(United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1988)
BiographyBold, unruly and irrepressible, Rebecca Tamás’s poetry channels the feminist, occult and ecological to captivate and disrupt. A writer, critic and editor, Tamás is lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University where she co-convenes The York Centre for Writing Poetry Series. She has published three pamphlets: The Ophelia Letters, Savage and Tiger. With Sarah Shin she is the co-editer of Spells: Occult Poetry for the 21st Century.
In 2016 Tamas was the co-recipient of the Manchester Poetry Prize and in 2017 she was awarded a Fenton Arts Trust Early Career Residency. WITCH, her first full-length collection, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and a Paris Review Staff Pick, was described by Shivanee Ramlochan as “scatological, subversive and frankly delicious”. Extracts from WITCH have been turned into a contemporary song cycle ‘Spellbook’, by composer Freya Waley Cohen, and performed by the Britten Sinfonia in various venues.
In 2013 her first pamphlet, The Ophelia Letters, was published by Salt. Place is central to many of these poems, evoked through intimate sensory experience. ‘Eigg’ demonstrates an interest in the non-human and the non-human time-scale:
Soil that knows its own strength,
its whalebone spine
pushing the ground back up out of silt.
Graves and road signs temporary.
There is also characteristic celebration of direct interaction with the natural world: “She drinks the water unfiltered / mouth to the stream” (‘Rùm’). ‘The Ophelia Letters’ sequence shows an early interest in a longer, obscured narrative format and of a shifting but central character not bound by time or place. Playing with representations of Ophelia and psychological interpretations of the figure, Tamás explores selfhood, sexuality, gender and bodies.
In 2016 Tamás received the Manchester Poetry Prize for a series of poems named after female mystics. These poems make up part of her 2017 pamphlet Savage (Clinic). These poems are not written ‘in’ the voice of the mystics, but move beyond personhood and historical time through a sort of visionary channelling akin to the women’s own practices:
the excess of pain is not pain
I am whipped into feathers hot tea sweetness
please keep the pain, this keening gold,
huge fractures and clear lightning
(‘Teresa of Ávila’)
Here we can also see Tamás becoming increasingly interested in the visual dynamics of her poetry on the page while poems such as ‘BDSM’ demonstrate the playful and unsettling friction she creates by rubbing together sexual, bodily, philosophical and political ideas.
Tiger (2018) was published as part of the Bad Betty ‘Shot’ series of mini pamphlets featuring a single poem. Again, the visual aspect and impact of the poem is important, with Tamás using spacing, sizing and capitalisation to lead the reader in search of the titular beast. For Tamás, much ‘nature’ poetry is problematic as it ignores the fact that “we can never fully understand or engage with a non-human’s experience of reality” (Faber Poetry Podcast). The poem acts as an anti-natural revelation fable, a critique of the human desire to reach the non-human. The speaker has already decided what they will encounter: “I expect that my life will be changed / I expect that I will understand / I expect that I will undergo total orgasm”. But the poem cleverly subverts its own subversion, becoming an inventive way to approach the non-human, as the speaker comes to inhabit a changed, more animal self.
In 2018 Tamás also published Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry (Ignota Books) with co-editor Sarah Shin. They state that “Spell-poems are vehicles of change that take us beyond the borders of the rational into a place where the right words can influence the universe.”. Bringing together occult practitioners and those for whom the occult simply offers an imaginative space, the anthology is diverse, international and radically political.
Tamás sees spell-making as a feminist intervention, “a way of making physical change in the world” (Interview with Alice Hiller) and this same thinking is at the heart of Tamás’s 2019 collection. WITCH (Penned in the Margins) reclaims and valorises the denigrated ‘female’ sites of emotion and ritual as radical ways of interpreting and changing the world.
“I wanted to write about the silent gaps in women’s history […] in a way that was not overly polemical, but also not boring”, explains Tamás (Interview with Mai). The witch figure allows her to do this, removing the restrictions of time and space. She subverts all norms, including of sexuality and gender:
the witch kept having sex with the devil and the devil
had all the sexual organs you could
want so the witch could have him inside her at the same
time as putting his breast in her mouth
(‘WITCH AND THE DEVIL’)
Violence towards women is central to the collection, but Tamás’s poems inhabit rather than display female pain, so that rather than titillating they bear witness:
[…] the witch spent the whole time forcing her eyes to stay open
even when the air was very thick she was going
keep having a look
even if it took every piece of eye meat
she would develop night vision
for this long night
There is also an ecological aspect to these poems. The non-human illustrates a space beyond a utilitarian human society:
the owls watching you and meaning nothing
the crows speaking and suffering
curling out of the wind with a spit of blood in their mouths
you must forgive that they are not bad and not good
you must not know them and not try
WITCH does away with nearly all punctuation and revels in the stream-of-consciousness mode so often thought of as feminine in negative terms. But the collection as a whole has an elaborate architecture and an underpinning narrative. When the witch is burned she is reborn as from the ashes as ‘WITCH VOLCANO’, a parable of female rage, hope, joy, agency and aliveness to the world—a sacred state. We can arrive, temporarily, at ‘WITCH KNOWING’, thinking that goes beyond the rational and acts as “[…] a kind of resistance to a teleological, capitalist way of seeing the world” (Mai interview) and we are left, in ‘\\cunt hex\\’ with a call to arms:
good work that must be done at the level of dirt
work that must draw all the people together
all the workers all the cunt workers taut and loosening
all the cunt workers cuntless or heavy
Openness, to others and the non-human world, makes Tamás’s a hopeful art. Her teaching practice allows her to continue to “challenge and shift [her] assumptions around poetry” (interview with Lucy Writers Platform) while she develops new ideas – currently “swirling around about nonhuman thinking, proto-communists in the 1600’s and mystic ecstasy”. Anything is possible because for Tamás poetry gives access to the sacred and mysterious:
The play of language can crack it open like a dark blue egg, dribbling liquid you cannot explain, but want desperately to touch with the tips of your fingers.
(‘The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult’, The White Review)
© Emily HaslerThe Ophelia Letters (Salt, 2013)
Savage (Clinic, 2017)
Tiger (Bad Betty, 2018)
WITCH (Penned in the Margins, 2019)
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère