Sunday, 5 February 2012

Cambridge and Clare Hall

King's College Chapel, from across the Cam.
Since last writing, I've come to Britain and to Cambridge--specifically, to Cambridge's Clare Hall, where I will be a Resident Fellow until June.  Clare Hall, founded in the 1960s, has a program of accepting fellows from the world over, scholars or artists who work on a special project during their residency. In my case, I'll be completing a new translation of Rilke's Duineser Elegien. It's a project I've contemplated a long time, never up to now finding the circumstances or occasion to begin it. The reason I didn't simply propose writing new poems or fiction is that I'm not able to guarantee in advance that I will produce new writing of my own.  Sometimes a period of three or four months can pass during which I don't feel compelled to write.  And I never force myself to do it if I don't feel that drive to get something down. A sufficient number of dutiful, uninspired works already exist, and there's no point in adding others.

I was met at Heathrow by James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar, who drove me directly to Cambridge.  Sandeep is also a Resident Fellow at Clare Hall, doing research at the Newnham College archive for a biography of the British Modernist poet Hope Mirrlees.  Last year an edition of Mirrlees's poetry that Sandeep edited was published by Carcanet, so the biography is the next logical step. Also, her first book of poems will appear in March with Shearsman publishers. James has been named the Poet in Residence at Clare Hall and meanwhile is teaching poetry workshops in London, while continuing to edit The Wolf and write his own poetry.  Not knowing anyone else in Cambridge, I was glad that they would both be here during my residency, and in fact we see each other every week.  I had been in correspondence with Professor D K Midgely of the German Faculty before arriving, and had lunch with him last month at St Johns College, where he is a Fellow. A bonus of being here is that you have the opportunity of seeing the various colleges at considerably less than the usual tourist speed.  Cambridge amounts to a trove of brilliant architecture from several centuries, a sort of library of architectural styles from the 14th right up to the 21st century.  Above, I've added a picture of King's College Chapel, which is the signature structure representing the University.   Several of the older colleges have "backs" that go down to the River Cam, crossed by bridges also of architectural interest. 

I've been down to London once, attending the TS Eliot Prize festivities.  The reading for it was held at Royal Festival Hall on January 16, with the eight shortlisted candidates each appearing for ten minutes.  Sean O'Brien was the only poet I knew personally, though I knew the work of most of the others.  They read to an audience of 2000, a figure that will have to be swept under the carpet by commentators who continue to insist that "no one cares about poetry."  We can assume that for every person attending there are fifteen or twenty who wish they could have attended. Many poets were among the audience. I sat with Mimi Khalvati, who has appeared in this blog before now. There was also time for brief greetings to Ruth Padel and Fiona Sampson.  

The actual award ceremony was held the following night at the Haberdashers Union headquarters in the City, not far from Smithfield Market.  A luxurious modern building with handsome paneling and large rooms, reminding us how profitable the clothing industry is. There were about two hundred guests at the party, I would estimate.  One reason I attended is that I knew it would be a convenient way to re-establish contact with poet friends.  Apart from Kathryn Maris (who was putting me up in London), I had lively conversations with Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, Elaine Feinstein, Maurice Riordan, Ruth Fainlight, Katy Evans-Bush, and Dennis O'Driscoll. Dennis and I got acquainted through correspondence as long ago as the 1980s but had never met face to face.   He was one of the panel of judges for the prize and when I mentioned I didn't know John Burnside (the favorite for the prize, according to bookmakers), Dennis took me up to him.  I found him a thoroughly likable person, a bit on the shy side, but then he was waiting to hear the prize outcome.  Other people I met included Bernard O'Donoghue, Imtiaz Dharker, Gillian Clarke (also one of the prize judges), Neil Astley, Carol Ann Duffy, Daljit Nagra, Esther Morgan, Michael Symmons Roberts, John Dugdale, and Kathleen Jamie. Quite a field of fair folk, including a good portion of the most-discussed poets in Britain today.  Eventually the prize was announced: and the favorite won.  I haven't read Burnside's book yet (I will), but there didn't seem to be any carping afterwards, so apparently the prize was deserved.

Returning to Cambridge, I can say that my stay is well launched. I've begun making the acquaintance of other Clare Hall Fellows, meeting as we do for lunch in the College dining room every week day.  One of these is the gifted American prose writer Thomas Glave, who will be here for an entire year. Everything looks promising, and in fact I now have in hand a translation of the First Elegy.  On to the Second.