LIDIA VIANU

Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)

Desperado Literature


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RUTH FAINLIGHT

 

LIDIA VIANU -- RUTH FAINLIGHT

 

Four interviews with RUTH FAINLIGHT (born 2 May 1931), British poet

Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

 

Writers can have some effect on the world at large      

© Lidia Vianu

 

  

 

LIDIA VIANU: You are a quivering poet. Your lines have a frail and tenacious life, and this paradox makes you, in my mind, what I call a Desperado poet. I do not mean despair. Desperado is a name for the poetry of the last few decades, colloquial, natural, diary-like, contradictory, often defiantly shameless, even more often reluctant to confess or reveal. The Desperadoes make up a movement formed of writers who are similar in dissimilarity. They always deny they belong to any trend and refuse to be classified. To begin with, I wonder if you would accept being one?

 

RUTH FAINLIGHT: According to your definition of the label, I can accept that I share the characteristics of what you call a Desperado poet. (Though I must tell you that there seems something faintly comic about that term; the definition of Desperado in the Oxford English Dictionary is: ‘A desperate or reckless man; one ready for any deed of lawlessness or violence’, and the word is almost only ever used to describe the villain in a Western, a ‘cowboy’ movie. I fear you might create an unfortunate impression with that word, which would be a great pity, because your characterisation and description of what you call Desperado poetry, and of my poetry, is extremely perceptive.)

 

LV. Two Blue Dresses almost defines your poetry when it mentions, in a different context, ‘The probability/ Of loneliness’. All Desperadoes face life alone, emphatically and indomitably so. They refuse compassion. As a writer, you also master your sympathy. Your poetry is either natural, on the dumb side, or ironical. Is refusal of avowed sensibility an aim for you, or is it just a spontaneous reaction which you do not explain?

 

RF. I am not conscious of making any effort to suppress expression of emotions.

            I do not understand, nor exactly agree with, what you say here: for example: that my poetry is natural. For me, poetry is a highly conscious and self-aware – though not necessarily self-conscious – art form. (On the other hand, you are right to use the word because since my childhood, writing poetry has been a natural activity for me.) But I want to make it quite clear that I distrust the blurting outpourings of ‘spontaneous’ or ‘poetic’ poetry. When students or young poets proudly tell me that they do not work on their ‘poems’ because they do not want to lose the first ‘inspiration’ – as if they feared to brush the colour off the butterfly’s wing – I try to explain that to make a poem sound simple and inevitable requires a great deal of time, thought, knowledge and effort. I work on a poem for days, weeks, sometimes months before I can begin to think it has come close to what I want and hope it to be. Almost all my poems go through many drafts. And sometimes years later I see that something needs to be changed, sharpened or simplified. There are poems of mine which have been published in four different versions: the first, in a magazine or periodical; the second in a book-length collection of my poems. The third version would be included in my first Selected Poems, and the fourth, in the revised and enlarged Selected Poems published in 1995. And if the opportunity arose in the future, I wonder if I could resist the temptation?   

            When you say my poetry is dumb, I assume that you mean something like mute or inarticulate – not stupid, as in  American usage! I find this description difficult to relate to my work – or in fact to any literary product. How can verbal expression be inarticulate? Writing about inarticulate people is extremely difficult! What could be more ‘artful’ than a Hemingway story about such characters?

            Ironical – sometimes.

 

LV. Vertical is a poem which, you say, sets you ‘free from definition’ by summing up your major themes: ‘Jew, poet, woman.’ You do have an air of heroic verticality in everything you write. I have a feeling you place that before the craft of poetry, which you take for granted and would rather keep unnoticed. Your poetry is subtle and persistent. What comes first for you as a poet: atmosphere, idea, music, sympathy?

 

RF. No, I do not take the craft of poetry for granted. Poetry is the expression of strong feeling, of course – but the medium for this expression is language, words, and the more skill and experience the artist has in the use of the chosen medium, the better she is able to express and convey the inspiration which motivates her. I suppose that of the four alternatives you offer, I would choose music.

 

LV. The Demonstration mentions your ‘frankness’. You do strike the reader by the fervour with which you ‘open’ yourself (your word again). You do it, paradoxically again, both discreetly and vehemently. You have the strength of frailty, which is fiercer than blind strength. Do you derive it from your honesty versus the blank page? Is your honesty a manner of writing, a way of being, an essential of life?

 

RF. I hope I am honest in my life; but the honesty of the artist is not necessarily or directly connected to this quality. Honesty with regard to the work, the use of and respect for the medium – words, in the case of a poet – is essential.

 

LV. My Position in the History of the Twentieth Century is a disarming offer of true life to the mouth of greedy poetry. You offer yourself: ‘I am not troubled because most people are taller./ Eyes always meet on the same level.’ You mention the ‘yellow star’ and your ‘good fortune’ which took you ‘far from the Holocaust.’ We have already stepped into the 21st century. You end the poem with: ‘...what seemed most private and unique in me/ I find dependent on my place and time.’ Do your priorities change with the times? Do your themes adapt to age and ages? You are very nimble in your emotions. Are you trying to transfer this nimbleness to the kind of poetry you write? Do you set out deliberately to innovate this old craft?

 

RF. Yes, I believe that a careful reader can see that my themes have altered and developed with the passage of time. I also think that my command of the medium has improved (I hope this is true) – though of course, the basic, characteristic voice remains unchanged.

            I did not set out deliberately to innovate the craft of poetry – but have always tried to write as well as possible, to improve my technical skills, because the more fluent one is – like an athlete trained to the full stretch of her potential – the more possible it is to express the most subtle perceptions and emotions. To me, the possibilities of form, structure and subject in the English language are limitless, and the more I read of English poetry, and poetry in other languages, whether in the original or in translation, the vaster and more boundless the field of poetry becomes.  

 

LV. I think I can detect several Eliotian echoes in your poems, though I may be wrong, because you hide it very well. One of them is The Cumaean Sibyl I, II. I shall quote the second, because it is a summary of The Waste Land, to my mind: ‘Because she forgot to ask for youth/ when Apollo gave her as many years/ as grains of dust in her hand, this sibyl/ personifies old age: and yet/ those withered breasts can still let down/ celestial milk to one who craves/ redemption: a dry tree, not a green/ the emblem of salvation.’ Strange how you can hum Eliot’s music of private images and yet be totally yourself and belong to another age. You beat Eliot at his own game. Is Eliot a model? Who else is? What is your relationship with the previous poetic age, that of the stream of consciousness?

