Keep an eye on…Sophie Mayer
Every so often we find an exciting new writer (or publisher) on whom you should keep an eye and ask them a few questions.
Sophie Mayer is a poet and academic based in London; her new collection ‘The Private Parts of Girls’ is published by Salt this year. Interviewed by Anna Kirk, a longer transcript of their conversation is also available here.
You are a commissioning editor of the queer literary journal Chroma. What do you think defines ‘queer poetry’? Would you consider it to be a separate genre in itself, and a label that you would apply to your own work?
I’d like to say I have a swift soundbite answer worked out, but what’s interesting is that the question and definition change with the context. So if it’s asked at Gay’s the Word, it may be about defining a relation to a (hidden) tradition of queer writers, but in an academic context about semantics and critical theory (or vice versa).
I think there is such a thing as the queer community, which is both friendly and fractious, and it has points of connection with the poetry community: in some cases, a writer takes an active/activist or declarative position in both; in some cases, a writer might eschew one or either, but still write what a reader might call queer poetry, in that the way in which gender and desire are read through form as well as content is definitely or defiantly not straight.
As for the straightness or queerness of poetry, it is equally fraught, but there is a conservative tradition in which epic and lyric are not only read as straight, but written to enforce compulsory heterosexuality. The blazon, in which the male poet strips and divides up the female muse, is a key example (and here is where feminism and queer theory cross wires and spark for me).
But how many people are taught the queerness of the lyric tradition at school? For me, the label ‘queer poetry’ is useful as a stance against the suppression of such subversive histories and presents. It might allow a reader emerging from such absences in their education to discover much-needed allies, much as I made a beeline for Women’s Press and Virago books as a teenager. It might give them a way of naming feelings for which they have been told to feel ashamed. At the same time, the label is provocative and political in claiming an allegiance to generations of writers whose work matters hugely to me, from Katharine Phillips to Chrystos. For all three of those reasons, I’m proud to be called/call myself a queer poet, and my poetry queer poetry (although I am always aware of the gap between the two, and of their unstable meaning).
The queerest poem in The Private Parts of Girls is one of the most delicate and abstract: in fact, it’s not written by me at all, but is a patchwork of quotations from Sappho as translated by Anne Carson (a writer whose work I would identify as “queer” although her public expression of her sexuality is male-oriented), in response to an eighteenth-century female poet protesting gendered assumptions about writing and desire. Its queerness is in that layering of an indirect female conversation imagining desire through the feminised task of everyday and ritual food preparation, as well as technical details such as the lack of gendered pronouns. While apparently coy (no body parts but hands), its lack of pornographics is an homage to the French feminist idea of writing as a woman as it looks back to Sappho to find new-old metaphors for a continuum of desire not just for women, but between mothers and daughters, between living and dead writers, and between the writer and words.
There may come a moment when queer is no longer necessary as an identity, but that’s politically utopian even in our vaunted era of liberal democracy (in which so much hinges on competing identities). As a poetics, I hope that queer survives its identitarian meaning, remaining communitarian, aesthetic, activist and erotic.
Your studies and interest in film evidently informs and inspires your poetry; all ‘The Star Poems’ in [your debut collection] Her Various Scalpels are written after films, and there is often a cinematic quality to your work. Your poems are brimming with strong visual imagery and a narrative is suggested through these images. How do you go about translating the visual into the linguistic and aural?
I looked at the presence of the cinematic in experimental women’s writing (and poetry in experimental feminist cinema) as part of my Ph.D. and came to the conclusion that the cinematic marks the bodily that poetry cannot capture, and vice versa.
What I mean by that is not just that cinema throws glamorous bodies up on screen and then poetry blazons them, but that cinema – through its meshing of visual, audio and kinesthetic – creates an area of bodily experience that is very intense, and can be used in poetry to push the reader beyond words. Similarly, the inclusion of a poem in film (as examples, I’d give the poems recited in Sally Potter’s Orlando and Jane Campion’s In the Cut) offer not (only) the speaker’s interiority in a way more intimate than a voice-over, but also a sense of their sensorium and sensuality.
