Thursday, 30 December 2010

London Continued

To wind up the year, a brief summary of whereabouts and events.  I got to London in mid-November and have spent the last month and a half settling in. I’ve seen friends, beginning with Kathryn Maris and her husband Herman Dietman, who put me up for a couple of nights when I first arrived.   At Kathryn’s suggestion I attended a performance of a Pasolini play, translated by the poet Jamie McKendrick as Fabrication, and performed at a fringe theatre in Notting Hill called The Print Room.  Afterward, Jamie gave a reading and answered questions.  We spoke briefly at the end, a chance to renew acquaintance after a hiatus of a couple of years. From there Kathryn and I went to a launch party for Anne-Marie Fyfe’s new book, titled Understudies, and recently published by Seren.  A big party, so there was no chance to do more than greet and congratulate Anne-Marie, and to listen to her read from the book. 

I’d seen Ruth Fainlight at the launch party and a week later went to have tea with her at her place in Notting Hill.  We tried to recall the circumstances of our first meeting and dated it back to 1987, during my second long-term stay in London. It was a dinner party with the novelist Madison Smartt Bell and his wife the poet Elizabeth Spires.  Ruth came with her husband Alan Sillitoe, whose novels I’d read, though I didn’t in those days know about Ruth’s poetry.  She has just now published her New and Collected Poems with Bloodaxe. Because of that event and Alan’s death this past spring, it’s likely that 2010 will have proved a pivotal year for Ruth.

Mimi Khalvati
Reform Club, Pall Mall
I saw Mimi Khalvati, in fact, attended a reading she gave at the Reform Club on Pall Mall. Mimi looked wonderful, and I gather that she is receiving a lot of favorable attention these days. The Reform Club is an immense building, constructed just at the beginning of Victoria’s reign by affluent Whig political figures.  We walked up the stone steps and into a vestibule, where we were met by Mimi’s contact person Mary Louise (sorry, didn’t hear the last name).  Another stone flight up to the central atrium, some three storeys high, with dark, gold-fluted columns topped by Corinthian capitals placed at decoratively strategic points around the hall.  Under a central mirror at the rear, a marble bust of Victoria, gazing towards her left.  Portraits of notable Liberals are placed in convenient niches around the atrium, for example, Palmerston, Gladstone, and others with names less recognizable.  Mimi and I went upstairs under Mary Louise’s guidance and had a quick survey of several rooms off the central atrium—a dining room, a library, a reading room.  The evening’s event was to be held in a large reading room on the second level. We drifted in and settled near the fire, the chimneypiece boasting a bronze head of Lloyd George. People began to trickle in, taking the little gilt ballroom chairs that had been set up.  Mimi was introduced and then read, very winningly, might I add.  After the final poem, applause, then people gathering round to congratulate her and buy a book.  And that was it.  We reclaimed our coats and put them on in the vestibule, where I noticed a strange, highly polished brass object.  I asked the doorman what it was and was told it was a cigar-lighter, no longer used but still in operation as late as the Second World War, when figures like Churchill made use of it.  Apparently there had been a gas flame in it accessible through an aperture where you inserted the cigar.  The only such object in the world? Very possibly.

From there we walked to a nearby Lebanese restaurant and had a pleasant dinner, a chance to catch up on each other’s news.  A few days later, we both participated in a marathon reading as a benefit for The Long Poem magazine at a café near King’s Cross.  Our bit done, we walked to a nearby restaurant and had dinner.  Many topics touched on, including the fact that Mimi’s new and selected poems are now in production and will be out next year with Carcanet.    

David Plante
I had dinner with the novelist and memoirist David Plante at his place in Marylebone, where I’ve often been a guest over the years. But this may be the last time I’ll have seen it, as he plans to move house very soon.  I met David here in London back in 1986, and we’ve been intermittently in touch ever since.  His partner Nikos Stangos, for many years an editor at Thames & Hudson, was also a dear friend, so there is, ever since Nikos’s death a few years ago, a touch of sadness when David and I reunite. He last year published a moving memoir about their relationship, Nikos’s illness and death, and its aftermath, titled The Pure Lover.  David was preparing to go to Lucca, where he has an apartment, for the Christmas holiday, but I expect to see him in 2011.  

I’ve seen three plays, first, Goldy, based on the life and work of Oliver Goldsmith, staged by Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead (which will also produce my play about Robert Lowell this coming spring).  It’s an affectionate portrait of an underrated writer, from whose long poem The Deserted Village Tony Judt borrowed the title of his powerful last book Ill Fares the Land. To prolong the Augustan mood, I saw Sheridan’s The Rivals in the Peter Hall production at the Theatre Royal, a work seldom revived and performed this time with a lot of brio.  Not too many plays result in the coinage of a new word, but this one does. A “malapropism” is the term used to describe the verbal habit of the character Mrs. Malaprop, who confuses polysyllabic words, applying them in contexts where they don’t fit—as when she speaks of “allegories on the banks of the Nile.”  That tic and other comic elements produced a nefarious evening filled with knowing chuckles. Finally, with my friend Miguel Mansur I also saw the Young Vic production of The Glass Menagerie, which seemed only partly successful, yet had its moments. 

George Szirtes
Shortly after I settled in my sublet flat in Tufnell Park, George Szirtes, whom I hadn’t seen for over a year, came to lunch; and from there we went to Smith Square in Westminster for a cultural event George was scheduled to appear in. This was to be held in the recently established Europe House, the London headquarters of the European Commission, whose mission is, I believe, purely cultural.  At the door we were greeted by Jeremy Sullivan, who arranged the event and commissioned George’s poem.  We were guided into a small auditorium and there found Elaine Feinstein, dressed all in red and black.  She and I spoke as preparations for the evening were underway. Eventually people began coming in and one or two introductions were made, in particular, to Lázló Magócsi, the Science and Technology attaché to the Hungarian Embassy.  Naturally he wanted to speak with George, a British poet born in Hungary, yet the topics centered mainly on the scientific achievements of Hungarians in the 20th century, which are more considerable than I’d realized.

Europe House’s chief officer, a man named Scheele, launched the evening’s program. Then George read his commissioned poem, titled “The Door is Open,” concluding with this quatrain:

Here histories, manners, speech, vision, dance,
Commerce and custom, constitution, chance,
And strategy, seek concord and a voice.
Open the door. The house is yours. Rejoice.

After this, several ambassadors read poems in their language.  We had Austria, Poland, Denmark, Romania, Spain, Estonia, Belgium and, as mentioned, Hungary.  A translation was read after each poem, and then at the end Elaine read a few poems of her own (non-commissioned).  Applause, closing remarks, then drinks and snacks. Finally, there was a dinner party for participants and their guests, an occasion for interesting conversations with others present. George had a train to catch so we left a little early, I saw him to his cab and then walked to the tube, returning the same way I came.

James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar, back in London after several months in New York, came to call and have a look at my sublet for this year.  We had lunch here and engaged in an unbroken flow of talk about what we’ve been doing and writing.  Sandeep is teaching at Wagner College now and finishing her book on the Modernist British poet Hope Mirrlees. James has one more term at NYU before he gets his MFA and is putting the finishing touches on the next issue of The Wolf, expected in January. 

Marina Warner
Christmas roared in and out and on Boxing Day I walked to Kentish Town to attend a party given by my friend Marina Warner and her partner Graeme Segal.  I hadn’t seen Marina for quite a long time, so it was a pleasure to meet again.  I have very clear memories of her house because I once, back in 1987, rented it for four months.  Lots of changes have been made, so that seeing it now is like looking at a double exposure.  Marina introduced me to several people, all new to me. Then I had a brief conversation with her son, Conrad Shawcross, a rising young sculptor whom I hadn’t seen since he was a boy.  Conrad was on the eve of a month-long journey to India and Tasmania, which promises to be extraordinary.  Marina herself is completing a study of The Arabian Nights, a book I look forward to reading when it appears, as I do being her neighbor this winter and spring.  

For those interested in looking up publications, I have a review of UA Fanthorpe’s complete poems in the current Poetry Review. Also, under Sudeep Sen’s editorship, a long poem published in an online journal called Molossus. The poem’s titled “Eleven Londons” and describes my stays in this great city from 1967 to 2007. Here’s the link:

A happy New Year to all.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Multiple genres

This blog seems to have become intermittent only, and I can guess the reason. Since I went on Facebook, it’s come to seem easier to post updates and thoughts there than here. So I invite people to join me on Facebook if they’d like to keep in touch.

The preceding blog records my visit to Scotland, but not the two weeks in London following it. It seems a little late now to report on that, even though I so much enjoyed seeing my friends there. I left London in mid-September and stayed in southern Rhode Island for the past two months. There was a knee operation that needed attending to—nothing grave, just a meniscus tear. Recovery went smoothly and in October I went down to New York to see friends, staying with Walter Brown, who has appeared here in earlier posts. Among the friends I saw was Edmund White, the novelist, and his partner Michael Carroll, also a fiction-writer. I’ve known Edmund since late 1966. In those days he worked for Time-Life Books as a staff researcher and writer, and I was then a grad student at Columbia in French. He had had a play produced Off-Broadway but hadn’t published a novel yet. For some reason he found both myself and Ann Jones, with whom I was then living, worth befriending. I had no publication credits to my name, but eventually confessed to him that I wanted to be a writer. I found him brilliant and funny, and he was one of the few people out as a gay person. Of my friends, only Ann knew about my own sexuality, which she had accepted without shock or embarrassment.

