Tamar Yoseloff's fourth collection, City With Horns, published this month, moves through urban and rural landscapes. Whether in foggy London, a forgotten scrapyard or among artists in 1950s New York, she homes in, with pin-point accuracy, on moments of creativity and destruction, love, loss and longing. She talks here about her fascination with artist Jackson Pollock, playing with voices and viewpoints in poetry and collaborations with visual artists
PJ: You've often responded to visual art in your poetry but with the 'City With Horns' sequence there's more than a response to a painting - you've inhabited the mind and the world of Jackson Pollock. How did that start?
TY: I've had a longstanding interest in Pollock's work, and after reading the wonderful biography of him by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, I started thinking about how you might dramatise that incredibly turbulent life (there was a film starring Ed Harris which used the same biography as a source; although Harris was brilliant as Pollock, the screenplay lacked energy - it was more about Pollock's emotional failings than his work). More recently I admired Siriol Troup's sequence of poems on Velàzquez and his paintings of the Infanta María Teresa, in which she explores the complex relationship between artist and model through the Infanta's voice. I realised what I wanted to say about Pollock couldn't be said in one poem. I liked the idea of exploring his life and work through various voices and angles and forms, but without a linear narrative; perhaps that approach also captures something of the technique of his paintings.
PJ: In 'Night Journey' you're in the head of Lee Krasner, Pollock's widow - can you say something about exploring that fine line between creativity and destruction in the art and in the life?
TY: I think Krasner was as great an artist as Pollock. Where he was physical, she was intellectual; she could see what he was doing in his work and applied it to her own in a more studied, systematic way. But she was engulfed by him. She gave up her career and her identity to look after him, to keep him going. She could see that within that complicated, abusive, self-destructive man there was true greatness and she was willing to make that sacrifice for him. I wanted to give her a voice to address the imbalance between them. 'Night Journey' is about Krasner's life in the immediate wake of Pollock's death, but the poem that follows it in the book, 'Gothic Landscape,' is in Krasner's voice, and expresses the pain and anger she must have carried with her for the rest of her life.
PJ: Away from the Pollock sequence, in many of the other poems the 'I' is not the personal pronoun of the poet. You take up voices and viewpoints, sometimes of inanimate objects - I'm thinking of the collective 'we' in the 'The Sadness of The Scrapyard,' that could be the objects's view, but it also implicates the reader; and the tokens in 'Tokens.' Does the viewpoint come early on in the process?
TY: I suppose it does. I'm less interested these days in writing from a first-person point of view that comes solely from my own experience, although there are poems in the book which are very personal, such as 'London Particular' or 'A Stone', in which the first-person narrator is me, and not a character or a poetic construct. I get impatient with the assumption readers sometimes make that the first person narrator must be the poet. I feel that if I put myself into a poem there needs to be a very specific reason, and not simply to relate a personal anecdote or an emotion. As for giving voice to objects - I'm fascinated by the way that objects speak to us, and by utilising that very personal connection to keepsakes and souvenirs, the poet is often able to say something very powerful about love and remembrance, more so than if the statement is made directly in the first person.
PJ: The 'City In Winter' sequence seems to reference your father - you've dedicated the book to him. 'In London Particular' there is a direct reference, but in 'Siberia' it seems to be more about a Russian past, it's like novel in miniature. What is the process of packing a Russian novel's worth into so few lines?
TY: That's a really interesting observation. I suppose my father's presence haunts the book. 'Jetty' is the first poem I wrote after he died, and although it's not directly stated (the poem is also based on a painting by the Canadian artist Peter Doig), for me his death is the hidden subject. Although my father's parents were Russian, he was born in Iowa, and so maybe the North American winter landscape is closer to his legacy than the Russian landscape in poems such as 'Siberia' or 'The Russian Ending.' The Russian landscapes are more literary than personal; I do like the idea of trying to miniaturise narrative in poems.
PJ: You've also been writing fiction and I wondered if this shifting of voice and point of view in the poetry, this sense of a much larger narrative, had developed as a result of creating fictional characters?
TY: Yes, I think so. I didn't enjoy writing my novel; it felt too vast, too unwieldy. I'm not happy with it anymore, and so I've put it to one side. But I've always been interested in narrative and how you present stories in poems - the way that poems can give you a snapshot, maybe not the whole story, but tantalising glimpses. I really like working in poetic sequences - the Pollock sequence in this book, and the 'Fetch' sequence in my last, which threaded through that book in sections like a serial. I think there are a lot of fictional techniques that poets can borrow. Ciaran Carson is constantly experimenting with the crossover between the two genres. I loved his last collection, For All We Know, which was really a novel built out of two long poetic sequences.
PJ: How does writing poetry and fiction work for you? Are you always writing poetry alongside the novel?
TY: I wrote quite a lot of Fetch when I was working on my novel, mostly as a diversion from getting on with what felt like harder work. Interestingly, the 'Fetch' sequence and my novel have a very similar plot. But once I was fully into the novel, I had to put poetry to one side. The processes are too different, and you can't be distracted when you are working on a long piece of fiction. Now the only prose I'm writing is for my blog, and never more than about 500 words at a time - I find that more manageable!
PJ: You've been awarded a PhD in creative writing. People fear such an academic quest might dampen creativity - how did the critical part of the thesis affect your creative work?
TY: I'm not sure if it did. I actually enjoy critical writing, probably more than I enjoy writing fiction. Like poetry, critical writing is a way of working out an issue, or posing a question then locating an answer. But I see it as quite a separate genre.
PJ: You've collaborated with the artist Linda Karshan - how has that affected your work?
TY: My collaboration with Linda represented a very important shift in my work. It was the first time I had responded not just to a picture but to an artist's process, both physical and mental (which is something I've done again with Pollock, although obviously without the artist present). The resulting poem, 'Marks' was based not only on Linda's work but on numerous conversations we had about working methods and inspirations. I think the collaboration freed me to experiment more in my poems. Linda and I are working together again this summer; I will be writing a poem in response to her new series of woodblock prints for a book to be published in Holland in 2012. I'm interested in working closely with the printer in considering the visual appearance of the poem, experimenting more with typographical and concrete elements.
PJ: You're busy as a writing tutor, how do you keep teaching time in balance with writing time? Does the teaching feed the writing?
TY: Yes, always. In trying to find a way of explaining technical issues or in answering questions for my students, I am always working out my own process. But I'm doing a lot of teaching right now, so there never seems to be enough writing time.
PJ: Who are the poets you return to in order to feed your own writing? Can you name one poet or, even one poem, that is a touchstone for your own work - a work you return to frequently for nourishments?
TY: Elizabeth Bishop. I use her poem 'The Fish' with my classes. It is a perfect model of how to extend description into metaphor, but one of my desert island poems is 'The End of March' - I find it very moving. And Eavan Boland. For me her work combines the political and the personal in a way which never feels forced or strained. And there are poets I like simply because their writing is so different from mine: Wallace Stevens, Paul Muldoon, WS Graham, Frank O'Hara.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
TY: Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin. I read a lot of non-fiction. And Claytown, a fantastic debut collection by James Goodman.
PJ: What are you writing at the moment?
TY: I am writing a sequence of very informal sonnets to accompany a series of photographs by my friend, the designer and art editor Vici MacDonald which depict the more ruined bits of London. We're both fascinated by urban ruin, brownfield sites, disused and discarded places. I recently read Richard Mabey's book The Unofficial Countryside which celebrates those unloved corners of the city.
PJ: What would you say to a poet putting together a first collection?
TY: Order your work into some kind of theme. The most satisfying collections are ones that have recurring motifs and metaphors running through them.