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Review: Soleïman Adel Guémar


Les Yeux Fermés (Eyes Closed), by Soleïman Adel Guémar, translated by Tom Cheesman & John Goodby (Hafan Books, 2014), ISBN 9780992656423.

Reviewed by Andrea Tallarita


Consider – ‘à ses pieds / les disparus / les massacrés / les torturés / les détenus’ (‘at his feet / the disappeared / the massacred / the tortured / the detained’). While these lines are not necessarily representative of the whole body of work contained within Les Yeux Fermés (LYF), the new collection by Soleïman Adel Guémar, they remind us that poetry of exile can be crude and bleak in a way it is seldom written in our pacified European Union.

Adel Guémar was born in Algeria, in 1963, and has been residing as an asylum-seeker in Swansea since 2002. Having lived through the Algerian ‘terror decade’ makes his work valuable poetry of testimony even in its simplicity and brutality. His first collection, State of Emergency, brought together the poems he wrote in Algeria; Eyes Closed now contains what he wrote while living in Swansea.

The book includes poetry that spans eight years of the poet’s life, so there’s an understandably broad span to the form and the themes. By and large, it is musical free verse, with the odd loose rhyme or Alexandrine appearing in some of the poems. The recurring topic is – of course – Algeria, treated by turns as a nightmarish locus of oppression and violence, or on the other hand as a mythical Garden of Eden in which the land itself is conflated with the poet’s youth. The speaker’s perspective is always intimate, often to the point of abstraction – Adel Guémar is, formally at least, an old-school Romantic, and his verse has certain debts to the big names of 19th Century French poetry (Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine).

The poetry here is energetic and irregular. It tumbles over itself with abundant, spontaneous imagery, often leaving behind such trifles as punctuation, and the result is raw – for the good and for the bad. It’s genuinely odd how Guémar goes from some rather bland, even cringe-worthy clichés in one poem to memorable and powerful imagery only a few pages after that. A stanza like, ‘I dream of your sky / tender and fertile / that tells me about us / that writes me collections / of poems I’ll read / that I’ll sing / till the dawn’, strikes me as the kind of thing you’re more likely to find in an adolescent’s notebook than in a collection by a mature poet. But then Adel Guémar may produce a poem in which emotion is conveyed so efficiently, so simply and with such synthesis of language that commentary itself seems superfluous, such as in this extract from a memorial poem for the poet’s father:

I saw you arriving
hardly in time before your leaving
I miss you already I love you
you know it my great friend my father
my song
my splendid capital letter

While defining Eyes Closed as a mixed bag may not be very helpful in terms of a review, it really does describe the sense one gets from reading the collection. Adel Guémar’s poems are powerful, but they also seem unpolished. The urgency of his writing is palpable, but on occasion it takes over his lucidity.

Perhaps the best example of this is Adel Guémar’s approach to the problem of testimony in poetry. I mentioned – and I stand by the statement – that his poetry is highly valuable in terms of giving a voice to those who lived (and died) in Algeria between 1991 and 2002, the ‘terror decade’. Here we have a poet who can relay the anguish of civil oppression, and the melancholy of exile, with considerable success. But he also takes a very uncomplicated approach to the questions that he raises. For instance, and as mentioned above, there is a clear tension between Adel Guémar’s deliberately crude representations of Algeria as the site of traumatic violence, and his recollections of the country as an earthly paradise (‘tomorrow I’ll go back / to my lovely Algiers / her Casbah’s warrens / her smiling children / dive back into the warm / and blue water of my love / into the magic of her eyes’). Naturally there is a difference between Algeria as Adel Guémar experienced it in his childhood and what it became in the years of terror, but how does the poet account for the (apparent) contradiction of the same place representing both heaven and hell in his mind? The answer is that he does not, or at least not as far as this reader could glean – this type of question receives scant consideration in Eyes Closed, making for a reading experience that, while largely powerful and interesting, is conceptually not as agile as one might like.

A word on the translation. Rendering other people’s poetry into your language is a task that is both indispensable and noble, and it deserves an amount of praise inversely proportional to the attention it actually receives. So it is with genuine regret that I say this, but in my opinion the work of translation by Tom Cheesman and John Goodby was inadequate. The poetry is not especially complex, but the way it is rendered seems approximative, sometimes even sloppy. Take this example among various: ‘je serai toujours celui-là qui / essuie les larmes / des laissés pour compte / mis entre parenthèses / et oubliés’.

