Interview conducted by Jazmine Linklater, Miranda Stephenson, Sarah Fletcher and Rachel Patterson
Article by Rachel Patterson
After Clare Pollard’s event, Ovid’s Heroines, three other reviewers in residence, Jazz, Sarah, Miranda and myself were invited to interview her. We all sat down at a small table in the author green room at Palace Green Library with Pollard at the head and began our interview. We discussed everything from the production design of her show to the politics of motherhood.
Firstly, Jazz asked Pollard how much she was involved in the production of her show as it was produced by Jay Bird. I was surprised that this was Clare Pollard’s first live literature event. ‘It was really nice collaborating with other people’ she said. ‘Jay Bird do lightly rehearsed readings. The idea is that they get poets into spaces they don’t normally go. Actually it was Julia [the director] who approached me after she had heard me performing one of these monologues. She thought it would make a great show so I can’t really take any credit for that. But she had heard me do it by heart, they are just so dramatic it feels like they are for acting. They were read out at the time and I really feel that poetry is an oral art.’
As Clare Pollard is the first female translator of Ovid’s Heroides, our conversation quickly turned to feminism and what it means to be a woman translating great classical women’s monologues. ‘In a way’ stated Clare, appearing deep in thought. ‘It allowed me to be more straightforward. Men were more self-conscious about the women, when they are being witty they stated it was just Ovid’s voice coming through and he wasn’t doing a very good impression of a woman. There is some really sexist stuff in the criticism. I could just push all that aside and just get really into the character.’ She then went on to discuss how she doesn’t really feel Ovid is feminist, but it is ‘almost like a feminist text.’ I had only heard vaguely of Ovid’s Heroides before and agreed with her when she said that the reason it has been neglected is ’because male academics were like ‘eugh these whining women and dismissed it.’
Even so, all of us agreed that the text can’t really be called feminist as it doesn’t really fit into the current feminist landscape of women working together as a sisterhood for equality. We were all concerned about the attitude of some of the poems, how the women seem to lack agency and actively hate other women.
‘That was simply just the way that society was, we can’t really blame Ovid for that. You see women who are stuck on the island and they can’t do anything. I think it is a commentary on women’s situation and he feels great empathy for them. I am not claiming Ovid is a feminist, he is certainly not feminist now, although feminism now is certainly very different from feminism when I was younger. I guess when I say it is feminist I think Ovid saw women as equal, he treated then as intelligent and complicated and I think that is enough. He was interested in their stories. And of course he shows men to be absolutely despicable. Like Shakespeare he is just so human, he is interested in the whole of humanity and writes such rich characters for women.’
‘Maybe it’s quite difficult to determine whether it is feminist because, it is hard to know about the lack of human agency people felt in Ovid’s time. Do you think western men and women can still learn from the classics, or only by turning away from them?’ asked Jazz.
‘It is really important to know history. So often in the modern age everybody is just in their little bubble. It is interesting to see how we got where we are and to look at times when women were more empowered or less empowered and see how all these things are cultural. In some ways his women are much more empowered than a Victorian woman. Everybody always thinks the gender roles in their times are the norm.’
We ended the conversation by talking to Pollard about her new poetry collection Incantation, also published by Bloodaxe Books. She talked about how she had been inspired by Ovid’s use of ‘hypnotic’ repetition, to break the rules young writers are usually taught in classes and reuse words in poems. This led to a fascinating discussion about the politics of motherhood.
‘I have been reading a lot of Adrienne Rich,’ she said. ‘Her stuff is about motherhood but it is really political. It is the sort of motherhood poetry I wanted to write (not that there is anything wrong about writing poems about how your baby is a miracle) but there are those books already. I have a poem called ‘Suffer’ in the Morning Star which is about the language surrounding motherhood. I have always been a feminist but I have never really been oppressed. But you are treated differently once you become a mother, the system is totally stacked against you. You have to be this strong mother. If you take any drugs they say you are harming your child. There is this huge list of 120 things you can’t do, you are made to feel bad if you lie on your side. The pressure on women to breastfeed is huge, I was shown this video that basically said breastfeeding would save the world and create world peace. This creates a system whereas if women are pressed they have to breastfeed for 6 months, which means the mother has to be the child’s primary caregiver, you can’t leave your child as they have to be fed every half an hour. It sets thing up so unequally that it makes the most equal of couples unequal, where the woman is doing the most of the caring from the first days.’
Pollard smiled and laughed after saying this, ‘That was my rant,’ she said. Once I went home I read Suffer online and it is a beautiful poem, filled with all the passion she had shown our interview. When I reflected on our interview afterwards it struck me how great of a tool poetry is for conveying women’s voices. Maybe the most feminist thing about Ovid’s Heroines is that the women get to tell their stories in their own voices. Through words, women can be angry and passionate and we can tell our stories; this is hugely important, from Ovid’s heroines to female poets of today.
Rachel, Jazmine, Miranda and Sarah are Reviewers in Residence at Durham Book Festival.
Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.