‘I wanted to think about the possibility of a revolution based on female principles’: Rebecca Tamás speaks with Alice Hiller.

Above: Rebecca Tamás reading from WITCH at the London Launch, supported by Jane Yeh, A.K. Blakemore and Lucy Mercer.  Photo Madeleine Rose Photography

I first met Rebecca Tamás on the page. Specifically, in her pamphlet SAVAGE, published by clinic. In ‘BDSM,’  I found “telling is a careful/ dance of pleasures.”   And the room reconfigured itself around me. I knew, as Rebecca herself says of Anne Carson, that I would thereafter always read anything she wrote. We first met face to face at a Saturday workshop Rebecca was running at the Poetry School in London. Her exercises facilitated acts of self-divination, and opened us to the world, in all its naked vulnerability. Reading WITCH’s cunt-positive, historically-enraged spell and hex poems, I realised this ‘opening’ was also part of Rebecca’s own creative and political process. Born in London, she currently lives in York, where she lectures at York St John University. On the day of the interview, I left London in heavy rain, with Brexit grindingly updating itself on my phone. But as my train bumped its way northwards, the weather, and my spirits, began to lift. Finally, I pulled into York under a clear blue sky.   Our meeting later that same evening, in a North African restaurant on one of York’s narrow medieval passageways, extended my sense of hopefulness.

AH: I’d like to begin by asking when and why you first engaged with poetry, Rebecca Tamás? Was it always your intention to re-form language into more egalitarian, and potential states?

RT: Somehow I ended up getting my hands on ‘High Windows’ by Philip Larkin. Even though he is a poet I’m pretty allergic to now, it was the first time I had interacted with a contemporary poem, and realised what it could do. It absolutely blew me away. I was 12 or 13. From then poetry was integrated into my life, and I wanted to know more about what it could do. I loved the fact that you didn’t need a story, a plot, a stage – you could just make something happen for the reader out of nowhere!

AH: Who were the first writers who really resonated with you – who you felt brought alive by?

RT: It was a mixture of older poets like John Clare, and Gerald Manley Hopkins – that combination of the bodily, sensual and the philosophical I get excited about to this day. Also Wallace Stevens. Even though my mum is not a big poetry reader, she enjoyed Wallace Stevens, and that was a huge opening for me. Stevens is the poet that I have continued to think about. I still draw from him now. For all his troubling nature, I keep going back to his spectacular, philosophical, rangy poems. To make thought that electric, that bursting with teeming life, is an aim for me. The next real poet for me was Anne Carson. Once I read her work – I started to understand what might really be possible for the form.   Every time I read an Anne Carson poem, I’m reminded that there are no boundaries. Poetry can be anything, and contain everything.

AH: When you find that writer, it is nourishment going down to the roots you never knew you had.

RT: Totally – I read anything Anne Carson writes. It’s always a deep connection that she creates with her readers, a really potent magic –

AH: Having had the privilege of reading a proof copy of WITCH ahead of time, some of the many things I have come to love are its capacities for sensuality – and wit. They offer delight for the reader, but they also make the darkness which your work addresses the more desolating. ‘/penis hex/’, the first poem, begins:

the hex for a penis isn’t really all about
the penis
the penis is not an issue all fine doing its own thing
ink blot semen             sweet white plaster
pale peach tartlet
but when it goes you see        you see a lot of things

to hex a penis off means taking a laugh out for a walk
long and blue
cold as Russia
laughing and laughing your mouth is open
let your girlfriend see your tongue

to hex a penis off wrap yourself up
in a warm bed and no one is there
intellectual persuasion
hand in the unowned air
peeling strips of dull bleached sky

The opening stanza swoops pleasurably to and fro – until we hit the ski jump between the doubled “you see” in the final line.   In that gap, we drop down into a wilder, stranger, more dangerous world – “long and blue/ cold as Russia.” It was there all the time, waiting for us beneath the bourgeois “pale peach tartlet.” This double perspective seems to be fundamental to WITCH, and I wondered if you would say something about it?