Edmund had written an autobiographical novel, which I read and liked. Still I was busybody enough to urge him to look into the French nouveau roman, in other words, to be more experimental. Like all beginners, I thought the avant-garde was the only worthwhile approach to the making of art. It isn’t a nouveau roman, but his first novel Forgetting Elena is certainly not a realist-naturalist work, and it remains among his most intricate and brilliant. During the composition of it, he read individual chapters to Ann and me, and we cheered him on. Possibly for that reason, the dedication page has our name on it.

There have been periods when we didn’t see each other; also, he lived for many years in Paris, where I nevertheless did visit him at his Ile St. Louis apartment. After that he also taught for a couple of years at Brown and I visited him in Providence once. Eventually we do always re-establish contact, and so it was this visit. I went to his place on Twenty-Second Street, a reunion laughter-filled as so many others have been. We spent a couple of hours catching up, and I have to say that Ed is a fascinating source of news and insight about mutual friends as well as people whose names I know even if I haven’t met them. He has just completed a new novel titled Jack Holmes and His Friend, and I’ve begun reading it in manuscript. It resembles the novel I read back in the 1960s, which means Ed has come full circle. Whether it qualifies as avant-garde I doubt, but I no longer care. It hardly makes sense to insist, in the name of artistic freedom, that only one approach is permissible in the production of new works.

In 1970, Edmund introduced me to Richard Howard, whom I’ve kept in touch with intermittently ever since. In the first years of my friendship with Ed, I was entirely absorbed in writing fiction. It was really my friendship with Richard that led me back to writing poetry. He was helpful with my early, unreadable efforts, giving me books to read and responding tactfully to what I showed him. I never signed up for an MFA program (quite a rare career path in those days), but Richard, along with the critic David Kalstone, to whom he introduced me, became something even better than a substitute for that. They offered informal instruction and encouragement. Richard in his capacity as poetry editor published some of my earliest poems. Not long after, Ed was named editor of The Saturday Review and published poems and almost my first critical essay. Without these friends, I doubt I would ever have made my way as a writer.

I saw Richard during the New York trip, smiling, unruffled by and fully recovered from some recent age-appropriate health problems. I recall dozens and dozens of visits to his book-lined rooms on Waverley Place in the Village. From there we walked to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Richard has reached something like philosophical acceptance about the death earlier this year of his close friends Sanford Friedman and Ben Sonnenberg. As for himself, he is busily engaged in teaching in the graduate writing program at Columbia, where I taught off and on in the years 1983-2001. He was working on a review and a translation, something to add to a staggering bibliography of poetry, critical writing and translated work. I wouldn’t call him a man of letters so much as a Hercules of letters. His conversation is like no one else’s, filled with references to literature and art (he seems to have read and seen everything), including all writers of note in the present century. Because we have so many friends in common, we were able to bring each other up to date on them and comment on the changes the time inevitably brings. It was difficult to stand and go; I felt we easily could have talked another several hours. But there was work to do. My plan is to schedule another meeting on first opportunity.

I write poetry. I write fiction. I write criticism. I see all three as related projects. But less attention has been paid to what I’ve done in the prose. There seems to be an almost invincible prejudice against poets who publish novels, perhaps a little less when they publish stories. A review of a poet’s novel never fails to say, “This is a poet’s novel,” whereby the reader is relieved of any expectation that s/he might enjoy it. And there is the feeling among imaginative writers that when you write criticism, you have somehow gone over to the enemy. I don’t think so. Rather than argue, let me list a few names: Coleridge, Hardy, Lawrence, Eliot, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop. And of course many, many more.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Edinburgh and the Highlands

I'm trying to make up for my scarce writing here this summer, now that the summer break has ended. This entry has to do with Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities, partly because of its unusual beauty and partly because my great-grandfather was born there.

Paul Attinello and I took a train from Newcastle on Saturday with the plan of attending the Meredith Monk performance in the annual Festival. On arrival, we had a few hours and strolled up to Calton Hill, which gives a view of Arthur’s Seat (highest of the crags next to Holyrood Palace), the lower city and the crag where Edinburgh Castle sits. The familiar sensations of my day trips into Edinburgh last May (see earlier blog posts) came rushing back, but of course the streets were now much more crowded with Festival goers. Once we got to the center, we decided there was time to see one of the Fringe shows before the evening’s performance and settled on the Do Theatre, a troupe of Russians who now live in Berlin, in a work titled The Anatomy of Fantasy. This was being held at the Assemby on George Street, where we continued on foot.

The title suggests the mode of the work—dreamlike evocations of an underworld of obscure events, danced to a varied collage of musical accompaniment. Thematic visual elements included lengths of red string deployed in various ways, four scythes, ashes, three movable windows with venetian blinds, and a steel-frame cube. Two principals, male and female, three female secondary dancers, and the musician made up the troupe. Recorded music was used along with additions from the musician who from time to time used his boot heels to provide percussion. Smoke billowed more than once, and the rhythms twice became very loud and insistent. Meaning? Let’s say that many interpretations could be tried, probably none of them accounting for every detail. The interpretation of dreams asks for high levels of Keatsian negative capability. The “erotics” of criticism, not the hermeneutics, as Sontag once urged.

The Monk performance began at eight, and to what looked like a full house. Title: Songs of Ascension. A bare stage with a single suspended glass lamp making wide circles while a woman in a white dress moved about and informally danced. Slowly the lamp rose in proportion as its circles shrank, finally vanishing up into the flies. Then the performers, including Meredith Monk came out. That included her co-perfomer Ching Gonzalez, who has apeared in many Monk works. Two violins, a viola, and a cello, which the cellist several times played while standing and holding it. A chorus joined in many times, concluding in the angelic location of two boxes on opposite sides of the hall. The music used mostly pandiatonic harmony, with an occasional chromatic touch. It owes something to the “Minimalist” style of Glass and Reich and perhaps a little to Virgil Thompson, but mostly it is Monk’s own language, especially for the vocal lines, which use little calls reminiscent of Native American singing. To which she adds serrated melodic motifs, little tonal peaks and valleys something like medieval hocketing. Though of course there was also some conventional vocal leading. The overall effect was ecstatic, with occasional somber or humorous asides. A rising climax at the end earned the piece’s title. Is there a word better than “inspiring” or “uplifting” that I could use to describe it?

Paul and I went to the stage door and eventually the artist of the evening emerged and smiled delightedly to see Paul (they’ve known each other for many years), who embraced and congratulated her. I was duly introduced and had a friendly greeting from both Meredith and Ching Gonzalez. She said they were going to a party and invited us to come if we liked. There was even a van to drive us there. So in we rode through the Grass Market up to Princes Street and around to the High Street, the final destination the large Victorian building of the City Chambers. Up a flight of stairs and past vitrines with historical memorabilia, including a small silver replica of the Walter Scott Monument on Princes Street. I’d assumed it would be a party given by some private person, but, no, it was a City of Edinburgh event. Artists performing several different shows that evening gathered in the Council Chamber, a large, high-ceilinged hall with coffers in its ceiling, brass chandeliers, and a series of mural paintings by William Hole based on Scottish history. “Mary Queen of Scots Enters Edinburgh,” “News of the Battle of Flodden,” “Robert the Bruce Presents a Charter to the Burgesses of the Town,” and so on. Wine was immediately available and taken. The Lord Provost and his wife were there, and soon enough he shifted into action and welcomed everyone. He wore an ornamental chain of office around his neck (in fact, so did the Lady Provost), even more elaborate than what you see depicted in the Holbein painting of Thomas More, the one now hanging in the Frick Museum. A touch of the ceremonial past. Then Jonathan Mills, Director of the Festival, spoke with an informality that matched his clothes, and after that food was served.

We had our meal, mingling with all the performers and groups that had gathered for the party, and then said goodnight.

Next morning I got up early and took a cab over to the High Street, where a bus waited for my tour of the Scottish Highlands. Although bus tours are in most ways awful, I’ve waited too long to see that part of the world, somehow never quite managing to get there using more comfortable modes of transport. Anyway, I think of it as a reconnaissance mission, during which I would learn what parts of the country I’d like to return to.

