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Interview with Elaine Feinstein

Belinda McKeon, The Irish Times, May 2005
A voice that sets her apart


For poet Elaine Feinstein, there is no getting away from her Russian and Jewish heritage, she tells Belinda McKeon.

Her first poem came to her in childhood. Elaine Feinstein, the English poet who has, since then, written powerfully of so many childhoods, so many lives both fresh and fading, knew right from the start what she wanted to do. "I think that like all poets, I started to love poetry very early, and I wrote it very early," she says. "I remember my first poem - it went into the school magazine when I was about eight - and it was the first really exciting thing that had ever happened to me, this transition of my scribbled words into printed form in that way."

But surely such a young child could hardly have been conscious that what she was putting into words was that formal achievement, the poem? "Yes," she insists, it was. "And I made it up in the garden, bouncing a ball. You know, it was very, very rhythmic, a highly rhythmic poem. I remember writing it, being very excited by it."

Long before her undergraduate years at Cambridge, long before the excitement of having there as her contemporaries such rising poets as Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn, long before her discovery of the Russian poets whose words would scorch their imprints into her page, Feinstein had found the first voice of her poetry. And that voice was uniquely her own.

The family from which Feinstein came prepared her to sound that voice of independence, that voice firmly outside of convention, even before she was born. Her grandparents were all Russian Jews, who, with their families, fled their homeplace of Odessa and made their way to England in search of better lives; once there, they worked hard to build good futures for themselves, setting themselves up as wood traders and glass merchants, making strides.

But between the two families was a deep rift, one which opened on the wedding day of Feinstein's parents. And, strangely, poetry seems to have happened for Feinstein somewhere within that rift. On her father's side was her deeply intellectual grandfather, a man well-versed in Rabbinic literature and fluent in five languages, who preferred, even as an immigrant in England, to spend his days reading and thinking while his children carried the burden of his business.

On her mother's side was a highly ambitious grandfather who valued success over contemplation, and who disowned his daughter upon her marriage to a man he thought beneath her. The influence on Feinstein's formation as a poet and translator would seem to be her paternal grandfather, with his scholarship. "He was a dreamer," she admits, "and I think that I inherited that from him, a lack of worldliness, really, which poets need."

And from the go-getting side of the family? "Well, my much more successful grandfather sent two of his sons to Cambridge, which was not bad for one generation off the boat," she says. "And they were very bright, and militantly atheistic, and they both loved poetry. And one of them, in fact, left all of his money to a poetry trust. Not that it ever did me any good."

At once cut off from and caught within her family's need for the poem, she found her voice. It was not a voice with which she felt that she could be a poet, in her undergraduate years at Cambridge; when she says that she "didn't have the right voice for English poetry" back then, she means it quite literally. "You have to understand that it was not just that I had Russian grandparents. My parents were from Liverpool, with a Liverpool voice, and I grew up in the Midlands, with a Midlands voice, and when I went to Cambridge, I was very conscious of having a very unusual accent, a mix of accents."

It wasn't a question of vocabulary, she insists, but of pronunciation; neither, however, was it something which Feinstein was going to allow to sway her sense of self. "I kept that voice with a kind of bloody-minded stubbornness, really, in those Cambridge years," she remembers. It was an inner voice, and a poetic voice, which sent her reeling from the writers most fashionable among her peers - the poets of the New Movement, with their "tightness and anxiety", their stiff upper lips - toward poets of other countries.

"The Americans helped me a great deal," she says, and talks of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson as poets who supplied either pleasure or influence; Allan Ginsberg, meanwhile, she championed during her time as editor of the university's Prospect magazine, not just for his poetry, which she was almost alone, at the time, in admiring, but for a particular kind of otherness with which she, as the grandchild of Jewish immigrants, must have empathised.

"A lot of people thought then that you couldn't be a poet with a name like Ginsberg," says Feinstein. "It sounded like a tailor's name, or at a very great push he might be a doctor, but certainly not a poet."

The great poet in Feinstein's life, however, has been the magnificent Russian, Marina Tsvetaeva. Feinstein talks of her own poetry in terms of a sort of before-and-after where Tsvetaeva is concerned; her discovery of the then-untranslated works was the English poet's creative watershed. "She released me," Feinstein says simply. "She released me from the kind of poetry that was being written in the 1960s, all around me. She made it possible for me to expose my most undignified side." That is, she gave Feinstein the freedom to write in English without becoming an English poet in a rigid sense.

