Sending Letters into Silence: A Conversation with Clare Pollard
By Michela Villano
Edited by Katharine Yacovone, Lois Payne, and Annie Agathopoulou
“In many ways a letter and a poem are very, very similar things.”
As the summer heatwave rages on, I have chosen today to sit in front of the screen and chat with poet and author Clare Pollard about writing in translation, feminist letters, and epistolary poetry of past and present. I notice that Clare is wearing a bright blue swimsuit (she has just played with her children in the kiddie pool) and I, wearing a long-sleeved, black shirt, immediately envy her.
Our weather talk quickly turns into a discussion of her poetry collection Ovid’s Heroines, published in 2013. A translation of Heroides written by Ovid, which is considered to be the first book of dramatic monologues and epistolary fiction in history, Ovid’s Heroines gives voice to the women of Greek mythology, such as Penelope and Medea, as they lament their grief, solitude, pains, and anger to their lovers in unanswered and tear-stricken letters. The reader dives into the feelings of love, longing and despair of these women, as they attract the spotlight so often granted to their male counterparts.
I ask Clare about her experience of translating and crafting such an ambitious collection. ‘There are two threads here. One thing is the classics, which is a thread that weaves through my work; I’ve always loved the Greek and Roman mythologies. The second thing is the involvement in a translation role which came about almost accidentally. I went on a trip to Hungary and there my friend, the poet Anna Szabò, gave me a very rough, literal translation of a Hungarian poem, and I used the dictionary and tried to put the poetry into rhyming. She was thrilled with that, so I thought maybe translation is something I can do. I stumbled across Heroides without realising what it was. A book on women’s perspectives told in dramatic monologues? It sounds like The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy. It’s absolutely amazing! So I took a very old translation with a quite old fashioned diction and a Latin dictionary. I started with Phaedra’s letter and translated that line by line; I felt like I was almost blowing the dust off, I just couldn’t believe how good it was! So that’s how Ovid’s Heroines started.’
Although not a linguist, Clare tells me of her experience and love of translation. ‘As a poet, I find it really hard to have new ideas, while I find translation quite sort of soothing, because the ideas are already there for you and you can just work on making the words sound nice.’
After discussing our mutual passion for translation a bit further, I ask her about her experience with epistolary poetry. Even though Clare claims she is not an expert on letter writing, she is very much interested in the feeling and form of letters in relation to other writing forms. This is why she chose the dramatic monologue, which is at the heart of Ovid’s Heroines.
‘I’ve always written dramatic monologues. I’ve always loved them. And that’s how I was drawn to Ovid’s work. However, it’s interesting that the first book of dramatic monologues is framed as letters. I think this is because dramatic monologues are very artificial: the idea that someone will just suddenly in this moment make a speech about their life when they think they are allowed to is quite theatrical, especially since it is often used by Shakespeare in his plays. But, if you are being realistic, when do you make a dramatic monologue? The letter is the only realistic time where you might say “I am gonna write this moment in my life and I am gonna think through it. This is where I am at and this is how I got here.”’
‘To be dramatic, a dramatic monologue has to be a speech at,’ she adds, ‘so it has to try and persuade someone or seduce someone.’ Clare’s thoughts on the similarities between letters and dramatic monologues really struck me. Just like a letter, the dramatic monologue is a speech directed at someone. Maybe letters are ultimately dramatic monologues, written, enveloped, stamped, and sent to the receiver, as Clare later suggests.
The topic of dramatic monologue leads us to the feminist side of Ovid’s Heroines. ‘Because it’s a book of women speaking, if the men were actually there, the women probably wouldn’t be able to get a word out. There was no context in those times where women would have been able to make a long, uninterrupted speech like this.’ The letter then becomes a means of empowerment, a way through which women can give voice to themselves, and to discover themselves too.
‘Something you notice about the letters in this book,’ she continues, ‘is that pretty much every woman is in a similar position of standing on a beach, watching the sea, waiting for the men to come back, and thus not really controlling the narrative of their life. They all just stand there, waiting for life to happen to them, and so the letter is the only way they can go out in the world really. It’s the only sort of freedom they have, or the only way they might be able to intervene in the narrative of their own lives, in the hope that, if they write the letter and send it out there, it might reach someone, it might make someone come back, it might make something happen.’
I point out that Ovid’s Heroines employs as well as subverts the letter form by denying these women a response. Still, this lack of correspondence, Clare suggests, builds up the strength of this collection, as the readers are allowed to hear the purity of these women’s experiences. However wistful, we both agree that the unanswered letters give these women a platform through which they can express themselves.
When I ask Clare the extent to which the poetic and letter-writing forms are suited for one another, I notice how she ponders this question, her head tilted upright. After careful consideration she discloses that ‘in many ways a letter and a poem are very, very similar things.’ She stops once more. ‘A lyric poem especially aims to capture what it feels like for an eye to be within that moment in the same way that letters obviously often respond to the moment and have that sense of being just freshly written. In a letter, as in a poem, I am talking about what’s happening to me now.’
She also calls attention to the fact that ‘because letters are already textual objects, as are poems, it can happen that a poem in the form of a letter might feel slightly pretentious, slightly unrealistic: as soon as you start putting “dear …” and sign it off with “sincerely …” it becomes a letter, but once you also add rhymes to make it a poem it stops feeling like a real letter, it doesn’t have a found quality anymore.’ Epistolary poetry, we both agree, is a very delicate form to achieve well.
I finish this conversation with Clare by switching the gears away from her collection Ovid’s Heroines and towards letter-writing and its practice today. I mention to her how letters are commonly associated with antiquity, and ask whether she thinks letters can be a contemporary form as opposed to texting and emailing.
‘Yes, it is interesting because I think emailing and texting are both more of a dialogue and less of a dramatic monologue because instead of feeling you have to write a long letter where you are including everything you are thinking now, you just write off a little bit of that, and then you get something back, and then you write and send some more and so on. Whereas with the letter, at least in the past, it was that sense of writing when you know that it might take a month to reach someone and take another month to receive a reply. It was about that slowing down of correspondence, which I think made it more like a dramatic monologue.’
Clare brings this back to her collection with, ‘indeed, with Ovid’s Heroines, there is a sad feeling because with the dramatic monologues there’s always this silence. There is no reply and the women hang there because some of them really want a reply but they somehow know that it isn’t coming. They feel the silence. And I think it’s this silence that email and text miss. The feeling of sending something, a letter, into silence.’
For Clare, letters are as much about correspondence, the back and forth of communication as they are about this feeling of absence that comes along with them. Letters allow us a space, a moment where we can appreciate the stillness and tranquillity that life can give us.
‘I do think that there is still space for the letter today. I think that letters are amazing because they give a chance to ordinary people to become writers and to write essay, poetry, fiction, and so on. It provides people with a space where they can think through writing, and it’s important to have those spaces that are cleared of everything else, of all the voices and pings of different media.’
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