Psychic pull: an interview with Tamar Yoseloff

Tamar Yoseloff. Photo credit: Stephen Wells.

Poet, publisher, and tutor Tamar Yoseloff has been immersed in the London poetry scene since her move from the US in 1987. Yoseloff’s work is richly associative, threading together material drawn from multiple sources—among which William Blake and London feature prominently.

Yoseloff has published six full poetry collections, is a tutor and lecturer at the Poetry School and Newcastle University, and in 2012 co-founded with photographer Vici MacDonald a small press called Hercules Editions. The name ‘Hercules,’ Yoseloff explained in our recent interview (which you can read below), came partly from the fact that MacDonald was living at the time on Hercules Road in Lambeth, opposite the site where William and Catherine Blake had lived during the 1790s.

Many Hercules Editions publications bring together Yoseloff’s and MacDonald’s shared interest in psychogeography and the fabric of the city of London, exploring these territories through multimedia books combining words and pictures in ways that might make us think of Blake’s own illuminated books. Their first book, Formerly, combined MacDonald’s photographs of liminal or ‘disappearing’ fragments of London with poems composed for the purpose by Yoseloff.

Formerly by Tamar Yoseloff and Vici MacDonald (Hercules Editions, 2012). See https://www.herculeseditions.com/product-page/formerly.

In one recent Hercules Editions publication, The Practical Visionary by Sophie Herxheimer and Chris McCabe (2018), the stuff of the city is interwoven with visual and verbal allusions to and re-workings of Blake’s poetry and art.

The Practical Visionary by Sophie Herxheimer and Chris McCabe (Hercules Editions, 2018). See https://www.herculeseditions.com/product-page/the-practical-visionary-by-sophie-herxheimer-and-chris-mccabe.

Yoseloff was also one of a number of contributors to a recent exhibition held at Flat Time House in Peckham, entitled The Bard: William Blake at Flat Time House (30 January – 8 March 2020). The exhibition, co-curated by Chris McCabe and Gareth Bell-Jones, included a display of two series of 20th-century reprints of watercolour designs made by Blake for editions of Thomas Gray’s ‘The Bard’ and ‘The Fatal Sisters.’ Alongside these pictures, several poets were commissioned to contribute poems dwelling on the resonance of Blake’s and John Latham’s work in a contemporary context. Yoseloff’s poem, ‘Belief Systems,’ has recently been published in full by Long Poem Magazine.

Extract from Yoseloff’s ‘Belief Systems,’ as displayed in the Flat Time House exhibition The Bard: William Blake at Flat Time House. Photograph: Mark Blower, http://flattimeho.org.uk/exhibitions/bard/.

In our interview, Yoseloff describes her fascination with both Blake and Latham as figures espousing a kind of ‘total art’:

The life isn’t really separated from the practice. I think both of them spent a lot of time being frustrated by the powers that be. […] The world didn’t understand either one of them or what they were doing at the time that they were doing it. That’s another interesting connection between them—that frustration with what was seen to be quite an eccentric vision. With Latham it probably still is pretty eccentric, but now obviously Blake is in the Tate, and I don’t know whether he would be delighted or slightly peeved by that.

Our conversation roamed from the history of Hercules Editions, to the conception of ‘Belief Systems’ on a stormy day in Peckham, and to the surge of independent publishing ventures in recent years. Yoseloff’s comments tap into Blake’s ongoing legacy in the streets of London—the very streets where he himself once lived, walked, and worked. For Yoseloff, Blake’s biographical association with certain areas of London invests those areas with a kind of ‘psychic pull’ that continues to assert its vitality today.

Links

Tamar Yoseloff: https://www.tamaryoseloff.com/

Hercules Editions: https://www.herculeseditions.com/

Flat Time House: http://flattimeho.org.uk/

The Bard exhibition: http://flattimeho.org.uk/exhibitions/bard/

 

The Interview

 

We began by discussing Yoseloff’s involvement in the poetry and small-press scenes since her arrival in London in 1987.

