Tara Bergin won the Seamus Heaney First Collection Prize in 2014 with This is Yarrow, which also received the Shine/Strong Award, and was shortlisted for the Poetry Now Award: the Poetry Book Society named her a Next Generation Poet. The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet, 2017), a PBS recommendation, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. She teaches at Newcastle University, and has also written a thesis on Ted Hughes’s translations of János Pilinszky.
I met Tara Bergin for coffee in Durham, close to the cathedral, and with my wife Jenny, and her son Jack in attendance. Every time we speak about poetry, I’m struck by Tara’s candour as well as her tact: she doesn’t like everything, but she’s generous in her attentions, and I feel, afterwards, reassured about the ‘poetry world’, as we sometimes call it. She explains her work vigilantly, and has also told me of an attempt to remove from her readings of it the sort of amiable jabber we usually stick in between the poems – defensively, perhaps, out of the feeling that an audience needs always to be entertained. What I love in her poetry is its refusal to flatter in this way, to always already give the reader everything, apologising for itself, like someone who arrives late to a party – Tara’s poise is the very opposite of this. At the same time, she doesn’t write ostentatiously ‘difficult’ poems: her work is, to me, immediately compelling, and complex without being adorned.
So, we chatted in Durham, and elsewhere: but this interview is a written one, composed of emails back and forth. I sense everywhere in it the quantity of thinking that has gone into Tara’s verse – a type of cognition which is, however, thoroughly digested and transformed (her poems are never boring, or prosaic). It was a delight to chat nerdily about verse minutiae, but I hope my questions took us toward bigger themes too.
I love the tempo of your poems – how they change speed, repeat lines, turning simple words, and sentences, into a jolting music. How ‘it’ blurs, for example: ‘I was painting it. / It was not at all frightening’. Did it take a long time to put this poem together?
No it didn’t – which is not what I usually say about my poems. Usually I talk about how I construct poems from a wide assortment of thoughts or ideas, notes or quotations that I have been gathering for months, or even years. Then, if I’m lucky, I suddenly find my topic and begin to weave everything in. But ‘Mask’ stands out in my memory because it was made in a very different way. Basically, as far as can remember, I wrote it down quite quickly, and then at some stage typed it onto my computer, pretty much as you see it now. I printed it out and at that point I must have looked it over briefly because on the single draft that I have, I’ve scribbled in the margin a possible alteration: ‘change “I” to “she”?’ I didn’t make that change, but the fact that I considered it and that I decided against it seems noteworthy in retrospect. The poem is about the masks I paint and try on each day when I’m writing poems, and yet for this poem it’s like I was about to lift the mask up, but then at the last minute put it down and let the poem stand as it is.
On the other hand, the topic of masks, which is central to conversations and debates about the truth of poetry, is one that I have been curious about for many years. And while I say I let the poem stand as it is, it took quite a few months – maybe five or six months – of maturing and thinking about before it was finally ready to be put forward for publication. Added to which, when I compare the finished piece to the draft, it’s clear that I made tiny, subtle alterations which are key in producing that ‘blurring’ that you mention.
The first line’s one of those you return to, after reading the poem right through. It’s self-contradictory (very spoken, by a speaker unsure of herself) and rather ominous…
That’s exactly right. It’s just the sort of self-contradictory phrase we use in speech – that I use in speech – and these kinds of expressions appeal to me. But why do they appeal to me? Maybe it’s to do with the difficulty of spoken speech, and of explaining something properly. Life is not straightforward, but we are often expected to give straightforward explanations. It wasn’t a laboured-over line, but I can tell when I look back over my rough papers that it held significance for me. When I was compiling my final manuscript to send off to Carcanet, I experimented with different layouts and orderings of the poems, and at one point I had this line standing on its own at the top of a page, as a kind of false start, followed by the full poem on the next page. I decided against this in the end but it shows me now that the line must have represented something to me. I think it’s bound up with a personal difficulty I have with writing about certain topics in a clear and helpful manner. It’s some kind of innate, anti-linear manner of thinking, which is hopeless when it comes to trying to write good critical prose, which I cannot do, but which works all right for poems. When I’m writing critical prose, I start too far from the point, and sometimes I never make it to the point at all. If my book was a play, I think this poem would exist as a separate short scene spoken by the poet-character directly to the audience, as a kind of attempt to explain truthfully, in the best way they know how, what they are doing: ‘what I do daily in my room’.
What I do daily in my room: would that be writing? Or – thinking of Woolf, maybe – the whole of life, of living as the person who the speaker happens to be? The speaker clarifies – ‘I mean…’ – but we’re still unsure.