A guide (in obligatory tartan kilt) kept up a running monologue about the places we were passing, beginning with Georgian Edinburgh and some of its famous figures. Before long we’d left the city behind and began to see sights. The Forth Bridge, for instance, an early engineering feat still in use today. Loch Lieven with a castle on its little island. Perth, formerly St. Johns Town, which coined its name from Roman Apertha as soon as Presbyterianism made popishness like saints unacceptable to the new sect. A mention of Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth, based on the life of Catheirne Glover whose house is still there to be visited. A quick passage through Birnam Wood, no less, although Dunsinane was too far away to be visible. And so on until the first big ridge of the Highlands appeared. Nine hundred million years old, according to our guide, but then other parts of farther north were 4000 million years old. Age seems to make for beauty because the landscape began to take on a majestic allure. Empty except for a few sheep, with whin and purple heather covering the stony, uncultivated land. (Whin being a heather-like spiky shrub that grows near whinstone or basaltic rock.) We passed several whiskey distilleries, looking not very industrial but presumably producing huge quantities of the famous local product. Then came a hallucinatory series of rainbows, complete, transport-worthy bridge arches, some of them double. They backed away as we moved toward them, constantly replacing themselves, as in a slide show. Before long Ben Nevis was in view, its top lost in cloud. Britain’s tallest mountain, but today looking like something in a Chinese painting. Tall as it is, the guide said, there is a path that allows you to reach the summit in about two hours without a lot of difficulty. I’d like to do that some day.

Pitlochry, for a, shall we say, “pit stop.” Long queues at the cafés for coffee and buns. A surrounding amphitheater of surrounding mountains. Sunlight gleaming off the pavement and rain droplets, cold winds. Back on the bus. Onward through more rainbows. Evergreens, reforestation of land that long ago was cut and burned. Higher mountains. Loch Lochie, part of the North Scotland canal. Leading to Loch Oich and a series of intermediate locks. Finally Fort Augustus, at the western end of Loch Ness, where we stopped for lunch. Some took a boat out onto the lake. I didn’t, despite the realization that one doesn’t see much of Loch Ness from its western extremity. I had my packed lunch on a bench facing the Loch, watching the tourist boat retreat and retreat towards distant waters and mountains. Canoe trippers coming from Loch Oich, not wanting to pay for the locks, had to make a portage through town. Lunch consumed, I rinsed my hands in the stingingly cold water. After which, a stroll back to the locks and up the stair at each level to the top one, for a glance westward where boats were beginning to gather for the next trip down the water stairs provided.

The return took a more westerly route so that after seeing Ben Nevis from another angle, we would see a different part of the Highlands. The most staggering was the country around Glencoe, in the west, where you get lochs that are actually fjords connecting to the Atlantic. The mountains thrust vertically up and yet are rounded by erosion, with green slopes most of the way to the summits. It is Ossian country and his cave was pointed out to us as we sped past, dazed by all the sublimity. It is the ideal place for the Romantic movement to have been born.

Next morning I checked out of the hotel and made my way over to Charlotte Square, where the Edinburgh Book Festival is being held this year. Literally in the Square: tents and wooden walkways have been set up in the middle of the central green, and that’s where events take place. I’d told Don Paterson I’d come to his reading at 11:30 and so I did. The venue was a large space with probably three hundred seats and there must have been about 250 people in the audience. (I guess they weren’t aware of the commonplace notion that “No one is interested in poetry.”) The Festival Director, Nick Barley, gave a rather odd intro, then Don came to the lectern wearing a black suit jacket and white shirt, his white beard neatly trimmed. He had a glass of wine with him to help him deal with a slight cough, he said. Sips of this throughout the reading gradually warmed him up, so that the tentative modesty of the beginning was gradually replaced by something a little bolder and more spirited. He has an appealing Dundonian voice and is able to make use of Scottish intonations you might not have guessed at if access to the poems came only through the page. There’s also a habit of placing one foot in front of the other and rocking back and forth in response to the verses, occasionally lifting the back foot. Possibly a remnant from his days as a rock music performer? He read mostly from the recent collection Rain but a few new poems as well. The in-between comments were pointed and amusing, touching on many different topics. That includes his atheism, a skeptical stance that seems to be countered by a strong awareness of mystery—the mystery of being itself, just for a start. He also read a few aphorisms, which (should I be surprised?) were well received. I sensed he held the audience’s attention throughout; loud applause at the end suggested as much.

I strolled over to the London Review of Books tent café afterward to speak to him, where he was set up at a table on a low platform for book signing. Over a hundred fans were queued up for his signature. When the last had gone, I went up and gave his hand a congratulatory shake. Even though the aftershock of giving a large-scale reading hadn’t quite dispelled, we enjoyed a few minutes of gently ironic banter. He had other appointments, and I had a train to catch, so there was no question of lunch or even a coffee. Don plans to read at the 92nd St. Y in New York in October (yes, this is an ad for it), so possibly I’ll see him there when I get back.

So, a temporary farewell to Caledonia. And two days from now I leave Newcastle for London. But the images are still with me.

Friday, 27 August 2010

North-South Shuttle

Summer is the season to slack off from work, and that’s been true for me as to this blog; and not true for poems, fiction, and critical prose. I was down to London again in July to read with several other contributors to Mimi Khalvati’s anthology of fado songs mentioned in an earlier entry. This time I stayed in a hotel in Bloomsbury, making plans the first afternoon to spend some time with Margo Berdeshevsky, who’d come over from Paris for a couple of nights. Margo and I got to know each other through mutual friends Marie Ponsot and Marilyn Hacker. She has published one book of poems with Sheep Meadow and a second is now in production. Earlier this year she published a well-received collection of short fiction with the Fiction Collective, and she also makes fascinating photographic art, superimposing images from different contexts to make a new whole. Margo is a native New Yorker who had a successful stage career for many years, which she eventually relinquished in order to go and live in Hawaii, shifting her interest then to poetry. Our first meeting was a workshop I taught in the early 90s at an Arts Center in Maui, but we only became friends during the past five years. She now lives in Paris, in what I’d call an ideal apartment in the Marais, just opposite the Hôtel Carnavalet, once the Paris residence of Mme de Sévigné.

She and I attended the first part of the launch of the Summer issue of Poetry Review, partly because I had a poem in it and partly because I wanted to hear Ruth Padel, the evening’s featured reader. I first met Ruth when we were both participants in the San Miguel Poetry festival in Mexico, in late 90s. I hadn’t known about her work at that time, but, since then, she has become of the leading poets in Britain. She gave a brilliant reading at the launch, so it was too bad I couldn’t stay to congratulate her; I had the launch of Mimi’s anthology to do the same evening.

That was held at the Free Word Centre in Clerkenwell. When Margot and I got there, the first person I saw was Mimi, looking particularly attractive, and modestly aglow about the festivities soon to begin. The Free Word Centre had been set up like a cabaret, with low lighting and three separate stages, one of them high up on a balcony overlooking the space. During the general mingling beforehand, I saw several friends, including Michael Schmidt, the poet and editor, and one of the contributors scheduled to read. We first met in the 80s, and there have been several meetings since then, to the extent that a man who runs a large publishing house, edits a magazine, teaches writing, assembles anthologies and writes poetry and poetry criticism, can spare time for meetings. Then Marilyn Hacker arrived and we had a quick conversation in the last few minutes before proceedings began. Other participants were Eric Ormsby, to whom I spoke briefly and Pascale Petit, whom I hadn’t seen for several months. I was also pleased that Sophie Mayer, fellow resident at Hawthornden, last May had come.

The readings were done in three sets, concluding with Mimi giving a beautiful rendition from the balcony. After that, actual Portuguese fado performers came to the main stage and performed several songs for us. Good as the translations in the anthology are, there is still no substitute for the original Portuguese, accompanied by music. I went up afterwards to congratulate Mimi on the evening and was introduced to Grey Gowrie, one of the contributors and in fact the originator of the idea for this anthology. Knowing that he had been a good friend of Lowell’s, I asked him what his impressions were. He spoke warmly of a poet he clearly regarded as his mentor and mentioned that it was through his intermediary that Lowell and Caroline Blackwood met for the first time, an encounter that eventually led to Lowell’s divorce from Elizabeth Hardwick and remarriage to Caroline Blackwood (aspects of this narrative are found in Lowell's The Dolphin). Acknowledging its negative aspects, Gowrie pointed out that the marriage had produced a fine son and that Elizabeth Hardwick’s work had gained fresh strength once she was on her own. Obviously these comments very much interested someone who has written a play about Lowell to be produced next year in London. (We still haven’t set a date, but I think it will probably be in March of 2011.)

Next morning I met James Byrne for coffee near his summer rental on Queen Square, a quiet enclave in Bloomsbury where the offices of Faber & Faber are located (though currently under renovation). James brought me up to date about his plans. He’ll be returning as a second year student at NYU’s writing school, as an International Fellow, editing The Wolf from over there as he did this past year. Meanwhile, he has been working on an anthology of Burmese dissident poets, scheduled for next year. We had a good hour’s stroll around the neighborhood and then said goodbye when I went off to my lunch appointment. The night before a plan had been made for Mimi, Marilyn, her friend the poet and critic Mary Bain Campbell, and myself to meet for lunch. Which we did, a pleasant couple of hours at a good Indian restaurant near Euston Station. Conversation was equal parts serious and hilarious, but I won’t attempt to summarize it. After lunch, Marilyn and I went down to the Blakean neighborhood of Lambeth, specifically, to Lambeth Palace, where there was an exhibition of medieval illuminated mss. Taken from the Lambeth Library, some of them of extraordinary quality and historical interest.

