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Ruth Padel: 'Art is desperately important'

Ruth Padel is an award-winning poet, novelist, and literary critic. She recently joined King’s College London as a Teaching Fellow in Poetry.

Interviewer: Joshua Stupple

You have been a published poet for some time now, but it was only a few years ago that your first novel was released.  How does your process for writing prose differ from how you write your poetry?

My first novel only came out in 2010, but I've written non-fiction for a long time, and that was much easier. I found it much easier to write non-fiction whilst writing poetry at the same time.  But I can’t write novels at the same time as poetry. When I write a poem I have to drop other things - you have to follow the poem up when it appears. The novels need so much more sustaining; you have to live with them for such a long time. Novels are so much about people, and you have to consider them first - their voices and their characters and their relationships - whereas with a poem, you are concerned very much with the language. Of course, you are concerned with the language in a novel too, but in poetry the language is prime.

Your work is always accompanied by fierce respect and adoration of wildlife. I was wondering what role you believe literature, specifically poetry, can play in green movements and conservation programmes?  

Well, it’s very important for poetry to regard itself as poetry first.  Seamus Heaney was very clear that respect for the poem as art has got to come first.  If you have a poem with a message and you only think of the message, you are letting the message and poetry down.

Your writing also seems to be very occupied with travel and unique locations.  Are there places that you have a particular artistic affinity with?

I don’t think I would separate an artistic affinity from any other affinity.  But I live a lot in Greece and have written a lot in Crete.  My next novel is going to be set in the Second World War in Crete.  But my first novel was very much about India and mainly because of the wildlife.  I have a particular fascination with the jungle and the rural areas rather than the cities.  So India and Greece are two places I care about a lot. But then Burma - I've taught poetry there and I loved it.

You have recently joined King’s College London as a teaching fellow.  What do you think can be gained from learning to write poetry and fiction in an academic setting?

Attention to language and the discipline of using your imagination,  and using language very precisely.  When I wrote 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem I explained that unlike America, in Britain and Ireland, poets had nothing to do with universities because that’s what it was like in 2002, when I wrote that book.  In 2006, I released The Poem and the Journey, and in all the biographies of the poets I used, all I had to say was where they were teaching creative writing.  So it happened in four years; that’s extraordinary how the universities changed.  And mostly they were nested alongside English departments, and that is a natural relationship.  English departments are trying to get students to see how fiction is made and what is bearing upon the writers as they create.  So I think that a creative writing department and an English department have a lot to give each other and each others' students.  

What can you tell us about your forthcoming poetry collection, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth?

It's taken me about twelve years this book because it started with poems I wrote in 2002.  But then I got torpedoed by my book,Darwin - A Life in Poems. Charles Darwin was my great, great grandfather, and suddenly people a few years before his centenary year, began to ask me to write poems about him, so I did.  So this completely scuppered all my other poetry writing.  Then I was also writing another book called The Mara Crossing, which I had a grant to do from the Arts Council, so I had to finish that.  As it transpired, there ended up being five books between beginning the poems of this collection and their release.  But it meant these were poems that I really had to write.

The poems are about the Middle East, which seems to me to be at the heart of so much of what’s been happening in the last twenty years. I've been in Israel and have done readings tours in Palestine.  I felt very much at home in the Palestinian parts.  So the poems themselves are about making things, making the Oud, making music, somebody making a chain out of a broom handle in a Nazi camp. This is based on something that happened. This man used a penknife and carved out of this handle a linked chain, with pictures on the links showing what the camp was like.  And that's what I want to talk about, people's intrinsic need to make things even in extremity.

So to counter the idea that art is somehow frivolous, to show that it is something innate?

Art is desperately important, yes.  One of the last lines in the poem is ‘making is our defence against the dark.’

Joshua Stupple is a second year English Language and Literature student, and film editor at Roar!, the King's College London Student Union newspaper.