9781908058621 (1)RT: It’s funny that you mention that. It’s something that I have been talking about with Ariana Reines. I am interviewing for The White Review, and we’ve been discussing her new collection – A Sand Book – and the way it thinks about the possibilities that poetry offers for digging underneath the surface or ‘normal’ reality. Poetry allows us to connect with the possibility of freshness and agency, that is still there underneath all the societal capitalist constructs – the constructs of oppression. There is the possibility that we don’t have to be defined or controlled – that we can make things new – that we don’t have to label ourselves. I think ‘/penis hex/’ is interacting with that – chipping under the surface of gender.  It’s not even about valorizing the female.   It’s about removing the carapace of the gender entirely and getting down into the mulch where new things grow. Poetic language, interacting with imagery, can create a momentary clash and you see the possibility new shapes of being.

AH: You are taking a feminist doorway through to a space where gender is no longer a defining factor.

RT: Absolutely, it’s not about losing everything we are as a woman, or rejecting it – but being amorphous, open.

AH: When our brains try things out in poetry, we can extend them into real life. The brain forms expectations – but it can also un-form expectations.

RT: Something that is important to me is the possibility of thought spaces existing outside of rationality. The poem is a good space to do that.

AH: Can we talk about the starting point of WITCH? Your recent essay ‘Songs of Hecate”, published in White Review 24, reveals that you wrote your first spell/poem after visiting the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum in 2014. The show explored witches and witchcraft from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century, through paintings, drawings, etchings and art works involving familiars, rituals, uninhibited, multi-valent sexualities – and images of younger and much older women’s bodies. The essay presents the experience as transformative for you. I wondered if you could say something about allowing yourself to sink into that messy, exposing, sexualised ‘degenerate’ WITCH space – and finding within it a deep energy source? It seems that feminism was one gateway, as well as questioning the patriarchy and capitalism, but the figure of the witch was another?

Agostino Veneziano The Witches’ Rout c. 1520 from 2014 ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies.’

RT: Everyone has a different relationship to Witchcraft. For some people, it is part of their actual ancestral historical practice, and daily lived practice. For me, the witch was something new to explore. What I found exciting about the exhibition was that it is very tiring to think about feminist thought if you only live among your contemporaries. In the past women, had so little space to occupy, and we find it so hard to access that – but witchcraft allowed me to. To connect with the angry part of myself was also important in writing this book. You have to experience fury to break down the rigidity of what has held women down for so long. To see that represented in images of women, not usually constructed to be pleasing to men, and to connect with it, was really potent. It was a joy to see lots of nasty, scary women.

AH: If you’re thinking about female agency, the witch offers a world of possibility.

RT: Looking at the images of naked women of all ages performing rituals in Witches and Wicked Bodies was like looking at a refracted history of what has always been there – a female power that overflows. It’s a kind of female power which isn’t obedient, isn’t tidy, isn’t well behaved, isn’t nice necessarily. To see those images was so unbelievingly nourishing even though they were often intended to be negative. The images were of women working their will on the world.

AH: Younger women are not given much space by society to be angry. They are supposed to be ‘nice.’

RT : These witches are angry but also funny and cheeky and sexy and normal. It’s not always this pure righteous anger that dignifies them. They can become messy in their anger and flawed in their anger. Not nice.

AH: And witches can be post-menopausal. From my own experience, I can say that being post-menopausal is a very liberating space for women – because your whole physiology alters. You respond differently to society, and society responds differently to you.

RT: Totally. Often there would be pictures in the exhibition of a mixture of very, very old, post-menopausal women mixing with younger, ‘sexier’ women, intending to offer a kind of titillation in the contrast.   But actually to see that kind of community, to see that kind of shared relationship, where solidarity is depicted, was powerful and fruitful for me. These were female spaces – almost without men. Occasionally there were horned devil figures. There weren’t straightforward situations where men were controlling the scene or defining what it might mean. It’s a witch’s Sabbath. It’s women plotting together, with love. I enjoy playing on the edge of misandry if that’s what’s necessary. I am happy to make people feel nervous and afraid.

AH: Historically woman have spent a lot of time been made to feel afraid. Don’t go out after dark!

RT: For the woman to be the scary one, hits you on a deep psychic level – that’s almost hard to put into words. Equally, to think that when a man hurts you or your sisters, that you might be able to hit back – to even imagine that – has power, whether you believe in witchcraft or not.

