Interviews with Jasmine Donahaye, Ian Gregson and Katherine Stansfield

Pleased to be able to post three very interesting new interviews with poets Jasmine Donahaye, Ian Gregson, and Katherine Stansfield (who is due to debut with Seren later this year) on our Devolved Voices website today. We thank them for their time and their participation.

Click on the links to the right to access – and please do explore the Media archive, which to date also houses interviews with Damian Walford Davies, Matthew Francis, Richard Marggraf Turley, Meirion Jordan, Rhian Edwards, Pascale Petit and Tiffany Atkinson.

New interview added to the website

The latest poet to be added to our collection of interviews is Tiffany Atkinson, whose third collection of poetry, So Many Moving Parts, was published by Bloodaxe last month. Follow this link to view the video. You can also browse the library of existing interviews by either clicking on the links to the right or using the drop-down ‘Media’ menu.

Matthew Francis and Richard Marggraf Turley

Two further videos of poets now available online at our website: Matthew Francis and Richard Marggraf Turley.

Also at our website, you can browse our bibliography of collections and reviews of poets under our post-1997 scrutiny, as well as other materials of interest to all those engaging with Welsh poetry in English. You can also join our Facebook group for regular updates on newly available materials. And we welcome you to follow us on Twitter.

Video interviews at Devolved Voices

We have now posted our first two interviews with poets for the Devolved Voices project. These first two feature acclaimed poet Pascale Petit, thrice shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, and notable younger poet Meirion Jordan. Follow this link and choose from the drop-down ‘Media’ menu or click on the links to the right of the webpage.

Further interviews will be posted in coming weeks.

Speaking for Themselves

One of my principal tasks during the life of Devolved Voices is to interview thirty poets to camera. Work on this began several months ago. Since June I have carried my camera and tripod through sun, rain and wind into west Wales, Norwich, and London, to explore aesthetics and the thorny issues of identity and belonging with seven poets emerged since 1997, with another three to follow in the next month. This initial tranche encompasses both Welsh-born and Wales-associated poets. It’s been a fascinating process so far, eliciting some surprising responses – such is the nature of research in effortlessly challenging every preconception you may have had. If you discover you were wrong after all, then you are probably right.

Identity has been a key line of enquiry during this process. It’s a way of relating individual poets and their output to their present environment or the environment that may have been formative in shaping them, of course – and of relating the poets themselves to post-devolution Wales. I’ve been struck by the consistency with which many poets I have interviewed have pronounced skeptically on the issue of identity. Writing in Poetry Wales almost ten years ago, Robert Minhinnick reflected on forty years of an iconic magazine which has played a remarkable role in shaping a culture. Things, he claimed, had undergone a sea change:

For the young being is better than belonging. And uncertainty does not have to mean anxiety […] What differentiates today’s youngest poets from the stalwarts that built this magazine […] is the determination with which the newer writers seek roles in the UK literary world. They are not afraid, suspicious or contemptuous of it.[1]

But was this, I remember wondering at the time of reading, true? To speak with candour: as a young poet myself back then, with my own concerns about how, as a Welsh poet based in London, I could attain visibility, I thought perhaps not. One might reasonably argue that such determination to seek roles in the wider British context might just as well be symptomatic of anxiety. The anxiety of wanting to belong – but to somewhere else.

Welsh-born poets I’ve questioned to date explored the sense of their Welshness with great honesty and directness. Welsh? Yes, but this was a fact, they stressed, rather than to be understood as a mission statement in itself of any socio-political intent or purpose. All were keen to emphasise the paramount importance of creative liberty and individuality, and the inherent problem in seeking to systematise a distinctively Anglophone Welsh poetry in any case. If anything, they were ambitious to be taken on their own terms. Spokespeople? No. They spoke for themselves.[2] And this, it seemed, was what they regarded as their wellspring of confidence and standard of artistic progress. This common interest among Welsh-born poets interviewed indicated that perhaps, in fact, artistic strides have been made. But I’d adjust Minhinnick’s declaration for my thinking. These first interviews suggest that being is now no longer better than belonging – simply being may itself have become a form of belonging to the poetic community.