She also, it should be noted, assuaged the young woman's guilt about prioritising the demands of poetry over the mundane tasks of motherhood and domestic life; Tsvetaeva, too, lived in a "tip", says Feinstein, and that provided reassurance. And lastly, since the first works of translation had to be undertaken by Feinstein herself, Tsvetaeva gave to her a connection with a language she has, since childhood, adored, but about which she still talks with the wistfulness of one who views it from a distance.

"I'll never be fluent in Russian," she corrects me at one point. "Never, because it's a very difficult language and I started too late, I was 39." She describes as "a source of great sadness" to her the fact that she did not inherit this language, "the most wonderful for poetry", from her grandparents as a child. "I could have learned it from them," she says, in a voice still clouded with regret.

Feinstein is, you sense, being too hard on herself. After all, what her grandparents wanted for the coming members of their family was not a Russian identity, but an immersion in Englishness. They had left behind hardship and oppression; they wanted to start over. The language which linked them to that time and place might not have been carried down through the generations for a reason.

The poet in her, however, feels sorely for the lack of it. She feels, too, the soreness of another scar on her identity, another time of suffering for her people, which afflicts her even to this day, she says. At the age of nine, she became aware of what was happening to Jews on the other side of the channel. She was safe in England. Later, she would see in films the desolate reality of what had taken place in the death camps, but for now the only sign that something was amiss was her father's refusal to buy German toys for his children.

The young Feinstein asked questions. Her father hinted "at something quite evil going on in Germany, something we could not help". It was enough; it darkened her world. "And I still seem to trail a kind of awareness of that terrible abyss I might have been caught up in," she says. "At the end of the war, I saw all the films, and I realised that that was where I would have been. I can't seem to shake that completely away."

Perhaps partly in reaction to this, her poetry has always held people, and the value of people, close to its heart, as if protecting them in some way; it is neither coolly formal or dramatically alight, dealing rather in simple events, simple sightings, the beings and doings and happenings that give rise to the lucid thought. She has written often of her husband, honestly, movingly, often angrily; "How can we make friends before one of us dies?" she asked of him in a poem in her last collection, Gold.

When I mention that line now, two years after her husband's death, she provides her own worried question with an answer. "We did manage it," she says, a little shakily. "And it was touch and go. I would never present my marriage as an idyll. But it was filled with a very passionate feeling. And that's, I think, better than it going dead."

Her poems are filled, too, with passion for her children, expressed both in their infancy and in their adulthood - her three sons, now a writer, a musician and a mathematician, for whom her poems have expressed so many prayers.

"I feel in a funny kind of way that what has happened in my family is so extraordinary," she says, asked whether she sees anything of her Russian grandparents in her sons. "I mean, my family have now moved so far from their origins. Just to take an example, to have two of my sons marry German girls . . . and they're real German girls, not Jewish German girls, and they are really charming and delightful, and one can't do anything but love them. And their parents are very pleasant too, and born just after the period where one has to worry about whether they were in Hitler Youth and that. But when you look through the family's albums, you do see the SS uniforms and all of that. I find it very strange, that's all."

Her sons are bilingual, and lack any real sense of their Jewish background, says Feinstein, and while this is not something that bothers her, for herself the idea of leaving her Jewishness behind is an impossible one.

"I shall never. I can't, because that is how I grew up. And I'm very conscious that I am one of those people whom it was once possible to abuse in this way, and I will always identify with those people."

Feinstein cannot talk today about the work she has recently completed on another of those dispossessed people, and another of those brilliant Russians, the poet Anna Akhmatova; while her new biography of this iconic figure will appear in June, she is bound until then not to discuss it, except to say that it will include "an absolute wealth of new information" which she has gathered from trips to Russia and from meetings with acquaintances and relatives of the poet.

She will talk, however, about her encounter with the poems, an encounter which she felt to be framed by an opposition between Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva. "Whereas Tsvetaeva was always inventing new forms, Akhmatova really used quite traditional forms, classical forms, and within them, she wrote out of her own life. And her own life was as dramatic, and in some ways as tragic as Tsvetaeva's. Yet she seemed so calm in comparison."

Feinstein pauses. "It's only recently, and not just because of the biography, that I've understood what an extraordinary energy it took to maintain that dignity and calm and perspective. I envy it, really."
Next interview with Elaine Feinstein... To the Elaine Feinstein page...
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