Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Backward Glance to Summer

During the latter part of my stay in Newcastle, things began to pick up speed. I took a trip down to London to see Mimi Khalvati, with whom I had lunch near her place in Stoke Newington. That same week, I spent some time with James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar, too, in fact, they put together a sort of joint birthday dinner for us, with guests Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon, plus Nina Zivancevic over from Paris with her son Vladimir. It was something of a going-away party since James and Sandeep’s plans were to New York in early September to live for a couple of years, Sandeep pursuing her postgraduate research and James enrolling in NYU’s MFA program.

Back in Newcastle I began to get to know poets living there or nearby. Sean O’Brien (one of the most praised poets now publishing in the U.K.) and his partner the literary agent Gerry Wardle were especially kind to me. Sean has won all the major British poetry prizes, but surprised everyone this year by bringing out his first novel, titled The Afterlife, which I saw favorably reviewed in several papers. It’s a dark fable (also, bitingly funny), the story of several aspiring Cambridge poets in the 1970s, whose lives epitomize the confusion and anomie of that decade. I asked Sean if he planned to write a second novel, and he assures me that he does. So much for the notion that poets can’t write fiction--Hardy, Lawrence, Blaise Cendrars, James Dickey, and Margaret Atwood all cases in point, and I might as well let Alfred Corn be the caboose for this distinbguished train.

Sean and Gerry took me on an excursion to the Northumbrian coast one bright early-August morning, an unforgettable day that managed to crowd in many sights, including a visit to Ashington’s coal-mining museum, where, among other things, I was shown paintings of the “Ashington School.” They were a group of coal miners (or “pit men”) who in the 1930s had been given art instruction by a progressive painter named Lyon, who came up from London to the industrial sector of Northumbria. His pupils mounted an exhibition to some acclaim and began to be collected, not really incredible if you recall the progressive politics that characterized British cultural life in the Thirties. Besides, the paintings have a lot of originality and appeal. More about the painters follows farther on.

From Ashington we drove to the coast, stopping in the pretty town of Alnmouth for lunch. On the sand beach there you see Farne Island with its lighthouse and a beautiful expanse of light blue sea. When we continued on the road we saw Alnwick Castle (used for the Harry Potter films), Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Percys (vide Hotspur in Henry IV), and finally the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the cradle of Celtic Christianity in Northern England. I’m not going to attempt in a blog to register the full impact that seeing these things made.

We turned inland and drove through the moors north of Newcastle to get me back to my place, where we toasted our day with a drink from my balcony thirteen floors above the Tyne. I saw Sean and Gerry once more for lunch before leaving Newcastle, and we plan to meet again when I return.

Through an email introduction made by Anne-Marie Fyfe, I also met the poet Colette Bryce, whose refreshing recent book Self-Portrait in the Dark I’d been reading. Colette came over for a drink, bringing with her the poet Paul Batchelor, who besides publishing well-received volumes of poems wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Northumberland poet Barry McSweeney. I’d actually met Paul four years earlier, when he came to a reading I gave for the Proudwords Festival in Newcastle. But it was a pleasure to see him again, now fully fledged as a poet.

I made a daytrip to Whitby, which I’d never visited, to see Kennedy Fraser, an old New York friend (English by birth) who divides her time between New York and this small seacoast town that has a special history. Begin with the fact that the earliest surviving poem in Anglo-Saxon was written there by the shepherd Caedmon and that St. Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, flourished during the same period. We had good weather and made a tour of some of the sites, including the ruined abbey, the old church, and the graveyard made famous by the opening chapters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But the awful traffic and swarms of tourists firmed up a recent resolve never to visit such places except in the off season.

Through James Byrne, I was put in touch with Toby Martinez de las Rivas, a young poet who lives in Gateshead with his Italian wife and child. Toby’s grandfather, a Basque from Bilbao, came to England during the Spanish Civil War and married and Englishwoman. Though he grew up in southern England, Toby is now a proud Northerner, which leads me to the reflection that nearly everyone who lives in the North of England is or becomes a staunch partisan of the region. Apart from its gorgeous landscapes and architecture, a long rich history that includes Roman garrisons and Hadrian’s Wall, constant invasions from Northmen and Scots, Celtic monks and saints (e.g. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede), the interest of shipbuilding and coal-mining industries, and many resident poets, how can local pride be explained? But no further explanation than those facts is really needed. While there, I felt the strong magnetism of Northumbria and certainly plan to stay there again. Anyway, Toby has yet to publish a book, but he was chosen to number among the new poets whose chapbooks have ben published by Faber, and he has already won prizes.