Those poets who constitute our Wales-associated cohort noted that from the outside of Wales they were very often classified as ‘Welsh’ poets. For these poets, however, this was generally understood as convenient shorthand for their geographical location rather than identity. There was little indication that this was problematic for them. But then, there was no question for such poets that they were therefore obliged to grapple with Welshness, matters of nationhood and nation-building or the place of the Welsh poet – so there was no attendant cultural baggage. Indeed, they pointed out that within Wales they were very definitely considered English poets or simply poets associated with an area of Wales (for example, Aberystwyth). At the same time, they enjoyed very strong, creatively productive relationships with other, Welsh-born poets and felt very warmly accepted into the Welsh literary scene  – which they praised for its lively and inclusive publishing houses and magazines.

Welsh-born poets continue to stay in Wales and create; some make homes elsewhere and create. Poets from elsewhere arrive in Wales and create. It was ever so. The contours and colours of the land, as some of the interviewees pointed out, inhabit their work. Myth and history do appear to remain important and, as is the case with Meirion Jordan’s Regeneration (Seren, 2012), for example, would seem to indicate interesting new poetic directions for an excavation of heritage redux. Wales has not disappeared; it palpably endures in the output. But, it would seem from these initial explorations, the poem’s now most definitely the thing.

Interviews with Damian Walford Davies, Katherine Stansfield, Pascale Petit, Matthew Francis, Richard Marggraf Turley, Meirion Jordan, Jasmine Donahaye, Tiffany Atkinson, Rhian Edwards, and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch will go live in the early autumn.

[1] Robert Minhinnick, ‘Poetry Wales at 40: An Editor’s Outlook’, Poetry Wales, 40:3 (Winter 2004/5), p.3

[2] Robert Minhinnick, invaluable commentator and visionary on the scene, again – this time writing in 2001: ‘[W]hat seems exciting about literature in Wales is that writers no longer feel the need to act as social campaigners. The poet, at last, is nobody’s conscience. He is his own man. Writers are now determined to act and behave as artists. They will stand and fall by their art alone and understand this is the only honourable stance to take […] This means that writing from Wales is more varied than before. The poet is no longer subordinate to events.’ ‘Under a Red Sky: The Outlook from Vertalershuis’, Poetry Wales, 36:4 (April 2001), p.3


Graphic Thinking

The latest addition to the ‘Materials’ section of our website is based around a couple of graphs which present trends in poetic publication (collections/pamphlets) since 1997, with the data divided up according to gender.

Responding to existing suggestions about the particular importance of female writers amongst recent Wales-associated poets, Matthew Jarvis’s graphs offer up numbers and percentages for our post-1997 poetic cohort.

To read the research, please follow the link to Graphic Thinking.  We are, as always, particularly interested to hear your responses, so please post your comments below or – if you’d rather – you’re always welcome to contact the team directly via email at devolved.voices [@]

Reviewing the Culture

The initial stage of Devolved Voices has been to conduct a literature survey. My specific task has been to survey reviews that have scrutinized the output of post-1997 poets from Wales writing in English.

I began by compiling a list of print journals I considered to be important in providing us with a narrative of the review culture for the poets under our focus. I selected those magazines I believed offered some of the finest and most lively reviewing and those that are viewed as especially credible and circulated within the community, and those that provide a narrative of what was happening both home and away – Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review, Planet, the TLS, PN Review, The Wolf, the LRB, The North, Ambit, The London Magazine, Acumen, Poetry London, Agenda, Poetry Ireland Review, Magma, and The Warwick Review.  These were, crucially, magazines that were likely to be read and to be regarded as opinion-formers within the British poetry community for engaged readers and practitioners at both the gateway and the more specialist level. Alongside the magazines, I also researched reviews appearing in the broadsheet pages of the national newspapers – an especially coveted spotlight for any poet.

Reviews provide us with an obviously important resource for our research: they offer us a critical response to the output – and one that has reach outside of the scholarly community. But – and this is crucial – by the very nature of their existence, they also provide us with an indication of how the reviewing culture has chosen to engage with post-1997 Welsh poets writing in English.

