved great uncle and his two sisters, all unmarried) plugged me back into my roots.

A feeling of belonging to a place and then being separated from it is an experience that many of us know and recognise. And connection to the land, to the soil, can form a huge part of this. I don’t mean this in a geopolitical sense, but rather as something visceral, a landscape that you identify with. For many years I’ve juggled with Irishness and Canadianness – and now the Englishness which has informed my adult life.

In the run-up to writing Minor chords – their place in the pecking order I was thinking very deeply about Ireland as whole. Some of these thoughts were historical: crippling famine, and exodus from its shores. Some were more modernly political: the ramifications of Brexit.  The constant question about reunification. Some were to do with bloodlines ranged across the entire island: the realisation that though most of my family had lived for generations in Ulster there was a strand on my paternal grandmother’s side from Kilkenny.  She herself had been born in Mayo. 

And several things occurred, one after the other. On one of my frequent trips to Northern Ireland, I visited the stone ruins of a farmhouse where my great-great grandmother lived, her family on that particular parcel of land as tenant farmers. Then, a few days later back in England, I met at a social gathering a man who told me his Irish mother had been taken, aged seven, from her alcoholic parents and placed in a convent, where cruel treatment was the norm. She had been punished for wetting the bed which, of course because of her fear, kept recurring. Next, I watched a riveting programme about wildlife on the Wexford Sloblands, a tract of land that had been reclaimed from the sea in the 1840s. The name continued to resonate with me. Finally, I remembered a vinyl record of Breton songs I’d loved to listen to, with their haunting patterns so similar to the Irish traditional, that had warped in sunlight and become unplayable.

All these elements swirled into the poem. I hoped very much that the interweave of imagery to do with water, coastlines, mournful music, privations – and even the mention of geese perhaps hinting at migrations – would ultimately suggest the pain of estrangement from land and loss of birthright.

Annie: Fascinating. I always love to hear about the process a poet works through to create a poem. You’ve woven so many strands together here. Hearing you unpick them a little makes me understand why I found the poem so haunting, from the strange opening which put me in mind of selkies:

Because she’s coastal, her hair’s never been cut.
She drapes it over a harp and watches
white-fronted geese

to the middle section, which reminded me of piano lessons and my convent schooldays:

                                     Prelude for Six Hands and an Elbow.
                                     Introit for Eight Hands and a Time-Keeper.
                                     Intercession for Ten Hands and a Big Stick.

to that discomforting ending: Tidal girl:
how your bed-wetting lets you down!

It’s a very effective poem I think, with a disquieting but dream-like quality that I found in several poems.

Thanks so much, Katie, for this conversation. I feel I know you a little more and it’s taken me deeper into the poems. I can’t wait for Thursday 3rd March to hear you read and talk about your work some more. ‘The Attitudes’ is a strikingly unique collection. It’s been real pleasure to spend time with the poems, and with you.

Katie: Annie, it’s been such a pleasure having this dialogue with you. Thank you for your searching questions!

Annie Fisher, March 2022