‘Power – For my angel poet-friend’: The Papers of Elaine Feinstein

Project Archivist Jane Speller writes:

Work has started on the papers of English writer, poet and translator, Elaine Feinstein. Funded by the Strachey Trust, the aim of the project is to catalogue and make available this important literary archive.

Born in Bootle in Lancashire in 1930, Elaine’s parents were from Liverpool and all her grandparents were Ukrainian Jews from the city of Odessa. Now living in London, Elaine retains strong connections with the North West of England via her association with the Manchester-based Carcanet Press.

Elaine’s connections within the literary world are truly international. Over the years, in addition to writing biographies, novels, and poetry collections, as well as translating work by some of the great Russian and Soviet writers such as Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), Elaine has championed the work of countless new and emerging writers. In 1959, she was invited to edit an issue of Cambridge Opinion magazine. According to Elaine’s memoirs, she decided to call the issue ‘The Writer Out of Society’. She felt herself on the edge of the English literary world – being Northern, a woman, and the granddaughter of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. For fellow outsiders, she looked to America,

‘So it was I briefly became a conduit, more or less by chance, for an American avant-garde not yet much known in England, all of them acknowledging the influence of Ezra Pound and several of them as Jewish as I was’.

Elaine wrote to a young American writer Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), one of the leaders of the Beat Generation,

‘…because I liked his poetry, which most people thought was hilarious at the time. The early stuff is marvellous…Anyway, I wrote to Ginsberg and he sent me a whole list of people I could write to, so I did. I was sitting in the house with two children, not doing anything else. I wrote to them all and got back screeds from Corso, Ferlinghetti, everyone’ (from an interview published in The Irish Times, May 2005).

Through Ginsberg, Elaine made contact with some of the most radical, rebellious and experimental writers of the day.

Cambridge Opinion magazine: list of contents, 1959

A letter Elaine received from Ginsberg and several of the postcards he sent her are in the archive. He signs off one card – in which tells her he has quit smoking – ‘My  face aches. Smoke moves. Yours Allen G.

Elaine published his poem, ‘A Supermarket in California’ in Cambridge Opinion magazine. The poem represents one of Ginsberg’s first experiments with the long line form that would be epitomized by his poem, Howl, and which would become his trademark style.

Opening of ‘A Supermarket in California’ by Allen Ginsberg, published in Cambridge Opinion, 1959.

Also in the archive are communications with Elaine from other Beat poets; Michael McClure (b.1932) asks, ‘Who are you? Or rather what is the magazine you propose like? Who are you printing? Is it political?’ before discussing his poem, ‘Peyote’,  which references an hallucinogen favoured by the Beats; and a letter in stream-of-consciousness  form written by Gregory Corso (1930-2001), in which he discusses the differences between English and American poetry,

Most all young English poetry of late is gossiped dark polemics, such poets really have nothing galaxy to say; they’d never wear velvet, no weakness, that good poetic weakness, in their we’re-for we’re-against the bowler hat man’s zombic mein’ [sic].

Excerpt about peyote: letter from Michael McClure to Elaine Feinstein, c. 1959

Corso sends Elaine his poem, ‘Power – For my angel poet-friend’. Corso wrote the poem for Ginsberg his life-long friend and collaborator who he met in the New York lesbian bar, Pony Stable:

‘Somehow, it also became a focal point for the Beat Generation poetry scene. Back in 1949, the young poet Gregory Corso having just been released from prison was adopted as an ‘artist-in-residence’ by the women at the Pony Stable’ (From  Lost Womyn’s Space website).

Excerpt re. ‘Power for my angel poet friend’: letter from Gregory Corso to Elaine Feinstein, 1959.

The address, 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur, Paris, is name-checked in a number of letters in the papers relating to Elaine’s editorship of the Cambridge Opinion. Aficionados of the Beats will recognise this as the location of the infamous ‘Beat Hotel’, a small, run-down hotel and bistro in the Latin Quarter which provided a haven for an international clientele of bohemian artists many of whom were escaping the rigid censorship laws of the US and Britain. Some of the hotel’s most famous occupants (1957-63) included: ‘Mr and Mrs Ginsberg’ a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky (1933-2010), William Burroughs (1914-97) and his lover Ian Sommerville (1940-76), and Gregory Corso.  It was at the Beat Hotel that Burroughs wrote his controversial novel The Naked Lunch (1959) and Ginsberg wrote the seminal poem, ‘Kaddish’ (1957-59), a galley proof of which is in the archive. See The Beat Hotel (2011) documentary for information about this impromptu home of the Beats – trailer on YouTube.

Excerpt from Ginsberg’s postcard, sent to accompany a proof of his poem ‘Kaddish’, which had also been accepted by Scottish magazine Jabberwock, 22 December 1958.

Read more about Elaine and her work in forthcoming blog posts.

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