TY: I’ve been involved with poetry and small presses in London since I moved here, which was—I hate to say this—33 years ago now. It’s been a long time.

CR: You’ve been in London itself that whole time?

TY: Yes.

CR: And where exactly in London have you spent that time?

TY: Well, I’m south of the river now. I started out in west London and I’ve been moving slowly south from there. When I started the press with a friend of mine, I was already living where I’m living now. I’ve been living in Stockwell for the last 13 years, I think. But before that I was living literally about 10 minutes’ walk from the site of Blake’s house on Hercules Road, so it’s a part of London I’m pretty familiar with.

CR: So when did you start Hercules Editions?

TY; The press began in 2012. We were never intending to start a press, my friend and I. It started out as a personal project. My friend Vici Macdonald was and still is a graphic designer and an art editor. I’ve known her almost the entire time I’ve been in London. She and I are fascinated by what we think of as provisional areas of London—places where gentrification hasn’t quite taken hold yet. Vici was particularly interested in shopfronts and signage, because as a graphic designer she was interested in typography, and actually after the Formerly project she then went on to start a site called Shopfront Elegy, where she just posted photographs of shopfronts and signage. Vici was in a creative slump and I had said to her, just in a very casual way, I’d love to do something with your photographs, because she had created quite a large personal archive, which she used as inspiration in her design work, but the photographs weren’t public in any way at that stage. So really it started out with me trying to get her to do something with them. I suggested that I write poems to go with some of the photographs. So I started a process of selection. She has now expanded her archive, so she has photographs from all over the world, but I decided that I would only choose ones from London, and I would choose ones that appealed to me. I ended up selecting them randomly, and not looking to see where she’d taken them, so I could enter into those locations without any preconceived notions, and then I wrote poems. At a certain stage we had enough of these pairings to make a book. We approached a few poetry publishers and we had interest from one press, who said, of course we would want to do this in our house style. Vici and I had already had quite a few conversations about the fibre of the book and how we wanted it to look, so we then decided that we would do it ourselves. We went off and bought some barcodes—you buy barcodes in tens—so we had ten barcodes and Vici said, well, we’d better publish a few more books. Then we had to think of a name for ourselves. I’m afraid to tell you that ‘Hercules Editions’ came partly from the fact that Vici was living on Hercules Road—it’s a slightly less romantic origin story—but we were also very aware of the Blakean connections and the idea of starting a press where we would combine textual elements with visual elements. It was also a little bit of a joke, because we thought, it’s a very grandiose name ‘Hercules Editions,’ and it’s this tiny press and we’re producing these tiny books—the book you have [The Practical Visionary}—all of our books are this size. So that was how we came about and why we’re Hercules Editions. We were both living in Lambeth as well and we’re interested in psychogeography, obviously. Our book is very much part of that project—and some of the other books that we’ve published for the press have had elements of that. We published a book by the poet Sean O’Brien called Hammersmith which is a long poem looking at the history of that area of London, particularly the river. Sean is interested in films from the ‘40s that depict London. Also, he was writing about his parents’ courtship, which happened just after the war. They were living in Hammersmith at the time. We were interested in people who were making those kinds of psychic connections to London.

CR: Have you published books on a vaster geographical scale, or have you tended to go for a more local geography?