In mid-August I met kind and charming Valerie Laws, poet and playwright also concerned with the matter of the North. We made a day trip out to Hadrian’s Wall and to the excavated Roman settlement Vindolanda, which Hadrian is believed to have visited shortly before the wall project was begun. Reconstructed Roman dwellings have been added to the site, including a little temple dedicated to the nymphs of the water source that ran through Vindolanda. Even without the archeological attractions, the site would have visitors, beautiful as it is. Its rolling fields offer vistas of nearby mountains, the slopes on the day we visited pale purple with heather.

I had an arrivederci final dinner with Paul Attinello (musicologist and writer who teaches at the U. of Newcastle) and then went down to London the first week in September, where I stayed in East Dulwich with my friend Paddy Navin, the actress. Paddy called up other actor friends and we had a reading of the play about Robert Lowell (in 1949) that I drafted during the summer. A revealing experience to hear your text performed by other voices. I hope to set up another such reading when I go to New York in October. Paddy and I saw the NT production of Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters, a play based on the story of the Ashington coal miners described above. Some topnotch performances, especially from Christopher Connel, who played the miner/painter Kilbourn. I also saw the NT’s Mother Courage in a new translation by Tony Kushner. Fiona Shaw gave a star turn in the title role, a heroic two-and-a-half-hour embodiment of Brecht’s excruciating narrative, under Deborah Warner’s direction. It will sound as though I’m a theatre addict (in fact, I may be), but I also saw the ENO production of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre in a startling realization by the Barcelona troupe La Fura dels Baus, one feature of which was an enormous effigy of a crouching woman out of whose body characters emerged at different points during the narrative. Also attending were Adam Mars-Jones and Keith King, the three of us joining up to discuss what we’d seen after and to catch up on our respective past months.

Other events: I atended the launch of James Byrne's and Clare Pollard's new Bloodaxe anthology, Voice Recognition, a gatheirng of poets who haven't yet published a book. It was held at King's Place and featured twelve of the anthologized poets, including Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who apart from reading beautifully made the startling decision to dedicate one of his poems to me. The book has all the earmarks of success and performs its prospecting and introductory function very well.

I'd been invited by Katy Evans-Bush to participate in her reading series, held at a cafe in Stoke Newington. Three other American-born poets read, including Joseph Harrison, in London on a Guggenheim. We had never met before nor did I know about Waywiser Press, for which he is the American editor. But now I do.

Mimi Khalvati attended the reading, and a few days later she and I had a laughter-filled evening over dinner at a little Turkish restaurant in Spitalfields, preceded by a stroll around that out-of-the-way old neighborhood. I first got to know the neighborhood more than twenty years ago when an American friend, a longtime resident in London named Dennis Seaver, introduced me to it. (Dennis has since died, I’m very sorry to say.) He owned a house on Folgate Street, an old dwelling that he had turned into “living theatre,” a sort of architectural narrative involving the fortunes of an old Huguenot family, specialists in silk weaving, that had come to London shortly after the Edict of Nantes (which exiled Protestants from France). Each floor of his house dealt with a different generation of the family he had invented. Not absolutely accurate from the standpoint of history, it was even so an enthralling experience, casting a spell not easily forgotten, as you see. Mimi and I also walked up to Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, which figures in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, a strange historical fantasy I read back in the 80s, when Spitalfields had just begun to attract artist gentrifiers. The old Market is now lined with boutiques, Christ Church restored and cleaned, and the whole ambiance is more upscale than it was twenty years ago.

On my last day in London I was to meet George Szirtes for a drink but for some reason my phone failed to deliver the confirming message (a chronic problem all during the last few days of my stay), so we didn’t manage our rendezvous after all; it will have to be postponed till next spring. But Paddy and I went out for a sumptuous Indian dinner at a place nearby, and the London stay came to an end.

I’m in Rhode Island for a few weeks and, in fact, a few days after arrival gave a reading on the 24th at the University of Rhode Island, where my friend the poet Peter Covino teaches. In the audience were Sandeep Parmar and James Byrne, up from New York, where, as mentioned above, they will be living this year. Also, Jason Roush (see the blog for April 12) came down from Boston, a convenient occasion for a reunion after my four months away. The reading done and books signed, we all went out to dinner, joined by Peter’s partner Tim, Mary Cappello and her partner Jan Walton (both on the faculty at URI). A certain flush of excitement stirred up during the reading carried over into our dinner, which takes its special place among memories of other high-spirited gatherings organized around the bardic vocation, an unquenchable Olympian flame to which poetry’s adepts bring so much enthusiasm and dedication.