For practitioners, reviews hold a dual importance, of course. While it is certainly true that poets require reviews in order to signal the arrival of a new collection and to promote that title to a small but engaged target market, we know that, with a few exceptions, poets unfortunately stand outside of truly commercial concerns. Indeed, the efficacy of positive reviews in contributing meaningfully to sales remains something of a moot point with many poets and publishers; in many cases it is good fortune in the prize culture that may lead to a welcome boost in sales. In other cases, sales of collections may increase over time, as accomplished poets produce several collections – slowly but surely heightening their visibility within the community and securing, in the process, a generally still relatively small but nevertheless increasing readership.

However, reviews obviously provide something much more than potential sales promotion – as they do for all literary practitioners, regardless of genre. Reviews inevitably signal importance. When a book is selected for review, irrespective of the subsequent content of that review, an editorial statement is made. This may reasonably be interpreted as either personal approval  (the editor views the title as a collection of some note) or as an expression of wider cultural approval (the community at large will likely view the title as a collection of some note) or as a harmonious combination of both personal and wider cultural approval. In certain cases, in smaller magazines, there may also be an element of redress – with some focus given to very small presses or to pamphlets, both of which are often overlooked or given very slight coverage by the major magazines. Editors function as cultural gatekeepers. Entry into the review pages therefore amounts to either signaling an auspicious arrival for a new poet or a further consolidation of importance for an already established poet. At its most basic level, review coverage promotes visibility; at its more sophisticated level, review coverage sends a message to a readership and a community about significance and contributes in itself to the creation of reputation.

* * *

Pressure on pages – even for those magazines dedicated solely to poetry – revealed itself clearly during my survey, which was to be expected. Regular readers of literary magazines will be familiar with its management – as will practitioners. Editors will often review two or three titles in a single review or commission a review round-up – scrutinizing many more titles again. Such decision-making leads, of course, to a sense of refinement – and, with that, an inevitable hierarchy. ‘Major’ poets, for example, may be furnished with a single-title review of their work – or be paired with a peer. Within the hierarchy, those poets seen as less progressed on the scale of emergence (debutants, for example) or perhaps less aesthetically aligned to an editor’s particular taste – although still regarded as noteworthy within the community – may find they are reviewed in a round-up. This, of course, comes back to editorial judgment and does not necessarily equate to the actual quality of poet or title, although it does tell a story about perceived status.

Unsurprisingly, the Wales-based major magazines – Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review and Planet – served poets within our post-1997 focus very well indeed. Collectively, they accounted for more than half of all reviews recorded – 226 out of 441 (even though two out of the three magazines – New Welsh Review and Planet – do not simply focus on poetry). They also furnished titles with the most space within individual reviews (often around 500–700 words per title). And this is important. The literature survey not only revealed the breadth of reviews, but it also revealed the depth. Welsh or Wales-based poets can, therefore, not only be relatively confident of coverage within Welsh journals, they can also be confident of deeper coverage – in other words, they can expect to receive a relatively detailed review. In general, the magazines could lay claim to a fine roll call of poet-critics from both within Wales and, importantly, outside of Wales. The critical culture can therefore be regarded as highly credible.

Coverage for Welsh titles in the pages of these magazines is not, however, simply or necessarily an indication of personal editorial approval – although it is an indication of cultural approval. Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review and Planet receive funding from the Welsh Books Council (WBC) and are charged within their remit to provide significant coverage of titles produced by Welsh or Wales-based authors, or by writers with a strong connection to Wales. This is a key element of their function and their vision.  And they communicate quite explicitly, although not exclusively, to a Welsh or Wales-connected audience. The magazine culture within Wales has done much to promote Welsh writing in English; this is laudable. But we must naturally be conscious that what it reflects is also part of a pre-determined responsibility.

Over the border, of course, it is a different story. Those magazines based outside of Wales and outside of WBC funding do not have any such obligation to review work from Welsh poets or those writing out of Wales simply by virtue of their nationality or connection. Moreover, coverage in these publications, as we know, is coveted by all poets in the UK – regardless of provenance or location, both new and established. For Welsh poets, of course, there is an additional significance in terms of achievement; Irish and Scottish poets can likewise no doubt identify. The anxiety over regionalism exists. Can one be seen to have ‘made it’ without entry into reviews pages outside of Wales? Being seen within a UK-wide context is crucial, and this is still achieved through the England-based magazines.

