Acclaimed poet Rebecca Tamás talks to our arts contributor, Maz Hedgehog, about her highly anticipated book WITCH, female Christian mystics, vulnerability and the writers who’ve influenced her work.
To kick things off, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a poet and writer who grew up in London. I’m currently living in York where I’m lecturing in Creative Writing. My first pamphlet, The Ophelia Letters, came out with Salt in 2013. I then had a pamphlet, Savage, published by Clinic Press in 2017, some of whose poems won the 2016 Manchester Poetry Prize. My third pamphlet, Tiger, came out with Bad Betty Press in 2018, and my book WITCH came out with Penned in the Margins in March this year. It’s a Poetry Book Society Spring Recommendation, and a Paris Review staff pick. I also edited the anthology Spells: 21st Occult Poetry for Ignota Books in 2018, alongside the amazing Sarah Shin.
WITCH has a wonderful mysticism about it. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
For this book I was guided, unsurprisingly, by research into magic and witchcraft, and their particular history, and feminist resonance, within Europe. So books of history, theory and politics such as ‘Witch Craze’ edited by Lyndal Roper, which explores the different contexts of the witch trials; Silvia Federici’s ‘Caliban and the Witch’ which gives a feminist, Marxist reading of the witch trial’s relationship with the capitalist suppression of female sexuality; and the British Museum exhibition of 2014 ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ which revealed a whole world of latent female power in the figure of the witch. I’m also very interested in ‘female’ Christian mysticism – figures like Simone Weil, Hildegard Von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc and so on. These women refigure versions of spirituality through emotion and the body, finding new avenues of what mystic experience might be for a female identified person. Their radical example infuses this book. And of course my inspiration flows from other poets – presiding influences on this book were the writers Bhanu Kapil, Ariana Reines, CA Conrad, Dorothea Lasky, M. NourbeSe Philip, Paul Celan and Anne Carson, amongst others.
This is your first full length collection. At 120 pages, there’s so much for readers to sink their teeth into. How did the process of writing this collection differ from putting together a pamphlet?
The experience was very different, partly because I had four year’s work to reckon with; and partly because this book was planned and written as a whole. Though I didn’t know exactly what the shape would be, the collection has a shared narrative within it. It was extremely challenging to keep up one linguistic world and space as a poet (I’m not used to having to worry about things like narrative!) Yet it was also intensely pleasurable to be able to create a world and stay in it – to get to know my central figure, and explore my themes of feminist freedom, the irrational, sexuality and difference, through her story, and her spells.
Simone Weil, Hildegard Von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc…these women refigure versions of spirituality through emotion and the body, finding new avenues of what mystic experience might be for a female identified person.
What I love about this collection is that each poem seamlessly moves along the continuum between highly visual pieces and borderline spoken word. How do you approach structuring your work?
This is a tough one to answer – I wish I could say that I have a particularly sophisticated and thought through approach, but I really don’t. I write in a massive rush, just ‘channelling’ whatever it is that interests me within the language of the idea, feeling or concept that I want to explore. Then I go back and edit, feeling my way through with my hands, pulling and sculpting a shape out of the rock of words on the page. It’s very instinctive and odd, and it’s unclear, even to me, how it works! But certainly working as an editor on various people’s writing over the years has helped give me a clearer eye for flow and structure within a poetic line; which hugely helps when editing.
The poems reference a number of characters, both historical and mythical, from Ovid to Hypatia to Lilith. How do you approach interpreting such iconic figures?
I think that with figures such as these, what interests me is the kernel of why they drew my attention in the first place. So, for whatever reason, I hear about them or am reminded of them, and they play about in my head. Rather than trying to step back and explain or contextualise them, I follow the feeling. So in Lilith’s case, I got a kind of black-tar feeling of gloopy, sexy electric charge – the potential of a woman fucking with god and not giving a shit, pouring out of religious texts and into myth. so I followed that in my poem. Or with Hypatia, feeling a kind of pained sadness and energy at the same time – a horror at her death, mixed with an admiration, and awe of her strange brilliance; the cryptic, elegant nature of her intellect. So I followed that. Going after the feeling of it is all you can too, otherwise their ‘name’ or ‘image’ can get a bit distracting or stultifying.
To cry, to be vulnerable, to share your feelings and raw human knowledge is what makes it possible to survive in this world, to make it liveable.
Your poetry seems to really embrace both strength and vulnerability. How do you feel about balancing these two seemingly opposing forces?
It’s nice that you picked up on this, as I feel like that mixture is central to my version of what femaleness might be in my work. It may be borderline cheesy to say so, but to me a measure of vulnerability IS strength. I have experienced, as most women who have sexual/romantic relations with cis men have, the brittleness of a male strength built on repression of emotion and tenderness. I’ve seen men break down after certain difficulties, because they considered themselves too strong to share their sadness or suffering until they had reached the point of utter destruction. To cry, to be vulnerable, to share your feelings and raw human knowledge is what makes it possible to survive in this world, to make it liveable. To own and confront your own fragility is paradoxically a fiercely powerful show of strength, in my eyes.
You’re a lecturer in Creative Writing at York St. John. How does your teaching impact your writing, if at all?
Teaching impacts my writing because of the amazing gift of being able to regualrly spend time with exciting young writers finding their form and what they want to say. I learn from the innovative ways in which they are creating work, and the ways in which they challenge and shift my assumptions around poetry I know well. Good teaching is, to me, a form of creative conversation, and so my work develops in light of this ever changing and growing dialogue.
What would you like readers to take away from WITCH?
Well, whatever they want, mainly. But if they came away with a new or increased sensitivity to female silence, history, and the power of magical language to make change; then I’d certainly be pleased with that.
Flashback to Rebecca Tamás as a child. What would you say to yourself about your life thus far?
I would probably say to her, ‘you found something you love to do, and you found incredible, life altering friends; so despite everything, that’s cool’.
Do you have any ideas about what you’ll write next?
I have vague ideas swirling around about nonhuman thinking, proto-communists in the 1600’s and mystic ecstasy, but we’ll see.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell the Lucy Writers readers?
No-one is ‘not a poetry person;’ you just need to find the right writers for you, speaking about things that interest you, in language which excites you. Trust me, they exist.
Rebecca Tamás’ WITCH is published by Penned in the Margins and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops. click here for more information on Tamás, her poetry and other texts published by Penned in the Margins. For more information about events, future work and articles follow Tamás on twitter: @RebTamas on twitter.
To read Maz Hedgehog’s review of the launch of Rebecca Tamás WITCH, click here.