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Welsh Poetry in English Post-1997: a three-year research project based at Aberystwyth University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust

Public lecture on the poetry of Meirion Jordan

Matthew Jarvis will be giving the next of his Devolved Voices public lectures on Friday 18th September, at 6.30pm, in the Gas Gallery, Aberystwyth. His subject in this session is the poetry of Meirion Jordan, author of Moonrise (2008; shortlisted for the 2009 Forward Prize for Best First Collection), Strangers Hall (2009; winner of the 2009 Norfolk Commission prize and shortlisted for the 2009 East Anglian Book of the Year) and Regeneration (2012).

Full details of the event can be found here (and also, as a Facebook event, here). Please do come along – entry is free.

Poster for Meirion Jordan lecture

Poetry and the New Man

This morning I slightly misunderstood the topic of a student’s dissertation, which I misheard as ‘Poetry and the New Man’. It sounded interesting, as I had vague memories of the New Man (caps or not? – no pun intended). A recent BBC online news mag asked ‘Whatever happened to the term New Man?, and defined it as ‘a once radical way to describe a male who wholeheartedly accepted equality in domestic life’, asking ‘But 30 years on, what has happened to the term?’

Lots of students want to do dissertations on ‘the changing role of women’, and the gender switch seemed a refreshing notion. So I was ready to suggest three representative poetry collections by men through which the changing ‘role’ of men would be evident across the contemporary period, meaning from roughly 1970 till now.

These are the three I came up with, with a gap of about twenty years between each one: firstly, Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street (Faber, 1969), in which the male speaker is a student lodger in a working-class street in Hull, observing family life in a detached way (men going off early to work, women pushing prams, going to the shops, coming back from a night out, and so on).

Secondly, Don Paterson’s Nil Nil (Faber,1993), in which the persona clings to the Dundee working-class roots which his education pulls him away from, and writes with fierce and angry tenderness about his father teaching him how to drink a bottle of pop (in ‘Heliographer’) or being patronised by a Hi-Fi salesman (in ‘An Elliptical Stylus’).

And thirdly, one of our ‘Devolved Voices’ poets, Jonathan Edwards’, My Family and other Superheroes (Seren, 2014), which recently won the Costa Poetry Prize. In this book the family is embraced, celebrated, and choreographed as a kind of limitless resource of chaotic and surreal energies, and the father poems are tender without the angst, as this poet too learns how to handle fizzy drinks while cozied up in the dark of the cinema with his father – ‘I sit here in the darkness with my father/ slurping Pepsi’ (the opening of ‘The Death of Doc Emmett Brown in Back to the Future’). Certainly the ‘role(s)’ of men have been changed and pluralized, and, yes, it’s there in the poetry. Two questions: (1) is it a coincidence that all these books are debut collections? And (2) What would be your three poetry collections from the same period on this topic?

Peter Barry

Devolved Voices – Transparency and Trust

Peter Barry

In our work on the ‘Devolved Voices’ project so far, we have tried to spell out precisely what we mean by some of our key concepts. We are studying ‘emergent’ poets of the post-1997 period in Wales, but what exactly is ‘emergence’? We tried to define it precisely and objectively in one of our first documents. I think we were right to do so, as we want the principles by which we are making our choices and emphases to be as transparent as possible.

However, I haven’t always felt exactly as I do now about transparency. I edited an academic journal for 20 years, during the period when the notion of peer reviewing was becoming established in the UK as the litmus test of academic quality. But at the heart of every journal is an inner core of day-to-day practice which is simply unknowable to outsiders. Exactly who decides what, and exactly how, is not always open to external audit, and is not necessarily the same as official policy might dictate.

For instance, I would sometimes receive an essay from a famous academic, accompanied by an oddly self-effacing note. I would think, ‘That can’t really be the famous Prof X – s/he wouldn’t write a cover-note of that self-deprecating kind’. But on a number of occasions, involving different people, it really was the Prof X.

It was evident to me that having a piece by this person in the journal would be noticed, and would improve our standing. What should I do? Should I render it anonymous, and send it out to two academic readers, letting it take its chance, as if it were the work of an early-career beginner? Or should I make the decision myself and take responsibility for it?

If the article turned out to be not so good, even that might be a noteworthy and significant fact, simply because it was by Prof X, and would give some indication of that person’s latest thinking. As a fairly new editor, whenever I went against this principle of seizing an opportunity and taking editorial responsibility, I later regretted it and felt I had been over-timid.

The submission which focuses this issue for me now, was written by a household-name. It was a speculative article about the sex-life of the young George Eliot, based on an interpretation of the coded sex diary of a figure associated with her. I agonised about it for several weeks, and have never before mentioned it to anybody. Was this not a sexist piece, I said to myself, irrelevant to the novelist’s worth and standing as a writer? Should I not high-mindedly reject it? And so on. Eventually, I did reject it, in that self-flattering spirit, but I now know I was wrong.

It would have been an unmistakably news-worthy item, and I should have had the courage to publish it, tipping off national media in advance about its contents. That is what a proper editor would have done, one who was an editor through and through, in spite of the obvious personal and academic risks involved

So what lessons do I take from that experience for Devolved Voices? It’s something like this: Yes, I want our procedures to have the maximum possible transparency, and, yes, I want us to be able to show the principles by which we are working. But in the end, we have to make the judgements, and we have to take the responsibility for doing so. In the last analysis, that is what the money entrusted to us is for.

Mapping Poetic Emergence 1.0

We have now uploaded our discussion document, Mapping Poetic Emergence 1.0. The aim of this document is an attempt to describe some of the significant stages which are usually observable during the process of poetic emergence. These represent our initial thoughts relating to poetic emergence; the document will be updated and adapted during the course of the project.

We warmly welcome your comments and questions relating to this document; your feedback will help to inform our thinking as the document evolves. We encourage posting here on our blog,and you can also contact us directly at devolved.voices [@] aber.ac.uk.



Devolved Voices Website Launched

We have now launched our Devolved Voices website.

As part of our ongoing and extensive bibliographic survey, you can now access a list of individual collections produced by those poets who come under our post-1997 scrutiny, together with reviews covering these works. Also crucial to our bibliographic survey is Context: Wales and Devolution. Here, you can find a list of short, targeted texts (together with commentaries) which function as touchstones for the project’s understanding of the devolved context in which poets under our scrutiny are working.

In our materials section, you can find our working paper, Mapping Emergence, which seeks to pinpoint the stages and context of poetic emergence. This document can be printed off as a pdf, and we welcome both the sharing of this document and your responses to it.

The team has also produced a poster for display and distribution at the 2013 Association for Welsh Writing in English Conference. This poster functions as a useful map – indicating our lines of inquiry and the issues that follow from these, as well as our outputs over the course of the project. The poster is available on the website to print off as a pdf.

Included on the website is our Media section. You can listen to the team talking about the genesis, work and outcomes for the project, and, in due course, this section will be populated with video recordings of poets talking about their work and reading from a selection of their work. We will also be interviewing other notable figures on the Welsh literary scene, exploring their perspectives on the context and evolution of a burgeoning scene.

One of the key outcomes and values of the project is a commitment to outreach. Whether scholar, practitioner or engaged reader, we warmly welcome your comments on the website and the project on this blog, and you can also contact us directly at devolved.voices [@] aber.ac.uk to share your views on the project and its materials.

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).