In English, it’s rendered as: ‘I will always be the one who / wipes the tears / of the dispossessed / the excluded / and forgotten’.

Here, ‘the excluded’ seems very much out of touch with what ‘mis entre parenthèses’ (‘placed in brackets’) is suggesting, not only because the two meanings don’t really correspond, but because it lets the entire metaphorical richness of the original expression fall away.

On another occasion, the verse ‘belle qui voici m’appelle’ is translated as ‘beauty here calls me’. That the verse won’t render the internal rhyme is understandable, but ‘belle’ is a (feminine) adjective for ‘beautiful’ – changing it to beauty itself alters the meaning considerably, and to no benefit that I am aware of.

Part of this may simply speak to my limitations as a critic – I was unaware, for instance, that ‘cwtching’ was a Welsh term, and when I encountered it used in a translation for ‘se blottir’, I took it for a typo. But to the extent that dual-language editions should provide translations as a way of helping a reader into the poems and clarifying those aspects of language and expression that seem obscure, I felt that the translators here deserved more praise for their effort than their achievement. Eyes Closed is an interesting, powerful and ambiguous literary challenge, but it’s one you’ll be facing, for the most part, alone.


Andrea Tallarita was born in Rome in 1985. He commissions and edits articles for Dr Fulminare’s Irregular Features.


Summer 2015 Editorial

Wales, Patagonia and the cultures of the imagination 

This issue arises from a fascination with a two-way gaze: the ways in which Patagonia imagines Wales and in turn how Wales imagines Patagonia. At its extremes, one place may be imagined as ‘the end of the earth’, as an empty wild west ripe for a white saviour-style takeover. The other as a kitsch reconstruction of the Land of My Fathers with its tea, cake, chapels and male voice choirs. These instances of mismatch, where diaspora and post-colonial myths are expounded may result in the inauthentic, in sham ideals of origin and destiny and even neo-colonial or liberal propaganda for land and culture grab (see: clothing companies that have bought up huge swathes of Patagonia, evicted people living on the land and in one case even opened a museum dedicated ‘to narrating the culture and history of a mythical land’).

Civilisation bites your    _______   stomach
Civilisation bites your    _______   lungs
Civilisation bites your    _______   memory
Luna Montenegro

 But emerging from these conflicting and juxtaposing images there may be certain stories to be found that can help us understand what culture actually is.

When?     ______I was born    ______When?      ___ ___I was born   ___  ___When?
Luna Montenegro

 Cultures – our own and others – may be constructs of the imagination, narratives that can be continually rewritten in the foreground of a remembered (or ill-remembered) past.

In the same way as the Rio Chubut or Rio Percy, during one of their frequent floods, lays down layers of silt and sand, we can also create a literary stratigraphy for our places in the world.
Hywel Griffiths

 But the urge to construct cultures from a basis of origins can be a shaky path. Steven Hitchins writes of the mythic obsessions of the Druids of Pontypridd:

In forging a past they highlight the spectrality of origins.

 Like the extinct Patagonian languages that haunt Luna Montenegro’s poems, lost language-cultures are lost, they cannot come back except in the ghostly.

Ouarouch                   __________________ ( tree / arbol)
Loimushka                __________________  ( flower / flor)
Luna Montenegro

 Narratives about what Wales and Patagonia is, or was, are being retold even now: what is Wales’s place within Britain? Was the y Wladfa settlement a colonial project? Should  nationalism be used as a force to unite people? Anniversaries – what exactly are we celebrating?

These [centenary and sesquicentenary] celebrations are a part of the process of taking bearings, of dropping anchor in the turbulent present. As the creaky Mimosa was a vessel chartered to carry hopes and aspirations as well as men, women and children, so too is recollecting its voyage an investment in ideas, a means of staying afloat. If this is the case, then important questions follow. In the act of remembering, which ideas stay on board? Which do we jettison?
Kieron Smith

 Both the cultures of Wales and the Welsh Patagonian settlement whether wilfully or through compulsion and despite efforts to speak out against exploitation and genocide, have played their parts in the larger projects of British, Argentinian and global colonialisation. Projects of civilisation  and even utopia  can easily become projects of appropriation and dominance. This is why utopia  needs to be rooted in empathy and be constantly subject to reinvention.

