Interview with Rebecca Tamás, author of WITCH (Penned in the Margins, 2019)

by: Rebecca Tamás , January 15, 2020

In March 2019, when pagans and wiccans were busy preparing for the yearly Ostana celebration, a Spring feast of renewed earthly energy and fertility, Rebecca Tamás’s full-length collection of poems was released into the world. WITCH was soon met with much critical acclaim. The collection followed the co-edited anthology entitled Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, consisting of contemporary spell-poems: these are modern-day incantations that defy the patriarchy and make use of literary occultism.

With WITCH, Tamás tapped into a current of reinvigorated interest in witchcraft, especially in feminist and queer circles. New historiographies, studies, novels, visual art, performances and exhibitions have looked to this figure for a powerful symbol to subvert an all too male worldview. In addition to tackling explicitly feminist issues, such as the European witch trials, the torture of suffragettes, and the notion of a static, binary understanding gender and sexuality, the narrative of Tamas’s version of the witch is also told through interactions with natural phenomena: she sits quietly in pools of mud, listens to the songs of lava, and follows the shapes and poses of a tree. With the focus of this issue of MAI being on feminist pedagogies, I spoke with Tamás about ecological thinking, the pedagogical potential of poetry for change, and about what knowledges and practices we might need in the face of the current environmental crisis.

 

MAI: Why were you first drawn to the figure of the witch?

RT: I wanted to write about the silent gaps in women’s history. What we know about the extent of oppression is just the tip of the iceberg; there is so much experience that we cannot get back to. I wondered how I could write about that in a way that was not overly polemical, but also not boring. How could I think about such a large question that refers to fifty percent of humanity without trying to control stories through my own subjectivity? The figure of the witch started to seem like a way forward. Of course, I’m talking about a very western idea of the witch. Witchcraft is a living practice in many cultures. But for me, in this instance, the witch was a very porous character who could contain knowledge of events such as the European witch trials, as well as having qualities that women are generally not encouraged to have, such as being angry, powerful and sexual. That openness was important. For me, the witch figure is like a chalk outline around a corpse: it’s not the body itself, and you become aware of what isn’t there. The witch is circling around the space of the stories that we don’t have, making them visible without filling them in.

MAI: The main character in the collection’s narrative, the witch, confronts historically significant events for women, such as the suffragette protests and their experiences of torture. However, there are also strong ecological currents at play in your work. What role did ecological concerns have in your configuring of this witch?

RT: I’m not interested in perpetuating the cliché that women and nature are more connected, because that is so often used as an excuse for oppression. But the witch is a figure who questions rationality. What is interesting about bringing occult and magical thinking into creative writing is a kind of resistance to a teleological, capitalist way of seeing the world. The witch can recognize the radical agency that the non-human and ecological world has beyond its use or monetary value. The witch can be a figure through which to sound out the intimacy that we can have with the natural world.

MAI: There are some aspects of your work that lend themselves quite obviously to ecological thinking and pedagogy. In ‘WITCH EUROPE’, the witch ‘impersonates a rock’ and ‘impersonates a tree’, which then enables her to start ‘thinking like a tree / her mind gets green and grows and grows’. These impersonations seem to resist the fact “that people like fast”, which could be a fast way of life, or quick solutions – even a quick buck. Are there clues for an ecological pedagogy here in these impersonations? What do you mean by the mind getting green?

RT: It’s about ways of getting your mind closer to, rather than perfectly matching, types of non-human movement or being. We are very fast-moving creatures, especially under capitalism, which profits from us by producing quickly and not resting enough. So, if you want to connect with the natural environment, you aren’t going to be able to by just running through it. I’m interested in exploring the slow processes of recognition of sights, sounds, smells and spaces. Going green in this example is also a pushback against a way of thinking that insists that everything has to have a purpose. Very often the non-human is engaged with nature through a human activity. We climb a mountain; do a trek; complete well-being walk, and so on. There is an underlying assumption that natural phenomena can and must be packaged up in an activity, entertainment or achievement.

By impersonating trees and rocks, the witch (who is a human-type being) can learn about them. She is having a pedagogical experience by trying to be like them rather than make them fit to her needs or expectations. That’s where a pedagogical experience can happen in nature: approaching it as a learner and receptor and thinking about what happens when we are there, rather than going in and being like, ‘Right, let’s see how much spending two hours in nature can improve my wellbeing!’ We need to stop deciding what we are going to learn before we have even got there.

MAI: On that note, let’s talk further about types of knowledge. At times in the collection, your witch understands phenomena with great clarity. For example, in ‘WITCH CITY’, there are suggestions of collective understanding and subsequent action, ‘in the way that we are knowing things together / climbing the alpine slope of the mind in little jumps’. However, on the previous page, in ‘WITCH PAGAN’, witch is ‘sitting up to the chest in mud and learning nothing’ and the owls ‘mean nothing’. There is a command to ‘forgive that they are not bad or good / you must not know them and not try…’. What power do you think there is in accepting the impenetrable and unknowable aspects of the natural world?

