LITERARY REVIEW

The craft is alive

LAST June, on a trip to England, we were invited to Manchester for the Commonwealth Literary Festival there. This had been organised and run by my publisher Michael Schmidt, who founded and runs the Carcanet Press in the city. Carcanet is the only fairly large publishing firm left in England, apart from Faber, to turn out volumes of poetry on a regular basis. Poetry does not generate money, and most British publishers now refuse to touch it. But a lot of poets are alive and kicking and were present in Manchester, and while some poets remain, the craft will not die.

That very good poet Les Murray was there, immensely fat and very Australian. My collaborator Sarayu Ahuja, who was to read from her as-yet-unpublished novel, and I came to the Festival together; and she, because of Murray's Strine accent, could not understand a word of what he read. Neither could some of the Canadian and New Zealand poets who were also present. Curiously, the only ones who could follow him clearly were the West Indians. I have no idea why. I could understand him only because I have been friendly with a lot of Australian cricketers, painters, and writers.

Hardly any Indian authors attended the Festival. Arundhati Roy was supposed to come but didn't, presumably because she was occupied on the banks of the Narmada river. The novelist Ruchir Joshi was present and read in the same session as Sarayu. We had several drinks together at a splendid pub I discovered next to our hotel. "The Briton's Pride" was founded in 1806. At lunchtime it served pheasant pies and venison pies, superb English food of a kind one does not find easily today. Ruchir refused to try any of it, but I forced Sarayu, a vegetarian by preference, to lunch there every day.

Another poet of Indian origin at the Festival was Sujata Bhatt. She was born in Gujarat and educated in America, and lives in Germany with her husband. The BBC interviewed us together. At the end, a car came to take the interviewer, Christopher Cooke, to another studio. He was already five minutes late. Before he rushed off, he asked us to inscribe copies of our books for him. I did so quickly but 10 minutes later Sujata was still busy. "Whatever are you doing?" Cooke demanded, slightly irritated. She replied mildly, "I'm correcting all the printer's errors. There are a lot of them."

Michael Schmidt was frenziedly busy at the Festival most of the time. He found a few minutes for a drink with Sarayu and me, and a young English poet whose name I didn't catch. Michael had never organised a literary festival before, and admitted that he had made some mistakes. For example he had expected lots of Manchester University students in the audience; but the dates coincided with the soccer World Cup, and the activities of Beckham and Co predictably proved much more attractive to young scholars than those of a gaggle of writers, most of whom they hadn't read.

The young poet complained about the lack of publishers in England. "Those who are able, like the big firms, aren't willing," Michael told me, "and those who are willing, like me, aren't always able. I'd like to publish several unknown poets with promise, like this lad here, but it'd be disastrous if I did." Michael was born Mexican. All the Mexicans I have met in Mexico have been carefree, spendthrift souls. But years in Manchester have taught Michael the value of what is locally called "brass": i.e. money. He may lament his need for caution; but it keeps him solvent, able to continue his good work.

I told him that the big Indian firms now published little poetry. "That's a pity," he said. "All you need there is one firm that will do good stuff and do it well and on a regular basis." I replied bitterly, "There aren't any." On my return to India I was glad and surprised to find on my desk a parcel that contained three well-produced paperbacks. They came from Yeti Books, a new firm in Kerala, recently founded by the poet Thachom Poyil Rajeevan. Friends tell me that his work in Malayalam is very fine.

Why he should interest himself in English poetry I don't know. The three books he has so far published contain good work and look attractive. One of them is by a young American poet, Noah Hoffenberg, who seems full of promise. I am sending his book, The Man with Two Heads, to Michael Schmidt. C.P. Surendran, by now established in India as a poet, tells me that he has now sent his new book to Rajeevan.

HarperCollins had promised to do this book in October. A contract was signed. They then acquired new partners, India Today, who, characteristically, don't want to publish any poetry. My new book of poems has suffered the same fate as Surendran's at their hands. So I shall try Yeti Books. It is the duty of elderly poets to support such causes, and though the firm may be small and new, at least it seems reliable.

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