I came down to London once more in July, staying with my friend David Matthews, the vicar of Holy Innocents parish out in Hammersmith. David and I met through our mutual friend Edmund White, whose work he greatly admires. David is originally from Nova Scotia but is now pretty well at home in London, where he has many, many friends and seems to be adored by his parishioners. I’d wanted to attend an evening in honor of poets from the U.A.E. sponsored by Banipal magazine and held at the Purcell Room on the South Bank. David had other plans, but James Byrne met me there and we had a congenial reunion as we always do. There were Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon, who edit Banipal, and London poets Stephen Watts and Yiang-Lin, a Chinese dissident now living and working in the U.K. The Emirates poets were Nujoom Al-Ghanem, Khalid Albudoor, and Khulood Al-Mu’alla, none of them known to me, but all highly accomplished, to the extent that it’s possible to judge from translation.

Next day evening, David and I joined Adam Mars-Jones and Keith King for dinner, and then they went off to a see a play. The plan was to rejoin them after at the launch of the new issue of Granta, where Adam often appears. We followed through, but apparently we arrived too late, after the festivities had ended. Still, it was a chance to exchange news with them, and I can see that they both are prospering.

I mentioned in the previous blog that I was to read at the Lit and Phil Society here in Newcastle (see picture at right), and that indeed took place late in July. An extra for me was that James Byrne came up to visit for a couple of nights and so was able to attend. Also attending were Sean and Gerry, Paul Attinello, and the fiction writer Chaz Brenchley. We all went out for a meal after, a good way to cap off the evening.

As for the outdoor aspect of the summer, I made an excursion with Alistair Elliot to two stately homes within driving distance of Newcastle, the first called Belsay. It’s a Doric Greek design built about 200 years ago (see above), severely elegant, and comprising a garden that was made in the quarry from which its building stone was taken. The result is a marvelous grotto filled with ferns and tall trees, not like anything I’ve seen before. Wallington was more familiarly Palladian neoclassical, though the interior was eventually made Victorian. Frequent visitors there were Macaulay and Ruskin, and its paintings include a Turner. All of this surrounded by a huge park with impressive views. Alistair has a sense of humor similar to mine, so I joked that, in the way English names are often pronounced differently from what the spelling would lead you to assume (for example, “Featherstone” is pronounced “Fanshaw”), the names of these two great houses were most likely pronounced “Besy” and “Wanton.” The surmise, however, awaits confirmation.

The other excursion I made was to Lindisfarne (called “the Holy Island” because it was the point of dispersion for Christianity in Northern England more than a thousand years ago). Sean and Gerry and I went there on a cloudy Sunday, the trip timed so that we would be sure to arrive at low tide, otherwise the causeway out to the island is under water. (It’s a feature I recall from a visit many years ago to Mont St. Michel, off the French coast.) The same is true of Mount St. Michael in Cornwall, but not true of Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland: there you always must take a boat. Why St. Michael the Archangel should in the medieval period be associated with offshore islands I don’t know; but he doesn’t figure on Lindisfarne, instead, St. Cuthbert enjoys special reverence there, even though his remains were long after his death exhumed and removed to Durham Cathedral. It is also where the wonderfully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels were produced. (See picture above left.)

I’d visited Lindisfarne in 1986, but it has grown and developed since then, with swarms of visitors everywhere, to whose number we sheepishly added ourselves. It is wildly beautiful, with views out to a clouded North Sea and inward to pastures with grazing sheep, the ruined priory, and perhaps twenty-odd stone houses. On a small crag near the water sits Lindisfarne’s castle, a ruin that was renovated and given modern convenience by Lutyens a century ago. It is easy to summon up images of invading Vikings, vulnerable as the place is to approach from the sea. To come here is to experience that little historical shiver our modern cities insulate us from.

This past week several friends came to me in North Shields, and we read our poems. The convives gathered were Sean, Alistair, Bill Herbert, and Joan Hewitt, a poet from Tynemouth whom I’ve only recently become acquainted with. Very lively indeed, and, as the last social occasion of my stay here, a good finale. I go to Scotland for the end-of-summer weekend, and then return in time to pack up. Even though this brief recap can’t do it justice, it’s one of the best summers I remember.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Northumbria and London

I’m spending the summer in North Shields, Northumbria, about twenty minutes from the town center of Newcastle upon Tyne. North Shields sits about sixty feet above the river, and from Tyne Street (two minutes from my door) you can see about a mile to where it empties into the North Sea. I’ve made the walk along the promenade to Tynemouth, a seacoast town noted for the ruins of an abbey on the edge of a promontory above the waves. (Stevens once wrote a poem titled “Cathedrals Are Not Built By the Sea,” but certainly this abbey was, as well as the one in Whitby.) Camera enthusiasts will find more than enough targets to aim at—the lighthouse at the end of the jetty, weathered Gothic arches overlooking old graves, and the North Sea itself, usually calm with clouds massed at the horizon.

Back in North Shields there are two main lighthouses no longer used for the original purpose, one on Tyne Street and a second lower down on Fish Quay, where boats come in to unload the catch of the day. Restaurants there take advantage of this fact, and there are a couple of fishmongers where you can find a wide range of seafood to buy. Off Tyne Street there is a little park on Dockwray Square with a commemorative statue at its center. Instead of the obligatory civic leader or admiral, you find a slightly cartoonish rendering of Stan Laurel, a choice that puzzled me until I was told that Laurel had lived in the square when he was a boy, from 1897 to 1902.

I go into Newcastle at least twice a week, taking the Metro train, which lets you out at Monument Square, at the foot of a column on top of which stands the statue of the 19th century statesman Earl Grey. The vista down Grey and Grainger Streets is breathtaking, a handsome neoclassical architectural ensemble in tan limestone (which includes the Theatre Royal, shown above right), not like any other cityscape I know. Novocastrians (people who live in Newcastle) may, however, be too used to it, not quite realizing how unusual and beautiful it is. If I were on the City Council, I would urge passage of an ordinance strictly limiting the kind of signage permitted on Grey Street, especially the dissonant TO LET signs that project out from façades overhead.

Not far from the railway station is the venerable Literary and Philosophical Society, founded in the 18th century as a private "conversation club," eventually a library and lecture hall. The Lit and Phil, too, is a handsome structure, completed in 1822,with a large interior atrium and library stacks on two levels. The public can use it as a reading room and members are allowed to borrow books. There are lectures and literary events year round, in fact, I will be giving a poetry reading there later this month.

Since arriving I’ve seen friends I got to know last summer, in particular, Paul Attinello who is in the Musicology Department at Newcastle University, the poet Sean O’Brien and his wife Gerry Wardle, and the poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who lives in Gateshead across the river. During my first week here, Sean gave a magisterial reading at the Newcastle Library, the first time I've heard him, and an experience not to be forgotten. He has a wonderful reading voice, and there were touches of humor, without the usual pandering to the audience for laughs that mars so many readings. Then, a week later, Toby and I attended a reading that the Irish poet Paul Durcan gave at Newcastle University. As we filed into the hall, Sean introduced me to the Scottish poet W.H. Herbert, who actually is my neighbor in North Shields. In the past weeks I’ve also met the poet Alistair Elliot, a Newcastle resident for many years. Alistair has had a widely varied life, beginning with the fact that he was one of the British children sent for safekeeping to America during the Second World War. By coincidence, Alistair’s American host was Charles Merrill, father of James Merrill, whom I knew well in the 1970s and 1980s. Alistair has published many books of poetry and is also known as a distinguished translator, his version of Medea enjoying successful productions here and in New York several years ago. Finally, I met the poet Peter Bennet, who lives out in the country to the west of Newcastle. By another coincidence his publisher is Newcastle’s Flambard Press, whose managing editor Will Mackie rents me the house where I’m staying here in North Shields.

I had planned several trips back to London over the summer and have already made one of them. Two weeks ago I went down and stayed a couple of nights with my friend Kathryn Maris and her husband Herman Dietman, who live near the Regent’s Canal in one of London’s prettiest neighborhoods. Kathryn published her first book with Four Ways Press, but her second is scheduled with Seren Books over here. I had come down to take part in a launch of the Summer issue of The Wolf, which has an interview with me, accompanied by two poems. Kathryn came with me to the event, which was held at the Poetry Studio, upstairs from the Poetry Café on Betterton Street. It was good to see James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar again, also, James’s mother Mary and her husband David Shuttle. My co-readers were Anne-Marie Fyfe, who has a strange and haunting poem in the issue, and a young poet named Richard Parks. Poets who were there included the Canadian Todd Swift, whom I hadn’t seen for more than year, and the American poet Dante Micheaux, whose first book is scheduled with Sheep Meadow later this year. After the launch we all went to an Indian restaurant on The Strand, there since the 1940s I was told, its former clientele purportedly including Gandhi and Nehru. We were probably twenty at table, and it’s accurate to say that a spirit of celebration was in the air, dispelling any idea of poetry as a pursuit only for the massively serious and over-earnest.