AH: This goes back to what we were talking about of entering a space of ‘being differently.’ And at a universal level, this thinking is simply responding, intellectually and emotionally to our whole life experience. Your essay defines your own witch-practice as operating through language, and specifically how “it might turn our fury, and our knowledge and our desire, out into the teeming world through the mouth of a poem.” Could you say something more about that?

RT: One of the things that was exciting about writing WITCH, was that I could access specific historic hexes and spells. Being able to borrow that power was really exciting because it encourages a newly potent way of thinking about language. Witches are not liked, they don’t insinuate themselves. Witches don’t fit into female ‘nicey nicey’ paradigms. It gives you a certain confidence and space to experiment with pushing the boundaries in the material world, in a way we often feel a bit shy to do in poetry.   Sometimes we don’t want to be pretentious – or over-egg what we do it in writing. But being able to consider the power of change is important. It allowed me to access different types of writing, and be true to what I really wanted to talk about. That aspect of witchcraft was really helpful in bringing my WITCH project about. The world of witchcraft made the collection possible.

AK Blakemore reading at launch photo Alice Hiller

AH: The preoccupation of the poems is to express their intentions. The realisation of intention becomes their criteria. I have this sense of great freshness about your writing. How you set about it, is part of why that freshness has come into being.

RT: What is useful about creating a world through witchcraft, is how impersonal it is. In some senses, WITCH is the most personal thing I have ever written. I am very, very deeply implicated in the poems. But they are not autobiographical. I could move into this space and I could talk about everything I wanted to talk I could feel it with my entire self. Part of what women feel fragile about, is being confident that our personal experiences are relevant and important and worthy of serious literature. To be able to put all the questions aside and just work in a space completely outside of my own life, was unbelievably freeing. You don’t have to worry about reviews mulling on whether the poems are about ex-boyfriends, when they’re about the suffragettes and the witch trials. That was great for me – because it allows me to be more creatively open.

AH: Do you have other witch-poets with whom you feel yourself to be acting in concert in this mission? I know Sophie Collins cited you in Small White Monkeys, and that Rachael Allen also lives in York, where you are now teaching.

RT: Yes and no. There are a lot of writers around I am lucky to know, whose work supports my own through its originality and dynamism. With Sophie and Rachael, they are friends – but their books are creating paradigms in thinking about female and feminist experiences in very different ways. One of the poets that I relate to with this book is the American Dorothea Lasky. She about the occult, astrology. In brilliantly fresh, new ways. Another is Ariana Reines, whose book ‘Mercury’ explores, alchemy and the spirits. And CA Conrad, Bhanu Kapil. There are a lot of incredible writers who are making that new space for the un-rational.

AH: When I think of you, Sophie Collins, and Rachael Allen, I see you as lines starting close together, but going out in radically different directions on the map. Knowing you are supporting each others’ projects empowers you to go miles and miles in your individual directions.

Jane Yeh reading at launch, photo Madeleine Rose Photography

RT: I feel so privileged to be writing at the same time as these amazing writers , not just in the world but here in the UK – also Lucy Mercer, Will Harris, Wayne-Holloway Smith, Amy Key, Rebecca Perry, Rachel Long, Jane Yeh, AK Blakemore, Daisy Lafarge, Helen Charman – phenomenal writers. You can just go on and on naming, it’s an unbelievably rich time for the form. And to be a small part of that, makes my work possible. If I felt I was off in my own little cave or tower, I don’t think I would have the creative courage to do what I do. The fact that they are doing work that excites me and ignites my imagination so much, makes it feel possible.

AH: It’s being supported in a project of change where everybody is enacting variously and individually – but with a shared goal of re-creating and expanding the landscape. While many of your poems refer to contemporary life, they operate within the historical framework of the persecution of witches.   Did you research this in detail within your PhD, which I believe was the forming ground of the project?