TY: We’ve published a collection by the poet Helen Mort. She went walking on glaciers in Greenland—so that’s a bit further afield than London. What we liked about that project was she had been commissioned to write this poem by a composer, so she and the composer went on an expedition to Greenland together, and they had a filmmaker and photographer with them charting the progress of the walk. The only thing that didn’t exist at the end of this process was a print documentation. In the book we included pages from the composer’s score as well as Helen’s poem. We felt it needed another element, so we got in touch with the artist Emma Stibbon, whose drawing practice is informed by arctic regions and we used some of her drawings and watercolours in the book. We generally start with a poem. In the case of Helen’s poem, there were other elements in the project already, but what we tend to do is we start with a poem project we like and then we think about how to build a visual world around it. Sophie Herxheimer and Chris McCabe’s project was a little different, actually, in that they had run a couple of sessions for the Poetry School, which is where Sophie and Chris and I all teach. It was a two-day workshop where one of the sessions involved walking around Blakean sites in Lambeth and afterwards we ended up in the Tate looking at Blake’s works. We then went off to the print studio and made print works based on the things that we had picked up from the walk. After that session, I said to them, it would be terrific to do a book with you. Go off and make something, and whatever you do, I will just publish the results.

CR: So do you usually tend to have more creative involvement in the actual conception?

TY: More often than not, what we like is if somebody comes to us with a poem, and we’ll suggest things. So we’ll know an artist who we think would be an interesting match for the poet, or the poet and I sit down and think, what sort of illustration would be appropriate for this, is there something out there that exists already, is there something we can commission. So it’s quite different with each book. Each book follows the same format but the idea is to try and find a way of visually expanding the life of the text in some way. I don’t like to think of what we do in terms of the visual aspect as straightforward illustration. I like to think that we can find a kind of compatible visual complement to the poem. The Practical Visionary is different because this was completely collaborative. They worked out a formula for compiling the book between them. It started with these letters that they exchanged, where one was William Blake and the other was the citizens of London and then they swapped identities, and at the same time they created photographs of reflections inside puddles. Every time I met with them, there was a different element to the project. I watched the whole thing grow organically, which was fascinating. Because so much of it was about process. And that was actually quite exciting—to see it develop from thinking about how to start and exchanging these texts and then thinking about how they would build on that. Chris wasn’t really doing collage poems before this project and it’s brought a whole new strand to his practice.

CR: Yeah. Sophie Herxheimer was talking about increasingly working with collage as well—during her residency in the States and ongoing. What became of the prints, by the way, that you were making that day?

TY: Oh, I don’t know actually. I think everybody just went home with theirs. Some of them probably weren’t that great! Some of us—I speak for myself as well—some of us are not printmakers, so some of us were getting inky fingers and not much else.

CR: What kind of printing were you doing?

TY: Monotype and fairly basic print techniques.

CR: It sounds like a fun day! The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the Flat Time House exhibition, The Bard, that you were involved in and that Chris was involved in as well. So I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about how you came to be involved in that and the contribution that you wrote. I’ve only seen the small extract that was displayed…

TY: I can send you my poem if you want. It was published a few months ago, in its entirety, in a magazine called Long Poem Magazine. It was a tremendous project. I got involved because Chris asked me whether I wanted to do something. I think that’s the other thing which you’ve probably discovered in your research: there’s a real community now of poets, some of whom are running presses, some of whom are doing educational work, some of whom are also artists. There’s quite a network of people who end up doing projects together. So, you know, I have done other things with Chris, I have done other things with Sophie. We find that we end up together in different scenarios because our interests overlap. So Chris was commissioning, along with Gareth Bell-Jones, the Curator of Flat Time House, six poets to respond to the Blake exhibition that they had there. I was thinking about this the other day—we gave a reading at the end of February, which I think was pretty much the last big poetry event I went to before we went into lockdown. How strange is that.