 

RF. Eliot was very important to me as a young poet, and I am sure that certain of his rhythms etc. can be detected in my work, particularly the earlier poems. Another poet I studied as a young woman was Robert Graves. Both of them felt a deep connection to the Classical World, which I share.

            Eliot was an influence on everyone of my generation  but later it became more interesting for me to study the poets who had influenced him: the classical Latin poets, Milton, the English Metaphysical poets, and of course the French 19th century poets such as Baudelaire, Corbière, the Symbolists, etc etc. As to other poets who have influenced me: probably every good poet I read opens my eyes to new ways of saying things, and of looking at and thinking about the world. This has happened all my life and, I am happy to say, still does. 

 

LV. It Must is one of the many poems haunted by old age. Your sensibility is so fresh. You rely on your emotions and your poetry to keep you young. Writing is your strength. A Desperado manages to look like a citadel even when ‘hopelessness’ (your word, again) rages. Do you write in order to feel/ or because you feel strong?

 

RF. I think that as I have grown older, I have written more poems about age – which is not unusual. I don’t think  about being, or feeling, strong – although when I feel I have succeeded in expressing something honestly and skillfully, I do feel happy, which is always strengthening!

 

LV. Divination by Hair is a remarkable poem, at the same time helpless and aggressive, bitter and sweet, weak and tough. You pull out your white hairs in front of the mirror, but: ‘Sooner or later I’ll have to choose whether/ to be bald or white.’ Your irony silences the grief. That is a very Desperado feature. What do you expect the reader’s reaction to be? How would you describe your ideal reader?

 

RF.  My ideal reader? I have never thought about that! Someone who can hear my voice in the poem, and who will understand my references and metaphors.

            I am interested in your comment about ‘Divination by Hair’ —  that ‘(Your) irony silences the grief.’ That particular poem is an example of my use of irony; and yes, you have understood what I want the poem to do. Thank you.

 

LV. The same poem states: ‘I fear/ the mask more than the skull beneath.’ Unlike most Desperadoes, you do not wear a mask in your poems. You are disarmingly yourself, and the naturalness, untainted by poetic conventions, becomes your craft. Your major emotion is not fear, but the need to survive. You write forcefully, although the result looks like lace. You are a forceful ironist whose theme is fading femininity. Are you a feminist in beliefs? I would rather say you could not be farther from it, but your answer will be a more convincing statement, one way or the other.

 

RF. From early childhood I have been a feminist, in that I have always insisted that women and men are equal, should have equal rights under the law, equal pay, equal opportunities, etc. My earliest memories include being infuriated by men who denied this – and were usually very amused by my opinions. This is the definition of an

old-fashioned feminist, I know. But I would never say that I am not a feminist, or take an anti-feminist position – and I am intrigued that you write that in your opinion ‘you could not be farther from it’.

            Feminism. I think this is a question of definitions of femininity. It’s true that I am not the sort of radical campus feminist you so dislike.

 

LV. My Rings is a poem of helpless sadness: ‘On my right hand since then/ I’ve always worn the ring/ my father and I chose/ as my twenty-first birthday present./ On my left hand, these months/ since her death. my mother’s ring:/ the engagement ring he bought her/ half a century ago,/ and gave to me,/ after the funeral./...//I spread my hands on the desk./ Prominent tendons and veins/ on the back, like hers;/ red worn skin of the palm/ that chaps and breaks/ so easily, inherited/ from my father. Even without/ the rings, the flesh of my hands/ is their memorial./ No need for anything/ more formal. Not gold/ nor platinum and precious stones/ can serve as well/ as these two orphaned hands.’ Your emotions are coated in a wrapping of decency, but they rage inside the poem. The strong desire to restrain the grief while constantly talking about it is typically Desperado. You run from yourself and hope the reader will find you as you do not want to confess you are. How about critics? Have they found you out? What should a critic do in order to bring out what is most important in your poetry?

 

RF. I wrote My Rings after the deaths of both my parents, who died within ten weeks of each other. It was a hard time for me. I think your analysis of the poem is very acute.

           

LV. Usually Dry-Eyed ought to be looked upon as a Desperado credo: ‘Tears make one impotent. Anger is needed.’ Like many novelists contemporary with you, deep down, in the obscure, unverbalized but detectable meaning of your lines, you are angry. What are the roots of this mood? Is it a reaction against the menace of naked sensibility running away with your words, or does it work as a kind of poetic suspense, which sets the reader on the right track in the quest for the poet?

 

RF. So much makes me angry – much of it political in the sense that relations between the sexes are aspects of the political, and the exploitative relationship between different groups in society and different countries is political. Any form of cruelty makes me angry. But anger is not the best response – it is destructive for the one who feels it. I try to channel my anger: sometimes into action (for example, I am a member of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN), or into my writing – because I do believe (or hope) that writers can have some effect on the world at large.

 

LV. Handbag is a masterpiece of concentrated narrative and lyricism: ‘My mother’s old leather handbag,/ crowded with letters she carried/ all through the war. The smell/ of my mother’s handbag: mints/ and lipstick and Coty powder./ The look of those letters, softened/ and worn at the edges, opened,/ read, and refolded so often./ Letters from my father. Odour/ of leather and powder, which ever/ since then has meant womanliness,/ and love, and anguish, and war.’ As you advance in years, your poetry becomes firmer and clearer, richer. This short poem equals a whole novel. It includes most of your themes. I shall just choose  one, which I have not yet pried into: the war and the holocaust. Did they leave any traces in you, or just in your fund of memories? Do your fears, of age, of loss, of solitude, of failure, have anything to do with that legacy coming from your parents?

 

RF. I am fortunate enough not to have had direct experience of the Holocaust, nor did my immediate family. But of course, being Jewish, it affected me profoundly.

            The fears you question here: age, loss, solitude, failure; surely these fears are common to all humanity? The poet perhaps feels more intensely, and is able to express more articulately, the basic emotions whether of fear or joy shared by everyone. But I have always believed that I am quite ‘normal’ in my reactions and responses, and that they are much the same as everyone else’s – and it is this belief which gives me the confidence to continue writing (and I hope, gives strength to my work).

 

LV. To end this interview, what do you expect of poetry and how do you expect criticism of poetry to behave? What question have you always wanted to be asked by an interviewer yet have not been, yet?

 

RF. We shall have to continue this interview process for me to arrive at the knowledge of ‘the question I have always wanted to be asked by an interviewer yet have not been, yet’.

            What do I expect of poetry? Hard to answer this question. All we know of the entire past and of everyone who ever lived is what has been recorded and remembered in literature. That testimony, that bearing of witness – not necessarily or only witness of great historical events, but also and equally importantly, of the smallest, simplest, most private aspects of human life – has been and I hope will continue to be the purpose of poetry and all forms of literature. 

