Today I interviewed Rebecca Tamás about writing poetry, asking the 10 (or maybe 12, I was really keen!) questions you really want to know if you’re interested in writing poetry. She studied at the University of Warwick with me and she also studied at the University of Edinburgh where she won the Grierson Verse Prize. Her poems have been published in lots of poetry magazines and journals, including Magma (which I really recommend having a look at, I love it), Oxford Poetry and The SHOp. Right now she’s doing a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. You can buy her first book of poems, The Ophelia Letters, published by Salt Modern Voices here. I bought it and it really is beautiful, raw and vivid with poems that I couldn’t help going back to again and again.
What was your route into poetry?
I got interested in poetry at around 11 or 12 when I read some Phillip Larkin and thought ‘Wow, here is this incredible medium I’ve never really thought about before.’ So I started writing a few juvenile poems around then. I was also really lucky to have an amazing English teacher at school (shout out to Mr Harkins) who ran a creative writing club every Wednesday lunchtime. He encouraged me to not only write poetry, but also to take myself seriously as a writer, which was a huge encouragement for a teenager to have. From then on I just read more and wrote more, and ended up studying English and Creative Writing at Warwick which helped developed my writing a lot and led me to doing an MA, and now a PhD in poetry! Those courses gave me the space to become a better writer, and to develop the poems which ended up in my first published pamphlet.
What made you choose poetry as your primary medium?
Well in some ways I don’t think I had much of a choice, poetry was all I could ever seem to do! Whilst at Warwick we had to write some prose fiction and it was like pulling teeth, I just couldn’t do it. It isn’t how my mind works at all, though many poets I know are happy in multiple mediums. I also spent most of my life, up until the second year of university, thinking I was going to be a director, and then after that trying to write plays. So I spent lots of time working on theatre until I finally had to confront the fact that I wasn’t any good at it, and it wasn’t making me happy. So I had my ‘Harry met Sally’ moment with poetry: it was there all along, but it took me a while to realise that it was what I really wanted.
How did you get the confidence to say to yourself ‘right this is what I want to do let’s go for it?’
I think it was probably whilst I was studying for my MA in Edinburgh, where I was getting pretty good feedback from my tutors, that I gained that confidence. I’d won a scholarship and a poetry award, which was enough to overcome my natural self-criticism and force me to confront the fact that I might actually have something worthwhile to offer as a poet. It was the first time I’d ever been able to focus wholly on writing, and I realised how much I loved it, and that I was prepared to fight for the opportunity to make a life as a writer. That passion made me ‘go for it’ more than any clear sense that I would succeed.
Do you have to have studied English at Uni or have done post-graduate qualifications to think about becoming a poet?
Not at all. Those things helped me, but only as ways to gain responses to my work and the space to write- you don’t need a university to get those things! All you need is commitment to putting time aside, and the enthusiasm to search out a poetry community. That is something which is easier than ever before thanks to the internet, where an online poetry magazine, poetry tumblr or poetry blog can carry your work to the eyes of hundreds, if not thousands of new people.
I know lots of writers who didn’t study English but did science, engineering, art, and philosophy, as well as those who didn’t go to university but worked instead. Having experiences outside of the academy makes your poetry more interesting. It would be terribly boring if every poet had lived the same sort of life. Many poets I know would have hated the structure of a postgraduate course, they fit their poetry into the rest of their life, and often are much better for it. A lot of poets started with rap, or music and spoken word, and this thriving live scene was their way in to writing. There is no right way, and that’s a good thing. If anything poetry is more open to people from a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds than some things (such as becoming a lawyer for example) because there is no formal qualification for becoming a poet. You are a poet if you write poetry, that’s all that matters.
What is your role as poet? Does poetry do anything?
I’m not sure if I have a specific role as a poet, apart from the responsibility to write the best work I can. However I do feel that as a poet you can speak in a different way to most of our contemporary cultural output. You can slow down and think deeply in a way that goes against the grain of a fast paced Western capitalist society, one that doesn’t always encourage us to look intensely at anything but to be distracted and fulfilled by transient experiences. Don’t get me wrong, poetry isn’t an antidote to Capitalism or anything else (if only!) but I do think it provides the opportunity for real thinking, for using language as a tool to understand ourselves and the world around us.