There were two public readings, with three of the poets in each reading. I was already interested in the work of John Latham, and actually I had met Barbara Steveni, who sadly died just as the exhibition was opening. So I was already interested in Latham’s work and I had been to Flat Time House before. I think that for me the real similarity between Blake and Latham is this idea that the artwork wasn’t a separate consideration: it was part of a kind of worldview, a code of personal belief. It was a philosophy as much as an idea of producing art—the idea that Flat Time House was in itself an artwork. I sat in the kitchen at Flat Time House for an afternoon. There was this partial text on the wall—these letters—and I was going to email Gareth Bell-Jones and ask him what they had spelled out. And I never got round to doing it, so one of the aspects of my poem was about guesswork. The whole idea of exploring—filling in the gaps—became more interesting than actually knowing what it said. I also read the Thomas Gray poems that Blake had illustrated, and I found a few interesting parallels between the way I was thinking about Latham and the way I was thinking about Blake and some of the material in Gray’s poems. When I read that poem now it feels as if there are little hints of the pandemic to come—I was very depressed about Brexit at that time, as I think a lot of people were. And also, I was walking around Peckham and I got to the train station and I went into a café to have a coffee, just to consolidate my notes and think a little bit more about the experience of being in the house—I wanted to get out of the house to process what that had meant. We had one of those big storms—you know, the kind of storm that has a name—and so it was quite a blustery day, and there were a group of homeless men dotted around outside the station and they had duvets over their heads and they were hooded in the way that some of those figures—the bardic figures—in the Thomas Gray cycle are. Suddenly something just clicked between the visual representation that Blake makes of Gray’s poems, and the moment that we were in just then—and we didn’t really even know what moment we were in but it was about to get a lot worse—and seeing these homeless men… That was where the poem began.

Chris had given us quite a tight deadline. So I think I sat in that café and wrote what were to become the first ten lines of the poem, and those were the ones that were on the wall in the exhibition. They came from the experience of sitting there and actually connecting those homeless men to those cowled figures in Blake.

CR: What was the nature of the brief that you were given?

TY: It was fairly wide. I would need to go back to Chris’s original message to us, but I think it was to respond to Blake and Latham and the connections between them, and Peckham. Keith Jarrett, who was one of the other poets who had been commissioned, his poem was a lot more about Peckham, because I think he was living there, or he had been living there, and so his was more to do with the psychogeography of the place. When Latham first bought Flat Time House it was very much a community of artists around there. Traces still exist, in that these artists put up murals and sculptures along that road. Some of them are quite famous, like Antony Gormley, but this was back when they were all starving artists with little studios there. So there was already this sense of a place where artists gravitated, partly out of poverty, but it then became a creative hub. One of the events was a walk around Peckham, where he [Chris McCabe] was talking about Blake’s sighting of the angel at Peckham Rye, so we were again thinking about that connection to Peckham as well. So the brief was really broad. He said, just respond to all these different elements—to Latham, to Blake, to Peckham, to Thomas Gray. So my poem is very much an assemblage of lots of different elements. I quote lines from Blake and from Thomas Gray and I quote things that Latham said about his practice.

CR: Did you find some interesting connections between Blake and Latham, then?

TY: The life isn’t really separated from the practice. I think both of them spent a lot of time being frustrated by the powers that be. You can see Latham getting really grumpy with the council and with places where he was teaching. He would do outrageous things like get his entire class to eat copies of a Clement Greenberg text and then regurgitate them. Then they were burning books—he got thrown out of quite a few places where he was teaching. You can see Blake railing against authority and railing against some of his benefactors. The world didn’t understand either one of them or what they were doing at the time that they were doing it. That’s another interesting connection between them—that frustration with what was seen to be quite an eccentric vision. With Latham it probably still is pretty eccentric, but now obviously Blake is in the Tate, and I don’t know whether he would be delighted or slightly peeved by that.

CR: It was such an interesting pairing, I think, those two—Latham and Blake. In Blake’s work there was this urgent need to be recognised, but at the same time wanting to position himself in opposition to anything too established or too systematic. It’s paradoxical, perhaps, because he doesn’t really fit.

TY: Exactly. And, I think, nor did Latham. As is often the case, Latham is now being revered after his death. Obviously there was that Serpentine retrospective about three or four years ago, and again I don’t know whether he would’ve been delighted by that.