 

2003

 

 

 

                                   

Honesty, clarity, simplicity

© Lidia Vianu

 

                                               

LIDIA VIANU: Rereading your poetry, I find I cannot help choosing more and more poems for my anthology of Desperado poetry. I try to keep the selection within limits, but each new poem is as quotable as the previous one. What I mean to say is that your poetry grows on the reader. We had one first interview, before we actually met, and before I had read your latest Selected Poems and the latest three volumes. What is taking place now is more the beginning of a book on your creation than a real interview. An informal talk about a poetry that does not hide the poet, yet invites to a million questions. Actually, the questions are negligible here. Your reaction will be all that matters.

            I will start with your name, predestined for your kind of texts: Ruth (as in the opposite of ‘ruthless’, and what splendid sympathy and warmth it is, too!), Fain (as in ‘gladly’, if I am not mistaken) and so very much Light. Your poetry, even at its saddest or most tragic, is so full of light. If you may have chosen your last name – which does not seem to be the case, your first name is definitely yours since birth. Has it ever occurred to you that life endowed you with the most beautiful pen-name? Have you ever thought of changing it?

 

RUTH FAINLIGHT:  I’ll answer the last part of this question first – no, it has never occurred to me to change my name. Because it is unusual, as a child sometimes I was teased about it – but this amused rather than upset me. Since I began to publish my poetry, at times people have come to me after a reading and remarked that Fainlight is a very poetical name; but until now the word itself has not been analysed, ‘deconstructed’ with the care you have given to it. What can I say – except thank you very much!

 

LV. An early poem (Gloria) muses:

 

My muse is in myself:

As past and future

Only exist

By my own need to think them...

 

Your muse, I should say, is the inner diary you keep of each little, everyday incident, which can easily become a poem, which can turn into art before you have had time to consider the change. You write poetry as you breathe. You turn air into poems. This is not a question, it is my strong feeling after reading all your volumes. Is it all right for you to use autobiography as a source for poems? So many poets reject it violently that it scares me to think how many impersonal lines are being written. Asking my MA students in class what they expected of poetry today, the answer came promptly and unanimously: ‘We want a being beyond the sheet of paper.’ You are that being. My question is, what do you think of all those poets who invent masks, intertexts, cultured refuges from their own inner diary? Can the intellect replace the living soul?

 

RF.  My most recent poem – and I’m not even sure that it is really finished – deals with this question: whether it is possible to write poetry without revealing oneself. I do not think it is possible. The poem is called A Bowl of Apples, and makes a comparison between the poet and the painter: my ‘argument’ is that, although a painter can look at a bowl of apples and see it only as a composition of volume, colour and line, to the exclusion of any other meaning, can ignore ‘the implications/ of fading tones and softening forms’, for the poet, ‘Words force definition:/ the medium’s limitation. …. // I cannot/ bring the apples into being/ and not reveal my own nature.’ (Of course, it would be possible to argue that painters also cannot avoid revealing their own natures in their work, but … this is a poem, not a philosophical thesis!) I am absolutely convinced that, even if a poet chooses for subject what seems most distant from the personal, the preferred point of view and angle of approach, the choice of metaphor etc etc, are all determined by the personal history of that poet. In any case, no writer ever tells ‘the truth’ plain and simple; (least of all when writing autobiographically!) I would always sacrifice the accuracy of a factual detail for the sake of a rhyme or an assonance. 

 

LV. Vertical is a poem you feel represents you, and I feel the same. ‘Jew. Woman. Poet.’ is a line your admirers know well. You have already made it clear that you are a feminist – an old-fashioned one, thank God – but being Jewish is not a statement your poetry cares to stress. How does Ruth Fainlight the Jewish woman feel about her Jewishness? I have the feeling this makes you more international, if anything. It does not have anything to do with religious belief, but a lot with the fate of the Wandering Jew, who is in many places at once and belongs to none (see Country Cottage). Would that be what you feel?

 

RF.  This is an accurate perception of my feelings about being Jewish. I am Jewish – there is no way I could, or want to, deny it. The reaction of other people is part of one’s ‘Jewish consciousness’. And I am glad to have this rich heritage, about which I am learning more and more. But – as well as being an ‘old-fashioned’ feminist, I also remain an old-fashioned idealist, with anachronistic ideas such as internationalism, equality etc, and am deeply saddened when these ideas are scorned in the world of today. To me, the term ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, a critical epithet often applied to Jews, is a badge of honour! That is the sense in which I am Jewish. So yes, very ‘international’.

 

LV. The same poem (Vertical) has a very Desperado statement, I think: ‘But/ I am released by language,/ I escape through speech:/ Which has no dimensions (...)/... sets me free/ From whomsoever’s definition...’ I certainly cannot pin you down to a group or a set of features, which is baffling and delightful. You are always somebody else, in a very refreshingly new poem. You escape any attempt at definition. I admit it is my ambition to define what is going on in poetry today, but it will probably be a kind of non-definition, because all Desperadoes – poets and novelists – deny belonging with somebody else, to a recognizable group. Similar in dissimilarity is the major Desperado feature, as I see it. You have already told me your reservations about the cowboy word I have chosen for my theory. The die is cast, hopefully the word will grow on readers, it is not for me to say. What I want to ask is: What do you make of this instinctive and Desperado-like desire all recent writers have to be their own trend, to be like nobody else, to be alone and unlike everyone? To take literature in their own hands and fight heir way beyond all known frontiers? Originality is essential to art, but what happens today is a hysteria of novelty. Do you feel it? How? What is it leading to?

 

RF.  I think that since the time of the first artists we know about – by which I probably mean the ancient Greek playwrights and poets – some artists have  wanted to align themselves into ‘schools’ or groups, and others, for ‘temperamental’ reasons, have rejected the idea indignantly and insisted that they are completely sui generis, with no connection to what anyone else is doing. Taking the long view, one can see that there is always a connection – the work of contemporaries always relates to and influences others working at the same time. But there is absolutely no need for the artist to realise or acknowledge this. So, in answer to your question – in fact I don’t think that the situation is different now than it has ever been.

 

LV. The Lace-Wing has these three lines:

 

The intensity of our mutual

Examination exhausted me.

We almost exchanged identities.

 

I realize, reading them, that what I am looking for in a poem is not so much the personal story of the poet (his private life is his alone, after all) but precisely this emotional intensity you always have, with the grace of lace and the piercing effect of a needle stuck into flesh: you can describe your own love without revealing incidents too private to become art. You can find meaningfulness where others rush thoughtlessly – you fear to tread, yet go such a long way. Should I be more lenient with poets whom I dislike exactly because of the lack of private intensity? Can poetry do without it, replace it by imaginary translations, invented stories, sophisticated combinations of words and fancy rhymes which make understanding quite difficult?

