In search of a place in the sun

He may be flowering in Miami, but Fred D'Aguiar's poetry and fiction belong to a darker time
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Fred D'Aguiar peers closely at the photos on the wall: Ted Hughes, glowering, craggy and monumental; Wendy Cope, impassive and a little distant; Andrew Motion with that familiar, patrician smile. "I don't suppose he wears all those bangles now!" he laughs, "but he's doing a wonderful job, isn't he?"

Fred D'Aguiar peers closely at the photos on the wall: Ted Hughes, glowering, craggy and monumental; Wendy Cope, impassive and a little distant; Andrew Motion with that familiar, patrician smile. "I don't suppose he wears all those bangles now!" he laughs, "but he's doing a wonderful job, isn't he?"

It is, he says, the thing he misses most about Britain: "the community of poets, the cliquiness, which people always complain about, but actually it's fun." Although he's in touch with many poets by e-mail and belongs to a couple of chat-groups, he misses "shaking their hands and giving them a hug, and buying them a drink". Fred D'Aguiar published his first poetry collection in 1985, when he was 25. Time has not dimmed his passion for poetry or his reverence for his fellow poets.

We are at the Poetry Society in Covent Garden. D'Aguiar has just returned from Edinburgh, where he did the first reading from his new book, Bloodlines(Chatto & Windus, £12.99), and is going on to take part in the new Poetry Proms at the Serpentine. Such events are a delightful distraction from his routine in Miami, where he has lived and taught for seven years. Miami is "a place you take with a pinch of salt, the place where Versace was murdered and the place where there are the most breast implants".

For some years, he actually lived along the beach, but he has recently moved to suburbia. " American Beauty!" he declares with a wry smile. "There's always a movie that reminds me that suburbia ain't what it seems, and that movie is the latest installment."

D'Aguiar was born in Britain, lived in Guyana until he was 12 and then spent 20 years in south-east London before taking his first creative-writing job in the US. Miami has brought him financial and domestic stability. He has been with his second wife, Debbie, for seven years and they have a two-year-old son, Christopher. "Domesticity has been blissful!" he smiles with the zeal of the convert, "knowing where the spoon will be in the cupboard and finding it. There is nothing more stable and liberating and creative than that stability".

His output since moving to America has been impressive: three novels, one book-length narrative poem and now his new verse-novel. There are no indications, however, that picket fences or collagen are going to move him into the artistic territory of Florida's arch-satirist, Carl Hiaasen. D'Aguiar's first novel, The Longest Memory, was a powerful exploration of life on an 18th-century slave plantation, written from the point of view of a number of inhabitants. His third, Feeding the Ghosts, drew on the true story of the crew of the slave ship Zong which in 1783 threw 132 "livestock" overboard in the hope that they would fetch more in insurance than at the auction block. Bloodlines tells the story of a young female slave, Faith, who falls in love with the white son of a plantation owner, Christy, and runs away with him in search of freedom. There seems to be - well, a certain consistency of theme.

"Even though someone like [Toni] Morrison did a wonderful treatment of this subject, there's a feeling as a writer that you want to walk that territory in your own way." D'Aguiar speaks extremely fast in a rich, soft voice still full of the mellow warmth of his Caribbean childhood. He speaks in long, elegant sentences and is as happy chatting about slavery as about what he did on his holiday. "I've been alternately writing novels and poetry since '94," he continues, "so I thought, let me bring the two together and maybe it would be a fresh take on history."

Bloodlines is nothing if not ambitious. It draws on the intricate rhyme-scheme of Byron's Don Juan and the narrative devices of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and its time-frame ranges from the American Civil War to the present. I tell D'Aguiar that I found myself parading around my study reading it aloud, in order to get a grip of the rhythm and rhyme. He is amused and, I think, pleased. "I like the long form of Don Juan, the throwaway metre, the lightness and levity that those rhymes allow," he explains. "I wanted to bring all the contradictory things I could against the very serious historical landscape."

The poem, despite its serious subject, is full of colloquialisms and levity. There's more than a glimmer of Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, the bestselling verse-novel which, according to D'Aguiar, "was a sort of break-out version", reminding people that "this form had been asleep for a while".

Was the playfulness part of the attraction? The mock-heroic? "Yes!" he shrieks, with a flash of the green eyes that have caused more than a few hearts to flutter. "That's the term in a nutshell." Given the challenges of this form, it's difficult to imagine where D'Aguiar might take the theme next.

"I do feel with Bloodlines that there's something of a closure to it because of the form and the way that the narrator spans all time and has a foot in the contemporary."

D'Aguiar has talked of the way that each of his books starts off as an image. "For Christy and Faith," he explains, "it was the idea of blood-lines. Obviously, it's selfish in that I'm interested in my own mixed heritage and in a space opened by the amalgamation of two different traditions. How did they meet and what was likely to happen? What was the opposition? Just to show," he adds with a smile, "how fortunate I am, and that skinheads are no big deal."

It is the first indication that Fred D'Aguiar speaks and writes from bitter experience. He speaks eloquently of growing up in London and becoming aware of blackness as a negative thing. "I didn't want to become political!" he confesses. "I wanted to have a good time - it was the Seventies! it was disco! - but you had to. In the middle of the Carnival you had some serious riots. My historical imagination wasn't an accident, it was made through those experiences, which is why I think I argue for an aesthetics that is political, for a muse that's a card-carrying humanitarian."

Much of what he discovered he explored in his collection, British Subjects, but he feels there is scope for plenty more. His mother still lives in south London, as do his brother, a bus driver, and his sons from his first marriage. If the right job came up, he'd be back like a bullet. "I've got alimony to pay," he explains wistfully.

D'Aguiar adores his work at the University of Miami. "The seminar is an altar for me," he declares with a faraway look. "It's a great space where you suspend the world outside and look at the poem as an utterance, the lyric as a contemplative space... it's messianic!" I am reminded that his first collection was dedicated to his grandmothers, one of whom bore the name Edna Messiah. He laughs - "It's quite a name, isn't it?" - but is soon back in the world of poetic utterance. "Were it a pool," he announces dreamily, "you could dive into it and come out the other side altered."

* Christina Patterson is director of the Poetry Society

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