As part of my residency for the Poetry School at November’s Poetry in Aldeburgh, I’ll be selecting poems from the festival’s readers, creating writing prompts and interviewing some of the poets involved. I met up with Tamar Yoseloff first – you can read a poem of hers and my writing prompt here – and read what she had to say about her artistic influences and her relationship to Aldeburgh below.
The pamphlet Nowheres sees you respond to David Harker’s unpopulated drawings of liminal spaces. What attracted you to writing in response to these images of unremarkable places?
David and I share a love of these places; locations which are not destinations. I guess we both like the idea of place as a sort of stage set. There are never any people in his drawings (there are very few people in my poems), but there’s a tension. Something might happen, if you wait around long enough. You might witness something you’re not supposed to see. In crime films, they’re the places where the heavies go to dump the bodies.
I think I also have a problematic relationship with the ‘pastoral’. I find it very difficult to write about rural places, mainly because I feel I don’t have the language. I don’t know the names of plants or trees. I’ve always gone along with the Frank O’Hara statement: “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” I grew up in suburban New Jersey, but I was fixated on New York, and now I live in London, so as an adult I have regarded myself as an urban person. But for the last ten years, I’ve been going to Suffolk, to a little village called Blaxhall near Aldeburgh. I’ve started reading people like Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, so the rural is beginning to creep into the poems slowly…
You have frequently collaborated with artists in your work, regularly run workshops and courses about poetry and art, and your press Hercules Editions publishes pamphlets that combine poetry, art and archival material. What interests you about the creative relationship between poetry and visual art, and why do you feel they work particularly well together?
Visual art is one of my main interests, and responding to art and artists in my poems is a way of channelling another view of the world, which almost always takes me back into myself, but through an unexpected route. I’m currently working (for the second time) with the sculptor Alison Gill, and while we share a lot of common ground, Alison is also interested in science and virtual reality and psychology — things I don’t really tackle in my poems. So she gives me access, through her visual vocabulary.
That interest in the creative relationship extends to my press, Hercules Editions. Vici MacDonald and I started Hercules because we observed there were very few poetry presses that combined text with images — she and I collaborated on Formerly, a project that brought together my poems and her photographs of vanishing London (more liminal spaces, this time urban). Since then, there have been a proliferation of small presses with similar goals. You only have to walk around the Free Verse book fair to see a number of really innovative new publishers who are rethinking the book as a material object — an art object — as well as a container for words.
Aside from your collaborators, can you share with us a small number of your favourite artists and a few words on why you like them?
The most obvious person to mention would be Jackson Pollock, as I’ve written an entire sequence on his life and work, but I’m interested in him partly because of the biography (he was a troubled, difficult man, plagued by demons, which makes him a great subject). There was no doubt he was a great artist, but he eclipsed a number of really fascinating women artists who were working at the same time: Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. Krasner was Pollock’s wife, and so there are several poems in my sequence responding directly to her. The real star for me is Mitchell. I’ve already written two poems about her work, one called ‘City Winter’ (which also borrows snippets from Frank O’Hara, who was a friend and admirer) and one called ‘Hour of Blues’. I feel I haven’t finished saying what I’d like to about her…
Your blog Invective Against Swans appears to take its name from a Wallace Stevens poem that appears in his first book of poetry. What do you admire about his work?
Stevens is constantly complex, amazingly modern, when you think that some of those early poems are nearly 100 years old, surreal but plain at the same time — I’m still working out how you do that in a poem. That particular poem, ‘Invective Against Swans’, feels to me like a manifesto — it’s the second poem in his first collection. He’s making a stand against what he sees as easy, ‘poetic’ beauty: swans, chariots, the moon, and settling on the humble crows, who “anoint the statues with their dirt”. I love that image. Way before Hughes, but Stevens’ crow is a vehicle for something else, a kind of truth in poetry.
In 1998 you won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for your book Sweetheart. Can you say a few words about your relationship with Aldeburgh and what it meant to you to win the prize?
Aldeburgh is a very important place to me. My first reading there was actually in 1994, when I’d published my first pamphlet, Fun House. I fell in love with it right from the start, that bleak winter seascape. I’ve been going back ever since. The first collection prize was a great honour. I still remember the reading, which was held in the cinema that year, because Michael Donaghy and Billy Collins were sitting in the front row, and I was reading with Maura Dooley, whose work I have always loved (and Maura is reading this year, so there’s a lovely continuity). Certainly when you publish a first collection, it often feels like you’ve been working in isolation, and you don’t really have a sense of readership, so winning a prize like that (or any prize) is an acknowledgment that you are doing something right!
Tamar Yoseloff’s fifth collection, A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems, was published by Seren in 2015. She is also the author of Formerly, a chapbook incorporating photographs by Vici MacDonald (Hercules Editions, 2012) shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award; two collaborative editions with the artist Linda Karshan; and a book with the artist David Harker. She is a London-based freelance tutor in creative writing, and runs site-specific writing courses for galleries such as the Hayward, the Royal Academy and the Tate. Her blog, Invective Against Swans, explores the intersections between poetry and visual art. Tamar will perform twice on Saturday 5 November at Poetry in Aldeburgh.