Interview for Poetry International
© Jemima Kuhfeld
“Ruth Padel combines two major gifts. She is a distinguished poet and a quite exceptional reader of the poetry of others, with a delightful skill in explanation and the instinct of a caring, clearsighted guide to how poetry works and why it matters.”(George Steiner)
Amongst her many plaudits, Ruth Padel was the winner of the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 1996. She was Chair of the Poetry Society from 2004 to 2006 and in 2009, for the Poetry Society’s Centenary, she is to be one of the judges of the National Poetry Competition. Her long-standing relationship and support of the Poetry Society is a sign of her commitment to fostering the appreciation of poetry across all readerships and potential readerships. A number of the poems in our selection for February 2009 are taken from her forthcoming Darwin: A Life in Poems, published this month by Chatto.
Ruth Padel a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Zoological Society of London. This latter connection is related to her ancestry; she is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. The influence of his research into the natural world is impossible to miss throughout her oeuvre. Writing in The Telegraph, Andrew O’Hagan described her as “A poet and scholar with a beautifully patient understanding, reminiscent of Ted Hughes, of how the natural world invests itself in our experience.” From trekking through jungles to investigating wild tigers in their natural habitat in her travel memoir, Tigers in Red Weather – which was shortlisted in the US for the Kiriyama Prize – to her forthcoming collection of poetry, Darwin: A Life in Poems (Chatto & Windus, February 2009), her writing is rich with flora and fauna, with natural sciences and investigations into the philosophical dilemmas raised by Darwin’s work.
In her own words, “Ruth was born in an attic in Wimpole Street in London, and her first job was playing viola in Westminster Abbey for £5. She has sung in the Heraklion Town Choir on Crete, an Istanbul nightclub and the choir of St Eustache in Paris, has helped find and excavate a Minoan road leading out of the palace of Knossos and is currently Poet in Residence at Somerset House.” She studied Classics at Oxford, Paris and Berlin, and has taught at many universities, including Ancient Greek at Oxford, Opera at Princeton, Myth in Buenos Aires, as well teaching horse-riding in Berlin. In 1985 she left the academies to become a full time writer. Music and performance are major aspects to her life, from playing viola to choir-singing and music journalism. All these details, and the many more that crop up about her life in interviews and essays, reveal an extremely rich variety of experiences, interests, skills and activities.
She has published six poetry collections, including Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, Voodoo Shop and The Soho Leopard, all shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. She received a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors in 2004 and has been shortlisted for the Whitbread Award. She has also published two much-loved books on reading contemporary poetry, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey, which arose from a column in The Independent.
Her writing is marked by a richness of detail and music. A glass of wine is never simply that: it is an evocative Chablis, with a full complement of sensory data. Similarly, the lush details in a poem like ‘The Forest, the Corrupt Official and a Bowl of Penis Soup’:
Black tree stumps cool on the mountain,
sawmills slide out planks a hundred an hour
and white ash blooms over the river
while the courtier treats the General
to tiger penis soup, five hundred linu a bowl.
Her writing never fails to delight with its array of visual detail and aural dexterity. As Jeanette Winterson put it, “I love Ruth Padel’s poetry. She is sexy, strong, rhythmic, passionate, fully alive and a whiz with words.”
© George Ttoouli
Darwin: A Life in Poems, Chatto & Windus, London, February 2009
The Soho Leopard, Chatto & Windus, London, 2004
Voodoo Shop, Chatto & Windus, London, 2002
Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, Chatto & Windus, London, 1998
Fusewire, Chatto & Windus, London, 1996
Angel, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 1993
Summer Snow, Hutchinson, London, 1990
Alibi, The Many Press, 1985