The contemporary speaks…of the necessity of reinvention and a re-imagining of the social order, for an epistemological break from the tried and tested economic and political ideologies.
Cris Paul

 The works in the first part of this issue by writers and translators from Wales, Argentina, Chile and beyond have been brought together on the occasion of the 150th  anniversary of the landing of the Mimosa and because they explore the imagined constructs and frontiers of culture, language and memory.

it’s at a hundred and eighty degrees
that you conjugate yourself
Samira Negrouche

 Language and poetry are tools for invention and for survival.

And if Welsh Patagonia teaches anything it is that not only is economic survival possible but that re-invention at the edge of the possible is too.
Cris Paul

 ‘The precarious but resistant position of poetry’, as Ben Bollig describes poet Christian Aliaga’s Patagonian concerns, gives us a place from which to reinvent ‘at the edge of the possible’, to invert and re-make the narratives and ideas that we need to live.

this is how you advance in the sea
there is also calm
why then to invent the storm
to invent fear and also invent
adventure, invent the wind
Romina Freschi


Buy Poetry Wales Summer 2015 here.

(Re)Generation: Amy McCauley

Amy McCauley’s contribution to the series (Re)Generation – on influence – which ran throughout the 50th volume of Poetry Wales.

, n. The action or fact of flowing in; inflowing, inflow, influx. Influence, v. To affect the mind or action of; to move or induce by influence

Tottenham Hotspur four / Tranmere Rovers nil // Everton one / Crystal Palace two // Chelsea two / Liverpool five // Man City nil / Arsenal four // They are playing a game / They are playing at not playing a game / If I show them I see they are / I shall break the rules and they will punish me / I must play their game / of not seeing I see the game // Ting! // Hare Hare / Krishna Hare / Hare Hare / Krishna Hare / Hare Hare / Krishna Hare / Hare Hare / Krishna Hare // Have mercy on us, O Lord / For we have sinned against you / Show us, O Lord, your mercy / And grant us your salvation / May almighty God have mercy on us and lead us / with our sins forgiven / to eternal life // Amen // I have decided that too much thinking is bad for your health // Heaven // I’m in heaven // & my heart beats so that I can hardly speak // & I seem to find the happiness I seek // When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek // Did you know that a laugh is something that comes out of a hole in your face? // Anywhere else & you’re in dead trouble // You and me // 3 // Legs // 11 // Two little ducks // 22 // Unlucky for some // 13 // Doctor’s orders // 9 // Duck & a crutch // 27 // Man alive // 5 // Kelly’s eye // 1 // Be-bop-a-lula / she’s my baby // Be-bop-a-lula / I don’t mean maybe // Be-bop-a-lula / she-e-e’s mybabylovemybabylovemybabylove // They are not having fun / I can’t have fun if they don’t / If I get them to have fun, then I can have fun with them / Getting them to have fun, is not fun / It is hard work // Some people don’t know they’re born // Hare Hare / Krishna Hare / Hare Hare / Krishna Hare / Hare Hare / Krishna Hare / Ting! / Silence / Ting! // Four days will quickly steep themselves in night / Four nights will quickly dream away the time / & then the moon, like to a silver bow / New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night / Of our solemnities // Yes, there were times / I’m sure you knew // When I bit off / more than I could chew // But through it all / when there was doubt // I ate it up / and spat it out // I faced it all / & I stood tall / & did it // My Dad knew I was going to be a comedian / When I was a baby he said, ‘Is this a joke?’ // I like a nice cup of tea in the morning / I like a nice cup of tea with my tea / And when it’s time for bed / there’s a lot to be said / for a nice // We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking // Two fat ladies // 88 // The grin / Sank back, temporarily nonplussed / Into the skull // Hare Hare / Krishna Hare / Hare Hare / Krishna Hare / Hare Hare / Krishna Hare // How dare you have fun when Christ died on the Cross for you! / Was He having fun? //*

