Cramming London with geniuses
"I was all set to cram London with geniuses, when John Lehmann etc decided I ought to be restrained – evidently. So the festival could only be five foreigners, five Americans, five English. It was those five English I was trying to avoid."
When Ted Hughes established London’s Poetry International in 1967, he was up against the mighty imbalance in this country’s poetic import-export economy. Given that there is still relatively little work published here in translation, it’s good to see that there’s to be a Poetry Parnassus alongside the Olympics and I’m delighted that Craig Santos Perez will be taking part although the city will not be particularly relaxed. The organisers pay homage to Ted Hughes’s festival but fail to mention that it lay dormant for twenty or so years. When the poet Maura Dooley arrived to run Literature at the South Bank, she fought to re-establish Poetry International, gave the British Council’s Poetry Library a home, built a new literature venue within the Festival Hall and generally reinvigorated London’s literary life. When I went to work with her in the early Nineties, there were few other festivals or reading series. Those that existed tended to programme the five English Hughes was trying to avoid.
When I arrived in 1990, Poetry International kicked off with Vikram Seth and Duoduo. They were followed by Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, Pia Tafdrup, Czeslaw Milosz, Michael Ondaatje, Sharon Olds, Ana Blandiana and a number of writers who made their way out of a newly cracked Eastern Europe on some rather suspect visas. At the same time, we had talks on Existentialism and post-war Italian fiction, and an exhibition of little magazines. A few weeks later Tadeusz Rozewicz and Adam Czerniawski read together, followed the next night by Henri Chopin. All of this was down to Maura. She crammed London with geniuses, and I was so fortunate and so honoured to have been there to receive them.
Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...