 

RF.  I do not know how it would be possible to write without being driven by emotional intensity. For me, that intensity is another name for inspiration. When I do not sense this intensity in the work of another poet – (depending on my mood and state of mind), either I think I am being particularly obtuse or I think that they are no good! So few of those who write poetry and publish poetry and even are regarded as important and significant poets, will be remembered twenty years (much less fifty or a hundred) after their deaths. A sobering and necessary thought.

 

LV. Dinner-Table Conversation is dedicated to Robert Lowell. I wonder why. It has a few remarkable lines:

 

I must build my own San Francisco: the place

Where hazard reigns and poetry begins.

Would I be less a woman or more a poet

Denying my own triumphs and defeats?

 

You have a particular humility, I do not think you could ever humiliate anyone, but are very vulnerable to others’ attempts at putting you down. Your sense of decency prevents you from attacking anyone, but this does not mean your pride ever gives up. You are as indomitable as you are frail. Actually, you only look frail. Inside I suspect you are adamant. Am I wrong? Your poetry is not at all soft. You wield the words. Why does Lowell come in precisely in such a poem that asserts your strength?

 

RF.  This is one of the poems based on a real incident. The occasion was indeed

a dinner party where I was seated next to Robert Lowell, and his dismissive attitude to women poets or even the very idea of women writing poetry (which surprised me, because I knew his high opinion of Elizabeth Bishop), infuriated me. As far as I remember, I sustained my side of the conversation. Perhaps afterwards he even thought I was ‘interesting’ — but I knew that he was far too set in his opinions for my words to have any effect. The memory rankled; and it became necessary to my peace of mind to confirm my value as a poet to myself. Such experiences need a lot of brooding over before one gains enough objectivity and distance to make them suitable material for a poem. I don’t remember how much time elapsed between the incident and writing the poem. Quite a long time, I imagine.

 

LV. August Full Moon describes your study ‘Where the desk is placed in a corner between two windows...’ Such details bring you very close to the text, in the text, actually. I find it natural that the reader cannot help starving for the private, the intimate, the revelation of another self in poetry. Can the poet deny his poem the privilege of being, even looking like a diary? Eliot once said, ‘How unpleasant to meet Mr Eliot...’ But we did meet him in his so-called (by himself) impersonal lines. This you have in common with him. We meet you, too. Where you differ is on the issue of clarity. You make a point of writing so that everyone can understand. After Joyce, I think, the novel would have died if it had not found its way back to a clear story. After Eliot, I think, you felt you needed clarity in your lines in order to secure an audience. I have not seen one poem by you which does not have a clear meaning. I should also say that I have not seen one single poem without a meaning (which happens so often with others). Do you feel meaning and clarity should go together? How come you never write encoded poems (like Yeats once) and is it a willful choice?

 

RF.  Sometimes I do not understand the meaning of one of my own poems until years later. I want my poems to be clear – BUT – poetry is not primarily merely another method for conveying a message; the music of the words, their sound and rhythm – the language is what makes it a poem. Otherwise it is verse at best, propaganda at worst. (I’m not quite sure I know what you mean by  ‘encoded’ poems, as applied to Yeats. Are you referring to his mystical ideas? Yeats was one of the most important twentieth century poets for me when I was young, and I still admire him immensely.)

 

LV. The mask is definitely a major poetic device. Yet I can’t help feeling I must break the mask and taste an intimacy with the poet. I had thought it was only a peculiarity of my sensibility till a class of fifty students confessed they felt the same (after four years of reading poetry). Eliot bragged about impersonality and he could hardly have been more private and personal. I admit I hate impersonal poems. Desperado poetry can be very bitchy in that sense. It insists on sharing but refuses to say what. Shared emotion is beautiful, only it must be someone’s, and the reader refuses to go all the way alone. A poem needs to belong, and by this small sentence I say it all. You yourself write:

 

Honesty, clarity, simplicity.

No hiding behind equivocations –  (Glass-Thoughts)

 

You do not assume a mask. You are not afraid of yourself in the mirror of words. Would you mind if, beyond the emotion, the reader tried to rebuild the very story of your life? This is maybe going too far, maybe you resent the reader’s desire to turn your poetry into a novel? But your volumes, as they follow one another, do reveal a plot. One of ageing, but also of ripening tenderness and of a uniquely sharp sensibility. Do you mind this? Did you aim at this hybridization, this mixture of poetry and fiction? I find it the highest achievement of a poet, which Eliot aspired to but could not reach, actually.

 

RF.  Very interesting – the thought that reading through my collections of poems reveals a sort of autobiographical plot. I have not worked towards that end consciously – but I can understand why a reader could think this – and I accept it. I also love prose-poetry, and am always happy when I write a prose poem.

 

LV. And now a trifling matter (apparently): you talk so much about the moon. You say in Moon: ‘Old reliable Moon, who /Always makes me write poetry./ My sister Moon.’ Do you usually write at sunset or late into the night? Is your sign of the zodiac connected in any way to the influence of the moon? You obviously talk more about night and the moon than about bright daylight and the sun. Any reason for that?

 

RF.  The Moon. My zodiacal sign is Taurus but (according to Ted Hughes, who was extremely interested in astrology) with the influence of Scorpio very powerful. But I am not fluent in this ‘dialect’, nor sure what those comments signify – and I have never tried to find out. I have been less interested in astrology than in other ‘alternative’ structures to comprehend ‘the meaning of life’. From an early age I read everything I could find about mythologies from different parts of the world, and about religions, beliefs and cults (although I never joined one). I read a lot of psychology and anthropology. I have always been eager to understand more conventionally scientific explanations, and am an avid reader of scientific books (to the limits of my capability). Cosmology interests me more than astrology. But – to get back to the moon! Also from an early age, I have felt a strong affinity to, and connection with, the moon. The phases of the moon have always affected me, both as a woman (the menstrual cycle) and as a poet (poets are lunatics!). The muse of poetry is the moon, as far as I am concerned.

 

LV. I cannot help noticing a few Eliotian echoes, like ‘Cancer (...) scuttling’ , which reminds me of the ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ scuttling across the floors of silent seas...’ It may be far fetched. On the other hand, I know Robert Graves too little and it seems it was he who really influenced your beginnings. You do have a poem entitled My Position in the History of the Twentieth Century, but it does not make things clearer fro me. Whom do you belong with? I asked this before: Could you name several literary friends, older and younger?

