Interview in The Guardian 2006

Rhyme and reason

The Guardian, Work Supplement, Saturday September 30, 2006

There are few careers less lucrative than writing, and poetry in particular. Leo Benedictus asks Ruth Padel how she has turned her vocation into a living

Ruth Padel’s life contains much to be hankered after. “A typical day is: I will wake up about seven, make myself a cup of coffee and start work,” she says.

“I quite often work in bed for the first bit. I take the coffee back upstairs and put the laptop on my knee. I might be doing a poem, or I might have a deadline for a piece, or I might have to do chapter six. Later on, I will get dressed and work at a desk with a slice of toast, take the dog out on the heath, and if I don’t have to do anything else I’ll work ’til six and then go out and see people.”

On other days, Padel may be travelling. Burma, Bahrain and the jungles of east Asia have been recent destinations. Then there are the literary parties she must attend, or the readings of her poems she gives to an adoring public. To sleep-starved executives and their harassed minions, this life of creativity, glamour and lazy mornings must seem a beguiling prospect.

In fact, Padel’s day began rather differently this morning, when her daughter’s dog, Velvet, for reasons unknown, consumed most of a coconut shell and set about being violently sick all over the house. After a brief postponement of our meeting, Padel ushers me apologetically into her home. There is no sign of the vomit apocalypse she described on the phone. The terraced house is beautifully clean and neat, with a brightly painted kitchen opening into a small conservatory, where carved exotic animals roar and hiss on every surface. Iraqi music twangs gently from the stereo, and Velvet, a little shivery round the hind quarters, pads about under the table as we speak.

Despite its dog emergencies, I remark that Padel’s life sounds wonderful. “It is,” she says. “It is wonderful. It’s worth putting up with some financial uncertainty.”

Most would regard this as lavish understatement. Per hour, writing poetry must be just about the most poorly paid work in Britain. “This book,” says Padel, holding up a copy of her latest volume, “did very well. It was shortlisted for prizes, it got something called the Poetry Book Society Choice, and my publisher paid something like £1,000 for it. I think I got £54 of royalties from it last year. That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about.”

Individual poems may also raise £100 or so if Padel can get them published in newspapers and magazines, but clearly it’s never going to be enough on its own. “There’s a wonderful essay by Auden,” Padel recalls. “He never says, ‘I’m a poet’ because ‘as we know, nobody can make a living from poetry.’ And that was Auden.”

As a consequence, all poets below the top tier of Heaneys and Motions are forced to look around for other sources of income: “income derived from being known as a poet,” as Padel puts it. In her case, this has meant mastering the arts of public reading, journalism, travel writing, radio, teaching and applying for arts council grants to keep herself afloat. “£100 here, £120 there,” she says. “That’s how you make your money.”

Now in her fifties, Padel has certainly been successful, but she still has to accept the occasional cashflow crisis as a part of life. “It’s much better than it was,” she says with relief, “but still there are months when you don’t know where the next pizza for your daughter is going to come from, or,” she laughs, “how you’re going to pay for the dog’s veterinary fees.”

In fact, Padel would never have established even this precarious existence without a large piece of good fortune, which she used to mount an even larger risk. Having grown up a poetry-obsessed child – she was reading and writing it at the age of three – her passion flickered through her teens and twenties as she graduated in classics from Oxford university, and followed it with a PhD, supplementing her income with stints as an English teacher in rural Greece.

But then the poems began to flow again, “by accident” as she describes it. Having secured a small salary teaching classics at Oxford, she bought a house at exactly the right time, and watched with delight as it soared in value through the 1980s.

“Then I thought: I could stop this and get out,” she recalls. It was 1985, a pivotal moment. She was in her thirties, her first pamphlet of poems was on the point of appearing, and she was about to marry and have a child. But she went for it, exchanging her house for a cheaper one in Cambridge, and using the difference to support herself as a poet. “It could have been appalling,” Padel says.

“Jobs were very hard to come by because Thatcher was cutting down on classics departments, so it would have been difficult getting back to the one skill I had, which was teaching Greek.”

Despite separating from her husband, she managed. Her first commercially published collection appeared in 1990, which she followed with other volumes, along with three books on Greek mythology, another of popular poetry criticism, and one on her travels in search of wild tigers. Her income vacillated wildly throughout the 1990s, from £15,000 one year to £30,000 the next. It was never really enough, but she coped.

She was also shortlisted for several prizes, and won the National Poetry Competition in 1997. “Literature became part of the entertainment industry in the 1990s,” she says. “And poetry has had to be a part of that too, so there are now poetry prizes, and young poets now talk in terms of their career.”

The explosion in the popularity of creative writing courses, which accompanied this commercialisation of poetry, concerns Padel deeply. When she was writing her first book of criticism five years ago, the contemporary poets she wrote about were all teachers, tour guides, social workers and so on, who wrote poetry in whatever spare time they could find. “Now,” she exclaims, “it’s simply only a question of where they are teaching creative writing.”

This trend takes Britain closer to the way things work in America, where aspiring poets are naturally expected to hone their ability on a creative writing course, before graduating to become creative writing teachers, in turn, at another university. It is a system that provides a clear career structure for young people to aim for, and makes it easier for the best poets to live off their writing, but Padel, who has had enough of universities herself, is still far from sure that it is a good thing. “It makes poems all the same, and you write to please a particular teacher,” she says.

“Poetry is a very anarchic thing … it should live in the world.”
So when she bumps up against this world, at parties, for instance, does she describe herself as “a poet”? Padel thinks about this. “I might say, ‘I’m a writer’ or ‘I write poems’,” she says. “It is a very big claim to say ‘I’m a poet.'” Does she never say it? “I do sometimes. It depends if you think you’re going to have an interesting conversation or not. Nine times out of 10, the person will say: ‘What sort of poems do you write?’ … Sometimes they say: ‘Have you published any?'”

And do amateur poets often ask her for advice on getting started? “All the time.” She nods in recognition. “The way to get known, and to get an understanding of how your work goes down, is to get published through the poetry magazines.”

Her speech treads with the sure and steady cadence of phrases often spoken before. “The advice that you classically give to someone like that is to study those magazines, see which ones are taking work that is most like yours, send them six, don’t send them to anybody else, and don’t write back the next week asking what they’re going to say, because they’re going to get 11,000 poems that week.” She is perfectly firm about this, suggesting little sympathy for bad poets inclined to push their luck.

“The other thing to tell them always is to read: read what people are doing now. There are poetry courses you can go on, like the Arvon Foundation, where you can do a week’s intensive work with a couple of tutors, but the most important thing is reading, keeping up to date. If someone’s producing Christmas card stuff, there’s no point saying: ‘Leave the day job.'”

To become a successful poet, it is clear that Padel has also had to learn to be a businesswoman, conscious of the value of her time and intolerant of those who threaten to waste it. She loves her work – the readings, the radio, and the rest – but has learned not to let this soften her stance on what her customers must pay.

The price of engaging Padel for a reading, for instance, will vary according to the host. “A small town may only have a small budget,” she says. “You can only charge them something like £150 because you know they won’t be able to afford you otherwise. And it matters that poetry is out there. But you can go from that to £600 or £1,000 if you know they can afford it.”

Who could? “Maybe a big public school.” Does it embarrass her to haggle? “I’ve got inured to it,” she says. “I didn’t like it at the beginning.” Then the toughness melts for a moment. “But it is a great privilege to get paid for what you really like to do.” No doubt her vet would agree.