Keeping a closer eye on…Sophie Mayer

Every so often we find an exciting new writer (or publisher) upon 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. An introduction to Sophie can be found here – interviewed by Anna Kirk, this is the longer transcript of their conversation.


You are a commissioning editor of the queer literary journal Chroma. What do you think defines ‘queer poetry’ – is it purely that it is written by lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender writers? 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). The unitary white middle-class masculine pose of authority is ingrained in Western culture – and at the same time, it is challenged from the start of written poetry, whether in Sumeria or ancient Greece; challenged again even at the core of the tradition in Shakespeare’s queer sonnets with their sinuous blur of second-person address and theatrical role play across genders.

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).

‘Queer’ started out as a politics of interpretation celebrating such instability of meaning, as a way of handing power to the reader in engaging with the text – but it also offered a way for writers to claim a community, tradition and openness. It’s associated, for me, with a lineage from Sappho to Gertrude Stein, who not only lived an openly lesbian life but refused the straightness of syntax. It’s that formal and structural challenge, as much as the re-visioning of content and excavation of untold stories, that signals ‘queer’ for me.

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 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.

As you experiment with form in very original ways, referring to certain poems you have written as ‘a novel’, ‘scenarios for short films’, and even ‘a ballet’ in which you use words and the space on the page to create a poem that resembles choreographic notation, have you ever written screenplays, a novel, or anything for the stage? If not, does the idea appeal to you?

I’ve translated two plays for the stage: Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and Euripides’ Medea, and adapted Margaret Elphinstone’s novel The Incomer (never staged, but it has Elphinstone’s approval, so anyone looking to stage a post-apocalyptic fabular ensemble drama with dancing, let me know!). I’ve also worked on a few devised shows where I’ve provided text, which I loved. I have been working on a couple other stage adaptations as well, but theatre and film depend on an exponentially increased scale of organisation and funding compared to poetry, which scares me. Once outside student community, it’s harder to make theatre.

I am writing a novel, though, having been dared to do the Novel Writing Weekend in September 2009: I’m trying to turn that first, insane draft into something publishable, which means I spend a lot of time torturing myself about what the novel is (bourgeois! feminised! linear!) and getting excited by books that aren’t like that, then depressed by how good they are. Recent examples would be Emma Donoghue’s Room, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, and Ali Smith’s forthcoming There But For The (and I’m madly super-excited to be reading with Ali on Tuesday 5th July at Clerkenwell Tales!)

I’m also writing a book-length poem sequence which is definitely not a novel. It might be a medical history, a catalogue raisonée, a sketchbook… I think I’m just terminally ornery and refuse the limits of form, preferring unwieldy monstrous hybrids where two modes, forms or genres can interact with, critique and challenge each other. So I may have to reconceive the novel as a poem, ballet, film scenario or something to wrap my mind around it.

There is a poem in your new collection entitled ‘On Being Dismissed as “Plathlike”‘, in which you describe a female poet becoming domesticated, ‘canonised and tamed’. The poem also has a quote from a Brontë novel as its epigraph. How useful do you think it is to compare poets to one another and create a canon, and do you think that female poets are dismissed or taken less seriously because of their gender?

I think that canonisation by the critical establishment often requires etiolation, not only of female poets but any who make the transition to the accepted mainstream. Their rough edges are smoothed. Particularly for female poets, I think there are limited types (arche- or stereo-) to which they are conformed: the hysteric, the domestic, the harpy, the saint. To paraphrase Mae West on marriage, “the canon is an institution, and I ain’t ready for an institution yet.”

As for comparing poets and creating a canon: I think that canon has a limited meaning, or can be most useful defined as relating to a consensus established by a critical mainstream and promoted/supported/expounded via institutional means such as awards, anthologies, pedagogy, media presence, etc.

But a book such as The Gender of Modernism by Bonnie Kime Scott does precisely the opposite: it looks behind the received canon to show a network, a playground, an interchange that is fluid, social, interdependent, dehierarchised and often (for all those reasons of refusing to be established/establishment) in danger of being forgotten. So those kind of groupings can be very valuable, whether they follow the line of a public manifestation (implicit or explicit) at the time, or are connections argued later, such as the connections between Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson alluded to by Susan Howe in My Emily Dickinson.

I think women who take up public space are still perceived as a threat; poetry may allow them to do so in such a way as disguises the threat they pose, by presenting their concerns through the domestic/romantic – but then bringing that mode of (dirty linen) address into the public sphere often provokes condemnation, but on the other hand is now the safe/expected mode of female writing. I was listening to a male poet read from his work this weekend and heard many of the traits of the supposedly female confessional genre, but because it confessed about moving (and being moved) in public space – on the road, in a hotel, at a parade, at a pub – it escaped the label.

On the other hand, female poets who are explicitly political, experimental or erotic often risk not being heard at all. There are lots of useful labels for them that engage the stereotype of women as talking too much, too loudly and not to the point: shrew, termagant, windbag, etc. But it’s hard to make the argument that women writers are dismissed, without being dismissed oneself as one of those stereotypes. Observe the treatment meted out to Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference anthology of innovative women writers, many of whom are explicitly feminist, (and which I’m very proud to be part of) by the TLS, which claimed at once that it was full of incomprehensible nonsense, and that the idea of an anthology for women writers was special pleading for work that should stand or fall on its own merits.

So the canon and its guardians offer the only game in town; you have to play the hand they deal you and I don’t know anything about poker so this metaphor is going to collapse.

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.

Who are the contemporary poets that you are currently reading yourself, and who would you most like to see read their own work?

I always love to see Anne Carson read: she has a unique style and lifts texts off the page that often seem unperformable. Likewise, Caroline Bergvall, who uses multi-voicing and is incredibly thoughtful about performance while creating dense, elliptical texts. I’m honoured to have had the opportunity to hear Chrystos read, which was mesmeric: one of those readings that makes you want to write! I like to hear poets with strong reading voices, such as Kathleen Jamie and Liz Lochhead, who make the Scots aspect of their idiolects audible, and similarly Lorna Goodison, who makes her work sing with warmth and intelligence: I like it that I can now hear their voices in my head when I read their work. Probably the most extraordinary reading I’ve attended though was by poet/performance artist Cecila Vicuña, who tied the audience together with a thread! Her work seems insistently pagey when you read it – strange mise-en-page, lots of puns and doubling, but in performance is magical, bringing out the glamour of grammar.

I’d love to hear Jen Hadfield read, because she’s such an anti-scene poet and there’s so much space on her pages. Also, Indonesian poet Dorothea Rosa Herliany, not least because the Home Office refused her a visa when she was coming to Ledbury three years ago, so I feel strongly about the lost opportunity! I wish I’d been able to hear Emily Dickinson read her work to learn more about the relationship of her line lengths and punctuation to breath. I often go to the PennSound archive, and Andrea Brady’s Archive of the Now to listen to poets who I haven’t heard and would like to, particularly experimental poets who are pushing at the boundaries of comprehension and linguistic integration. I’m very glad to have seen Allen Ginsberg read before he died, but I would LOVE to have been at the original reading of Howl because it has defined a half-century of public poetry.

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.’

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