 

RF.   My Position in the History of the Twentieth Century records my consciousness of being a rich, privileged white person – but also alludes to that recent period when I would have been an inferior, endangered ‘untermensch’ - i.e., a Jew in Europe during the Nazi period – and contrasts those two conditions, determined entirely by place and time. I don’t think it has anything to do with literary influences.

            I have been ‘influenced’ – and then cast off the influence – by all the great poets of English literature, from Thomas Wyatt through Milton, the Metaphysical poets, the Romantics; by Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Christina Rossetti, D.H. Lawrence and of course Eliot, Yeats, Graves, Auden – etc, etc,  ad infinitum.  (Then there is poetry in translation….) You ask who I ‘belong with’? What more could one hope for than to ‘belong’ with them all!

 

LV. The sibyl is a favourite mask, maybe the only one, with you. The sibyl is the poet, the seer, sensibility, tragedy, art, the whole wide and doomed world. The sibyl is all your fears put together and well hidden. Were you trying to do that? Why a sibyl?

 

RF.  I began the first Sibyl sequence (in Sibyls and Others, 1980) at the suggestion of the distinguished American sculptor and print-maker, Leonard Baskin, who wanted to collaborate with a poet on a book about sibyls, because he had begun a series of prints and drawings of sibyls. Then his (and my) good friend Ted Hughes mentioned to him that I would be a good choice, being well-informed on such matters. I accepted gladly. It was my first experience of working in this way; sometimes I wrote a poem in response to one of Leonard’s images, sometimes he made an image in response to a poem. (Since then, I have worked with artists on several more books. The ‘Sheba and Solomon’ sequence in my new book was a similar ‘commission’ from an artist, the Brazilian sculptor and print-maker, Ana Maria Pacheco. She is still working on the images for the livre d’artiste. I have also collaborated on three books with Judith Rothchild, an American print-maker who lives in France. These books are always extraordinary luxury productions, terribly expensive, produced in very small editions, 25 to 50 copies, and are bought by rich collectors of the artist’s work, not by poetry lovers!)

            I am always grateful to the artists who ask me to work with them – it is another form of inspiration. In the same way, working with young composers – I have written three libretti, two for the Royal Opera House and one for a television production – has opened new possibilities for me.

            It is only possible to work in this way with someone whose work you respect, and on a subject close to your heart.

            The Sibyl was a perfect vehicle to express some of my deepest feelings – as you have understood very well.

 

LV. You find yourself, while Deadheading the Roses, ‘in a losing fight against autumn’. This is the best description of your most touching, painfully piercing poems. Eliot called Yeats ‘preeminently the poet of middle age’, as I said, but you find even more to say than Yeats’s ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’. Middle age is for you a fact of life, even life itself, rather than a mere metaphor. You see it with a remarkable sense of humour. That is why I think that, versus Modernist Yeats, you are a Desperado: irony, clarity, simplicity, the admission that a poet needs his audience and must regain it. Even feminism can come in. Whatever the name, you do belong to after-Modernism. Do you see any common features for poets today (or is it my job to find those and your right to reject any labelling?)?

 

RF.  It is accurate to say that I have been a poet of middle age. Now, perhaps,

I am becoming a poet of old age! (You will be interested to know that, choosing her ‘Personal Best’ among books published this year, the novelist Margaret Drabble included Burning Wire, saying: ‘In the Dream is the poem you need if you think you may be growing older.’)

 

LV. Only two of your poems have a fancy arrangement of words on the page: Divination by Hair VI and Art. In the first case, the manner is almost stream of consciousness. In the second it is more Desperado, it dreams of fiction while staying a poem. There is definitely rhythm and there is also a very discreet rhyme in your poems, but the music of your poetry comes more from inside than from the noise of words. I should call it a preverbal music. It is the music of your being. I think a real Desperado does not think half as much as Yeats or Eliot about uttered musicality: he is concerned with the music of this world and of other, revolving worlds of his soul, which is a universe. The Desperado poem has discovered only now the theory of relativity: rhyme is relative, it all depends on your ears. But meaning is essential and it has to reach the reader. Some of my interviewees so far have told me that rhyme was essential to them, and, frankly speaking, at times I had to take great pains to find it in their poems. I was too interested in their meaning to notice the art of the word. How important is this art to you? Would you think of your poetry as music above all, or meaning and whatever mastery of language the moment allows?

 

RF.  See, on the ‘writersartists’ website:

 

Statement of poetic belief – theory and practice:

            ‘I try to keep the words of a poem close to the feelings and sensations that inspired it, in the hope that it will inspire the same feelings, recognitions, and memories in its reader. In this way, she or he become involved in its reality, even a participant in its creation – because reading is an active relationship between reader and writer.

            But writing is a relationship between writer and language. A poem develops organically from the first inspiring phrase. That phrase, or cluster of words, includes every essential element of the poem, and the poet’s work is to allow all its potential of sound and meaning to realise itself. And like every other living organism, its development is a unique combination of unassailable laws and the entirely unexpected.’

 

LV. In The King Must Die I noticed two lines: ‘I know that I am dying with the country/ I still love and call myself.’ I should not take them out of their context, but sometimes this is what an interview is all about: you find emblematic lines and try to build a profile. When you talk about your parents, your son, your tenderness for the man in your life, you take intensity with a grain of salt. You mock at yourself out of the corner of your serious eye. This is revigorating and makes the reader stronger, it makes him feel in control. Is that how you feel when you write?

 

RF.  Irony – the grain of salt – is an essential element of my nature and thus of my poetry also; so I am delighted, not surprised, that you are aware of it.

 

LV. Like Shadows on the Lawn  begins with ‘sentences form in my head/ float in and out of my mind.’ It gives me the feeling that you live in a volcano of words and the hottest burst out, like magma. Some Desperado poets impose a certain coldness on their lines, that air of impersonality I disapprove of (nothing new in that). The real poets give in to the cataclysm. You actually eat your cake and have it: you write in cold blood about ‘the horror of daybreak’ (Yeats again). You are more Yeatsian than Eliotian in your reactions (not in the verbal encoding of your poems, though). Your major discovery and step forward is that poetry can be, must be clear. Has it ever happened to you to think in confuse words and then go back to the page and clarify the text, make it accessible on purpose? Or, maybe, the reverse?

 

RF.  For me, revision is always an attempt, firstly, to get back to the initial impulse and feeling which ‘inspired’ the poem. (In the complete text of the piece ‘Statement of  poetic belief’, I deal with this in more detail.); and secondly, to express the subject and its associations as clearly as possible. I never consciously try to confuse or to obscure – neither in syntax nor imagery.

