Oxford Poetry Scandal: Listen to Audio from Padel and Walcott; Read Mehrota

Who knew poetry was such a lecherous and backstabbing business?

Derek Walcott cancelled his campaign to become the Oxford Professor of Poetry after the combination of whispering emails to journalists and an anonymous mailshot to Oxford dons rejuvenated allegations of his sexual harassment of a Harvard and a Boston University student in the 1980s. That left a field of two, Arvind Krishna Mehrota and Ruth Padel. Decrying the furor, Padel won. She reigned as poetry-chair-elect for nine days, until...

It became known that Padel had sent tip-off emails, with strange spellings, about the Walcott allegations to the press. She copped to the emails and resigned. She continues to deny all knowledge of how envelopes containing photocopies of pertinent pages from the lyrically titled The Lecherous Professor arrived at the letter boxes of Oxford voters at a crucial point in the campaign. The missives were unadorned by return address or cover note (postmarked: London). Perhaps the Padelophiles (or, more likely, the Walcottophobes) over-exerted themselves with batch photocopying copyrighted material and lacked the energy to identify themselves?

Walcott, already laureled by the Nobel Prize in 1992, has refrained from commenting on the email revelation. Padel is apologizing, speculating about conspiracy, and pleading naivété. Mehrota seems above scandal but may not have enough support to prevail. Oxford University has put the contest in time-out. (The current Oxford Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks, remains unsullied and is expected to finish out his term to the end of September.)

In case you want to compare the poetic chops of the first-round rivals, here are some links:

Ruth Padel discussing her collection Darwin, A Life in Poems and reading the poem "In the Seraglio" on Nature's site (go down the left panel to the third forward arrow; 11-minute segment will pop up in blue player top left, with download option). Padel is one of Charles Darwin's 72 grandchildren--apparently his genes are favored to survive.

From 2007: Derek Walcott talks about travel and St. Lucia with NPR's Jackie Lyden, and reads his poem "Sea Grapes" (poem text is included on launch page). Approximately 8 minutes.

The BBC's Harriet Gilbert interviews Derek Walcott about his epic poem "Omerus" for the BBC's World Book Club (use "Quick Find" if listing is not visible). Also available on iTunes as of this posting. 52 and 1/2 minutes.

I was unable to locate audio from Arvind Krishna Mehrota, so this link is text-only, to his poems "House by the Mill" and "Bhojpuri Descant."  A few more here.

If the ears have it, I think it's Walcott all the way, as long as lechery stays on the page.


Ayelet Waldman, The Divulging Mother

We're back to regular mothers' days now, the ones without lilacs or overbuttered toast in bed, which leads me to post some links to podcasted interviews with Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Right before Official Mother's Day 2009, Waldman, a mother of four, was interviewed by Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air and by Leonard Lopate for his show on WNYC to promote her memoir of motherhood.  Both interviews display what a good talker Waldman is: articulate yet relaxed, open and funny and intelligent, and extraordinarily comfortable with public self-divulgence.

Motherhood and Passion
Bad Mother was sparked by an essay published in The New York Times' "Modern Love" column that extolled Waldman's superseding love for her husband, literary star Michael Chabon, and which touched a zeitgeist nerve. The essay garnered her internet frissons and brickbats plus an appearance on Oprah. In retrospect the controversy seems to be one of semantics--erotic love vs. maternal love--but from the fallout a mommy memoirist was born. The book covers other aspects of motherhood and marriage within the author's economically comfortable experience--this is no Angela's Ashes--but it is unusual in that it is the mommy calling out the mommy.

Dropping Criminals for Writing with Toddlers
Waldman decided to drop her career as a federal criminal defender when she became envious of the time Chabon was spending with her daughter, and the time that her daughter was spending with Chabon. With the perfect mentor already in the house, she combined writing with motherhood, beginning with a series of mommy mystery books and moving onto less genre-ish fiction with Daughter's Keeper and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (for which Natalie Portman was cast in the upcoming movie, natch).

Intimacy vs. Philosophy
The Bad Mother interviews are both about 30 minutes long and cover similar ground, but the tones are dissimilar. Waldman's emotional openness with Terry Gross is startling and comes early (it's certainly too intense for the child-passenger portion of your carpool). She shares poignant details of a pregnancy that raised genetic concerns, and the lack of self-protectiveness in her recounting of how she and her husband made the decision to abort is disarming and brave. Waldman also talks without coyness about bipolar disorder and her early sexual experience. In the Leonard Lopate interview she is frank but breezier, and also more composed (perhaps because it came after). If you can handle an emotional interview that is by turns painful and wry, listen to the Fresh Air podcast; if you want to keep it lighter but still get a good idea of the book, listen to the Lopate.  In both conversations I think Waldman makes a valiant case for honesty as empowerment.

Ayelet Waldman on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on iTunes and NPR site (with excerpt)
Ayelet Waldman on The Leonard Lopate Show: on iTunes and WNYC site
Ayelet Waldman's site
Q & A with Waldman in SF Gate.

[Warning:  downloads sometimes expire. If you want it, download soon and listen whenever.]


Lynn Freed Reads "Ma, A Memoir"

Stories about mothers can be cloying or whiny, but Lynn Freed's "Ma, A Memoir" is neither. Told from the point of view of a middle-aged daughter of drama-prone parents, this story mixes calm assessment with tart affection. Its themes of marriage, love, illness, and egoism circulate among the three characters in dialogue that is both realistic and artful.  Just like Cheever's "Reunion," Freed's "Ma, A Memoir" creates a poignant filial history in less time than it takes most people to consume a cocktail or a cup of tea. Sip and listen!

A Tale With Two Recordings
Narrative Magazine offers a 6-minute recording of Freed reading her own story online here (free registration is required to access Narrative's site; the audio is not downloadable regardless). As of this posting, PRI: Selected Shorts also includes a recording of Marian Seldes reading "Ma, A Memoir" on iTunes, at the end of a 4-story episode called "Family Relations" (Freed's story begins at Minute 48:30).  If you want the Seldes recording, you should download it now; the PRI Selected Shorts episodes expire after about a month for copyright reasons.

The text of "Ma, A Memoir" is included in Freed's collection, The Curse of the Appropriate Man, and it's also stored on The New Yorker's archive (for subscribers only).