No 13 - Winter 1998
Vicci Bentley interviews Vicki Feaver
Vicki Feaver was born in Nottingham in 1943, studied at Durham and University College, London and now teaches creative writing and English literature at the Chichester Institute of Higher Education. She has published two poetry collections, Close Relatives, (1981) and The Handless Maiden (1994) which won a Heineman Prize, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and includes the 1992 Arvon Competition prize winner, Lily Pond and the 1993 Forward Prize winner of the best single poem, Judith.
Thinking of new ways to kill you
holding your head down
VF: These poems were all written around the same period. They came out of feelings of anger and grief at the break up of a relationship. The first was Marigolds. I deliberately set out to subvert traditional male associations of women with flowers - that they are beautiful and frail and are soon going to fade. That’s quite a powerful image for men - as flowers, women can be plucked. It’s the carpe diem idea - in poems like ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ - that you’d better make the most of being beautiful now. I wanted to write a poem about flowers which gave women the power.
Flowers are really very sexual - they just consist of a plant’s sexual parts. That rarely comes out in male poems about flowers, except perhaps in D.H. Lawrence. One of my favourite poems is Bavarian Gentians where he talks about going down into the smoky underworld: “Let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness, even where Persephone goes.”
My poem began with buying marigolds from a stall at Brixton market, bringing them back and wanting to paint them. It emerged slowly as a gradual working out process. I’m not sure how the Bacchae came into it, except that I remembered seeing marigolds growing in Greece. Suddenly the legend of those women who went mad because they lived in an emotionally repressed, wholly rational world connected with something I wanted to say in the poem.
VB: What I find impressive is that while you express some very powerful and angry emotions with disarming frankness, you always seem to know when enough’s enough. Do you splurge it all out then go back, look at it and think ‘that was a bit of an overkill’?
VF: I edit and cut if I think something doesn’t work. But my poems never come in great bursts. They’re always built up really, really slowly. It’s almost as if the process of writing the poem is an act of discovery. It’s like something Adrienne Rich says - I can’t remember the precise words - something like ‘you put into poems what you didn’t know you knew’. Ted Hughes wrote something similar. ‘Maybe all poetry… is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate. The writer daren’t actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies’. For instance, Judith came almost by chance when I went to Ireland for two weeks to write. I hadn’t gone there with any ideas at all. But the first night I looked in the bookcase for something to read and picked up a copy of the Bible with a postcard tucked in at the story of Judith. That night before I went to sleep, I read the story of how she dresses up as a prostitute and goes to the tent of Holofernes, gets him drunk and cuts off his head. It was an important story for me. I was so moved by this woman who used her grief and anger at her husband’s death to save her people. Instead of being disabled by grief, she uses it positively. I identified with that. Judith became someone I could almost inhabit. Writing the poem was the positive act that came out of my grief. The story was Judith’s but the emotions were mine.
VB: Do sadness and grieving make you more prolific?
VF: I’m never prolific. I find it an incredible struggle to put experience into language. Maybe anger and sadness can act as catalysts. There has to be some momentum to push me along - something powerful enough to overcome the negative, self-critical voices in me that say “you can’t do it, it’s not even worth trying.” I see writing as like having to cross a great chasm. Experience, or the story or idea, is on one side and the poem is on the other. Mostly I just fall into the chasm. In fact that happens so often that I’m almost afraid to sit down and write.
VB: On all levels, writing is like ritually gutting yourself. Laying yourself bare, but doing it in an intelligent, coherent let alone creative way is often too tough a challenge. One of the points of tension is that you’re attempting to run on both an intellectual and emotive charge, where traditionally the two are opposing forces.
VF: Maybe the process of writing is a kind of gutting. But in a good poem the poet disappears. That’s what the struggle with language is all about. The point is that in the finished poem you don’t lay yourself bare. You create a strongbox of words. I agree that writing involves a tension between instinct and intellect. I think astrology’s rubbish really, but a friend did my birth chart recently - I’m a Scorpio - and what came out of it, though he hardly needed to consult the stars to see it, is that I am both a highly intellectual person and a highly emotional person. That is probably why I’m a writer and why I find writing so difficult. The battle between them can tear me in two, as well as the poem.
VB: What kind of impact do you imagine your poems have on other people? Do you think of someone else reading them when you write?
VF: It’s wonderful when people respond to and identify with my poems. But when I write I just think about what I want to get into words and the selection and shaping of those words. I’m very aware of the literary dimension. After all, I did a degree i n English and I teach English literature, so I hold up huge standards for my work. I’m not just writing about feelings and experiences - I’m trying to write good poems, poems that engage with the tradition of poets who’ve written before.
VB: Which other poets do you admire?
VF: The first poet I loved was William Blake. I kept a copy of his Songs of Innocence and Experience under my bed as a child. I think I was about twelve when I discovered Dylan Thomas. I chose a copy of his collected poems as a school prize. I enjoyed the sound of the poems and the fact that some of them were about sex. Later, of course, I read all the great English poets. I especially admired, and still do, George Herbert, Wordsworth, Keats, Hardy and Edward Thomas. for a long time I wanted to be a poet but felt too daunted by these models. It wasn’t until I discovered women poets like Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath that I got the confidence to begin to write seriously. There’s an essay by Adrienne Rich in which she describes a similar process. She began by writing poems like the male poets she admired. Then she went through a terrible period when she couldn’t write except in fragments. Then those fragments built together to make poems about female experience, until finally she gave herself permission to write in her own voice as a woman. I am not ashamed of writing in a woman’s voice. It helps redress the balance of all the poems written in male voices.