Next day I went up to Hampstead to meet Leonie Scott-Matthews, who is in charge of the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead. We wanted to get down to cases about the future production of my play. It’s titled Lowell’s Bedlam, the subject, that Robert Lowell’s stay in a mental hospital in the autumn of 1949. It’s my first play, written, in part, just to see if I could manage one. I’d published in all the other genres, poetry, novel, short story, essay, literary and art criticism, and travel writing. So there was only drama left. Now that I’ve begun to get the hang of it, I expect there to be other plays. Meanwhile, Leonie and I had a pleasant discussion about the history of Pentameters Theatre (the oldest in Hampstead) and about my play. I also saw one of her productions, a stage adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, very lively and well acted. We haven’t set a date for the first night, but I’m guessing it will be late this year or early next, depending on how long it takes to find a director and a cast. Something to look forward to. If theatre isn’t a brave new world to other poets I know, at least it is to me.

I’m back in North Shields, and the summer stretches ahead. Sean and Gerry came to lunch this past Saturday, after which Gerry and I had a nice walk around town, hitting some high spots like the local used book shop. While the Herberts are away in Crete, Sean and Gerry are staying at their place, which is a converted former lighthouse with views out over the river. Gerry and I finished up with a cup of tea in the little front garden, among fuchsia, geraniums, and poppies. We’ve been having wonderful weather, most days cool and sunny. It’s good to be here, and there’s more to come.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Scotland, Buckinghamshire, and Serbia

The stay at Hawthornden went by very quickly, so it felt. When I write I go into a semi-conscious state where I stop noticing how many hours pass, and days chugged along like Thomas the Tank Engine, full of energy and the will to productivity. On the other hand, daily breakfast-lunch-dinner rhythms interrupted the flow, as did trips into Edinburgh to get supplies or see the sights. I spent a lot of time at the Scottish National Gallery, a small but choice collection, with world-class Titians and Poussins, plus an early Velazquez, and a beautiful Van der Goes altarpiece. But I also enjoyed just wandering the city, especially along the Royal Mile, up to Edinburgh Castle for the views over the city or down through Canongate to Holyrood Palace, more beautiful, I think, than Buckingham Palace, if only because of its greater age and historical associations.

During one of the trips into town I met Don Paterson for lunch, we having before only spoken briefly at literary gatherings. He was on his way from Dundee, where he lives, or else from St. Andrews University, where he teaches, to Manchester, scheduled to give a poetry reading there that evening. We spent nearly two hours talking, and very openly, as though we’d been friends for a long time. In particular, about his late friend Michael Donaghy (this blog spoke of Donaghy two years ago); his elegy appears in Don’s most recent book, titled Rain. We also got onto aphorisms, given that Don and I are among the few who currently write them. He hadn’t seen those I published in a little pamphlet I titled The Pith Helmet, so a few days later I sent them on in a digital file. It’s a small club, The Unholy Apothegmists, and we welcome new members.

Writer-residents at Hawthornden got along really well, and the habit of meeting in the drawing room after dinner to talk or else read was quickly established. We gave out parts for Macbeth and read an act per night for five days running, great fun, needless to say. Part of the getting acquainted process involved each of us also presenting our own work, and who would deny that what we write says a whale of a lot about who we are. That must be why we got to be friendly so quickly as we did. Besides, there were excursions: to North Berwick, a little seacoast town where golfers like to stay, very appealing in the parts not trying to cater to tourists. The offshore bird islands added scale and interest to the seascape. I could easily imagine coming to stay for longer than the day we allotted it. Anorther outing we made was to Rosslyn Chapel, quite close to Hawthornden as the crow flies, but reachable only by a series of turns and long winding roads (through pretty country, at least). Rosslyn is currently being restored, so views of the exterior were hampered by scaffolding and even a tin roof (which , however, came off the day after our visit). But the interior is mostly unaffected and well worth the detour. I still don’t know why Dan Brown chose it as the place to conclude his The Da Vinci Code, unless it was the association between the St. Clair (or Sinclair) family who built Rosslyn and Crusades their scions made to the Holy Land. In any case, the beauty and strangeness of the chapel is in no way diminished by the fact of its being co-opted by the world’s biggest best-seller. It is highly ornamented inside, with fascinating sculptures on walls and pillar capitals, some of the representations thoroughly enigmatic. A brochure said there were no fewer than one hundred representations of the quasi-pagan Green Man, and at different stages of his life, concluding with a death’s-head version carved on the exterior of the church—a none too reassuring detail, you might feel.

Eventually came the day when our seven residents scattered to our separate existences. Two of us postponed “real life” by going on further journeys, Beena Kamlani off to see friends in Strasbourg and I on my way to Serbia. But I stopped along the way, spending a night in London with Mimi again and then a night in Buckinghamshire at James Byrne’s mother’s house. James and Sandeep had returned to London from New York, so this was a chance for a little reunion. After a cup of tea, he and I took a walk through the woods, this part of Bucks. known as the Chilterns, though still some distance from the Chiltern Valley. We rejoined his mother, whose name is Mary, and his stepfather David Shuttle, at an old country pub called "The Hit or Miss," where a cool drink was just the thing on this broiling afternoon in late May. An enthusiastic game was underway in a cricket pitch across the road, and part of the fun was to keep an eye on the white-clad figures as they hit, missed, or dodged about in the heat. A walk back to the house, a nap, a good dinner, and a good night’s sleep concluded the visit, a brief idyll before further travel rigors.

Because I had my flight to Belgrade next day: It went smoothly, though there was some haggling with cabbies at Nikola Tesla airport in order to avoid paying three times the normal rate for the drive into town. But soon enough I was at an apartment block on Cara Dushana Street in the Old City of Belgrade, greeted in the courtyard by my friend Dragan Radovancevic, almost certainly Serbia’s best young poet. It was actually James Byrne who effected an introduction between us, as James has made several trips to Serbia, to read his poems and receive a prize for them. But Dragan and I had only exchanged letters, never met face to face, so there was an initial awkwardness to get past. We soon did. Dragan speaks good English, but we would also occasionally lapse into German, which he learned while he was in Vienna and Berlin on various fellowships. And I began to learn a few words of Serbian, overlapping as it occasionally does with Polish or Russian. I also met his brother Pedja, with whom he shares his apartment. Pedja is in the theatre, not as an actor, but as musician/composer and stage designer. The company he works with sometimes tours other countries, so he has done a good bit of travel and also speaks English very well.

We spent a fascinating week, strolling around the old city and stopping to look at the main sights. Probably the handsomest street is Knessa Mikhailova, now a pedestrain mall, with the expected fashionable shops and some nice examples of Sezession or Jugendstil or Art Deco architecture. Elsewhere Dragan made sure I saw the one mosque that has survived in Serbia, a 16th-century structure with one minaret. Belgrade has a very small surviving Muslim community and a slightly larger Jewish community. I wouldn’t say the atmosphere of the capital, the product partly of the national temper in general, is fully reassuring. While I agree that Nato’s bombs weren’t the right solution for the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, it was disturbing to see graffiti that put NATO before an equal sign that was followed by the Star of David. Of course there are always random fanatics ready to deface walls with any sort of nonsense, but graffiti can also be removed or painted over, and I wish it had been done. Of course the intellectual and artistic minority in any country I’ve ever visited always stands opposed to militarism, racism, religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s the others that are frightening. Especially where sexuality is concerned. Although there are no laws in Serbia against consensual same-sex relations between adults, the prevailing attitudes are rampantly anti-gay. Gay-bashing is common, and it seems the police turn a blind eye to it. So I never felt fully relaxed during my stay. Discussions with people there revealed that the current government is more than a little intransigent in its nationalism—partly out of wounded pride, I’m certain. Still if its petition to join the European Union is to be accepted, the reigning ideology will have to change, and safety and respect be guaranteed for Serbia’s minorities. That won’t be easy to accomplish. There is even a linguistic or rather a typographical issue to deal with. The Serbian language can be written either in the Cyrillic alphabet or else the Roman. The Cyrillic alphabet is associated with ancient tradition, Orthodox religion, and an insistent nationalism. Progressives in Serbia prefer the Roman alphabet. I can piece out words written in Cyrillic, but it did strike me that if Belgrade wanted to become more tourist-friendly they should spell the street signs in the Roman alphabet. But I doubt this will be done.

And there are good reasons for tourists to come and spend the money that the Serbian economy desperately needs. For me, the most beautiful part of Belgrade is the old Kalemegdan Fortress, built on an ancient Celtic foundation, the bulk of it constructed during Ottoman rule. It is the highest part of the city, with views onto the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, a grand prospect indeed. Huge and sprawling, the fortifications incorporate several levels, with brick and stone walls, ornamented portals, grassy stretches, trees, a couple of museums, the ice-cream stands idiomatic for public parks, and the tomb of a former Turkish governor. Also, a pair of churches, one of them dedicated to the military. Dragan and I sat in this one for a while, as a fly buzzed in and out of the one ray of light that penetrated the prevailing gloom. I thought of all the widows and mothers of soldiers blown to bits who must during the past half century come to weep and pray there. The one thing the world never seems to tire of is war. Meanwhile, I’m so tired of it I could pull my hair out by the roots, no matter that the gesture wouldn’t do any good. Eliot said we must be grateful for the spectacle of human ignorance and folly, as our only inkling into the nature of infinity. Right.

