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21st October 2013

Elaine Feinstein: an unconventional life

Paul Reilly talks to award-winning poet, novelist, playwright, biographer and translator Elaine Feinstein about her new book It Goes with the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet

I’m in the lift of The Midland Hotel, on my way up to the fifth floor to speak to the award-winning poet, novelist, playwright, biographer and translator Elaine Feinstein, for what will be the first interview I have ever conducted. As well as having had 16 collections of poetry, 15 novels, three Russian poetry translations, seven biographies, two collections of short stories and one memoir published, she has written for The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The New York Review of Books.

Nervous doesn’t quite cover it.

Yet I needn’t have worried. As Feinstein graciously welcomes me into her hotel room (she is in town for the Manchester Literature Festival discussing her new book It Goes with the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet), her first concern is the room’s thermostat – it isn’t working, and the room is chilly. I suggest ringing down to reception, but she waves this idea away. “Never mind,” she says, smiling, “I’ll just leave my coat on.” I laugh at this unconventional solution, but as we sit down and she begins to talk about her new memoir, it becomes clear that unconventionality lies at the very heart of her career.

“The book examines what it has meant to my life to have spent so many years dedicated to poetry. Men are allowed to be withdrawn in a way that women usually can’t be, without putting some strain on their marriage and their role as wife and mother. I started much earlier than the feminist movement, when the idea of a woman dedicating her life to a literary career was quite outrageous”.

Being a woman wasn’t the only barrier Feinstein had to overcome as she made her way in the literary world.

“I’m Jewish, was brought up in Leicester so was provincial, and I’m a woman. So before I’d even started, I already had three strikes against me! But I was part of a kind of underground movement. While at Cambridge I edited a magazine called Prospect. I was a friend of Alan Ginsberg’s and published some of his poetry. I published Harold Pinter. I was part of a network of people who were interested in what was unusual. Also, Ted Hughes helped me in lots of ways.”

As well as being peppered with literary anecdotes, It Goes with the Territory is also about travel.

“I’ve travelled to the Arctic Circle, I explored the far-east when it was not really a traveller’s destination, Malaya, Indonesia, Singapore, I’ve led a very fortunate life.”

As my first ever interview draws to a close, I thank my host sincerely for her time.

“Not at all,” she says, “I’d like to read how you do, send me a copy will you?”

Despite my first interviewee being such a prominent figure in the literary world, I couldn’t have asked for a better one.

It Goes with the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet (Alma Books) is out now.

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