 

LV. More than falling in love (you fall in love with life over and over again in all your poems), I find images of marriage in your poems. To Break This Silence mentions ‘him with whom I share my house and life’, with whom you spend ‘Hours each day together’. You also murmur, ‘The habit/ of our mutual isolation...’ The conclusion is: ‘we/ have come to be the other’s fate and climate.’ Your life is shared with the novelist Alan Sillitoe, who must somehow fill in the gaps: where you are tough he is sweet, where you are mild and gentle he is vertical and uncompromising. He looked that way to me when I visited you both for a brief moment in London. I was for the first time in the capital of English, the language I had learned under communism as a dead language, and the majesty of the City of London overwhelmed me. I did not feel like doing much or talking to anybody at all, but when I phoned you and heard in your voice a kind of burning impatience which no merit of mine could have spurred, I felt ashamed and hurried to your house. You met me and my daughter, with Alan close behind. After a formal visit to Peter Ackroyd – wonderful person, but with whom I had not managed to find anything in common the previous day – you offered me all the Oriental warmth I had not even dared dream of. I felt I had known you for ages, for lives. Was it the race that we shared? One of your poems says you befriend strangers easily, maybe recklessly. You certainly did befriend me. I took with me that day a piece of your soul and Alan’s gentleness. How did you meet him and what has kept you together?

 

RF.  A few years ago I wrote a 10,000 word autobiographical piece for  Contemporary Authors, W.H. Wilson Co. World Authors 1985-1990. They must have a web-site, so any information will be available there. But, with regard to this sort of question: in my opinion, biographical material is not needed to understand and appreciate poetry. I certainly did not know – nor was curious about – the personal lives of the poets who were important to me when I was young. Biography seems to be an obsession of the present moment!

 

LV. Thinking back, I see you as more, much more than just ‘vertical’. You are relentless, you pursue poetry with stubborn force. As you yourself say, you are an ‘unrepentant nature’ (Here), you are your ‘own tamer’. But deep down, there is ‘the pain/ that shapes and haunts me’ (Stubborn). What pain? Why pain? Your poems carry a burden of the soul rather than the elation of sensibility. Your own sensibility is thoughtful, not enthusiastic. Strange to say that, because you yourself are a person who can suddenly become extremely enthusiastic. Again, is this meditative pain the heritage of your race?

 

RF.   ‘Is this meditative pain the heritage of your race?’ you ask. Maybe. Perhaps. Probably. The whole project of writing poetry is an attempt to understand oneself. If I could define myself so easily, so definitively, I would not (would not need to) write poetry.

 

LV. The poem Author! Author! confesses:

 

What I am working at and want to perfect —

my project – is the story of myself: to have it

clear in my head, events consecutive,

to understand what happened and why it happened.

 

I wander through department stores and parks,

beyond the local streets, seem to be doing nothing;

then an overheard phrase or the way light slants

from the clouds, unravels the hardest puzzle.

 

It takes all my time, uses so much energy.

How can I live, here and now, when the past

is being unwound from its great spindle, and tangles

forgotten motives around the present? Rather

 

than set the record straight, further knowledge

complicates. I cannot stop the action

to make a judgement, or hope for better.

Every gesture casts a longer shadow

 

into the future, each word shifts the balance.

I see myself as one more character

in this extravagant scenario,

the story not yet finished. And who’s the author ?

 

My question exactly. How do you see yourself? You are so considerate, yet often ruthless, when it comes to human stupidity. My students felt they were in very close touch with you when they read my selection of your poems. And yet they knew next to nothing of the ‘scenario’. Is your life what you expected or wanted it to be? Why is every day like a blessing (because this is the feeling I get while reading you)?

 

RF. The poem you quote,  Author! Author! is one answer to the previous question. I should very much like to believe that every day is a blessing and that life itself is the great privilege – but rarely achieve this blessed state of mind! It is very difficult to forget the cruelty and injustice of the world and to accept that it always has and always will exist; to try to explain it to oneself. This could be regarded as a religious attitude; perhaps it is. But, although I know that I have a religious nature (whatever that means) – as I believe every poet has – I do not adhere to the practice of any religion.

 

LV. In Memoriam H.P.F. states:

 

I shall not meet my dead again

as I remember them

alive, except in dreams or poems.

 

There are your parents and your brother, and also your aunt, on the one side, and many more whom I am not aware of. Who are they? In what way were they dear to you?

 

RF. Yes, In Memoriam H.P.F. is dedicated to my brother, Harry Paul Fainlight.

 

LV. One of my PhD candidates has entitled her dissertation The Sirens’ Knot, after your poem The Knot, which ends with: ‘Words would form a knot and start a story.’ All your poems tell a story. It is one of my major ideas that the hybridization of literary genres – the mixture of poetry and fiction – which was so fervently desired by the modernists is only happening now, for the Desperadoes. In consequence, novels become sequences of longer poems or just haiku (see Graham Swift, Peter Ackroyd or Kazuo Ishiguro), while poems desperately plunge into stories, as if to dodge the romantic overflow of lyricism, to break the fury of what tradition thinks poetry should be (strong feelings, ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’, if Wordsworth is to be taken for granted).  The Desperado poet is not at peace when he writes and he also denies having strong feelings: he pretends he feels nothing. You do not clamour feeling, either, but you allow it to glimmer and actually it gets very strong while the poem builds up. How do you get along with your contemporaries, with those poets who write coldly, trying to protect their privacy against the reader’s starving desire to share? How do you work out this combination between imaginary story and private hell?

 

RF.  Are you asking about narrative poetry? Quite a lot is being written in England and the USA recently. (I am in our cottage in the country at the moment, so cannot refer to my books, but I can think immediately of Les Murray the Australian poet, Mark Jarman and Rita Dove in the States, Jackie Kay and Craig Raine and Bernadine Evaristo in England – among many others who have successfully written ‘novels’ in verse. And of course there are earlier poets like Robert Frost, (‘The Death of the Hired Man’). Wordsworth wrote his autobiography as poetry! Tennyson. Robert Browning. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (‘Aurora Leigh’), Byron’s ‘Don Juan’, etc.

 

LV. Femininity and age go hand in hand for you. A poem (August) muses: ‘August is like a woman who’s already thinking/ that she’ll soon be forty.’ Sadness and pain become you, because you do not complain, you just think and express them through. Femininity, for you, also implies uncertainty, I think. In Japanese Syllabics I find the following:

 

my constant need for reassurance,

my placatory smile – the nodding

head-piece of a jointed wooden doll,

agreeing, agreeing.