RT: I actually did research it, but quite separately. I wrote the poems for WITCH as part of my PhD, but my critical project was about ecological thinking in poetry. I was thinking about Adorno, who was my big theory love and Wallace Stevens, and the ecological possibility in his work. The possibility of writing difference was the connection. I did quite a lot of historical research into the witch trials. There is a great book called Witchcraze, edited by Ann Barstow, which is about the European witch hunts, and not specific to UK. I did feel a responsibility to have a sense of what actually happened. The other really central text was Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. She suggests the witch trials were a way of capitalism suppressing women’s agency as it tried to make society accept the fact that women’s work would not be waged labor, and that they should stay in the home as their natural destiny. For her, the witch trials were part of this reign of terror – to make women fall into line. Certainly for me, reading the book joined a lot of dots in relationship with the historical legality of witchcraft and witch trials. This is not the same as the witch as the occult and folkloric kind of symbol, but it is still a great big part of my book. The witch trials were run by men, certainly in Europe, and were an assault on women. So, understanding the explosion of female murder – hundreds of thousands of women were killed –  helped me understand the deep societal forces behind the trials. I felt very lucky to be able to use this text. And my research was beautiful and important in itself – into witchcraft , paganism and occult practices – a lot went into it.

AH: Your poem ‘WITCH SCOLD’ combines past and present, making the literal metal bridle forced onto purported witches a figure for wider female silencing, and the principle of enforced inequality within society which capitalism would also later exploit. It begins:

she looked at the hard bridle
saw it running with its own capture
red and
blue and
witch attempted to be separate from her own body
witch attempted to unwoman
witch was not a wife but they could hear her going on
and on and on and wow and on
he held her arms and she kicked and someone else did
it went over her head the metal bar over her tongue
cages latches she stopped struggling she could not get away
so she made her eyes black holes dragging gravity
the tongue’s flesh was spongy and wet it was raining
so in the marketplace of course she waited one arm
tied to a post and all of that metal on her head her brain
people did their early capitalist accumulation
people said things and there was no saying back
from far away witch could see a ship moving
it was taking voices in soot boxes

Would you be able to say something more about this in the context of what you were telling me about the witch trials?

RT: I am happy that you mentioned this poem. It is not necessarily the one that draws most attention to itself, but it meant a lot to me. When I first saw a picture of a scold’s bridle – something put in the mouth of a ‘scolding’ woman, someone who talks too much – the feeling that it gave me was horror but also shame. The shame of being part of a group who had been treated like animals, not even like animals, worse than animals. There was a societal titillation in female pain.   I found it really hard to look – but I did not want to push that response down. The metal bridle shouldn’t cause shame – it should cause anger. I can’t undo what was done to women, but to be able to explain that in language and refigure it with agency, was very important. It was also an important part of me being able to write, because it was material evidence. Most of WITCH is about is that silent gap. We know woman have been treated cruelly for thousands of years and when you see these material pieces, they give you a small way into that continent of pain. To be able to bring it into the light was part of what I was trying to do.

AH: It seems to me, you had to try and imagine yourself back into the space of what it was like to feel that metal in your mouth, to become the body that was being silenced in that way.

RT: Absolutely, and yet at the same time, the way she responds is with extreme distaste and a kind of calm, partly because she is a witch. She really is. I was fearful of creating a poem that was titillating, or larger than life or violent. I was just keeping it calm and low key, allowing her to reflect in an intellectual way on what was happening to her, even though she was upset. At the same time, I felt I needed to return the perspective to the female body in that moment, to be able to imaginatively get into it, and reclaim it.

AH: When I write about sexual abuse from my own experience in childhood, one of my primary criteria is never to write anything that would arouse a paedophile. I always take out any details that might do that, because I am not going to replicate in my created world the crime to which it responds. In a sense you have avoided replicating the impact on the victim –

RT:  I wanted to avoid anyone deriving pleasure from female pain. I remember talking to Denise Riley when she was my supervisor. There were moments where she encouraged me to tone the poems down – because they could become exactly that, something imaginatively titillating She never wanted WITCH to become a spectacle of female pain –