RT: I think it is crucial. Unless we can accept that we can never fully use human concepts to touch the natural world fully, and until we embrace that uncertainty in our relationship with the ecological, we will keep trying to make the natural world perform to human expectations. We need to embrace an unknowing, not as a rejection of learning, but as a rejection of the idea of a complete human knowledge.

MAI: In ‘spell for logic’, you write ‘the sea has a fat logic if you look at it right / operating sneakily by the moon’. This is then contrasted with the synthetic, manufactured logic of big pharma contraception: ‘you will menstruate exactly when the packet / tells you to’. Can you tell me a bit more about what you mean by this ‘fat logic’?

RT: To me, this ‘fat logic’ is a form of knowledge that contains information and meaning, but it is not a logic that is goal-orientated, or one that can be fully explained. There is a feminist aspect to it too. Women’s knowledge has historically been associated with emotion and ritual, and while I don’t necessarily believe that these traits are directly associated with a biologically ‘female’ body, I also think that these are things that have been denigrated. They need to be valorized.

MAI: Your witch is often found listening. She listens to the mud and to the songs of lava. In ‘WITCH EUROPE’ she understands that, ‘just because you stay very still / it doesn’t mean you aren’t listening / it doesn’t mean that you don’t exist’. Why is listening (to nature) so important, as opposed to simply seeing it, or feeling it, or smelling it? What are the wider political implications of listening?

RT: I think listening can symbolize a deeper form of connection that is less controlled by the human gaze and visual perception. We are accustomed to looking at nature aesthetically. We enjoy the nice pictures we set as our screen savers. For example, the word landscape shows how we have turned a vision of nature into a human construct. When you listen to nature, you are sometimes getting experiences that are far harder to categorize and define. The grumblings, the whistlings, the singings, the squelchings are hard to interpret. Listening is a different form of attention, and you might not know what you are going to get from listening. I think there is a very important political humility in that. It is through careful listening that genuine solidarity is formed.

MAI: It’s a kind of respect isn’t it. A kind of patience. We are so conditioned to talk over others and assert ourselves. To just listen is actually very difficult.

RT: Exactly. To listen and be listened to: that’s how we begin to build equality. This relates to issues that I have with some nature poetry. I often feel that the twentieth and twenty-first-century nature poetry that is considered classic or canonical doesn’t really listen to the phenomena it is trying to portray. That’s not to suggest that it doesn’t come from a place of care, but it centers on a very anthropocentric view of nature. In my opinion this perspective can perpetuate a lot of the problems that we already have. If you are not prepared to accept that there is never a perfect form of communication between yourself, the non-human and the reader, then there is a false consciousness at work about the power dynamics being produced in writing about rather than with nature.

MAI: What is it that draws you to the spell as a means of breaking some of the trends in nature poetry that you have just described?

RT: My first context for poetic spell-making was a feminist one: I was very interested in how to find a sort of potent, more powerful voice. But for me a spell is also a way of making physical change in the world. What becomes important about spell language, then, is that it reminds us that language does not have to be an escape from the material. And that has ecological potential. I want to bring attention back to the material, natural basis of much of our experience through my work.

MAI: What can poetry really do to encourage readers to re-assess their stereotypical views of nature?

RT: I don’t think that poetry should have a straightforward pedagogic role. A political commitment shouldn’t become didactic because as soon as it has stated its opinion, the work of the thinking is already done. This can easily be done outside of poetry, so if a poem does that I wonder, why put it in poetry? I think that poetry does have the potential to change our relationship with the non-human by modelling open forms of thinking. What’s amazing about poetry is that it is the place where language is at its most susceptible. We think in language, and so by shifting and changing language I genuinely believe that we can shift and change the actions we engage in. It is slow work and we don’t have much time, so it might not the most effective political medium. But there are no shortcuts in such changes in thinking: the alterations that need to happen in the human relationship with nature are foundational and fundamental. In poetry we can break some of those rigid concepts and see what we can do with the fragments.

MAI: Before we finish, I’d like to ask if there is anything else that you have learned about writing through your engagement with the occult, with magic and spells, and the creation of this witch?

RT: Something I’ve learned is that if you are going to engage in a kind of ecological or occult thinking, then you will have to confront embarrassment, shame and self-doubt because these are things that are associated with ‘wishy-washy’ views of the world. But the areas where the ground feels slightly uncertain are the places where the interesting ideas are. You must learn to not worry too much about the fact that some people will not see it as genuine philosophical or creative enquiry.

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