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Poet of the Week – 1: Kate Behrens


Kate Behrens is the daughter of two painters, and a single twin. She saw herself as a painter initially, in part because poetry was her twin’s territory. Her father had several well-known poet friends, and visitors to the house included Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Hugo Williams and Dom Moraes. A long time after Kate’s twin took her own life, in 1985, she began writing poetry and, under the persuasion of a poet-friend, sent a new poem off to that year’s Mslexia competition, where it was a runner-up. This was in 2010, and it marked the beginning of her life as a published poet.

Kate is a regular reader in open-mic events at Poets’ Café in Reading, where she came to the attention of John Froy, then the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press. Her most recent collection is Penumbra, published by Two Rivers Press in January 2019. It follows on from her first collection, The Beholder (2012), and Man with Bombe Alaska (2016). Other poems have appeared in Mslexia, Blackbox Manifold, Stand, The High Window, Reading Universityʼs Creative Arts Anthologies, Poetry Salzburg Review, Wild Court, Noon, The Arts of Peace (Two Rivers Press) and as Oxford Brookesʼ Poem of the Week. More poems are forthcoming in Stand and Axon: Creative Explorations.

Kate Behrens writes:

“An artist friend recently asked, ʽIʼm interested in why you risk being obscure in your poems.ʼ My first thought was thanks for your interest! Then: I am not either deliberately obscure or taking unusual risk. Itʼs a daring question − one I wouldnʼt mind asking certain lyric poets myself, if only because it might reveal some intimate details about their practice.

Attempting an answer to someone who wasn’t a poet was useful. I have edited that written response, but it went something like this: I can only really answer the question by describing how the poem guides me, rather than vice-versa. Words and/or images have usually arisen from a kind of small electrical charge, produced by a collision between inner and outer worlds, and meaning, ʽpay attention here, there is something happening that requires the maximum sensual receptivityʼ (poets become alert to false stimuli which can be quite barren and lead them astray).

That ʽchargeʼ might reveal the raw material, then elicit specific poetic devices that accumulate until first words and images have a sound-environment they can breathe in and a readable context from which to communicate. The first mysterious alert (rarer than I would like) often triggers a precise metaphor for some barely conscious but potent preoccupation or idea that needs expression, not unlike dream communications which can happen in simultaneous sensory ways. But at first the practice can feel like fitting bits into a complex design without being 100% sure of the purpose until the end-goal is suddenly illuminated: when in this mode, it is as if the poem knows the poet better than the other way round. Usually a last refining expands the final meaning(s) (ʽmeaningʼ in its broadest sense). Sometimes the inspiration is simpler, a surge of feeling aroused by some event.

My poems feel best to me when some elements can flicker between interpretations, which seems most true to life, although writing them is not an arbitrary search (when they work, everything is contained in that first stimulus). Finally I ask myself, is this poem one that others could relate to, even if they don’t altogether ʽunderstandʼ it? As well as experience, that can involve a degree of trust, both in the poem and in it finding the right reader. It must be just intelligible enough: to rob it of a certain kind of complexity can rob it of potential reach, but it must not be impenetrable to every kind of intelligence either. The degree of obscurity or transparency is intrinsic to each poem, not an objective. Much of the time I am honing it down.

Despite the subjectivity described here, the poem must not be solipsistic; that judgment can be a subtle one and is unavoidably subjective. Semantic ambiguity helps for this reason, but it needs to be an accurate ambiguity. And the poem must create an unequivocal realm: the reader can enter it or stay outside it, but I must be sure of it. That is an almost physical sensation, a feeling of rightness.”


Where our footpath kinks,
this logjam. Hijacked breaths
articulate steam ghosts…
clattering anxiety.

Strings are pulled.
They canʼt fall apart, must shorten.

Grey lips flinch, furl
up messages. Theyʼre safest
silencing stabs of discomfort.

We lean back, into brambles.
Threaded flesh sparks as it passes,
naked as newly peeled chestnut.

Then theyʼre distanced, cut-outs.
Uccello colours crown the escarpment ‒
reds, white, brown,
the black trees over disquieted fields.

[From Penumbra]


Creativity feeds in shadow,

Below the plumbline
of a thinking mind.

So you feel down for it.
Loneliness is all you find.

It climbs into your lap,
breathes out anomalies:

a chimera with humid bumpy skin.
This creature weighs a ton.

Creativityʼs weightless.
Its cradle is sure feeling

rocked by currents through negative spaces.


Read more about the Two Rivers Press Poet of the Week feature