Dragan (pictured at the left with me) would admit that he still bears psychological scars dating from the years when his country was at war. Let’s acknowledge that the sound of bombs exploding doesn’t do much to make a child feel safe and happy. Nor did Dragan live in Belgrade at that time, but in a small town an hour away less affected by the bombing. He and I stayed a night with his parents in that small town, Sremska Mitrovica, which is about an hour from Belgrade. Meri and Draska Radovancevic are charming people and generous hosts. A huge feast was put on the dining table of their apartment in a modern group of buildings on the outskirts of town. Poor Dragan had to do all the interpreting, though Meri would occasionally volunteer an English word or Draska, a German. And I would timidly put forth a Serbian phrase in turn, such as “dobra hrana,” i.e., “good food.” We got along wonderfully well, language barrier or no.

Next day Dragan drove us toward Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, with a stop in the Frushka Hills to see Hopovo Monastery, an impressive architectural ensemble in a lovely rustic setting, painted the color I call Maria Teresa yellow, so common is it in the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dragan has special regard for the place not only because of its intrinsic beauty but also because it sheltered (for a while) a 19th-century monk named Dositej Obradovic, who became disillusioned with Orthodoxy and wrote about that disillusionment in a well-argued book. Te main attraction is the church, which has austerely attractive frescoes in Byzantine style, a central dome, and the standard Orthodox brass candelabrum suspended overhead.

We spent only about three hours in Novi Sad, but saw the main sights, including the large, domed synagogue and the central pedestrian mall, named Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj, which, like Belgrade, has many eye-catching 19th century buildings. Dragan pointed out “Newlywed Square,” where it seems just-marrieds often get their picture taken under an ornamented wooden gate, free-standing like a Japanese tori. He said that he had given a poetry reading there a year or so ago, as part of the Novi Sad literary festival. The heat being what it was we stopped for a frappé at an outdoor café next to the Roman Catholic cathedral, glad of the shade and the chance to let aching feet recover.

It was time to retrace our steps, so we set out again for Sremska Mitrovica, once more stopping at the monastery in the Frushka Hills, this one called Khrushedol. The monastic ensemble and its sturdy gatehouse outside were painted a lively Roman red, with both grounds and buildings very well kept up. Feeling a little guilty at how much touring (and driving) Dragan was having to do, I was relieved to hear he’d never visited this particular monastery before. When we inspected the church, similar to the Hopodov’s, he was interested to discover that the tomb of King Milan was there, Milan being the first monarch to encourage the adoption of Western modernity in Serbia. Another tomb nearby had apparently been donated by Catherine the Great of Russia, but he wasn’t able to decipher who the deceased person thus honored was. When he thanked the nun who attended us there, she answered (rather dauntingly) “No: Thank God.”

During my last days in Belgrade I met several friends of Dragan’s, all of them friendly and intelligent, several of them writers eager to discuss topics relating to literature and culture at large. I could see that New York was a magical name to them. Of course I felt the unfairness of our comparative situations. Yes, I’ve worked hard and made sacrifices to live the life that I live. But there is no reason that Serbia’s gifted writers and artists shouldn’t figure on the international scene. No reason except for history, that strange combination of accident and human will, the latter too, too often shortsighted if not downright malevolent. Dragan has had the luck to win fellowships to live and work outside his country. But something more than that is needed, and, myself, I don’t know how that desirable something is to be attained. Here (as so often elsewhere), we take our petitions to Time and wait for them to be granted.

My thanks to Dragan, to Pedja, and to Meri and Draska.

Monday, 17 May 2010

London and Hawthornden

I spent most of April in London, staying with Mimi Khalvati at her maisonette in Stoke Newington. We had time to wander the neighborhood, stopping at cafés for lunch or coffee, making excursions to the Lea Valley marshes and Canal, and attending events such as the launch of the spring Poetry Review. After which, the plan was to go to dinner with Fiona Sampson and this year’s winner of the annual poetry competition, a Buddhist monk who was once a student of Mimi’s. The judge of this year’s prize was Glyn Maxwell, whom I remember meeting after a Walcott reading in New York a few years ago. We spoke briefly at the end of the evening, and then our group went on to a nearby restaurant. By chance Alan Brownjohn and the American expatriate poet Leah Fritz were having dinner there, so they joined us at our table. Fiona was filled with anticipation about her planned trip next morning to Belgrade, which she has visited many times and written about.

My friends Adam Mars-Jones and Keith King came to lunch one day, and the small world cliché was again confirmed when it emerged that the poet Daljit Nagra, who was one of Mimi’s students is on faculty at the same school where Keith teaches. Another event I’d been looking forward to was lunch at the National Portrait Gallery with George Szirtes, with whom I’d exchanged email letters but never met face to face. A pleasant meeting altogether, during which George told me about coming to the U.K. after the 1956 events in Hungary.  Going further back, several of his family members were killed in the concentration camps. He still speaks Hungarian but not as well as English.

George knows a lot about both literature and visual art, as he was a painter before he was a poet. After our meal and wide-ranging discussions on various topics we went upstairs to see the “Indian Portrait” exhibition, a survey of portraiture in India from the Mughal period up through the 19th century. There seems ti be renewed interest in Indian civilization these days. I think it’s fair to say that the “boom” in Latin American culture has now been overtaken by the Indian, British- Indian, and Indian-American counterpart, the last flare of Latin American brilliance being Bolaño’s fiction. One difference is that those novelists all wrote in Spanish, whereas many of the current Indian books were originally written in English: That tradition begins with Narayan and Ved Mehta and continues with Naipaul, Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Pankaj Mishra. As for contemporary poetry written in English by poets of Indian ancestry, there is Vikram Seth, Sudeep Sen, Sujatta Bhatt, Imtiaz Dharker, Daljit Nagra, Ravi Shankar, Sandeep Parmar, and the late Reetika Vazirani. (I know that people will tell me I’ve left out important names, but a blog isn’t a formal literary study.)

Mimi was commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation to edit an anthology of fado songs, with translations done by a dozen or so British and American poets. I participated in a mini-launch of the anthology at the London Book Fair, under the auspices of the Translation Centre. The participants were David Constantine, Sarah Maguire and myself.  Fun to do and now I've read the anhtology, which offers many approaches to the task of translation. Recommended.

Mimi has been commissioned to write a text to accompany an art installation at Somerset House by the American Bill Fontana. The installation incorporates recorded riverrine or maritime sounds and video projections, all of it installed on the below-ground level of Somerset House, which used to be subject to floods from the Thames. Mimi and several other writers will read their commissioned texts at some point over the summer. Of course the Courtauld Gallery is there in Somerset House, and I also saw the current exhibition of Michelangelo drawings, something I will perhaps write about in detail later on. The month of April seemed to present an embarrassment of choice as to art exhibitions. I saw both the Arshile Gorky career survey at the Tate Modern and “The Kingdom of Ife” at the British Museum, sculptures in bronze and terracotta from 15th century Ife, in what is now Nigeria. Works of serene realism, reminiscent in some ways of the better known Benin ivories and bronzes.

At the end of the month I boarded a train for Edinburgh and came to the Hawthornden Writers’ Retreat about a half hour out of town. Details about the Retreat, founded by the American philanthropist Drue Heinz, can be found on the Internet, but the essential facts are these: a medieval castle set on a promontory overlooking a wooded gorge through which the North Esk flows. The castle has many times been renovated and expanded. It was the country seat of the Scottish Renaissance poet William Drummond, who invited Ben Jonson to stay here in the early 16th century and recorded their conversations. Unlike other artists’ colonies, Hawthornden hosts writers only, and never more than seven simultaneously. Since it was going to be a month's stay, I was worried that luck might not be on my side and that a month with the same company would be monotonous. But I had nothing to fear. The other residents are Fiona Shaw (not the actress), a novelist from York; Chew-Siah Tei, a novelist from Malaysia, now living in Glasgow; Sophie Mayer, a poet, film critic and translator; Beena Kamlani, an editor at Penguin in New York who has published short stories; John Greening, poet and critic from Cambridgeshire; Ian Colford, a novelist and critic from Halifax, Nova Scotia. And of course the author of this blog. More about the stay in the next installment.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

All Opposed

I grew up among in a part of the country where racism and religious fundamentalism were considered normal, and this experience taught me that there are temperaments that do not care about facts, scientific research, logical argument, fair play, and toleration for difference of opinion. It's the nature of this temperament to believe what it believes because it believes it, and the rest of us be damned. I see the same kind of implacability evidenced among right-wing opponents to National Health Care. They are impervious to reason and logical argument. The following comments, even if brought up to them, wouldn’t make the least difference in their views. If I express them, I do so for myself, to discharge the anger and gloom stirred up by what I hear on national media, Limbaugh, Beck, man-in-street interviews, as well as legal initiatives being launched against National Health in several red states. Here goes.

