Catherine Smith

'All over the city, women in restaurants,
cafes, bars, wait for their fathers.'

— The Fathers


Catherine Smith writes poetry, prose and drama.

Catherine's first pamphlet, The New Bride, was a winner in the 2000 Book & Pamphlet Competition and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her first book, The Butcher's Hands, was a PBS Recommendation, and won the Aldeburgh/Jerwood Prize for Best First Collection. Her most recent collection, Lip, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. Her next collection will be Otherwhere, due for publication in October 2012.

Catherine's poetry has been widely published in magazines and anthologies, and she has won prizes for her short stories.

Catherine writes narratives of alienation, engaging with dream, nightmare and the surreal, peopled by characters at the edge and sometimes beyond the edge. Intense and even at times grotesque (the pages are littered with obsessives, a vampire, the ghost of a jealous wife, ‘Charades’ with an s & m subtext) her poetry is always convincingly well-observed, imaginative and ultimately life-affirming.

Born in 1962 in Windsor, educated at Windsor Girls' School and the Universities of Bradford and Sussex; Catherine now live in Lewes, East Sussex, married with two adult sons.

Listen to Catherine reading her work at The Poetry Archive.




'Catherine Smith is one of the most consistently interesting, and consistently exciting, poets to emerge in the last dozen or so years.' — Keith Richmond, The Tribune

‘Her scary, unsettling voice seems unexpected in poetry. It cuts her free of the crowd' — The Times

'Catherine Smith’s a fierce talent, equally at home with intimacy and oddballs like the guy who has a fetish for sex with a pregnant woman' — Ian McMillan

'Each of these poems is startling and original. They are enigmatic, unpredictable: reach the end of a piece, and you need to re-read it immediately.' — The Independent

'From its first poem, ‘Lip’ is a surprising journey – to somewhere at the same time familiar and disturbing. These restless poems dare to push against the half-shut doors of adolescence, parenthood and female sexual experience and explore their strangeness. In ‘Ewe’ and in the remarkable ‘Lapse’ sequence in particular, Catherine Smith gives erotic poetry a fresh voice and a whole new album of images.' 
 Susan Wicks



The morning of her vows to Christ
Sister Patricia cracks a fertilized egg.
The chick's eyes are sealed tight,
head huge on its wizened body,
bright blood filming the yolk.

Later, scissors, then a razor,
are weilded over her scalp,
leaving it coarse as a man's chin.
Her nape prickles in a drought.
Palms pressed, she kneels

and raises her eyes to the crucifix.
Today she'll be His bride,
shaved clean, a vessel for his will,
leached of desire. Metal
floods her saliva; she imagines

the chick's eyelids split open,
wings itching free, heaving itself
from the smashed shell,
its naked skull
bearing the dent of her spoon.

— Catherine Smith (poem first published in North 33)

Catherine on her writing

I was a keen reader — I'd devour books, poetry, stories, anything — and would stay up late to read — and always loved listening to poems; I remember our teacher reading us a section of 'Hiawatha' when I was about six. I loved the rhythms, the energy, the imagery, the story. I was always a keen and somewhat precocious writer; my first poem was published in 'The Teacher' when I was seven. (It was terribly adjectival – our teacher loved adjectives, and I was keen to please in those days. It described Queen Mary's Dolls House at Windsor Castle; if you grew up in Windsor in the 60s/70s, that was your school outing.)

I come from a completely sensible and non-creative family, with proper jobs. I went to a girls' grammar school, where I was dreamy, lazy, under-achieving, completely hopeless at sports but, briefly, main speaker in the school public speaking team. Poems were for analysis and dissection, not pleasure, although the teaching was good and I'm glad I met Yeats, Donne, Marvell and Shakespeare during my school years. Strangely, there were no women poets considered worthy of study.  I didn't write much at school; we did have some visiting poets who gave wonderful, liberating workshops; I didn't realise you didn't have to be dead to be a poet until then. I wrote very bad and melodramatic poems in my own time. They helped structure my sulking and angst. They contained many adjectives.


My favourite poet is still WB Yeats. I read 'Easter 1916' and the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention.

'I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.'

I love his passion, his anger, his grasp of history, politics, mythology. I love the way he melds the personal and the mythological, as in 'Among School Children.' The lines,

'And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.'

He was never afraid to take risks, to make himself open and vulnerable and raw, but without any sentimental self-obsession that characterises weaker poets.

Other poets — too many to list! Of my contemporaries, I particularly admire Vicki Feaver, Susan Wicks, Ian Duhig, Michael Symmonds-Roberts, Jean Sprackland, Neil Rollinson, Pascale Petit, Ros Barber, John Siddique, Jo Shapcott, Antony Dunn, Tim Liardet, David Constantine....and many others.


I like writing in cafes, pubs, on park benches, on trains, in waiting rooms, in lifts... anywhere where I'm supposed to be doing something else. I like the idea of writing poetry as a bit subversive, a refined form of skiving. Sitting in front of a blank computer screen on a 'free' morning is deadly. I have to have some scribbled words or lines in a notebook first.


Instead of writing, I tidy and colour code my knicker drawer. I comb my cat. I arrange my books in different ways, sometimes alphabetically, sometimes by the spine's colour. I go for long walks. I read poetry and history books.


I know you're supposed to, but I  don't really 'put collections together.' I write whatever I feel like writing and then notice some sort of theme emerging, and maybe explore that more consciously. I reject roughly 60% of my first-draft poems — they're usually fine as ideas, but they don't work as actual poems. I never regard any time spent writing as wasted, though; every time you try and write, you learn something. Complete disasters are very useful. I like to be ambushed by poems, I like them to jump on my back and shout in my ear until I write them. I don't really know where they come from, or why; I don't worry about analysing my own process – I find that dreary and unhelpful. I don't write to 'find myself', I write because I can't draw, paint, throw pots or dance. 

In my last book, Lip, there's a poem called 'The Ewe' about a young couple who adopt a sheep.

I was standing in my kitchen, drying the dishes, and the first few lines literally popped into my head, so I wrote them down on the back of an old Christmas card (I keep a stack of these in the hope inspiration will strike in the kitchen — it rarely does). So then I had the first stanza, and I read it aloud, and the next one sort of wandered up, so I wrote that down, and then I went upstairs, turned on the computer and out it came. It's a narrative poem but I've no idea why I needed to tell that story. It was my happiest writing experience. I didn't need to think about it.


I'm currently working on a new collection, provisionally titled 'Otherwhere.' It's more surreal than previous work. I find it hard to 'be in the moment' and it's loosely 'about' being physically and mentally separate. But it's also 'about' alternative explanations of events, and the unreliability of memory; how memory is a creative act, and doesn't need to be 'factual.'

Titles by this author



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