But just how efficient is the reviewing culture for our post-1997 Welsh poets in these magazines?

Let’s look at four major platforms outside of Wales as a snapshot.

Poetry Review, for example, covered forty-two titles from Welsh poets or those with a strong Welsh connection in its pages over fifteen years. Reviews came with the necessary quality-impact – Poetry Review is widely considered to be the premier magazine within the establishment; a presence in the reviews pages of Poetry Review is therefore more than highly desirable. By virtue of its status, Poetry Review has a wide circulation and can command major figures of influence as reviewers. Visibility and the potential for significance come attached to any coverage for an individual poet. In the Autumn 2004 issue two Welsh poets were furnished with single-title reviews. Since then, only one Welsh poet has received a single-title review (in 2010). Typically, Welsh poets who have emerged since 1997 appeared in round-ups of four titles. Coverage of an individual title within such composite reviews tended to hover at around 250 words. But while space in the pages was relatively small, we must factor in the reach of Poetry Review – and the claim upon its pages.

PN Review presented a solid showing for Welsh poets. Eighteen collections were covered in the review pages, so far fewer than those published in Poetry Review. However, PN Review afforded a more generous level of space to each title (around 300–400 words per title in a round-up) and there were five instances of single-title reviews (1000 words) – PN Review’s poetry-publishing wing, Carcanet, has a demonstrable interest in Welsh poetry.

Poetry London was a generous outlet. Twenty-seven Wales-connected titles were reviewed, and although reviews were typically of three poets (a customary approach of the magazine towards new, established and major figures alike), space allotted to each title was strong (500–600 words). Poetry London was also impressively resistant to pigeonholing, with very little emphasis on grouping Welsh or Wales-based poets together (there are just two instances of such grouping – in both cases the titles sit in marked contrast to one another, and no efforts are made to connect them by virtue of their ‘Welshness’).

The Times Literary Supplement, like Poetry Review, is a much sought-after platform, although, as we know, it covers a wide range of literary and scholarly material in its reviews. It provided coverage to twenty-one titles authored by Welsh poets writing in English over the period. All of these were within single-title reviews, allowing for varying degrees of engagement according to whether they were ‘In Brief’ reviews (around 300–350 words) or more detailed analyses (around 700 words). Notably, the twenty-one reviews were shared between eleven poets in total, with certain poets receiving reviews for several titles over the years. By contrast, two debutants were reviewed in 2000 another in 2004, and another in 2009. In other words, securing an initial review tended to lead to further reviews in the future – suggesting that the TLS appears to work along a momentum model within its pages. The TLS also provided an interesting gender contrast. Twelve titles under review were authored by male poets, while nine were authored by female poets. This was not reflective of the survey as a whole, where women outweighed men for coverage in both individual magazines and overall.

Securing reviews in the broadsheets remains a goal for poets. Anecdotal evidence from poets suggests that this registers high on the scale of significance – which is to be expected. Space in the newspapers is difficult to achieve: pressure on pages coupled with poetry’s relatively marginal status in the wider literary culture means that opportunity is scant. Good fortune in the prize culture certainly seems to help. Several titles given coverage had already secured nominations for one of the two major UK poetry awards – the Forward and T S Eliot prizes. There was the impression that coverage tended to reflect, rather than inform, the culture.

Overall, the survey has been highly informative in terms of reception. It demonstrates a generally very positive critical response to the output with which we are concerned, suggesting that Welsh Anglophone poetry is in rude health; it demonstrates a responsiveness on the part of editors to the output in providing coverage, even if the degree of focus is variable. It confirms the belief in a poetic shift as regards Anglophone poetry from Wales: women are now at the centre of output and coverage. It also led me to consider the competing demands of individual poets alongside the demands of a renaissance in our national literature. While I was struck by the unexpected breadth of reviews recorded – their sheer number – I was also struck by the fact that very few poets seem to have secured deep focus in the pages of poetry magazines outside of Wales. Factored into this, of course, is the very nature of our study: post-1997 emergent voices. Many poets under our study have completed only one or perhaps two collections, and thus they will inevitably find it harder to secure major-focus scrutiny. It will be interesting to see how the years progress their fortunes. Poetry, after all, is the long game.