The thing that I found most interesting about the Tate exhibition was that it was very much looking at Blake as somebody trying to pedal his trade. There was a lot about him as a kind of jobbing printer, and a lot of things that he’d made from commissions before he was making his own creative projects. I remember a few reviews were quite sniffy about that—somehow they didn’t like that aspect of the show, but I found that fascinating. It was the first time I really thought about Blake as somebody trying to struggle just to make a living. I thought those early rooms where you saw him developing first as an artist and a printer and then trying to pedal his trade—I found that really fascinating, because I think we haven’t really looked at that side of Blake. As somebody who’s been involved with poetry publishing in London—we are not able to do this without public grants. So that whole idea of Blake being hard-edged about money and what he was going to earn from doing things, I found that really fascinating. And just trying to think of ways of doing things that not only would be enriching to him but would be financially profitable.

CR: Yes—innovating, as well. But, I think, he had to do a lot of stuff that he didn’t necessarily like so much, until he could get enough to make these amazing self-published books.

TY: Exactly, yeah. Again, he had benefactors—he had people who supported him. It’s difficult when you’re making things like that, because you know that your audience is going to be limited, and I think he felt that very acutely in his lifetime.

CR: When did you become interested in Blake? Was it before you came to London?

TY: Since I’ve lived in London, I’ve been more aware of him. And I’ve been more aware of the kind of psychic pull of that part of London, because I lived just on the side of the Imperial War Museum for about ten years. When I first discovered the blue plaque on the site of his house on Hercules Road, I thought, oh that’s exciting. And then, you know, you find these things like the little mosaics hidden away under the railway bridge. I think Chris is more eloquent on this than I am, because he’s really been mapping Blake quite extensively, and Blake’s travels through South London, and trying to find the tree where he saw the angels. I love that idea that he’s determined he’s going to find the actual tree.

CR: I think the phrase ‘psychic pull’ is really great. It’s something that a lot of people seem drawn to, who I’ve been speaking to, or who I’ve come across, which is really quite striking, I think. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of people who write about London and who inspire others who also write about London, but I do think that’s something particularly interesting about ‘Blakean’ London and the way people are drawing on that.

TY: When I first moved to London, I was amazed by the fact that you can walk around the city of London and find remnants of Roman wall. That kind of blew the top of my head off. When I was growing up in New Jersey, I used to find Indian arrowheads in the field and that was the beginning of my interest in these layers of history and layers of settlement. Vici’s project is also about that. Often she would photograph a building just as it was on the verge of being torn down. So there’s this idea of preservation and recording and trying to consider what’s been on this site before you. I think a lot of my interest as a poet has been about that.

CR: So fascinating—and, I think, so fascinating to Blake as well. The other thing is other ‘Blakeans.’ Obviously you know Chris McCabe and Sophie Herxheimer and you would’ve known people at the Flat Time House show—what about others?

TY: I think Chris probably mentioned Niall McDevitt to you. He is the reincarnation, I think, because he is very steeped in Blake and I think he and Chris are the most knowledgeable Blakeans that I know.

CR: Have you been involved with the Blake Society?

TY: Yeah, a little bit when we were promoting the book. Chris and Sophie did an event in their premises in Soho.

One thing is that since Hercules began, there are so many small presses now doing similar projects. I’m sure Chris mentioned Henningham Press to you. I see a lot of people working more in the space between poetry and visual art and thinking about the materiality of the book. In normal times, we would be having the Free Verse book fair. That’s always been an opportunity to see what other presses are up to in terms of their practice and in terms of the sort of books they’re producing.

CR: Do you feel that it’s grown a lot in that time?

TY: Yeah, every year there seem to be more presses coming up and I feel we’re in a good time for that. DIY publishing projects have really grown in the last five years. I think it’s often something that happens in recession. People are producing far more handmade and bespoke publications and I’m quite interested in all of that as well, even though our books are digitally printed. I think it’s quite a healthy time for that kind of poetry production.

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