Putting up the scaffolding – a response by Jasmine Donahaye

It’s a gloomy Wednesday afternoon in October, and Room D59 is packed. More are pushing in to sit on the floor and lean against walls – literature and creative writing staff, postgraduates, undergraduates. It’s the first public event for the new Leverhulme-funded Devolved Voices project at Aberystwyth University, and interest is high.

Most departments hold regular research seminar series, in which invited scholars, research staff and postgraduates present new work to colleagues and students in informal settings, usually followed with lively discussion over a glass of wine. They’re stimulating, often exploratory, and offer a chance for the researcher to connect with others. Research is a lonely job, even when it’s collaborative – and in this case it is highly collaborative, with its three-person team of Peter Barry, Kathryn Gray and Matthew Jarvis, and its PhD student Bronwen Williams. The collaboration goes further, however, because from the outset the project has engaged with the public through Facebook and with a blog, inviting contact from established and emerging poets (and their publishers), and the submission of comment and ideas. The response was immediate. Evidently many poets hope to show up brightly on this particular green radar screen, because, while the project will be looking at the making of reputation, it will undoubtedly also help contribute to the making of reputation. Publishers are therefore also eager to see their poets included.

The initial announcements about an examination of poetic ‘emergence’ in particular stimulated a strong response. How do you measure ‘emergence’? What are the parameters? The questions were predominantly about identity and inclusion: Do you have to be Welsh or of Welsh extraction to be considered? Live in Wales? Publish in Wales? Engage with Welshness? These are the familiar and long-standing anxious questions about belonging and exclusion wherever the word ‘Wales’ is concerned – updated from the 1990s, when the questions were about allegiance (having to jump through nationalist hoops in order to prove who you are, as poet Stephen Knight put it at the time).[1] The answer – ‘Wales-identified/Wales associated’ – will of course need further definition as the project makes progress.

While Matthew Jarvis addressed such questions about parameters in this first presentation about the project, given the remit of Devolved Voices it might seem surprising that he should devote a great deal of his talk to a carefully researched overview of the political and economic lead-up to the devolution vote in 1997, focusing in detail on the argument for 1997 as the start date for inclusion. His stress on the importance of 1997, when Wales voted for a devolved assembly, rather than 1999, when the first devolved assembly was elected, appeared in some ways to be answering an objection that had not yet been raised. Of course establishing a start-date of 1997 rather than 1999 for assessing ‘emergence’ is an important partial answer to that first and loudest explicit question of who would and would not be included, and to the implicit question by the potential subjects of this project, ‘Will I be included?’ However, the project is not determined by its subjects, no matter that they are being invited to contribute opinion and comment, and the focus on this date points to more methodological concerns, perhaps highlighting the intended rigour of the research project.

As the discussion indicated, the popular approach to understanding the impact of devolution has been to consider the impact of the vote’s structural outcome – the formation of the assembly – rather than the change in perception initiated by the vote itself two years earlier. While Jarvis presented arguments about the history of devolution’s constitutional process, it might also be the case that, as far as creative expression is concerned, the vote counts more heavily than the election of the first assembly.

Certainly the vote stimulated an enormous and excited response by literary critics. In 1998 I was researching my undergraduate thesis on Welsh poetry since the sixties. At the time, no one at Berkeley knew anything about Welsh writing in English, but editors, critics and poets in Wales responded eagerly and energetically to my enquiries. There was an outpouring in the immediate aftermath of that vote in 1997; it was exciting. Whether it led to an exciting departure in the poetry is a question that I hope this project will explore – certainly it resulted in a shift.

Welsh poetry in English has been the subject of numerous studies and many combined anthology-surveys, and their critical quality has varied widely. However, there has not, to my knowledge, been a committed institutional survey project of this sort before, and it is clear that its terms are intended to be very different: not ad hoc, personal and partial, but instead rigorous and comprehensive, and theoretically, methodologically and structurally sound. Poetry criticism has always had to position Welsh poetry in English in relation to Anglo-American poetry, and therefore engage in some form of self-definition, and this project too by its nature is politicised, not only because of the word ‘Devolved’, but because the project’s implementation constitutes part of the developing civic consciousness and institutional structures that embed the much older cultural, critical and expressive consciousness.

Jarvis’s presentation clearly laid out the arguments for the parameters of the project, and the stimulating discussion afterwards mapped out many of the areas it will be exploring. Again, the questions largely concerned inclusions and exclusions – women, poets writing in prose, different ways of examining emergence, the relationship with the Welsh language, Wales’s postcoloniality or otherwise, and ideas of Celticity. They also pointed to gaps in public knowledge that reinforced the need for such a project.

Of course one has to be able to define certain categories in order to proceed at all with research, but even if, as Jarvis stated in his talk and on Facebook, ‘the categories are meant to be capacious’, poets do not imagine, or write, or publish within tidy definitional boundaries, however expansive they might be. As it has been presented so far, the project’s concern with parameters and methodology is laudable, and is an important corrective to hazy and often nostalgic definitions in past studies. However, I hope that this focus on what Jarvis calls its ‘socio-cultural scaffolding’ does not determine the project’s exploration in qualitative terms, too. It is, of course, in untidy and contradictory ways that the work of poetry takes place, and it will be interesting to see how the researchers proceed with this messier and creative work now that the parameters have been decided: after all, in addition to being researchers, they are also themselves poets.

[1] Stephen Knight, ‘Remember us?’, Poetry Wales 33/3 (1998), 41.

