Thursday, 19 April 2012

In the presence of greatness

Being naturally surly and and hard to impress, you might be surprised to hear that I've developed a bit of a man-crush on Fred D'Aguiar, the poet and novelist who visited the university yesterday.

Despite facing an audience of 15 - virtually all staff members - he gave a long talk and reading which felt like it was only ten minutes. He appeared to have read every poem ever written, he must have a photographic memory for quotation and allusion, and must be one of the most inspiring teachers you could ever wish for.

D'Aguiar was born in London but spend ten years of his early childhood in Guyana, before returning to the UK. He worked as a psychiatric nurse before taking an English degree then a writing course, alongside Wendy Cope and Blake Morrison. Now a professor of English and Africana at Virginia Tech, he's written several novels and volumes of poetry.

Last night's reading drew on his own life, the novels and several poems, interspersed with stories of his upbringing, his education, the artists he admires (I liked his use of Walcot's description of history being 'a library of bones' and the line - by whom? - 'I'm a poet/only here to read the meter' which really depends on American spelling). D'Aguiar's own work is most clearly informed by the Romantic poets, but his range is astonishing. What really fascinated me was that although his discussion was free-wheeling, allusive and lengthy, his poems are often short, feather-light and elusive: they're there for a second and then they're gone, leaving behind only sensations which linger for an age.

The tone of the evening was light-hearted, friendly and loose, except for one moment. Asked about whether he feels, as a Guyanan/British Guyanan/Caribbean-American (labels were discussed at length) obliged to be the voice of a people, Fred launched into a passionate, heart-breaking explanation of the poet's absolute duty to enunciate what others can only feel.  He told us about Erin Peterson, whom he taught the day before she, along with 31 other students and teachers, was shot dead at Virginia Tech, and about the duty he had to speak for and to his community at a time when words came hard.

After the reading, we all went off for a fine curry and an even more relaxed chat with Fred and his equally learned and witty wife, who's a teacher, author and fellow SF fan. Fred signed my copy of The Longest Memory to me as 'poetry teacher, reader and lover', which flatters me in several ways!

(rest of the photos I took here).


Anonymous said...

Can understand the man-crush. What a great gentleman it is. Love the accent of the hands in a few of the pictures.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thank you - he's very photogenic as well as being a literary genius.