INTERVIEW by Sophie LongNWR Issue 95
Jane Yeh was born in America, educated at Harvard University and now lives in London. She holds master’s degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Manchester Metropolitan University. Her first full-length collection, Marabou
, was published in 2005 by Carcanet. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. Jane is also the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and a summer residency at the Yaddo writers’ and artists’ colony. Currently a Senior Researcher in Creative Writing at Kingston University, she also writes for The Times Literary Supplement, Poetry Review, The Village Voice, and Time Out New York. Her second collection, Ninjas
, will be published by Carcanet in November 2012.
: The first thing that struck me about Marabou
was the varied cast of characters, from historical figures to animals. Did you find any of your characters particularly interesting to write? Were there any that were challenging or difficult to engage with?
: I think writing poems set in the past came naturally out of being at university, when I had the opportunity to study British and European history for the first time. I was immersed in reading about things like cultural history, social history, and art history, areas that really fired my imagination. Even in the English Literature modules I was taking, the hot methodology was New Historicism, which involved analysing Elizabethan and Jacobean texts by using odd or curious anecdotes and bits of historical evidence from the period. So I had a lot of source material to draw on in writing about historical characters.
The difficulty I found came sort of after the fact, when you step back from what you’ve written and try to judge it objectively, because these characters were (rather inevitably) anachronistic, ie the product of me, a twentieth-century American woman, trying to imagine the voice and thoughts of someone in very different circumstances in the past. The same could be said of writing in the voices of animals, which I also tend to do - that they’re overly anthropomorphised, hence inauthentic. But what’s important to me is trying to access the language of these characters, rather than trying to create ‘realistic’ simulacra. Their language, and their situations, are much more interesting than my own.
: ‘I am transfigurable, re-formed, chimaerical,’ (‘Self Portrait after Vermeer’). The characters and identities you create do all seem a little unstable or unsure of themselves. Would you agree that they are all experiencing or manufacturing some kind of change in themselves?
: You could say that the characters in Marabou
are shown at moments when they’re under pressure. I think, if anything, change is being forced upon them by external forces, like the fire in ‘Portrait at Windsor’, or the volcanic eruption in ‘Vesuvius’, or the speaker’s opposite number in ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’. It would perhaps have made the book more interesting if the characters were more unsure of themselves than they are!
: ‘My greatest talent is impersonation - To simulate a person’s idea of an owl,’ (‘The Only Confirmed Cast Member is Ook the Owl....’) These characters all seem very aware of the nature of appearance and reality, and we have a sense that what we ‘see’ of them is not necessarily the whole truth. This is perhaps most prominent in 'The Pre-Raphaelites', 'Ook the Owl' and 'Bad Quarto', among others. Would you say that some of your characters are performing, that they have created alternative identities for themselves?
: Yes, the theme of performance runs through a lot of the poems - the idea that we all have multiple identities, that we present different faces or fronts to the world at different times, and that we can construct new identities, at least to some extent. These concepts tend to be labelled postmodern, but to me they came through looking at the works of older writers, especially Oscar Wilde and the early modern playwrights. (To take two obvious examples, Ernest in town becoming Jack in the country, in The Importance of Being Earnest
, and Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night
.) The slippage between ‘real’ and assumed identities comes up often in revenge tragedy, where characters are always adopting elaborate disguises: if you pretend to be something for long enough, do you end up becoming it? What Wilde called, in the title of his wonderful essay, The Truth of Masks
: ‘You can’t take our picture... What can’t be observed can’t be changed by the viewer,’ NWR
: As a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Manchester Metropolitan University, how would you say you and your writing have changed as a result of your studies?
: Studying creative writing helped me a lot, by exposing me to a ton of other poets’ work - the poems that teachers would assign us to read as examples, the poems other students were themselves writing, the books that teachers or students were enthusiastic about and were reading in their own time. For example, when I was at Iowa in the 1990s, poets like Tranströmer and Trakl were suddenly in vogue with certain students; I’d probably never have heard of them otherwise. Obviously those two aren’t noticeable influences on my work (or not yet, anyway), but reading a wide range of poetry opened my eyes to what you could do in a poem or what a poem could be, especially on the contemporary front - the canonical poems we studied in undergraduate English modules only went up to about the 1960s.
: What would your response be to the assertion that creative writing cannot be taught?
: As a teacher of creative writing and a former student of creative writing courses, unsurprisingly I do think writing can be taught, like any other skill. No one challenges the fact that people take lessons in music or drawing or acting or dancing, so why should writing be different? Any area of knowledge can be taught – we’re not just born knowing how to analyse a novel and write an essay about it, we learn how to do so by studying English Lit at school. That doesn’t mean that everyone who studies English Lit will become a brilliant scholar and thinker, just as not everyone who studies creative writing will become a brilliant writer. But concentrated focus on a subject, with guidance from a teacher, is usually a good thing.
: Finally, are you currently working on any other writing projects?
: I’ve just finished writing my second collection of poems, called The Ninjas
, which will be out from Carcanet in November. It’s quite a departure from Marabou
, I think, as most of it is written in the third person, rather than the first, and hardly any of the poems are in couplets. It does feature a talking panda though!
Jane Yeh was talking to Sophie Long, picture by Steven Gontarski.
previous interview: Robert Minhinnick
next interview: Chris Meredith