AH: Of all the many extraordinary and powerful poems in this collection, one of the most moving for me is ‘WITCH EUROPE.’   At just over 7 pages long, it takes as its framework an instructive conversation between “the witch” and “the petrol station boy” who, unlike pretty much everyone else, is “too small to hunt the witch”, and therefore suitable for sharing “coconut pecan muffins” with.   The poem moves through European history with slow-burn irony – “military parades/ where the hats distract you/ to a certain extent from the killing element.” It covers the wrongful accusations levied against witches, and the processes of interrogation to which they have been subjected. A key segment makes a common cause of all the ‘othered’ dead, who have through the centuries been denied rights and voices by dominant groupings, for reasons of political gain, and social control – within Europe and beyond:

the witch tells the boy
that she used to dream about a hill
covered in lumps of earth
the lumps stuck up and so you couldn’t walk
properly over the hill or sit or look at the view
under each of the lumps someone was buried
and the earth wasn’t thick at all over the dead people
so the witch got on her knees and pulled some of
the corpses up to the surface which were at different
stages of putrefaction
because she really wanted to see their faces
and to remember as much as she could about their hair colour
their bone structure or clothes
or to fish out personal artefacts from their graves
and work out their names
but the hill didn’t end and every time she pulled out a body
more stretched out in front of her
so that even those she had looked at were starting to blur together
in her mind
the witch decided that the only thing to do was to eat
some dirt from every grave so that even if she couldn’t remember
who was who then at least some of their bacteria might get inside her
and so she went along and stuffed handfuls of soil into her mouth
without stopping on and on even though she felt sick and knew that she’d never
get to everyone before night came and made it impossible

Would you be able to say something about this poem, and your own sense of connection to European history? It seems to be a poem that engages beyond the witch genocides to waves of genocide in Europe.  It was incredibly resonant for me.

RT: This was actually the first poem I wrote in the whole collection. It was the first poem I wrote about historic pain.  I was constantly thinking about the European destruction of witches as a kind of historical poison that seeps into the present. The personal resonances are also there. I come from a Hungarian family on my Dad’s side, and they have been through the ups and downs of the European history. When my grandmother was born, she lived in Hungary and then it actually became Romania. She became part of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. All the rest of her family were lost in the Holocaust. The only reason that my grandmother survived was because she was in prison for being a communist. In the Sixties, in Romania, my father became an anti-communist dissident, which she fully supported. He was eventually exiled from Romania. I don’t talk much about it because I didn’t go through that myself. But knowing my history, and speaking to my family about it, certainly informed my understanding.   When you hear stories about your grandmother going back to the house where her family used to live, and seeing people who have taken over from her dead family finding a few of the things that had their names, like photograph frames, and sheets, and giving them to her, it impacts you. I do link those histories to the witch trials, obliquely – societies and systems so often use violence for their own gain, and it degrades all of us.

AH: Both my family of origin, and the family of my first husband, Falcon Stuart, lost members to the Holocaust. His father was the sculptor, Oscar Nemon. Nemon lost his mother, brother and grandmother, and almost all his other relatives. Like you, someone who was part of my daily life, had relatives who had been murdered. I am always aware that those people who sit in countries feeling safe and untouchable, are deceiving themselves. We need to tell them Because it hasn’t happened to you doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It is here and it is waiting. Only by attempting to safeguard everyone’s rights, can we safeguard our own. And it seems that ‘WITCH EUROPE’ is a ‘guarding against’ poem. It is a poem saying that we all live with this communal grief. We have to use it to think with empathy, about how it must be for all those people facing these threats now, when they seek their own safety, and that of their families.

RT: The final thing I have to say about ‘WITCH EUROPE’ is that as well as confronting some specific parts of European history, is that it’s a form of poetic grief for the millions of women who have been killed because of misogynistic violence. The witch hunts are an example – but it’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Numerically, globally, one of the biggest massacres throughout history is men’s violence against women – on an incomprehensible scale. There is no memorial or place we can go to mourn it.   There is no particular type of knowledge we can draw on. It’s too mammoth. That hugeness, and the possibility of containing that hugeness, is what the witch is trying to do, climbing over the hill of bodies. She is trying to find a way to bring that kind of huge silencing into reality and make it visible.   But she can’t do that. None of us can. I certainly can’t bring all that to the surface – but I can point to it.