*// Football results circa 1989 / R.D. Laing Knots / Overheard Hare Krishnas / Extract from the Catholic Mass / My mother’s diary (1979 edition) / Irving Berlin Cheek to Cheek / Ken Dodd joke / Bingo / Gene Vincent Be-bop-a-lula / R.D. Laing Knots / Dictation from my father / More overheard Hare Krishnas / William Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Frank Sinatra My Way / Another Ken Dodd joke / Nana’s morning song / Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus / More bingo / Ted Hughes A Grin / More Hare Krishnas / R.D. Laing Knots //


Amy McCauley’s poetry has appeared widely in magazines, including Ink Sweat & Tears, New Welsh Review, The North, The Quietus and The Stinging Fly. Amy regularly reviews books for New Welsh Review has just completed a PhD at Aberystwyth University.

This piece was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Poetry Wales alongside other (Re)Generation pieces on influence by Rhys Trimble and Jonathan Edwards. For more on the whole series visit our back issues pages.

Review: three pamphlets

IN YOUR OWN WORDS: Poetry, academia and media madness collide in three very different pamphlets


Pick Me Up by Anna Kiernan and Harriet Lee-Merrion (Atlantic Press Books, 2014), £9.00 ISBN 978-0957154926.
Trench Feet by Nicholas Murray (Rack Press, 2014), £5.00 ISBN 978-0992765453
Dylanation by Phil Knight (Green Arrow Press, 2014) £5.00 ISBN 978-0957503366

Reviewed by Rosie Breese


The great benefit of the pamphlet form is that it offers a dedicated space for intense focus on often-overlooked areas. With this, one of the most enjoyable things about reviewing pamphlets is the sheer variety of intriguing voices that can be encountered, each on their own terms, without the jostling for attention that seems almost inherent in the anthology. Here, a poet’s quieter moments can sit comfortably alongside their explosive showstoppers: there is room for development of the themes that fascinate the writer, and space for these undercurrents to resonate.

Autumn 2014 brought three very different pamphlets, each with its own undercurrent, its own world to speak from. The first of these, Nicholas Murray’s Trench Feet, thrusts the reader behind the scenes of the frenzied media-courting of world-weary academic Jeremy Button who is, with a note of panic, ‘confronting the question: and what about Me?’ Bounding along in perfectly paced quatrains, this neat narrative follows Jeremy’s progress through the creation of a TV series on the poets of World War I, illuminated by the odd stand-out line with a shining sting in the tail:

..the Laureate stands to deliver the view
that the poets were victims, their generals malign.
Yet ‘Englishness’ glistens in every last line.


Just outside Arras, where Rosenberg lies
Jerry’s adjusting his brightest of ties
that flames like the stubble when harvest is done.

The romance of sacrifice seems to have clouded everybody’s judgement in this wryly drawn caricature of the sentiment-fest that is Remembrance Day at its worst. ‘Englishness’ takes over (itself a comment on the absence of the rest of the British population from Remembrance commemorations?). We’re so busy looking, misty-eyed, at the brightness of this idea, with its jumbled associations of dank trenches and blazing poppy fields, that we’ve forgotten what it means in the present day. Actual soldiers are, appropriately enough, completely absent from the story, replaced by a jumbled assortment of WWI clichés: ‘greatcoats and duckboards, ponies and rats, / poppies and skeletons, mud and tin hats’.

Ok, so rhyming quatrains aren’t exactly the in thing right now, and arguably, this poem which caricatures modernity so entertainingly hasn’t succeeded in doing so in any kind of ‘modern’ way. Perhaps, like Jeremy Button, whose own love affair comes back to bite him on the arse, the author himself is being hampered by history. But it’s difficult to think of this pamphlet as being ‘hampered’. Innovative in style it may not be, but it certainly makes for an original and entertaining read in its own right.

Also academically inspired, albeit in a completely different way, is Pick me up from Atlantic Press. The result of a collaboration between illustrator Harriet Lee-Merrion and poet Anna Kiernan, Pick me up draws on a fascinating array of sources, from the life stories of 18th-century artists to academic articles on motive processing (whatever that might be) to dodgy maps and the Victorian classic The Secret Language of Flowers. Lee-Merrion’s gorgeously understated line drawings, in which bodies are juxtaposed with and almost obscured by maps, diagrams and flowers, have an anatomical feel; a kind of clinical elegance which offsets the ever-shifting attention of Kiernan’s poems.