Yes it’s meant to mean writing. But the words ‘daily’ and ‘room’ have an ordinariness and domesticity to them that’s somehow important. Maybe the real point here is that the act of writing – ‘the painting and trying of masks’ – is not false, but rather exactly the opposite. It is ‘what I do daily’ meaning it is as real and as necessary as any other daily task. The setting of this poem is also ordinary, and really a children’s party has nothing to do with ‘the making of literature’ or the ‘life of a writer’ – yet what about all those writers who have to throw parties for their kids or attend the parties of other people’s kids? What goes on in their heads? Are they no longer poets during that time? It can be a split life, being a writer, and it’s interesting when the opposing or different lives are forced to come together. Some of the new poems I’m working on at the moment are about this clash, but for various reasons the image of ‘the apron’ – putting it on, taking it off – keeps recurring. I think the apron, like ‘mask or ‘room’, is starting to symbolise in my mind the day-to-day task of writing.
‘Some of the paint got on my hair. / No one cared.’ ‘Some of them got paint on their hair. / No one cared.’ There’s a fair amount of rhyme in your new book – some of the poems remind me of Christina Rossetti, a little bit.
That’s a very nice comparison. I studied Rossetti briefly at university, in a module called ‘Late Victorian Poetry and Prose’. I remember thinking I would hate it but it was revelatory. I got obsessed with her poem ‘Winter: My Secret’. Even that use of a colon in the title was appealing to me. In a short commentary that I wrote about it a few years ago I said that the female speaker in Rossetti’s poem seems to be two things: an everyday woman wrapped up against the cold weather; and a thing of nature with a sensual and violent energy in her. It’s easy to see from this what kind of influence she has had on my writing.
Another influence in terms of rhyme has been listening to music. While writing this collection I was listening to certain folk songs and traditional music, where rhyme and refrain plays a very important role. Rhyme is a dramatic and powerful poetic device. Half rhymes, same rhymes, eye rhymes – they are all deeply exciting to me. Of particular interest when I was writing this book was near rhyme, and repetition; especially the ‘near repetition’ that occurs in the lines you mention. Part of this also comes from my interest in translation, and the comparative exercises I did as a result; drawing up lists of various translations of the same line, and becoming fascinated by the new meanings that were suggested by these lists. Language is very often the starting point for a poem – the sound of words, as well as their meaning. Something like the sound of these two words, ‘Trakl’ and ‘Gretel’, or ‘Gretel’ and ‘Grete’ really preoccupied me for some time, and were the starting point for my poem ‘The Sad Tale of Hansel and Gretel’, though they didn’t appear in the poem in that overt way.
The oscillation of ‘everyone’ and ‘no one’: is the speaker included in this group? She seems oddly alienated from the children. It makes me think of your poem ‘Making Robert Learn Like Susan’, which seems to be about the travails of teaching, with its talk of ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ learning.
Yes, alienated, but by the end, the final line signifies a kind of kinship; maybe even a kind of hope. The alienation is part of what this poet is, and by recognising that, the alienation is not so difficult. I didn’t think all of this consciously as I wrote the poem, of course, but looking at it now I can see that it’s quite a happy ending – potentially. As for ‘Making Robert Learn Like Susan’, that’s different. That came about during a training course I had to do when I got a job as a University Lecturer. The title came from a book about Higher Education Teaching and Learning Strategies – not my usual choice of reading material, though I was very pleased to get a poem out of it. It proves you never know where you’ll find material.
But a lot of writers have to teach creative writing now, and it’s useful to know how different writers approach the task; how they manage their own writing around it. I notice that this was a point of discussion even back in the seventies. Many of the Paris Review interviews I’ve read include a question about teaching. When Auden is asked. ‘Have you ever taught writing,’ he says, ‘No, I never have. If I had to “teach poetry” [I like his use of quotation marks here!], which thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart.’ Good ideas, I think. He goes on to say that poets shouldn’t teach creative writing – ‘that’s dangerous’. Elizabeth Bishop says, ‘I don’t believe in teaching poetry at all, but that’s what they want one to do.’ She adds, ‘The word creative drives me crazy’. Robert Lowell says that he teaches whatever he happens to be working on himself, from Russian short stories to Baudelaire, and that ‘it’s a very pleasant pursuit’. Berryman says he enjoys teaching, but doesn’t recommend it to poets. ‘If you teach creative writing, you get absolutely nothing out of it,’ he says, and recommends instead teaching history or classics or philosophy.
There are no quotation marks, around ‘What do you think?’
My editor for this book was Luke Allen, who has a keen and brilliant eye for punctuation. We spent a long time discussing my use of quotation marks. There is a reason behind every different way I represent speech in this collection (and there are several). Here, the poem acts as a kind of story, told quietly and in recollection, so the speech is played down, hence no quotation marks. There is however a capital letter, which means that there is no intended confusion as to who is talking, as there is elsewhere in some of the other poems. In the poems where the speech needed to be dramatic and very direct, it is placed in quotation marks.
Your poems speak through personae – masks – and you incorporate material from multiple sources, detailed in your notes: would you say you’re opposed to the sort of poem where the poet speaks with a solid sense of who they are, and in their own voice? Or uninterested? Or maybe it just doesn’t come out that way for you.