Jasmine Donahaye‘s poetry collections are Misappropriations (Parthian, 2006) and Self-Portrait as Ruth (Salt, 2009). She is also the author of the critical monograph Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine (UWP, 2012).


Devolving Poetry: Questions, Directions

This is a brief edited extract from a research paper that Matthew Jarvis gave to the Department of English & Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University on 24 October 2012. The passage presented here is part of his discussion about the decision to start the timeframe of the Devolved Voices project from 1997 (the year of Wales’s devolution ‘yes’ vote) rather than 1999 (‘the date of the actual creation of the National Assembly for Wales, following the first Assembly elections on May 6th of that latter year’, as he put it earlier in his presentation).


Whilst it is demonstrably false to look at 1999 as constituting some sort of clear-cut starting-point for devolved existence, it is nonetheless the case that the 1997 vote to create the National Assembly for Wales ushered in something very new indeed. Writing in the volume The Challenge to Westminster: Sovereignty, Devolution and Independence, the historian Keith Robbins suggests that, in the period 1536–43, Wales was essentially incorporated into the English state ‘before Wales had achieved what we might call the scaffolding of statehood’.[1] As such, the striking opening contention of Robbins’s essay is, quite simply, that ‘The assembly […] which has now been set up in Cardiff cannot be meaningfully said to have had a predecessor’.[2] Effectively – and pertinently by comparison with Scotland, for example – Robbins is suggesting that the practical machinery of statehood is historically absent from Wales.

The constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor makes a similar point when he writes, in his landmark 1999 volume Devolution in the United Kingdom, that – historically speaking – ‘Wales, unlike Scotland, did not enjoy those independent institutions which not only ensured separate treatment, but, more crucially, preserved the memory of independent statehood’.[3] And he goes on to contend the following:

Welsh nationalism, lacking an institutional focus, had to build on less concrete factors – language, religion, and culture. It was left to writers, poets, and preachers to create ‘the cultural form, the tracery of a nation where no state had existed’.[4]

Now I must be clear about what I’m getting at here: Bogdanor’s analysis at this point isn’t claiming that no Welsh nation has existed, but rather that no Welsh state has existed – and, in this respect, he is building on the distinction between what he describes as ‘a nation which had succeeded in retaining the institutions of statehood and one which had not’. In Marxist terms, perhaps somewhat unfortunately, this is the distinction between what are termed ‘historic’ as opposed to ‘non-historic’ nations.[5] Wales, for Bognador, then, belongs to the latter category, along with (to cite his two parallel examples) ‘the Corsicans and the Bretons’.[6]

For the ‘Devolved Voices’ project, then, 1997 is the starting-point because – and exactly because –that is the point at which Wales commits itself to having precisely such ‘institutions of statehood’, at least to the extent that they were embodied in the initial Assembly. The ‘yes’ vote itself is a fundamental declaration of intent, which seemingly makes a profound impact on the sensibility of the nation. As Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully indicate in their fascinating study of the 2011 referendum, opposition to an elected body in Wales dropped sharply from 37% to 24% between 1997 and 1999 – only going down a further 7 points in the subsequent decade. In parallel, support for a parliament shot up 10 points in those same two years.[7] A striking change in sensibility, in other words, appears to have taken place in the post-vote, pre-Assembly period of 1997–99. Given such observations, there’s no way – for our purposes as a project – that we could start from 1999, rather than 1997, in terms of thinking about poets who emerge within the devolutionary flux of the late 1990s.

And to step away from statistics for a moment, we need only turn to Poetry Wales to get a sense of the 1997 vote being claimed as a sort of game-changer, and potentially a literary game-changer at that. Robert Minhinnick took over the editorship of Poetry Wales in 1997. His first editorial – written in the immediate aftermath of the ‘yes’ vote – was appropriately entitled ‘A Country That Said Yes’.[8] Whilst acknowledging that ‘The daily grind goes on’ and observing that ‘the measure of political power we have awarded ourselves would seem small beer to inhabitants of New Brunswick or Schleswig Holstein’, Minhinnick nonetheless turns his argument in another direction:

Yet very carefully, and with considerable reluctance, Wales is remaking itself. What changes this morning, imperceptibly but permanently, is a sense of a people’s esteem for itself. With that must come tolerance – indeed, celebration – of the differences of others. Writers here should savour such things. And then be wary.

Why ‘wary’? Well, Minhinnick goes on to urge that, whatever the result of the referendum had been, there would be no future in what he calls ‘the dour, regional introspection that underlies much art in this country’. Rather, on the back of what he sees as the new potential for post-vote self-esteem, he urges Wales’s writers to ‘look at the wider world, read about it, and visit it. […] Then come back and for all our sakes share what has been discovered’. In short, for Minhinnick, the new post-vote confidence should free our creative powers from naval-gazing and turn us outwards to the world.

[1] Keith Robbins, ‘Cultural Independence and Political Devolution in Wales’, in H. T. Dickinson and Michael Lynch, eds, The Challenge to Westminster: Sovereignty, Devolution and Independence (East Linton: Tuckwell, 2000), pp. 81–90: p. 82.

[2] Ibid., p. 81; emphasis added.

[3] Vernon Bogdanor, Devolution in the United Kingdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 144. Bogdanor’s quotation here is from key New Left thinker Tom Nairn, who was writing in Planet in 1976.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully, Wales Says Yes: Devolution and the 2011 Welsh Referendum (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), p. 68.

[8] Robert Minhinnick, ‘A Country That Said Yes’, Poetry Wales, 33/2 (October 1997),       p. 2.