Tab Interview: Ruth Padel

‘The publishing industry is in a terrible state; it’s ghost written footballers’ memoirs that sell.’ Poet RUTH PADEL talks notoriety, creative writing and pissing off the porters with KATIE FORSTER.

Books Charles Darwin christs christs chapel katie forster oxford university poetry ruth padel

Is Ruth Padel the coolest academic ever? She was the poet in residence at Christ’s last year – so far, so geeky. But poetry aside, she’s sung in Parisian churches and Turkish nightclubs, explored remote jungles on tiger conservation projects, and written a book entitled Sex, Gods and Rock n’ Roll, in which she traces the origins of rock music to Greek mythology. Not quite your average supervisor.

This Friday, she’s returning to Christ’s to do a reading at an event celebrating the 500th anniversary of the college chapel. So, what can we expect from a poet who also happens to be Charles Darwin’s great-granddaughter? ‘I’ve been working on poems about the genome but also about migration, animal and bird migration, and the migration of the soul,’ she tells me. ‘But I’m also very interested in the state that the world is facing: crises of global warming and huge human immigration, caused by need.’

Padel is very forthcoming in her admiration and support of Christ’s: ‘it’s just such a lovely college, that I feel sort of part of it.’ She agrees that this feeling is due, at least in part, to her famous family connection, and confesses that she’s deeply interested in Darwin’s formative years. ‘There is one poem in my Darwin book, which is about his room and his time in Cambridge.  It’s very moving to think of him as a young man. Everybody thinks of him as he is in the photographs; old and with a beard, but really a lot of the importance and the foundations of his work began when he was very young.’

Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was also a poet. So, does she feel any affinity with him? ‘It was a very bold thing to do two generations before Charles Darwin,’ she tells me. ‘His poem The Botanic Garden is lovely. Charles Darwin’s main theory was about form and how it could change, which went against the idea at the time of God having created each form. Poets think about form all the time, and the mysterious parallel between life forms and poetry forms. I’m sure that in his way, Erasmus Darwin saw that too.’

Padel’s name may be ringing bells for some altogether more dodgy circumstances, though. Despite her extensive literary and ecological achievements, the thing that has given Padel notoriety over anything else is something she would rather forget: the controversy over her appointment to the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry in May 2009.  Padel was the first woman to occupy the post, but stepped down after just nine days, after emails sent by Padel about the sexual misconduct of her main rival Derek Walcott were leaked to the press, who then accused Padel of a smear campaign.

Over a year has passed since this messy incident, but has she moved on? ‘Yes. One of the great things was doing lots of readings all the way through it and trusting the audiences and readers, because they know what’s real.’

This experience has not stopped Ruth from being outspoken, however; she holds particularly strong views about creative writing courses at universities. ‘If they’re encouraging people to write and sell poetry, who do they think is going to publish the poems? And who do they think is going to buy them?  I think that the whole creative writing industry is going to stop. I’m really very worried about it. The publishing industry is in a terrible state; it’s ghost written footballers’ memoirs that sell.’

So, what advice would she give to students who do want to get into the field of creative writing? ‘Creativity is something quite personal. You can get help and guidance but you need to seek it out, it shouldn’t be given on a plate. What matters is knowledge. And there’s lots and lots of creativity in other things as well as ‘creative writing’. There’s creativity and imagination in every subject, whether it’s science or modern languages, or anything.’

It seems there’s also ‘creativity’ required in breaking your curfew. Ruth was a student at Lady Margaret College, Oxford, in the ‘70s, and some of the rules she had to deal with make Cambridge’s deans seem soft. ‘You had to be in by twelve. In the summer you might be climbing in at 5am in the light, and you had to really dodge around to avoid the night porter, running down corridors, pouncing round the corner,’ she explains. ‘In a way, it was quite scary because you were dicing with your career – you could be sent down for trying to climb in. Isn’t that extraordinary?’

Once a rebel, always a rebel…

Ruth Padel, Rowan Williams and Jo Shapcott will give a reading at 3pm today (Friday 19th  November) in Christ’s chapel to celebrate its 500th anniversary.