“National Health is Socialism.” If you believe that social programs instituted and administered by Federal and local governments are wrong, you should also devote your energy to repealing Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits. You should also lobby to dismantle free public education. Educating children, in your ideology, should be the financial and personal responsibility of each parent, who should let various privately run schools compete in a free enterprise system, so as to get the best possible deal for you. Come to think of it, law should not compel you to educate your children if you don’t want them to be educated. Big government should not interfere in private life. Furthermore, free school-buses is socialistic, raises taxes, and ought to be abolished. Each family should have the responsibility for transporting its own children to school. Some of us, quite a few of us, do not have children. We are supporting yours by paying tax that goes for education and buses.  And pay up quite cheerfully, because we believe the electorate in a democratic country should be well educated. But it has become clear to us, confronted with so much ignorance, that the schools we support aren't managing to educate the populace--just to judge by the level of discourse we hear, and incidents such as health-care opponents' spitting on African-American legislators.

Furthermore, shouldn’t you also oppose the Pure Food and Drug Administration? Instead of letting Big Government regulate those issues, let free enterprise decide which purveyors of food and drugs are the best, as will soon become apparent as soon as clients either thrive or fall sick and die. Meanwhile, I guess you want to dismantle the Police and Fire departments of your community. Like, let individuals hire bodyguards for their personal protection and arrange for volunteers to put out fires, that is, when the volunteers aren’t out of town or incapacitated by the last fire they were unable to put out.

“I’m in very good health, and I don’t want to be forced by Big Government to buy insurance that I don’t need.” Do you have a car? Then you were forced by government to insure it for liability. Why didn’t you protest when that law went into effect? OK, you don’t have health insurance because you're not sick, I understand that. But, uninsured as you are, is your savings account big enough to pay medical costs that will result when you are injured by (1) hurricane (2) tornado (3) earthquake (4) tsunami (5) a flood (6) a lightning storm (7) a fall downstairs, off a bicycle, or off a mountain trail (8) a hit-and-run accident (9) a sports-related injury (10) when you suddenly without warning develop leukemia and are turned down for insurance as having a pre-existing condition (11) when you are bitten by a poisonous snake or spider or scorpion or infected tick (12) when you get trapped in a snowstorm and suffer severe frostbite (13) when a gas leak in your house results in an explosion and you suffer third-degree burns (14) when you sever a limb with your chainsaw? It might be useful for you to consult statistics about unforeseen accidents in this country, and the people affected by them.

“This bill allows for the murder of babies.” No, it supports termination of pregnancies resulting from incest, rape, or those that threaten the life of the mother. Furthermore, a small piece of tissue with no central nervous system is not a baby, no more than an acorn is an oak tree. Meanwhile, if it is wrong to murder, why must those who don't have the funds for medical insurance or medical treatment be forced to die, when they could be saved? They have fully developed brains and they know what is happening to them, as do their family members and friends. Too bad? Is that what you’re saying? I hope my fate never rests in your hands. You’re aware that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. So you are free to follow your religious beliefs, but not to impose them on others who believe differently. And any sect that engages in political lobbying should lose its tax-exempt status, and thereby lower my tax burden. I’m forced to pay more tax because an institution I don’t believe in doesn’t pay up, and, moreover, is promoting policies I abhor.

“This bill is going to raise my taxes. It’s just more Welfare, and I don’t even believe in the Welfare we already have.” But I suppose you are proud to be a United States citizen, right? What exactly is the U.S.A.? Is it the real estate? Is it the GNP? Is it the money in our banks? No, surely the U.S.A. is the collectivity of its people. Proud as you are to be a citizen, you feel no obligation at all to any citizen outside the circle of family and friends, is that it? As far as you’re concerned, if people are ill or dying and don’t have the money to get medical assistance, that’s their little red wagon. You’re just going to take care of number one. You couldn’t care less about saving other lives (except for fetuses’). Your U.S.A. is yourself and the people you know. As far as you’re concerned, the others can just go ahead and croak; because you don't want your taxes raised by so much as one percent. Your U.S.A. is a cruel and heartless country, concerned above all else with self-interest, I see that. Well, it’s not my U.S.A. And by the way some of those people who can’t afford medical care are your coreligionists. I guess your sect doesn’t teach you all to take care of each other. What is it then, just a means of getting a good seat in the afterlife?

“Look at the bill, it’s 2500 pages long!” Yes. In an effort to be bipartisan and accommodate free-enterprise ideologues, the current Administration dropped any hope of having a National Health system in which the Federal government is the insurer, as in advanced European nations. Congress allowed private insurance corporations to continue on in that role. It also had to allot part of the insuring burden to business, even small businesses, because legislators ranted about deficit spending. Inevitably, these extra provisions involve a complex regulatory apparatus, so that burden-sharing is fair. Hence the 2500 pages. As soon as private insurers are removed from the picture, and health care is nationalized, regulation will be vastly simplified. But I know you and your fellow right-wingers will never let that happen. The 2500 pages are likely to grow. As for small businesses, you don't seem to know they are now allowed to opt out of insuring employees and pay a fine, which will cost them much less than insuring does. Their employees hope they won’t do this, naturally. And research suggests in any case that insurance costs for small businesses in most cases will decrease.

“My insurance premiums are going to rise.” You know that for a fact? Where is your proof? Even supposing they did, is it not worth a small rise to have the security of knowing that, in the event you lose the insurance you currently have, no new insurer could deny coverage to you because you already suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, cancer, or heart disease.

“Democrats expand government and spend us into huge deficits, and this health care thing is the latest example of that.” Actually, during the Clinton Administration, we had a budget surplus, have you already forgotten? When the Bush Administration appropriated $750 billion to bail out collapsing financial institutions, it was Big Government interfering with free enterprise. Don’t you believe that the market, not the Bush Administration, should have decided which banks were viable and which not? Are you being inconsistent? Meanwhile, the unprovoked invasion of Iraq insisted on by President Bush has drained our reserves of staggering amounts of capital, more than was spent by any Democratic war president during the last century. Iraq, since 2001 has cost about $713 billion, and there’s no end in sight. I will not mention the cost for Iraq because I know you don’t care what happens to other countries. Nor, out of respect for the dead, will I quote (in this sordid context) the figures for military and civilian casualties on both sides. All this for a threat that never existed. True, it did make corporations like Haliburton and Bechtel (to which the GOP had financial ties) prosper; but it plunged our country into enormous debt and is still doing so. Why didn’t you protest deficit spending during the Bush Administration? In any case, I suppose you’ve decided to ignore the provisions outlined in this new bill for deficit reduction, provisions developed and passed by a Democratic Congress in a Democratic Administration. Though you have no proof, you’re absolutely certain they won’t work because you know they won’t. You are an expert, you don't need to hear the facts and figures. Good bye. I don’t want to know anything more about you, and I certainly don't want to listen to your mean-spirited and mindless ravings any longer.


Wasted breath. Well, not really. I know they’re not listening, but at least I feel better.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Poet Ai, 1947-2010

Two days ago, my friend the poet Ai died in Stillwater, Oklahoma, of breast cancer. I hadn’t seen Ai since 2002, during the year I taught at Oklahoma State, but we spoke by telephone and exchanged email posts since then, and I would also sometimes get news of her from mutual friends. The last time we exchanged messages was in early January, when she made no mention at all of poor health. She was a very private person, lived alone, didn’t see many people, just taught her classes, gave occasional readings, and wrote her poems. I’m saddened to hear this news and again reminded that breast cancer is a national health problem that seems to be getting more and more serious. I’m not sure enough is being done to promote awareness of it and to fund research. It’s something that has affected the lives of many people close to me, beginning with my mother (legally, my stepmother), whose illness I wrote about in a poem titled “Stepson Elegy” (in Present). But much more to the point are the courageous poems by Marilyn Hacker and Mary Cappello, written from a first-hand perspective.

I met Ai in Tulsa in 2001, when she attended a reading Robert Pinsky gave there at a literary festival sponsored by the English Department at Oklahoma State. Robert introduced us and we exchanged contact information. I was teaching that year at the University of Tulsa and decided not to go back East for the Christmas holiday. Hearing that, Ai invited me to Christmas dinner at her place in Stillwater. I remember an apartment absolutely filled with things, especially wicker furniture, which Ai had a special liking for. As I was to learn the following year, going out to comb the thrift stores was one of her favorite occupations. Ai always had stylish clothes, designer dresses and jackets combined with thrift-store items she had a flair for discovering. I remember once she was contemplating spending a lot of money on a beautiful turquoise and silver necklace, either Zuni or Hopi, I’m not sure. I egged her on because she looked gorgeous in it and because I knew she was proud of her Indian ancestry. Buy it she did, and even now I can see it ornamenting one of her great ensembles. I think she was also pleased to have African ancestry and, besides that, a Japanese father, whose name (Ogawa) she used on official documents, but not when she signed her poems and books. Still, because she grew up in a Native American community, that heritage seemed to be foremost in her consciousness.

