Ruth Padel gives first interview since Walcott debacle

Ruth Padel sat down for an interview with Aida Edemariam of The Guardian, her first since she resigned her post as Oxford Professor of Poetry after it was revealed that she had alerted the media to allegations of sexual harassment against her main rival, St Lucian poet Derek Walcott. Here are some excerpts, with the link to the entire interview below:

More revealing is the way she describes suggestions, a year ago, that she be considered for the post of poet laureate. (“I would like to start a steady, syncopated drumbeat for Ruth Padel as the next laureate,” wrote Bel Mooney in a letter to the Observer, describing Padel’s achievements, then, betraying the embattled elitism of a small world, “she would bring vivacity to the ancient honour, as well as being tough-minded enough to withstand the philistines.”)

“I always said I didn’t want to do the laureate,” says Padel, “because I was too scared of the post getting in the way of work. I thought there were some poets, and Carol Ann [Duffy]’s one, who wouldn’t let it do that, but there are some who would, and I was probably one of them. What I know about myself is that I always want to please – I want to give people what they want. And if you have lots and lots of people asking you for things you get very scattered, and I’m sure Carol Ann is strong enough to be absolutely clear about her priorities, but” – her voice is very quiet now – “I’m not sure that I would be able to do that.”

Is that what happened with the Oxford job? I am referring, she knows, to the misguided emails to journalists. Her voice drops even further. “That may be.” I can see how it would work – the thrill of being in the running for such a prestigious job, the flattery of being asked for information, the frisson of having a nugget of gossip she could provide, the wish to please a student (as she later, slightly unbelievably described it, after her resignation) who was concerned about a man with Walcott’s supposed reputation being given a teaching post. Still unsolved, however, is the mystery of who sent the dossier – “I have no idea – whoever it was was no friend to me, but it’s water under the bridge now.”

She has, understandably, no wish to revisit the episode, but she seems to struggle, a bit, with her newfound media training-by-fire: her instinct seems to be to answer a question directly put; experience tells her it would probably be a bad idea, the two imperatives keep flashing across her face. Did she want the job very much? “I don’t really know. I didn’t expect to get it. I would have loved to do what I’m doing now, which is taking poetry into the science labs, going round college to college. I would have found the lectures daunting, but I would have enjoyed the challenge of them. So I don’t know – it became … I’d never been part of a campaign before, and other people …”

The day before she resigned she was having lunch with “some old friends, and one is an artist, and the other is an actor. And they were talking about their work, and it was so interesting. And I thought, ‘This is my life. I like talking about work, thinking about work, and where I am and what I’m doing.'”

Is there anything she regrets? “I think I should talk less.” She laughs. How about the emails? “Do we need to talk about this really?, because it’ll just be picked up by other papers. I mean, I wrote things in response to people who asked me about things. And I think that’s probably all I will say.”

Poetry not being a paying sort of job, she’s made a complementary living from journalism for years. Could she not guess it would be picked up like that? “Um … no, I didn’t. I didn’t have any idea.” What has she learned from the whole thing? The answer to this is a lot less hesitant. “Not to trust people. And also to breathe more deeply before I answered things. And um ….” – very quietly – “it was a very important moment when I realised, with those friends of mine, I love doing my work, what I love is doing my work. I don’t care about the high-profile stuff – of course I care about the service of poetry, but I would have liked to do the work. But now I want to get back my writing – that’s the important thing.” Quite.

For the complete interview and photo credit go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/nov/28/ruth-padel-poetry-darwin-oxford

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