 

Talking about Japan, of course (when did you visit it? why and what was your reaction besides what this poem says?), you wonder, ‘am I imposing/ an alien system of values/ and totally misunderstanding?’ You betray your fear you might hurt someone unwillingly, your considerate gentleness here. This is so much like a woman. When you say you are a feminist, I think you are just being a woman through and through, a woman of your times, who wants to be man’s equal (not to replace him, as recent feminists dream). What does it feel like to be a woman/ wife/ mother? A woman poet? Would you rather write in a genderless way?

 

RF.  I was in Japan for a few weeks in the mid-1980s. Alan was invited by International PEN to speak at their annual conference, and they kindly included me in the invitation. Then his Japanese publisher extended our stay. I was absolutely fascinated by the country. I have always admired many aspects of the Japanese aesthetic, and was fairly well prepared to appreciate many things. You might notice that the group of poems about Japan is written in formal structures: syllabics, sestina, sonnet etc. – which seemed appropriate for such a formal society. (And I adore Japanese food!)

            You ask if I would like to write in a genderless way. I am a woman – so everything I write is written by a woman. There’s no way to escape it, I can’t evade it! That would be as impossible as trying to deny being Jewish. I mean precisely what I say, when I write: ‘Jew. Woman. Poet.’. And yet – I know that not only as a poet but also as a spiritual being I exist ‘beyond/ below/ above gender’. In my recent poem, In the Dream, I write:

      

In the dream I was an old, smiling woman

— like one of those Japanese wise men

(squat-bodied, knotty-limbed, head tilting back

as if to make eye-contact with something

only he can see above him in the sky)

you might find in a woodblock print.

 

In the dream I was as free as they.

Decades of tension and vanity had slid like

a silken cloak off my shoulders. Now,

the coarse weave of my dress was faded and worn,

garb of a pilgrim or hermit (though others

moved beside me on the road, through the market),

and I knew this was a crucial moment: when

I woke I could choose – for the rest of my life

if I wished – to be that woman.

 

LV. Until You Read It is such a considerate poem. You certainly have regained the audience Modernists may have lost. The reader can only feel exhilarated when seeing it:

 

Like music on the page

which has to be played            

and heard, even if              

only by one person,           

this word, this phrase,           

this poem, does not exist    

until you read it.      

 

You were born in New York. American poetry today is so aggressive and unfeminine. So haughty. Some poets think the whole world should revolve around their enigmatic creation. You do not. What does it feel like, to be born an American, half-Jewish, living in England, talking to intellectuals all over the globe, answering questions asked by a Romanian?

 

RF.  Lidia, I am not half-Jewish. Both my parents were Jewish. Their parents were Jewish. I am entirely Jewish, whatever that means. (Rootless cosmopolitan!)

 

LV. In Privacy on Lake Ohrid you admit:

 

I can’t resist,

early evenings,

staring into

lighted windows –

 

When I visited you, in mid-September, it was a sunny morning and I felt like staring and staring at those buildings and lives that were not only totally unlike mine, but also the ideal of my childhood and youth, when I was never allowed to talk to an English native speaker, when London was the name of another universe. I passed by a park near your house (we had arrived too early and whiled away the time walking in rounds), but it was locked and it made me feel that childhood interdiction all over again. Then we passed by a small restaurant full of quite affluent people, and we felt again we could never belong there. The architecture of the houses all around was so strange and unknown to us. Then the door of your house in Ladbroke Terrace opened, we climbed the stairs and there you were, making everything familiar for us all of a sudden. England was no longer England, but a space where we could breathe. You made England happen for me. Nobody else had that gift.

 

RF.  I am touched by your recollection of walking around my neighborhood. I am so glad that you felt at ease in our apartment. I hope you will be there again, and that we shall have many more conversations about poetry.

 

 

Januray 3, 2003

 

 

The Dilemma of Assimilation  

 

Interview with RUTH FAINLIGHT

Published in Semnal 115/2006, Toronto, pp. 26-27

© Lidia Vianu

 

 

LIDIA VIANU: What did it mean to you as a writer, to be born in New York and Jewish?

 RUTH FAINLIGHT: It still means the same – it is the fact of my place of birth and the place my mother lived in from the age of about 6 until her 40s – therefore much of the effect on me was through her. But I have not lived in the USA since I was 15, so I have probably been more deeply affected by England, where I have spent most of my life.

 LV. You do not write much about your Jewishness in poetry. One poem is emblematic, though. Here it is: 

 

The English Country Cottage

  

A Jewish poet in an English village:                             

incongruous and inappropriate

as a Hindu in an igloo, a Dayak in         

Chicago, a giraffe at the South Pole. 

                          

That shadowy yew in the churchyard, only

a few steps away from this cottage door,

was planted in the centuries between

the Lincoln pogrom (when little St Hugh,

they claimed, was murdered by the Jews, and all

Christ-killers left alive were banished)

and the year when Oliver Cromwell changed the law

to grant honourable men of Israelite persuasion,

with their prudent wives and obedient children,

the privilege to be legally present in England.

 

As a youth, my father was a patriot,

a Labour-voting true blue. But though

he felt entirely English, the problem was:

to certain natives of whatever class

he was a wily, greasy Levantine          

and always would be. His solution was

to leave the country, go far enough away

to ‘pass for white’, somewhere he could play

at being pukka-English through and through.  

(Yet still more proud to be a Jew.)

 

Maybe because she came from Bukovina,

my mother had no illusions. She was used to

rejection, born to it. First, the shock

of Ellis Island: another world, another

language (I knew how hard she tried). Then

further uprooting; though the nineteen thirties

were not exactly propitious, her restless husband

— handsome, dreamy, unpolitical —

felt the lure of home, dragged her to England.

 

I ran straight into the fire’s centre,

towards the focus of trouble, glamour, danger;

danced, like Esmeralda, on the Round Table

as desperately as if to save my life.

Such were my tactics in those distant times.

Now (though mimicking the locals dutifully),

thatch and cruck-beams cannot camouflage

the alien. The carillon rings mockery.

 

Sometimes I wonder if I should have known better:

to sweetly smile and eat the mess

of pottage — but never sell my birthright

for an English country cottage.

 

A few other poems mention a Holocaust you have never experienced. Do you feel different from the Americans you grew up with or the English, among whom you live now?

RF. Different from most of them – but I imagine that is because I’m a poet!  

LV. Do you think all Jews feel outsiders, even if they find themselves at ‘home’ (if one can say they really have a home) in Israel? You told me once most of your friends were international, so to say, now that you live in London and have done so for almost a lifetime, since you married your husband, the well known novelist Alan Sillitoe. You also said your home was New York, but you did not think you would ever go back there... 

