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.

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