In the middle of it

The middle part of the Devolved Voices project has been all about building up the bulk of our materials and analysis.

Most obviously, perhaps, Kathryn Gray has been adding wonderful material to the library of poets who have been interviewed for the project’s online media section. So do look out for fascinating upcoming videos of Zoë Brigley, Patrick McGuinness, and Philip Gross. These pieces struck me as having, between them, real intellectual bite, as well as moments that were rather moving. Of course, each interview also has a companion video of the poet in question reading from his or her work, so it’s three such ‘doubles’ that are on their way soon.

Over the same time, I have been trying to carve out a series of lectures about a range of poets who have established themselves since 1997. Choosing which poets to write about has been something of a challenge – there are many you could make a strong case for looking at. The basic idea here (to which I’m committed by the project’s original proposal) is that I should produce detailed studies of eight writers who I think have some sort of significance – by which I suppose I mean that I think their work is valuable in some way (although perhaps I just enjoy it myself!), or that it has gained a certain cultural currency. These studies are intended to be delivered as lectures in the first instance, with each of them subsequently being turned into an individual chapter in a book that will bring them all together.

I had originally thought to restrict my work to writers who have produced more than one full collection by the point in time that I was writing about them. But after a while it became clear to me that I needed adopt a rather different structure: I had to look at a couple of poets who emerged early in the devolutionary period (with first collections within about five years of 1997, such as Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch), a couple of poets whose first collections came out roughly ten years after 1997 (such as Meirion Jordan), and a couple of poets whose first collections are only just upon us (in the period fifteen-years-plus since 1997). The first of this latter pairing that I’ve chosen to look at is Jonathan Edwards, whose debut volume My Family and Other Superheroes came out from Seren only this year. It is one of the privileges of this particular project that I can spend serious time thinking about such a new writer, whose warm-hearted – heart-on-the-sleeve? – engagements with family and locality have made me hope for much more poetry to come from him. (Take a look here for his recent New Welsh Review guest blog post about his writing.)

These three temporal categories give me six of my eight poets. However, to complete my eight, I realised that I wanted to look at two poets who are strongly situated within what might be called a neo-modernist or neo-avant-garde tradition. John Goodby has argued for the importance of modernism to the work of Welsh poetry in English since the 1930s (see note below). And as John and I clearly share a sense of issues and material that need to be explored here – some years back, I wrote the beginnings of an attempt to unearth a ‘radical’ Anglophone Welsh poetics since the 1960s – I wanted my current series of lectures to have a dedicated space for poets who I see as working self-consciously within this particular literary context.

The lectures and essays that will (I trust!) be the upshot of all this are not an attempt to provide some sort of overview of post-1997 Welsh poetry in English. But I do hope they’ll constitute an interesting attempt to provide extended readings of poets whose work is, I think, significantly visible – in one way or another – within the field.

In his article ‘“Deflected Forces of Currents”: Mapping Welsh Modernist Poetry’, Poetry Wales, 46/1 (summer 2010), pp. 52-8, John Goodby suggests that ‘what makes Anglophone Welsh poetry most distinctive is its pronounced modernist origins’ (p. 52). Indeed, he argues that, for Welsh poetry in English, ‘alternative poetry’ is ‘not so much “parallel” to a mainstream as that mainstream itself’ (p. 58).

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