So when I respond to cinema in my poems, it’s not (only) an act of translation: for a start, cinema comprises the linguistic and aural as well as the visual and kinesthetic; and poetry has a visual and temporal as well as verbal/aural element. So I suppose I try to find formal and enunciative parallels for the aspect of the film that has struck me. Sometimes it’s about inhabiting a character to deliver a monologue – but I try to make that more than narrative or affective, but working through an image chain that exists between the screen and my viewing. It’s about the effect of the film on me, not just the film itself (if such a thing exists).
There are far fewer explicitly referential poems in Private Parts of Girls, although there are three (I think) that respond to 2D visual artworks: a sketch by Kiki Smith, a painting by Anselm Kiefer and an installation by Maren Dubnick. My work is very often ekphrastic or adaptive: it often begins with a text or reference and riffs, whether that text is another poem (Lorca, Rilke and Plath are all quoted/ripped off/translated/mashed up in Private Parts), or a myth (Beauty and the Beast, the Iliad, the New Testament). Poetry to me is an act of making (poiesis) and you can’t make something out of nothing; you can be dishonest about it and claim Originality, which is a bit like claiming Authority. I’d rather define poetry as playful, responsive, conversational. Film is part of that conversation not least because I’m not a filmmaker: when I watch film (even as a reviewer) I can be absorbed and affected in a way that is not always possible with poetry, where I’m very technically aware. Likewise with dance (which appears in both collections) and visual arts: there’s an ekstasis as well as an ekphrasis, a leaving of myself that I think complicates the idea of the confessional/lyric, but also extends my range and awareness of the metaphorical and mimetic.
As a suburban kid who didn’t go to the theatre that often, cinema was an important shared space of wonder and ritual. Maybe I should write poems with ice-cream intervals. Actually, there are two ice cream poems in Her Various Scalpels.
Your academic work is strongly focused on performance, female performance in particular, and there is a performative power to your poetry. As you are writing, how much do you consider the performative element, such as how it will sound when read aloud, and how you would like to present it to an audience? Would you say your poetry is meant to be read on the page, or heard aloud, or is it a case of both in equal measure?
Different poems occupy different positions on what I think is a spectrum between text and performance: all poems have aspects of each, in that all words have a sound out loud and a shape on the page. Some poems have more songlike, monologic, dramatic, rhythmic, even danced qualities than others that suggest them for performance – sometimes depending on the day, the reading venue/audience and my set list. I hope readers will experiment with reading them aloud: I often do this with poetry as I’m reading it. It’s a deep pleasure: I particularly like to read poetry in a language I don’t speak out loud, to try and catch the sounds and structures.
There’s another aspect to the question which isn’t just performative but about private reading and public space, which are governed by different codes both socially and legally. Cicero said you shouldn’t write anything you would be ashamed to say, which is something I’m working on in the poem sequence, which had some explicitly erotic poems that I may need a stiff drink before reading aloud. Likewise, ‘On My Mother’s Side’ (from Private Parts), which has a drag Jesus getting drunk with Elvis, is only appropriate for some venues (although this is a challenge, rather than limitation, to me: after reading ‘Bourgeois/foreskin’ in a church, there are few limits) but will always be in the book regardless of who reads it where, which is a sobering and exciting thought.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I think they are the same as anyone’s: to write MORE, do MORE, and to keep changing. I used to have very clear ambitions relating to jobs, prizes, house purchases, etc, but I think my anti-ambition now is to give up those ambitions, to leave the institutionalisation and commodification of art behind. I’d like have more conversations, open my senses more, walk more ground, spend less time on Facebook, watch where those conversations, senses and miles take me in my writing and what effect they might have on the world outside me – that’s what I love about teaching: the mutual exchange of ideas, seedings that might sprout years later.
I’m also going to borrow a quotation from Miranda July, whose individual (and indivisible) approach to making art/change in the world I really admire, being interviewed by Rachel Kushner in BOMB:
‘I have a gigantic plan, Rachel, and it involves performance, and fiction, and radio, and the www, and TV and features that are both ‘conventional’ and totally not. And when I’m done with my plan, when I’m very old, hopefully there will be a little more space for people living with profound doubt to tell their stories in all different mediums. Also Hollywood won’t be so sexist.’