In a Mexican magazine, timed to coincide with Ruth Padel’s appearance in November 2004 at the Mexican literary festival, Letras in Golfo, Ruth Padel was interviewed by Vctor-Manuel Mendiola, Valerie Mejer and Mac Test.
When you constructed the poem on Onegin, did you overlap your biography with Tatiana’s life?
No, I took three English translations of the poem because I don’t know Russian. But I had vividly in my mind the scene in Tschaikovsky’s opera. I struggled with the translations but really got my sense of her from the opera.
Do you feel in anyway close to Ted Hughes’ poem Crow or Love Song?
Not all that close, wonderful though they are. I admire Crow very deeply, I love how he makes mythic and jagged what is happening to him. But he’s not a poet I have carried round with me and studied like Plath and Bishop, Louis MacNeice Geoffrey Hill, Basil Bunting. Nor one I consciously I learned by heart like Donne, Hopkins, Tennyson, Keats, Eliot, Yeats.
Have you ever been tempted to write a novel-poem?
No, I admired Les Murray’s recent one very much, but I think I can only handle novels and poems separately myself!
You lived for some years in Crete, singing in a choir and in a nightclub. This makes me think of Lorca and how singing was a big part of his life (and you certainly seem to have taken it farther than he did). How was this time of your life? How did singing and these songs influence your work?
Songs come in and out of poems,. Less so in Soho Leopard than Rembrandt Would Have Loved You (which I wrote when writing I’m A Man, about music), or Voodoo Shop.
I was not writing poems when living in Crete, I was writing up my Oxford PhD as a book, learning Crete; it was a wonderful time for me, I think everyone needs to live in another culture and language deeply. And songs were first base for me. I’ve always sung: English, Irish and Scottish folksongs too. Not to guitar, just to myself. I like the world of a song. The way it dramatizes and lyricizes a moment. I need songs; in any language.
“The Soho Leopard” has a quote from Charles Darwin: “You can understand the true conditions of life only if you use your imagination to hold on to a sense of the ruthlessness of the natural forces that could waste the bright surface.” I know that you’re a distant relation to him and in your book you certainly seem to be using your imagination to create (or understand) connections to the natural and unnatural world. Do you find that this ancestor of yours has a connection with you in his approach to the “matter” he studied?
Yes, since I was a student I’ve felt increasingly close to him, My grandmother was his grand daughter, she edited his autobiography, talked about him, and I have written a fair bit about him recently, and love his kind of mind, the speculation and honesty of his mind.
But he took the death of species for granted: you can’t understand the origin of species without extinction, But what he was not faced with is the whole sudden cascade of loss of many species, which we are seeing now.
In your book The Soho Leopard you seem to explore the issue of the survival of the strongest species and challenge the entire notion of “strength.” In a poem you write, “Eurydice, whose death was all her fault”. It’s all done with great sense of humour. Can you elaborate on this?
Ah. that poem, that line, is talking in the voice, and suddenly seeing through the eyes, of an Orpheus, who is blaming Eurydice for slipping away from him. I like humour. I like shifts in register, shifts in voice and tone.
The strongest species: mmm, I think there has been a lot of stuff about power in relationships, both political and personal, throughout my work. Fusewire was a series of poems about an English woman in relationship with an Irish man, and since England has always been the colonial power that abused Ireland (which was seen as female) that invested the historical power relationship and its gender.
It is ironic that tigers are the top predator and also the most vulnerable now.
The past two years you have been travelling though Asia writing about wild tigers. This kind of adventure was popular for writers at the end of the XIX century and surrounded their memory with a romantic aura. What led you to undertake this adventure?
I ended a long relationship, had to get out of London, happened to go to India near a tiger reserv. After that, I needed to write about them, wrote a couple of short stories about tigers, met tiger biologists, wanted to see more….The writing had to serve the tigers, rather than me using them. I wanted to write about the conservationists, the problems of tiger conservation. I hope my book will make more people aware of the issues surrounding their plight – like jaguars in Mexico here. In the end, it comes down to political will to save the animals and forests they live in. But public awareness helps.
Tigers ambushed me; they were about survival. I was brought up with nature magazines, the conservation magazine ORYX was in the lavatory, my mother subscribed to it. She is a biologist. and cares deeply about conservation.
Jorge Luis Borges, whom you often quote, made his first drawing of a tiger when he was four (I saw it in an exhibition, it is filled with orange and stripes). You make a toast in a poem to the tiger’s beauty saying, “to the stripes of the tiger.” My point is that with Borges it was a lifelong romance with this animal. Do you share any of these feelings with him?
Yes, my favourite book was The Jungle Book as a child, but I also read Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon. Tigers weren’t a lifelong romance for me as they were with Borges. Baghheera the black panther was my first love. But what tigers represent, wildness, beauty, elusiveness, freedom, danger – that was all in place as my pantheon by a very early age.
In your poem, “Tiger drinking at the Forest Pool,” you employ a tighter stanzaic structure than in your longer narrative poems. This poem is also predominantly tetrameter, which recalls Blake’s famous poem, “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.” Is there something of the literary tradition of English ballad meter coming out in this poem? Also, were you at all conscious of Blake while writing about tigers?
You can’t not be aware of Blake, wrting about tigers, but of cours,e he may never have seen a real tiger, and I was keen on the physical reality, the biology and ecology of real wild tigers. The poem that informed my sonnet most was George Herbert’s poem “Prayer”, which is also a series of images for the thing alluded to in the title.
I have a feeling, but I can’t be sure of this, that British poets draw far more consciously and freely on specific poems from the pre-19th century English canon and poetry tradition, than most North American poets do.
How do you approach the poetic language of the natural world in Soho Leopard? These are not poems of the English landscape, nor are the animals indigenous to England. Where do the images come from: reading books, visiting the zoo, your travels, or research?
Well, urban foxes are very indigenous to England! But the whole thing is informed by my tiger journeys and tiger research. I have also been writing a column for the Times on wild animals, both the science and biology of them but also myths about them. So I suppose, in my constant search in poetry to make connexions between very far apart constellations, I am always reaching both to science and myth, looking for how and where they touch. And landscape. I am happiest, and feel most alive, in jungle and forests.
The tiger sequence began when the generator fell out of our car on a mountain road in Sumatra last summer adn we had to wait for hours beside the road. I already had the translations from Chinese tiger paintings in my laptop, so I sat down by the side of the road and worked on them. Though they are in the voice of a Chinese painter, the landscape of black tree stumps and sawmills is that of Sumatra. I loved Asian forests; but the destruction that is happening to them appalled me.
How has your work with Greek tragedy informed your poetry? Is the academic rigor somehow still present, or is it completely divorced from the creative process?
Yes, you’re dead right, Greek tragedy is everywhere in my work. The myths of course; and the dramatic structures; and the sense of precarious relationship. But most of all, tragic choral lyrics. The poet who influenced me most when I was 17 and 18 was Gerard Manley Hopkins, another classicist poet. I learned “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by heart- I think it is behind the complex long lyrics I tend to do now. His unpublished treatise on the choral lyrics of Greek tragedy is somewhere in a university archive in Dublinm I think. I spent twenty years studying the same lyrics. They were for a long time my core iage of a poem you live in. Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, the balances and compound adjectives of these songs, their sense of mysterious divinity and wild intricate imagery – I loved them.