Elaine Feinstein in conversation with Michael Schmidt, Manchester Literature Festival, 13.10.13. Reviewed by Joe Carrick-Varty
Elaine Feinstein wrote her first poem when she was eight years old, ‘banging a ball against the garage door to create rhythm’. Who would have known that this Jewish child would flourish into one of the most influential poets Britain has produced in last century?
In the dimly lit Manchester Jewish Museum, Elaine Feinstein came to discuss her latest book, her autobiography, It Goes with the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet. The museum itself resembled a synagogue, and the discussion a Jewish sermon. The dimly-lit hall created a brilliant atmosphere, the echo of her words resonated softly with the acoustics of the dark room. Light leaked in through stained glass windows and decorative ornaments clung to the walls.
She began with a question, ‘Is poetic talent dangerous?’-‘Of course it is! Any kind of talent is dangerous.’ Her answer was a preface of things to come as the discussion would centre around her role as a female Jew, growing up in WWII, and subsequently her role as a female poet. She even went as far to say that at times in her marriage, writing poetry would feel like an act of adultery, she was subverting the patriarchal undercurrent society had been riddled with for the years of her childhood. She was going against the gender roles her beloved parents had lived with.
The Gate Crashers was the name of her first novel. She wrote it when she was a child living in Leicester. She spoke about how this stance as a ‘Gatecrasher’ would reflect her place in society throughout large periods of her life. She recalled a time in Leicester when a girl in her school said, ‘My Daddy says you’re nothing but a dirty Jew’. You could see in her face what this memory meant; she was an outsider, a gatecrasher, subordinated by society. At the time her Mother was horrified by the title of the story, but Elaine says she came to realise how ‘when you write you know things that you didn’t really let yourself know’; as a child she was perfectly aware of her status as a Jew, she just didn’t know it yet.
Elaine has even been an outsider to her own life, suppressing her inner ambition and talent. She spoke of her time as a student at Cambridge in the late 1940s when she encountered various people in a similar situation to herself, marginalised by their own societies. She met people from South Africa who had left because of the apartheid, she met survivors of the war, uprooted and displaced, who were trying to find their way. The entire audience seemed to join in a sharp intake of breath when she stated that she didn’t write a single poem during the three years she spent at Cambridge. However, a calming atmosphere was instilled when she stated, after the capitulation of her first engagement, and the end of her undergraduate degree, she decided to, ‘Go back to my first love, literature’.
She then proceeded to speak about her main influence, the Russian poet, Marina Tsvataeva. She said she initially felt drawn to Tsvetaeva’s work because she felt they were extremely similar in many ways, the most important characteristic being their inability to be domestic women. Elaine spoke fondly of the time she became the first person to translate Tsvetaeva’s work into English in 1971. And she then read her translation of one of Tsvetaeva’s poems, An Attempt at Jealousy. It was an incredible thing to behold. She read this comic poem in such a slow, deliberate manner; her complete conviction behind the poem made for a truly hilarious reading, the entire audience joining her in raucous laughter throughout.
The talk ended with Elaine reading one her own poems, Patience, written in 1975 whilst living in Cambridge. The mood in the darkened hall grew more serious. Again her voice echoed around but with a different ring to it. Michael Schmidt had to use his iPhone torch to illuminate the words for Elaine. The pool of light gave her face an eerie glow and her voice carried with it a hypnotic aura. The audience hung on her every syllable and her intensely slow, deliberate style maximised the tension. The last line of the poem, ‘Her prayer, to make peace with her own monstrous nature’ rang out and was answered with silence. Then she spoke, ‘What was the problem? Of course, I wanted to be a poet, when I should have been washing up’.
A truly lovely afternoon.
Joe Carrick-Varty, 13.10.13