RF. I don’t know if all Jews feel outsiders. But I do believe that they are almost always regarded as such by the people they live among – and that it is a mistake to forget that. I don’t think I will live in America again – my family are all here: husband, children, grandchildren. But who knows? 

LV. Your family came from East Europe, not far from Romania, from what is now Ukraine, you said. Do you have Chagall’s awareness of the tragedy of the race that once went on there, even though you were never part of it? 

RF. My mother’s family came from the Bukovina area, she was born there. And I do feel a profound connection to the Jewish culture of that area which was destroyed in the Second World War. But my father’s family came from Poland to England in the 19th century and he was born in London.  

LV. Does religion mean much to you? Are you religious, do you follow the Jewish tradition? Do your children continue the Jewish tradition in any way?

 RF. I have no doubt that I am a Jew, but I do not follow the tradition in my daily life, nor do my children.  

LV. Does it take Jewish traditions to make a Jew? Is assimilation a sin? You yourself seem to have assimilated, blended into your British environment. Is it time people forgot about race and figured out another way of building their identity? 

RF. I do not feel that I have assimilated or blended into the British environment. But that might   be the result of my own temperament – and that temperament is undeniably Jewish!  

LV. If you were to be born again and if you could choose your race, what would you be? 

RF. There is certainly something that links Jews regardless of whether they come from India, Yemen, Sweden or the USA – but I don’t think that “race” is the correct word here (nor in       the previous question).

            I am very aware that being a white woman in the West is to have – at least for the moment – an immensely privileged position and identity, and probably I  would not want to change it.

 

 

6 May 2006

 

 

POETS’ NEW YORK

Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

© Lidia Vianu

 

LIDIA VIANU: Were you born in New York? When? What was it like when you were a child?

 

RUTH FAINLIGHT: I was born in New York – more precisely, in a nursing home on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, in May 1931. At that time, so I have been told, it was a pleasant neighborhood of wide streets and newly built apartment buildings for aspiring young lower-middle class families, many of whom were Jewish. But my family moved to England when I was five years old, so my memories are few. I clearly remember being taken to see my mother in the same nursing home, when my brother was born more than three and a half years later, and vivid images like snapshots of playing in the park, boating on the lake with my father, watching the sun come through the window blind in my bedroom while I had my afternoon nap, and sitting on the floor of my aunt’s porch (my mother’s only sister, Ann, who lived nearby, and with whom I spent much time, especially after my brother’s birth), drawing or playing with small sample books of cloth, choosing which colours and textures I liked best to dress my dolls.

 

LV. Is childhood in New York any different from childhood in a smaller town or in the country?

 

RF. In England, we lived in London, in a middle-class suburb in the northern part of the city, a few streets away from my father’s sister and her family. I imagine my childhood was much the same there as it would have been in New York City.

 

LV. Could you feel as a child that New York was a multicultural city? Did you fit in easily or did you feel an outsider?

 

RF. I was very aware as a child in America that I lived in a multi-cultural city.

My mother had arrived in the city with her family when she was about six years old, among the tens of thousands of immigrants who went to the USA in the first years of the 20th century. The town where she was born was then in the Austro-Hungarian empire, then became Romanian, Polish, and is now in the Ukraine. Sometimes the people who visited my family then, in the 1930s, were refugees from Germany or Austria. My aunt’s neighbor and best friend was an Italian woman, and I was often in her kitchen while they talked and laughed together. So I was used to being with people from many different backgrounds. New York has always been a city of immigrants.

 

LV. As a teenager in New York, what was your cultural life? TV? Theatres? Movies?

As a student and later, what magazines did you like to read? When did you become interested in New York’s literary life and what places did you go to, what New York reviews did you read?

 

RF. My mother, brother and myself returned to New York in June 1941 as ‘British refugees’, while our father remained in England. At first we lived in a small apartment in Manhattan. My brother and I attended summer classes at the local school, and she worked as a secretary. But it was too difficult for her to work and look after us, and we were sent to a boarding school on Long Island. While we were there, she was injured in a road accident. Our aunt Ann, who was now living outside Washington DC where her husband worked, came to collect my mother from the convalescent home, and the two of us from the school, to live with her in Arlington, Virginia. My cultural life then consisted of attending art classes for schoolchildren every Saturday morning at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, after which I would go home and listen to the opera matinee broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with my aunt, who was a great lover of opera. She was a cultivated woman, and had many books on her shelves which I am sure had a strong influence on me. But I had always read a lot, and can still remember writing poems when I was ten and eleven years old – in fact, while we were still in New York, I read some of them on a children’s radio program, and had a few published in some sort of magazine (but their titles, and what the magazine was called, etc, is all lost in the mists of time). By the age of twelve I was already quite sure that I was an ‘artist’ – but whether that would manifest in painting or in writing was still uncertain!

 

LV. Why did you leave New York? Was it an easy decision? If you were to decide to come and live in London again, would you still do it?

 

RF. I left America because my parents decided it. My father had been in the war and after he was demobilised in England, he decided to stay there. (He was English; but had gone to America as a young man, met my mother, married, etc etc.) 

 

LV. What was the impact of London on you? How old were you when you came to London?

 

RF. Coming to England at the age of 15 was an enormous shock – I was a real American teenager, used to an entirely different style of life: accommodation, school, food, etc. etc. It was not long after the end of the war, and a much poorer and harder life than I had come from.

 

LV. Who were your literary friends in New York and who are now your literary friends in London?

 

RF. Although I have not lived in America since then – apart from two semesters as poet-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, in 1985 & 1990 – I continue to think of myself as more American than English, and have kept my American passport. Many of my literary friends are Americans who either live in England or often visit the country. And in fact most of my friends, literary or otherwise, are not English, but ‘foreigners’ living in London – with whom I seem to feel more at ease than with ‘real’ English people.

 

LV. Where do you feel more at home, London or New York?

 

RF. Because my circle is made up of others like myself – English people who grew up in other countries, people who came to England as refugees or for personal reasons such as marriage, and of course, those Americans who adore England! – I feel very much at home in London. But in New York I feel entirely at home, like a fish in water. It is my place, finally. (Although I doubt if I shall live there again.)

 

LV. Does your poetry have traces of New York imagery? What is the emblematic feature of New York in your soul?

 

RF. I believe there are many traces of New York, or American, imagery in my poetry. When I first met Adrienne Rich in the early 1970s, I was intrigued, and gratified (because it seemed to confirm such an important aspect of my identity), when she told me how surprised she had been to see me referred to as an English poet, because to her ear, my poems sounded so American.

 

June 2005