Something I want to explore further is the link between a woman’s body and her writing. In the same way as there is an identification of male writing with the phallus (at it’s most simple the pen is a phallus), there seems to be a connection (much discussed by feminist theorists) between the anatomical space inside a woman and a woman’s writing. Sylvia Plath, for instance, referred to her failed poems as stillborn foetuses. If you continue the sexual analogy, you can see this space as potentially enormously rich and fertile - a cauldron of creativity. But it’s also a space of conflict: a kind of black hole. A woman has to be the guardian of her own space. She can open up to and be fertilised by elements of the male tradition, or be dominated by it. It’s a space in which she has to engage with the nature of femaleness and all the shameful ideas phallocentric culture has associated with that, as well as with her ideas about what she’s for. Is she a vessel for poetry, or just a vessel for carrying a child?
VB: You make frequent references to the female space, for example in Oi Yoi Yoi, your poem about a Roger Hilton painting.
VF: This is one of the first poems where I wrote about my feelings about being a woman and it’s strange I use a painting of a woman by a man. However, it’s not one of those paintings where the woman is fixed in a vision of how a man wants her to be. Her face is left blank for us to write on it what we want. What appeals to me is the enormous energy of the figure as she bounds across the beach. This was an image of a woman I could identify with and build on to say something about my ideas of how a woman might be. For instance, ‘she’s not one of those women who are always trying to get rid of their smell’.
VB: You also refer to sexual smells in Lovers, after Andrew Wyeth’s painting, where the painter can “smell the fox stink of her sex” as the woman models for him. And in Women’s Blood, the poem about your first periods, you write with some satisfaction about hoarding the scent of your own sexual energy: “I piled the pads until the smell satisfied me, it was the smell of a corpse”. I found that candid and brave because the full strength of personal, sexual realism in both men and women is still fairly taboo, unless you’re setting out to be confrontational, which I don’t think you are.
VF: Women’s Blood is more about the misery of living in a house of quarrelling women and the effect this has on the female child than about sexual power. It was important for me to write the poem but I don’t often read it. I am very aware that some people recoil from it, particularly men but even some women. The courage to write it, as with many of the other poems, came out of a realisation that in my first book I had effectively handcuffed myself. I was brought up in a girl’s school to be a nice girl, and then a nice woman. In life I continue to try to be a fairly nice woman. In poetry I fight it. I try to keep in mind Virginia Woolf’s image of the Angel in the House who strangles the writer.
VB: Nevertheless, you seem to be able to forgive, encourage and even celebrate masculinity while asserting your femininity. In The River God, you seem rueful that this time it’s the man who’s repressed by his wife’s house-training.
And in Oi Yoy Yoy, although you say that you should really object to the schoolboy attitude to women’s sex, you ask quite simply “which of us doesn’t occasionally want one of the old gods to come down and chase us over the sands?” Your poems are feminine, rather than feminist they are assertive without wishing to emasculate.
VF: I like men. I live with a man who makes me recognise every day that men contain feminine characteristics just as much as women contain masculine ones. One of my recent poems Hemingway’s Hat, published in The New Yorker, deals precisely with that and with the possibility of changing the stereotypes inflicted on us by history and upbringing.
But I also think we should respect and maintain the differences between masculine and feminine. Creative energy is partly about the ability to negotiate between the two poles; it’s a current that runs between them. The most difficult thing for women poets is directing that energy into poetry. They have to clip themselves, cut off the awkward bits: to stay in a relationship, to be a caring and unembarrassing mother, to keep a job. It’s really difficult to sustain poetic energy and be a good teacher, for example. Maybe the reason why Emily Dickinson was such an extraordinary poet was because she shut herself up in a room and refused to deal with society.
VB: Which of your poems are you most pleased with?
VF: Perhaps the one that is most important to me is The Handless Maiden. It’s based on a fairy tale. The story is that the girl’s hands are cut off by her father and she is given silver hands by the king who falls in love with her. Eventually, she goes off into the forest with her child and her own hands grow back. In the Grimm’s version it is because she’s good for seven years. But there’s a Russian version which I like better where she drops her child into a spring as she bends down to drink. She plunges her handless arms into the water to save the child and it’s at that moment that her hands grow. I read a psychoanalytic interpretation by Marie Louise von France in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales in which she argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman’s creativity that only the woman herself can save. This was such a powerful idea that I had to write about it. It took me three years to find a way of doing it. In the end I chose the voice of the Handless Maiden herself - as if I was writing the poem with the hands that grew at the moment that she rescued her work, her child.
I suppose I go through the process of endlessly cutting off my hands and having to grow them again. You ask if I’ve found any strategies for writing. Only to go away on my own, to be myself, and just to write.
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