Poetry isn’t a machine which can provide an effect or an outcome, but it can, at its best, create a kind of space for original and truthful thought. That is what poetry can ‘do.’
What inspires you?
So many things inspire me, the works of poets (past and present) whom I admire, novels, plays, art, film and so on. I’m also inspired by travel and history, and by interactions with the natural world. Anything can be fodder for a poem, it all goes in.
How important is form for you? How do you learn to use form?
I’m not a particularly formal poet, I write mostly in free verse, but I was introduced to various poetic forms and how to use them whilst studying at Warwick. That was a great opportunity to experiment with what form can do, and though I don’t use it much now, I think it’s important to know how form works and what it can do before you decide to ignore it! Also of course free verse is formal in its own way, except that a new form is born to fit each new poem.
How do you know when a poem is finished?
You never really know, but I think I feel like it’s time to stop when the poem seems to achieve a kind of unity and clarity, a coming into focus of each element. Also of course when someone else agrees that it’s finished! I wouldn’t put a poem out into the world without someone else having read it and given their advice and criticism.
What is your new pamphlet about and how is it different to a collection?
The pamphlet is a mixture of elements, there are poems which are roughly about place and journeys in the first half, and in the second half there is a long sequence of poems written from the perspective of Hamlet’s Ophelia. The Ophelia poems mess with the story and the character to look at the repression of the female voice. It’s a sort of feminist elegy, I suppose, to unheard female expression and life.
The main difference to a collection is that it’s shorter, about half the length. It’s something like a calling card, a small expression of where you are as a writer and where you might end up.
How do you go about getting published and noticed?
Well, I was lucky enough to be spotted at an MA reading by the Salt poetry editor Roddy Lumsden whilst I was at Edinburgh, and be invited to his poetry group in London. Through this he saw my work, and gave me the fantastic opportunity to have a pamphlet published. But more generally I think that the best way to get published is simply to get your poems in high quality poetry magazines and online poetry journals. No publisher will consider you for a collection unless you have a history of magazine or small press publication. Also competitions can be a great way to get your work noticed.
The other key thing, and something that helped me a huge amount, is becoming part of a poetic community in some way. This could be on an MA or PhD poetry course, or it could be linking up with poets in your area, going to readings and workshops and sharing your work with other people. Not only will it make you a better poet, but you’ll meet people with whom you can collaborate on projects with and make your own opportunities. There is basically no money AT ALL in poetry (unless you are Carol Ann Duffy) so poets help each other to get noticed and published through small magazines, live poetry nights and the like.
What is the deal is with putting your work up on a blog? Does that counts as self-publishing?
Having a blog is fine but you can’t put up any work you want to get published. I never put up any of my own work, only in online journals and so on.
How do you survive financially and how do poets in general survive?
As I said, poetry is not a lucrative career. There are a minuscule amount of poets who can actually live off their work. I’m talking probably less than 5 in this country. So either you can get a completely different day job, or you can try and use writing to support yourself in other ways. Many poets are also freelance reviewers and journalists, and even more are creative writing teachers, running workshops as part of university courses, or for schools, community groups, The Poetry School and so on.
I survive because I managed to get AHRC funding for a Creative and Critical PhD at the University of East Anglia. This means that I can write nearly full time, and that I have opportunities to teach undergraduate students. Sheltering within a university for a long as possible is a good way to have the time and space to write.
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
The most important advice for any aspiring poet is READ, READ, READ. Read old poetry and contemporary poetry, read poetry in translation and from around the world. Become familiar with the classics, but also keep abreast of all the exciting new magazines and journals springing up online. I am still learning to become a poet, and I am learning through reading. It’s the only way.
Also don’t be put off by how ‘unpopular’ or un-lucrative poetry is. More people want to do poetry than ever before, and there is a glut of great current poetry to be discovered, it just simply isn’t covered by the mainstream media and arts press. It is an exciting time to be a poet, and a privilege to be involved in something that people do for love, rather than financial reward. From my perspective anyway, it’s very much worth the effort.
*If you have 10 questions you want answered about a certain career, email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try and match you with someone*