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.