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The City and the Writer: In Oxford with Maya C. Popa

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Oxford as you feel/see it?

Oxford is made up of large slabs of sunlit stone and broad tree-lined streets leading to narrow cobbled passageways cluttered with bicycles. It is dotted with Saxon churches and Gothic towers whose bells seem to ring continuously for one reason or another. Behind trick walls lie a succession of gates and doors that reveal the University’s colleges, whose pristine gardens only a select few may amble. It is a city of minds in conversation with minds past and present. I often have the impression that I am walking through a slowly uttered spell.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Heartbreak can be inched toward slowly; it’s not always a break as much as a bending toward. I remember being in Oxford and beginning to understand things that would later break my heart elsewhere. I know the question is asking me to assume the standard understanding of heartbreak, and I recognize that I am being difficult in refusing it.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The smell of Oxford itself—the sun as it honeys the ancient stone, the green country air and the firewood that burns year-round. It doesn’t smell like a city, though you can catch the air-conditioned gust from a clothing chain on Queen Street, or the smell of potions from Boots. But walk away from the city center at night, and the air is lush and green and alive.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

My standard reading answer is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Conveniently, he was a member of Balliol College, so it applies. I’ll add J. R. R. Tolkien and Philip Larkin to that, as well as the current Oxford Professor of Poetry, Alice Oswald, who is one of the most extraordinary minds of our time.   


Is there a place here you return to often?

The Vault, which is the outdoor café at the base of the University Church of Saint Mary in Radcliffe Square. There is no better place to consume scones with an exaggerated serving of jam and cream than within view of the Radcliffe Camera, the Palladian gem of the Bodleian Library. As a student, I only worked in the library a handful of times. I prefer to stare at it in amazement.

Also, Little Clarendon Street, which is indefatigably cheery with its low-strung lights and restaurants. And, past the Head of the River, where punts are procured, down Abingdon Road, I visit the horses grazing in a large field.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Eagle and Child (also known as the Bird and the Baby) is the seventeenth-century pub owned by St. John’s College where Tolkien and C. S. Lewis worked on their books. It’s one of those rare sorts of literary places that manages not to fall dispiritingly short of expectations. You can ensconce yourself in a hidden booth or at a small table in the back room and drink and eat baked brie to your heart’s content while typing away at your device.

More often, however, I eat a Ploughman’s lunch at the back table of the White Horse, which, like many places in Oxford, is thought to be haunted.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There is a hidden city of violence and political unrest very much tied to the world of ideas that thrives here. The Martyrs’ Memorial, a monument for the sixteenth-century Protestants burned at the stake for heresy, stands at the center of one of the busiest intersections. As a student, I frequently passed a fire juggler near the Quaker meeting house on early evening walks. Some of my most striking and preciously discordant memories are of watching women in glamorous ball gowns and men in tuxedos line up at 2 am in front of vans for kebabs after summer balls. Part of what charms me is the sense that Oxford is one hidden city layered over another, each leaving just enough of a trace behind to be followed.


Where does passion live here?

In books being read and books being written, and the people captivated by them.  


What is the title of one of your works about Oxford and what inspired it exactly?

A poem called “Heathrow Express,” which I ultimately cut from my first book, describes the coaches I took over several years from Heathrow to Oxford and back, and the odd visual refrain of that journey. It was a trip I invariably made either half-asleep, growing alert only when the landscape turned familiar, or with a pressing ache, passing the same round hill lacquered with anti-climb near Malmaison, the boutique hotel that houses its guests in renovated prison cells, on the journey back.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Oxford does an outside exist?”

There are miles and miles of country roads and yellow rapeseed fields and slate stone walls crumbling toward the M40, and less than an hour away, London thrumming steadily like a frantic, curious heart.


Maya C. Popa is the author of American Faith (Sarabande Books), which received the 2020 North American Book Prize and was a runner-up in the Kathryn A. Morton Prize selected by Ocean Vuong. Her chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled was a PBS (UK) Summer Choice in 2017. She is the Poetry Reviews Editor of Publishers Weekly and director of creative writing at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City, where she also teaches English literature. She holds degrees from Oxford University, NYU, and Barnard College, and is currently a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London, writing on the role of wonder in poetry. Her writing appears on the Academy of American Poets, Poetry, Poetry London, The TLS, Yale Review, and elsewhere.


Related Reading:

The City and the Writer: In London with Jay Parini

Confronting the Institution of Language: Juan Arabia on Poetry and the Pandemic

The City and the Writer: In Mexico City with Carmen Boullosa

Published Dec 15, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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