I was invited to come teach at Oklahoma State for the following year during Ai’s sabbatical and was pleased to accept. I got to know English Department faculty there very well, in fact, it was one of the friendliest I’d ever worked with. Because we were both single, Ai and I saw each other many times, going out to dinner or making raids on the thrifts, where I found stuff to spruce up my temporary apartment in Stillwater. Like many poets, she didn’t know how to drive, and I was perfectly willing to be the chauffeur. It’s said that some people found her personally difficult, but I never did. We seemed to have the same kind of humor, and she knew I valued her and her work. To her poetry she brought keen novelistic skills and a dramatic instinct that didn’t flinch when faced with the inhuman behavior that characterizes so much of human existence. I read her and think of the great Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa’s statement to the effect that, “The artist does not avert his eyes.”

And yet. For some reason Ai averted her eyes from her own illness and didn’t have a check-up when symptoms appeared. I don’t understand this, and, in my confusion, am posting these reflections in the hope that someone who knew her better than I did can explain what happened. When there is a loss, we try to extract from it something besides sadness. Perhaps that may happen in this case, too. Meanwhile, I will reread Ai’s poems, inevitably from an altered perspective. I asked Ai if she’d adopted her name from the classical Greek, the word that is usually translated as “alas!” or “woe!” She said, “No. In Japanese, “ai” means ‘love.’”

Thursday, 4 March 2010

After Argentina

Maybe now that I’ve left Argentina, I’ll have time to say a little more about my stay.

There were many high spots during my six weeks in Buenos Aires, but a good place to begin is a joint reading with Sam Hamill, a poetry evening arranged by his Argentinian translator Esteban Moore. Esteban is a poet of Irish descent who has published several volumes and is well known in Latin America. The second week in February he invited friends and fellow poets to a bar called La Poesia in San Telmo, the oldest part of the city. We arrived early, so I had time to walk two streets over to the former Biblioteca Nacional, which from 1955 to 1972 had as its director Jorge Luis Borges. It’s now the National Center for Music and Dance, a fact fully evident when you noticed students congregating on the steps outside. A guard allowed me to have a look at the former Reading Room, quite similar to its counterpart in the British Museum in the era when the British Library was housed there: a very high, octagonal room capped by a dome and lined with bookshelves. Remember the opening of Borges’s “The Library of Babel”? “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Borges said he conceived of Heaven as a library and cited his father’s library in the family home on calle Serrano as the central, determining fact about his childhood. Borges was an heroic reader, in the same way we say Achilles was an heroic fighter, and he had an Achilles heel as well: the eye defect he inherited from his father, which eventually left them both blind. The convergence of those two facts, directorship of the National Library and his blindness, led to the writing of one of his best-known poems, the “Poem of the Gifts,” pervaded with a calmly tragic sense of humor. Borges fame arose around his fiction writing, but as time has passed I’ve come to prefer his poetry to his short stories, brilliant and original as those are.

Meanwhile, this was to be an evening of the, so to speak, “talking book,” and I made my way back to Bar La Poesia to see if it was time to go on. It was a bilingual evening, given that most of the audience was hispanophone. I read my poems in both languages (using translations made by others or myself, plus two poems that I actually wrote in Spanish first, and later translated into English). Sam read his poems in English, pausing between each so that Esteban could read his very accurate and graceful versions. The picture shown above was taken during the evening, myself on the left and Sam on the right. It was the first time we’d ever read together, and the significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on me.

The person who took the photograph is my friend Mong-Lan, whom I met about ten years ago in Switzerland, during a month’s residency at the Château de Lavigny, in a small village near Lausanne. Even in those days Lan was passionate about tango; in the past decade she has become sufficiently expert to give tango lessons herself. And she recently published a book of poems dealing with the topic, the verses accompanied by her ink-brush drawings. She sees tango as a kind of pain-killer for the underclass of Buenos Aires, a way to forget for a few hours that their lives have strict economic limits and few attractive prospects. Not for most of its dancers a prelude to real physical intimacy, tango is a kind of abstraction of sexuality, allowing equal expression for both genders, though it seems to me that women dancers have a wider repertory of gestures, particularly with the voleos, or whip-lashings of the leg.

One evening Lan and I went to a milonga, a dance hall where people meet to tango. Participants don’t usually arrive as a couple. Instead, men invite women they catch sight of there to dance a number or two, always interspersed with an interval of conversation. That means a dance can be a fleeting encounter or develop into something longer term, depending on circumstances and mutual attraction. The milonga Lan and I went to for some reason is called “Canning” and opens its doors near Palermo Soho around eleven every evening. I have to report I don’t know how to tango and was a fairly resigned wallflower (wallvine?) for the whole evening. But it was impressive to see how well Lan performed, the best dancer on the floor that evening, unmistakably. It was also touching to see older couples dancing, not athletically but slowly and sensitively, some of them upwards of seventy. Granted, the smart youth of Buenos Aires much prefer rock and disco to tango; but it is an old porteño (the adjective used to describe citizens of Buenos Aires) tradition that also draws adepts from all over the world, the poet and painter Mong-Lan included.

During my stay I strolled through the neighborhoods that are most often visited in Buenos Aires—the Palermos (Soho, Chico, and Hollwood), the Centro, La Boca, San Telmo, Recoleta, Retiro, and Belgrano. I visted most of the museums, had good meals in the restaurants, saw my Australian friends Lee Tulloch and Tony Amos at their hotel (the Alvear Palace) and in Palermo, before they went on their cruise to the Malvinas/Falklands, Patagonia, and Chile. Yet it would have been unadventurous to stay in the city for the full six weeks and never visit the other nearby national capital when it is in so easily reached. To get to Montevideo, you either take a ferry there directly or else to Colonia del Sacramento (a shorter ride) and go by bus for the remainder of the trip. I chose the latter route, thinking it would incidentally give me an overland view of the countryside in Argentina’s smaller neighbor to the north. Fairly flat terrain greets you as you leave Colonia, dotted with small houses on a single level, grazing cattle, eucalyptus groves and the occasional palm tree. You see less harvesting machinery than you would in comparable farmlands in the U.S.A., but also a certain appealing simplicity and modesty of aims. Uruguay is the twenty-fourth sovereign nation I’ve visited (twenty-seventh, if you count San Marino, Andorra, and Vatican City). I’ll go on record, too, as having seen all fifty states of the Union, and all but one of its large cities, lest anyone suppose I’m insufficiently interested in my home country.

Montevideo has its own special ambiance, as all national capitals do. Smaller and slower-moving than Buenos Aires, it has only one high-rise building, the Palacio Salvo, but on the other hand that was Latin America’s first such building when it was completed in 1928. It overlooks the Plaza Independencia, which is dominated by the equestrian statue of José Artigas, Uruguay’s liberator and a man with very forward-looking social ideas for his day, ideas that included universal suffrage, not excluding the indigenous peoples and women. The square is at the edge of the Old City, which, though dilapidated in some streets, is now having many of its old buildings renovated and may well end up being an equivalent to Buenos Aires’s Palermo Soho in a few years. I was impressed by the variety of architectural styles (from the 18th,, 19th, and 20th centuries) gathered in this old quarter, as well as by the unhurried and companionable life of the people I saw in the streets.

I also had dinner with a writer friend whom I hadn’t seen since the 1970s. This is Roberto Echavarren, one of the leading poets, novelists, and critics in Uruguay, often a guest at literary festivals throughout Latin America. We met in New York through mutual friends John Ashbery and David Kalstone and then unaccountably fell out of touch, though Roberto taught Comp Lit and Latin American literature for many years at NYU. Anyway, it was a pleasant reunion at his house in Pocitos, where I met his Indonesian-born partner Yudi Yudoyoko, who is a visual artist. We three had a pleasant meal together and caught up a bit. Roberto is often classed with the Neo-barocco poets of Latin America, a description that may or may not apply. He has published a volume of translations of Ashbery’s poetry and could be said to be influenced by that oeuvre, too; though perhaps it makes more sense to say that Ashbery nowadays is a kind of climate of opinion or aesthetics, with an impact on nearly every contemporary poet, as was true with Eliot in the 1920s and Auden in the 1930s. Roberto gave me several of his books, including a theoretical work on the androgyne in literature, which is a timely topic, certainly. I was glad to see Roberto again, and, besides, it always changes the face of an unknown city when you interact with someone who actually lives there.

Next morning I had a meeting with the poet Chip Livingston, whom I know from New York, and his Argentinian partner Gabriel Padilha. They had been living in the attractive Pocitos neighborhood of Montevideo since December but will be returning to the States shortly. We decided to find the monument to Gay Liberation that was set up in Montevideo five years ago—the first in Latin America, but a counterpart to others in New York, Amsterdam, and Germany. It was right at the edge of the Old City, in a little traveled byway called the Pasaje de la Vieja Policia. An upbeat way to conclude my stay in Montevideo.

This blog entry should also conclude, so I will sign off with the observation that my spoken Spanish improved while I was in Argentina, that being one of my reasons for going. Considering that the U.S.A. has a vast Spanish-speaking population, and the role that Spanish-speaking peoples have had in U.S. history, it seems only right that citizens should know Spanish, just as Canadians are expected to speak French even when their mother tongue is English. Besides, knowledge of the language opens the door to a culture and literature of extraordinary richness, as well as to one European country and some two dozen in the Western Hemisphere, where it is the official language.