AH: The poem spoke deeply to me. It’s a great achievement. In addition to the two hexes, WITCH also harbours twenty-one spell poems. Their operational mode seems to be that of momentarily cracking open normal categorisations and perceptions – to let the reader see differently. I’m thinking of ‘spell for friendship,’ which includes the lines “when everything pulls back from its sheath of flesh/and the staggering weirdness flows and pulses like/ a lash.” Could you say something about this, and also about the shimmer of queerness, and same-sex closeness, that illuminates WITCH?

RT: Those poems are an area in which to play with a spell – and cause transformation in the world. ‘spell for friendship’ is a moment of pure beautiful weirdness. A lot of the spell poems don’t come from a specific source. There’s no kind of obvious life event or text that I can reference. But that one does come from a real relationship with my friend, Rosie Dunett. I remember us having a conversation about the world coming to an end via climate destruction, or something more supernatural and occult, whatever it might be; and we organised a place to meet if that did come about, to help each other through it! That poem is about friendship and the deep bonds, especially with female friends, that we form. The dream is that for the reader, spells can give that experience of breaking free from the rational, and going into unexpected imaginative spaces.

Lucy mercer
Lucy Mercer at launch photo Alice Hiller

AH:   It really works. There are channels of understanding that link us, as female-identified beings, that are political and as much as they are physiological. There’s a kind of a space of comprehension without the need for explanation.

RT: If we are thinking of things in the occult sphere, the non-national and anti-rational, it’s with woman that we have historically been able to share these things. Up to this day, it is with women that I can really dive into hexing, into astrology, into tarot. They are open to it. They are not scared of it. They give it dignity and respect.   The witch doesn’t really believe in gender. She doesn’t believe in straightforward heterosexuality in any way. I have absolutely no time for thinking that you must be one gender all the time. It’s a multi gender being, not one not the other. Witch is male. Witch is female. I find joy in the spaces around the rigidity of gender and their resulting poetry. I find joy in the people that I know and the way that they challenge those kind of binaries, and help inspire the work.

AH: I did a great workshop with you and Nina Mingya Powles and Anita Pati last year. You used tarot cards. They were really about creating ways we could be, and think, and respond, more freely. They were an opening.

RT: Opening is always good. Putting things into boxes is usually not so good – it’s true for life and for poetry

AH: Along with dancing, eating, experiencing beauty, resisting, and other ways of hexing and spelling, WITCH is committed to acts of witness. ‘WITCH TRIALS’ ends “even if it took every piece of eye meat/ she would develop night vision/ for this long night.” I know you co-edited Spells 21st century occult poetry with Sarah Shin, which contains many poems of witness.   Are the two projects linked in your mind?

RT: Yes they are linked. WITCH was written before Spells – but editor Sarah Shin had an interest in the occult too and that’s how we found each other. She is someone with a real understanding of art and poetry, but also a very sophisticated political knowledge. Her starting point was the political relationships in the occult. We agreed that the occult in all its different forms was absolutely connected to witness, and to drawing attention to life experiences, which are not always given the space. Often people who have not had the space to express themselves use the occult as a medium, and that deepened my belief that the occult is a really interesting tool to think with. Some of the people in Spells were occult practitioners. For others, it was purely an imaginative space.

AH: WITCH also works to redefine the sacred outside of a religious context. In ‘Songs of Hecate’ you write “the sacred, for me, is the strange holiness of being alive in a world of living things.” ‘spell for midsummer’s day’ begins “burn the fire and jump // dear heart// under all this is a centre of human jam/ red and pulsing” and ends “this earth is so // remarkable.” Could you say something more about sacredness within your work?

RT: Sacredness is a big element of this collection, which is quite hard to talk about. I want there to be a kind of seriousness that religion brings to sacred, but without religion. I think the material world itself contains sacred power. That’s what the poem is saying. The fact that we are alive is momentous and surprising.   We don’t know everything and we have absolutely no idea what’s under the surface. I think there are things going on which we can’t just sum up in a spreadsheet and that’s probably the best way I can describe that in non-poetic language. Apart from to say that I am very interested in female mystics. They have been very influential in this project – people like Hildegard of Bingen. They have a very esoteric thinking about spirituality, that is revelatory, strange, lacking in rigidity.

AH: But those mystics, seen in another light, might have been hanged as witches – without the protection of the church.

