Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Oxford Professorship and Moniza Alvi

A cub found its way into the window space outside the cellar. I found it when I went to investigate the sounds it was making. It half growled half hissed at me, a tiny, skinny little thing with enormous ears and baby eyes that was probably there half the night and the whole day. I wrapped it in a blanket and carried it to the cemetary. When I laid the blanket down it stayed there for an instant, looking truly comfortable and warm at last. It scampered off and I hope it found its mother.

In between all this natural drama is the Oxford professorship of poetry. Normally I dismiss this as irrelevant but this was to be the year two women defined British poetry and it was long overdue - Carol Ann Duffy as laureate and Ruth Padel as prof. I am irritated Padel blew it, sorry for her too that she felt she had to give it up. I think she should have sat it out.

As for Clive James waiting in the wings, he's another of those old rich men, isn't he, like Felix Dennis, who wants some artistic credibility after a life-time of chatshows. There'll be plenty of bared teeth scavenging.

And Jeanette Winterson putting Alice Oswald up instead......I've always had respect for Winterson, but in this she's wrong. Oswald is a newcomer with upper class credentials but not a patch on many other women writing today, despite her prizes. A Farrow and Ball heritage poet.

Moniza Alvi gets my vote. She writes poetry that's of the moment and relevant. Yes, let's have a woman and let's have one who's writing about modern life in all its confusion, violence, emotional complexity, who celebrates small domestic tasks, who has explored the metaphorical world of being of mixed race with imaginative brilliance.

One in ten children now lives in a mixed race family and the figure is rising to the extent that very soon being mixed race will be the norm. (I hear cheers from Pedro Archanjo here, hero of Tent of Miracles, a story of candomble, spirits and the mixing of races written by that great Brazilian writer Jorge Amado).....

So Alvi is way ahead of her time, inventing the creative landscape to which so many as yet unborn writers will return. In fact, she is probably the only UK poet charting, in poetry, the demographic changes taking place in every UK town and city.

It was Ruth Padel, ironically, who reviewed Alvi's new collection, Europa, for the Guardian and wrote this:

"Her voice is spare, oblique, surreal, compassionate and original. She has unique insight into splits, both emotional and cultural: "The receding east, the receding west", as she laconically puts it. At the end of Split World, a selection from all her books, are the poems with which she became the first, and so far as I know the only, poet to explore sustainedly what 9/11 has meant to Muslims living in Europe.

"Alvi has trained as a counsellor, and her new collection, Europa, explores post-traumatic stress disorder and the meaning of rape while mining the international politics of east and west through the myth of Europa."

So if there's going to be a debate about who's the Oxford professor, let's have a proper one - consign celebrities and strategic networkers to the sidelines and we poets should have our say, not just the media pleasing novelists and rent-a-quotes.