I am not opposed to any type of poem if it’s good. Those poems where the poet speaks with a solid sense of who they are and in their own voice appeal to me greatly. I try to write like this too, but it’s not easy. I do take seriously Yeats’s statement: ‘All that is personal soon rots; it must be placed in ice or salt’. I had this written on a post-it-note above my desk, and I liked to ask myself: so what’s the ice; what’s the salt today? But when I’m writing I try all sorts of different things. It’s sometimes puzzling to me that my poems end up the way they do but that’s the mystery of it. For a long time I didn’t know what was meant by the phrase ‘find your own voice’, because as far as I was concerned my own voice was of no use to me; I needed to find other voices, and as many as I could. Eventually, I came to realise that the ear is a vital part of the process. Once you start to recognise what excites your poetic ear, you’re maybe a bit closer to knowing what your poetic voice could be.
The poem is mysterious. It seems to throb with significance even though it describes an everyday event. Do you see yourself as withholding information from the reader, or do you, too, not know exactly what your poems have come to mean?
You could call it ‘withholding information’ or you could call it compression and concentration. ‘Information is not knowledge’. My intention is never to confuse or baffle a reader. Certainly, for me, one of the nicest parts of writing poetry is editing; cutting out unnecessary detail, and getting the sentences down to their indisputable selves. As for meaning: sometimes the meaning changes as I write because a story appears that I wasn’t expecting. Often – and make of this what you will – I start out trying to write a pleasant poem about nature or love or whatever, and then some twisted alternative starts to appear that I just can’t resist. Recently I was working on an innocent poem in praise of a chaffinch, but it’s now turned into an oddly tense and competitive conversation between two friends. What a poem comes to mean is different. Once it’s out of my hands and into the hands of readers, it’s their interpretation that counts.
We’ve spoken before about line-endings, and how you often break where there’s a comma, not feeling it’s justified otherwise. In this poem, I’m drawn to one comma in particular: ‘But as I was doing it I was thinking, / This is interesting’. Which is a sort of couplet, and the comma seems just right. It leads into speech more softly than a colon would, or quotation marks.
Not only do I often break a line where I feel there is a comma – or a breath – but I also tended to put the comma in at the end of the line, to indicate the breath. Luke Allen at Carcanet brought my attention to this and suggested that the line break was doing the job of a comma, so I didn’t need both. As a result we spent a whole afternoon in the Carcanet office in Manchester going through my typescript taking out nearly all my end-commas. By the time I got on the train to go back home I was feeling completely freaked out (‘all my commas are gone!’) and so I comforted myself by deciding that I would simply put them all back in again and write a cover letter of apology explaining the importance of commas to my existence as a poet and person etc., etc. But then I decided to wait a little bit and get used to the idea and eventually I came to realise that firstly, it didn’t make quite as much difference to my existence as a poet and person etc. as I’d thought, and secondly, that the poems looked okay without all of their end commas. Now I am converted to the Luke Allen School of Punctuation – not that I’m stripping it all out, but that I’m thinking about it even more carefully than I used to. I laughed when I watched a recent TV serialisation of Robert Galbraith’s/J.K. Rowling’s Strike detective stories. At the end of the one about a murdered novelist, they solve the whole case by noticing a highly uncharacteristic use of semi-colons.
The tense at the start of the poem is interesting too (I think it’s past continuous): ‘I was making this mask for the children. / I was holding the white face in my hand.’ It reminds me of Paul Muldoon and ‘A Trifle’: ‘I had been meaning to work through lunch…’. You feel as a reader (standing in for the auditor, in your poem) that a story’s going to follow, but then what you get isn’t quite the anecdote you predicted!
How interesting. I wonder what anecdote you predicted? Past continuous is a nice tense, and almost as fun to use as historical present (‘So I’m making this mask for the children…’), which I also like and which can give an even more dynamic feel to the telling of a story. Your use of the word anecdote is interesting too. My dictionary defines it as an amusing or interesting incident but also says it derives from the Greek for ‘unpublished’. That ties in with the notion of ‘confession’, doesn’t it? The sense that this type of poem has a personal element to it; that it’s a personal tale, a personal letter (or diary entry); that it’s the ‘unmasked’ performer talking. Yet at the same time it relates to that earlier point about using stories as an answer. You ask me a question, I tell you an anecdote. If we went into this further I think it would be possible to find very deep-seated reasons for this kind of approach, from religious and folk symbolism to the telling of jokes. But let’s not go into it further. Let’s just say, I was making this mask for the children…
It won’t help if I tell you this but it might.
I was making this mask for the children.
I was holding the white face in my hand,
its underside around my palm.
I was painting it.
It was not at all frightening.
But as I was doing it I was thinking,
This is interesting.
This is like a physical manifestation of what I do.
I mean: what I do daily in my room.
I held the face in my hand and painted it.
Then I tried it on and said What do you think?
Everyone squealed and screamed.
They all wanted to make one.
Some of the paint got on my hair.
No one cared.
Soon all the kids had made a mask.
They put them on and went around screaming.
Some of them got paint on their hair.
No one cared.
They were both themselves and strangers.
That’s all they wanted.
First published in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet, 2017). Reproduced with permission of the author.