RT: A lot of them had a lot of trouble. Margery Kempe was constantly getting into difficulties. She was called a heretic by some, drove everyone up the wall with her constant amazing weeping. So yes, they were absolutely on the edge of what they could get away with. That’s what I find exciting about them.

AH: WITCH closes with ‘\cunt hex\’ – another poem which marries beauty and ugliness, and enacts its anger as a restitutionary force, to bring about change and healing.   In a collection replete with extraordinarily fresh images, this poem has some of the most fully embodied, and arresting.   It begins:

all the attention & cold love
waiting at the finland station for the trains to rush in
this cunt is a commie red until the very end
this cunt is a commie with its heat set onto surplus value
be as afraid as you can be afraid
be afraid until you tremble the cunt wavering through concrete
so hardly and so softly

Could you say something about the creative process of endowing “the cunt” with so much power, without forfeiting its inherent vulnerability?

RT: You have definitely picked up on what I was trying to achieve. Yes, it is an angry poem. It’s about the profound need for a shift in systems. It did come from anger – seeing how men treated the woman in my life. In that sense it was quite specific. I wanted to create a spell that would undo their damage, undo them everywhere and in every way. At the same time, I didn’t want to refigure the cunt, or the images of female power, so far that it lost its identity. I always think, I don’t particularly care about women losing their ‘vocal fry’ or becoming CEO’s, or ‘breaking balls’ or being ‘tough’ or really taking on any of those clichés of maleness – rather I want men to become more like us. It would be fantastic if everyone on earth was crying all the time, and allowing their own emotions out, and being free and messy; if all the cliché attributes thrown at women were valorised and respected and enjoyed. These are not bad things.  I wanted the idea that the cunt was terrifying for those being hexed – very strong and very potent – but that at no point did I want it it let go of its vulnerable, emotional commitment to love and feeling. I wanted it to be able to hold those things dear, at the same time as saying You better get on board because this is where we are going, so get on the train or you will be crushed. Women’s chosen versions of reality will become the new reality. And whether that is true or not, we don’t know – but in the poem I wanted it to be true. I wanted to think about the possibility of a revolution based on female principles.

AH: Your acknowledgements give thanks both to your “beloved Mum”, and to “Denise Riley, without whom this book would not exist.” As women, we are formed by our foremothers, but we also offer the future, and future generations, the products of our minds, as well as our bodies. Would you be able to say something briefly about how you hope WITCH may speak to readers, now and in the years to come?

RT: I want everyone to read and enjoy it – if they want to. I feel a little jealous of men having the epic poem as a form sometimes. As a human I don’t have that swaggering confidence, but if the book could steal a bit of that confidence, and refigure it into a female context, it might give other women the confidence to do something weird and offbeat themselves. That would be an amazing result. In general, whatever people get out of it I’m very happy with. I want it to be it’s own animal, making its own life out there without me.

AH: My own experience of reading WITCH was one of intellectual excitement and pleasure, sparking lots of senses of possibility. It’s a book that I cherish because it’s sensual, because it’s funny, as well as being hard-hitting – and it speaks to me at so many levels.

RT: Thank you. To go back to what you were saying about the elements of ‘womanhood’ – they are often degraded, but I revel in them all the same. I feel very happy to be full of emotions and to be weird, and to be sexual and strange and out there. To me there is joy in that, so the joy in the book is real, there is real pleasure in there, and real kind of excitement.

AH: Thank you very much, Rebecca Tamás.

Rebecca York
Rebecca at the end of our interview in York: photo Alice Hiller.

Rebecca is the editor, with Sarah Shin, of the anthology Spells: Occult Poetry for the 21st Century (Ignota Press, 2018). She has published three pamphlets of poetry: The Ophelia Letters (Salt, 2013), Savage (Clinic, 2017) and Tiger (Bad Betty Press, 2018). WITCH is her first full-length collection.

You can buy a copy of WITCH from Penned in the
Margins here

Rebecca’s forthcoming live appearances as below:

WITCH_Events_Flyer (1)


9781908058621 (1)

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Alice Hiller

Activist writer and poet working with words to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood while writing 'aperture' and 'album without photos'.

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