Mapping Poetic Emergence

The focus of Devolved Voices is on poets who have emerged since 1997. One of our key initial tasks therefore has been to develop a discussion document that seeks to pinpoint 7 stages of emergence. We’ll soon be publishing our document on this blog.

Emergence here should not be confused with poetic development. The former relates to profile, while the latter relates to craft. Obviously, these two processes – emergence and poetic development – very often do go hand in hand; but sometimes they do not. When the document is made available, it is important therefore that the scale should not be seen as equating emergence with a measure of artistic worth necessarily. In the best sense, we aim to produce a document that is objective. It may be used to locate a poet on the scale; but it also considers what poets actually do within the poetry community as well as the impact of what they do. It is finally quite important to note that our scale of emergence relates to emergence through poetry for the page. We greatly value and appreciate the increasing role spoken word has within the poetry community, but the primary focus of our project relates to those poets who establish themselves in publishing.

The discussion document is an important part of our beginning. But we hope that it will also raise some interesting questions about the very nature of a poet’s trajectory in itself. It may also provide us with some indication of how a poet’s career trajectory has changed over the course of time – for example, how a comparatively recent phenomenon such as the establishment of creative writing programmes has impacted on entry routes and endorsement for new poets and has achieved further prominence for established poets.

Emergence, as we’ve been considering it at length, can prove fascinating. The scale of emergence shows that poets can sometimes skip phases if one phase has gathered enough momentum or cultural ‘cluster’. Poets can, of course, recede in prominence as well as moving forwards over the course of their career (although, as my previous comments try to emphasise, this is not a quality judgment). Poets can plateau. Some poets may, in fact, plateau at a relatively early stage or a middle stage, while other poets can reach – and remain at – the highest stage on the scale (our ‘Stage 7’), acquiring a national or even an international profile, generating study at schools or universities, and developing a cultural presence of some distinction through the media.

How have we gone about shaping this document? We’ve pooled our knowledge of the field as engaged critics and practitioners. We’ve reassessed our initial thoughts. We’ve discussed and considered at length individual poets and their career trajectories as examples for our thinking. We’ve factored in certain classic, prestigious entry routes towards book publication, such as the winning of a bursary or an Eric Gregory Award. Poets make their way through magazines and journals, as we know. But particular attention from an editor in regularly publishing specific new poets and fostering their talent on a magazine’s pages can have a great impact, making the poets in question especially recognisable new names – as well as notable attractions for a book editor, who might then make a direct approach. We’ve considered the role writing reviews or essays has in helping to increase visibility and interest – sometimes before a full collection has even been published. Then there’s the issue of poet advocacy – a major figure endorsing the work of a new poet. Similarly, we have had to ask ourselves about the part played by complementary roles – work that a poet may undertake that is somehow related to literary practice and yet is distinct from the act of making poetry itself. An example here might be the interplay between a role in academia or a role as an editor (traditionally the ‘cultural gatekeeper’) and the profile of a poetic output. What role does the winning of prizes or shortlistings play in career advancement? On a clearly related note, what sort of impact does judging poetry competitions and prizes have on a poet’s position in the scale? How, exactly, can one be considered to have arrived? Each stage on our scale contains a range of factors, some or all of which a poet has secured.

Of course, it is in the nature of a discussion document that adaptation will play its part. Once we publish this document, we’ll be interested to hear your views and welcome your comment on this blog.


Welcome to the Devolved Voices blog. This blog will provide a living narrative of our project. We’ll also be posting interesting links and news as we progress, and we warmly welcome your comments and questions. Please visit our About the Project and About the Team pages to learn more about what we are doing and who we are. Separate to this blog, we will also be launching a website in November 2012, and we’ll provide a link to this as soon as we go live.