March 06, 2007

Gwyneth Lewis in America, Extracts from an Interview by Kathryn Gray

Writing about web page

New Welsh Review: Americas Special Issue

Gwyneth Lewis On America

We tend to forget that there was a creeping Americanisation of Britain. But it hadn’t actually happened then. There was a tremendous suspicion of America in circles I moved in. So I wanted to go there to look at the future of Europe directly in the eye. Taxi Driver, the film based on Jon Hinckley – who had tried to assassinate Reagan, of course – had just come out, so I was nervous about it. But in fact, by looking at the worst of American cultural excesses, in a strange way I cheered up a lot about it. I came away from America feeling tremendously positive about many of the cultural freedoms that you had there that weren’t maybe visible from Britain. It turned out to be a long-term gift to me – and one I hadn’t expected. (9)

Coming from Wales, from the UK, where the poet had a relatively high cultural position, I suppose, and then to go to America where being a poet was not thought of as an option, where poets found it almost impossible to exist in this so-called ‘free’ society, was chilling. I remember being in Harvard and being very aware of the cost to people like Lowell, Berryman … Bishop, even. You realised that in America it was doubly difficult to survive as a poet. (9)

I knew that it was a survival situation, and it clarified psychological issues for me in relation to working as a poet in a way that would never have happened if I had remained in Wales, in the UK. (9-10)

The ongoing question that I found very difficult was the question of what language I wanted to write in. America helped clarify bilingualism for me but it was immensely painful. (10)

Meeting Joseph [Brodsky]? Well, it was like… a bomb. His seminar was regarded with awe and terror by all the students. He would make us memorise a poem every week and he would pick someone to stand up and recite it… The poems were selected generally from the canon of Auden, Frost, Hardy, but particularly Auden, who he adored. He would (10) then sit there, chain-smoke, generally pontificate and ask great questions. Then he’d insult the American students… Well, not them but the American education system. A lot of people misunderstood. But I realised it was actually a term of endearment. It was a European way of beginning a dialogue with people. (10-11)

Jospeh Brodsky

He [Brodsky] acted like a sort of kind uncle towards me. He knew I was going through a really difficult time. He understood that about being abroad… away from your culture, family, friends. (11)

He [Brodsky] was not uncritical but he actually had a tremendous love for American sclock – and slang, in particular. He was always coming out with it in a heavy Russian accent. He found American life liberating in ways that he hadn’t expected. Largely, I think, because he relished the throwaway remark, the catch-all in American speech. He loved that in low culture because he recognised that that was where vitality in language is… ‘What rots is what’s alive’, and that life comes out of that. (11)

He [Brodsky] impressed on me the value of tradition. He was a purist about this. He knew very well how poets fall in love with each other verbally, and spoke on from that. He had a direct connection back to Akhmatova and further. I had my Welsh tradition. But I remember him saying to me once, though: ‘You are lucky Gwyneth – you have the English language’. He was totally smitten with English. That made me realise that what I did have I was taking for granted. That one comment did more to help me than anything else. It helped me to think of turning to the English language not as a betrayal of Welsh – but as another love affair. (11)

Well, we’re all obsessed with language. But what I have been trying to do is explore why minority languages are important for people other than those that speak them. Because I think they show us the nature of language in an extreme situation. I think that what can be learned from the decline of the Welsh language is not a minority issue, it’s actually a language issue. And Joseph was always so sharp about why language is important in the grand scheme of things. (12)

New York

What you do lose [when travelling/living abroad] is ideas about yourself […] ideas about what poetry is about, what you’re about, as well as others’ ideas about you. That’s a good thing in a small culture where the influence tends towards all hands on deck and expectations are therefore very strong. (12)

Somebody said to me that if I stayed I would become an American poet. I loved American poetry – and still do – but that didn’t seem right to me. I felt I would be losing my grip on a kind of internal metre, and that would have been bad news. (12)

[Brodsky’s] main self of himself was as a human among humans. There is a lot of rubbish talked about the poetic process. It seems to me that one of the reasons that poets might be of interest to other people is that they know more than most about the chaos of life, about living with incompleteness, with hopelessness, living with the feeling that what you value and cherish most is not valued and cherished by the rest of society. All basic human emotions. Except poets know more about it because we spend more time doing that. Not because we are superior, more sensitive… But because we know what it is to be nobody. (13)

Kathryn Gray on Gwyneth Lewis

Lewis experienced a culture-clash with the preppy, body-beautiful ethos of her fellow students [at Harvard], and one that was the antithesis of the arty, left-field atmosphere of the late seventies, early eighties Cambridge that she had left behind. Lewis was always conscious of her difference; her time in Massachusetts marked a period that proved much less than an unalloyed pleasure. Similarly she saw how the cultural freedoms she was observing were also at odds with the material and psychological lot of poets in American society. (9)

[H]aving completed a year in the English department at Harvard and finding herself unhappy pursuing academic studies in English, she applied to Columbia in New York. […] This year proved to be the defining moment of her creative life. (10)

Brodsky was exiled from the USSR in 1972, and after a spell in Vienna where he was helped by Auden, he emigrated to the US. Like Lewis, he took much – personally and professionally – from an evaluation and enjoyment of the cultural excesses on offer in New York. (11)

For him [Brodsky], language defined the great benchmarks in evolution: what distinguishes the human being from other animals is his facility with language. He reckoned the poet – who pushed language to its limits – is the most evolved of all creatures. (11)

Lewis, Gwyneth. ‘Gwyneth Lewis in America’ (Interview with Katherine Gray). New Welsh Review. Vo. 70. 8-13.

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