The poems themselves have a sort of hummingbird quality to them: Kiernan’s intense focus draws on personal narrative and family relationships, the lives of historical others, James Joyce, tyre impressions in mud, childbirth, and buildings insurance. The language itself is indeed ‘intriguing’, as Owen Sheers’ single-word jacket note suggests. There is the sense of being in contact with the tips of many icebergs. Easiest to connect with are the poems that show a little more of the iceberg, such as ‘The beaten track’, a meditative bike ride which builds to an elegantly complex tumble:

I am catapulted forward,
the map lost, the spokes caught

in memory turned inside out,
where the lost space of reversals

hurts less.

As evidenced by this corker, Kiernan is great at last lines. ‘Bloomsday is a cod’, in which she candidly narrates the story of her son Leo’s birth, also packs a punch at the end:

Here comes everything, I thought,
Here comes everything.

In places, though, her shifts in focus trip the reader up. In ‘The robot nursemaid domain’ it could be argued that the juxtaposition of references to obscure artist Nicholson with snippets from the above-mentioned article on motive processing doesn’t give us much to ‘go on’; there is the sense that the poem is speaking from far within its own world. And in ‘Epitaph for the unrequited’, references to Shakespeare’s Ophelia  muscle in on something that doesn’t seem to have asked for it:

An archive of lost looks,
a database of bones.

This place is as organic
as Ophelia’s floral rant …

That said, where its own language shines through, this is a gorgeously meditative collection that carries moments of surprise, explosions even, that are delightful despite the occasional sense of being a little shut out. Kiernan’s magpie instinct turns up some diamonds, and hers is certainly an interesting voice to listen out for.

Finally, but by no means least, Phil Knight’s helpfully titled collection Dylanation – A Collection of Poetry (Green Arrow) takes the Dylan Thomas centenary and the accompanying programme of tenuously linked events (roundly condemned by John Goodby in the Autumn 2014 issue of Poetry Wales) as a jumping-off point for an exploration of the Wales he knows: place, voice, ‘cracked castle crap pit’ and all. Knight’s exploration of these themes is varied: poems range from ‘Hillside’, a Fern Hill-esque reminiscence which carries some truly dazzling moments:

The sky was full of blazing
jump jet tail lights
flying along the belt of
Orion the hunter
and the beams of the cop choppers
were brighter than all
the stars.

…to ‘Wales Celebrates Dylan Thomas With’, an inventory of Dylan celebrations, some with names so fanciful they must have been made up (or probably, depressingly, not), and the ambitious ‘Elegy’, which draws on Dylan’s own titles to create a fascinating, if disorientating, piece which seems to hint at numerous untold narratives:

A tale winter’s
paper deaths and stick entrances
in her head lying down
to park the hunchback in the
unluckily death for a
asylum in the love.

These flights of experimentation seem a little at odds with the rollicking spoken-word feel of other poems within the collection where syntax is occasionally sacrificed to the demands of the rhyme scheme:

Here are the forgotten people
Troublemakers, addicts, just out of jail
In a block higher than any church steeple
To Urban Planning let us all hail

But it seems ungenerous to pick at the way individual lines scan when the overall message is so important. Knight is clearly a poet of passion and purpose: you won’t find fancy binding, illustrations or, in all likelihood, a PBS endorsement here. What you will find is voice, first and foremost –  refreshing honesty and lack of pretension, which, lets face it, many of us poets could learn from. This is a genuine and thought-provoking portrait of a world the poet knows intimately and can speak from in a way that lets the reader understand, and understanding is important. As  Cathy Park Hong points out, ‘the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history’, and that is exactly the argument that needs to be made for writing like this. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, pamphlet publishing creates opportunities for lesser-known writers to get their work out there, and for readers to hear from worlds they may never encounter. And the effort of listening and learning is always worth it.


Rosie Breese‘s poems have appeared in Poetry Review3:AM MagazineShearsman and Poems in Which. In 2014, she was nominated for a Saboteur award for her work as a reviewer of poetry pamphlets and anthologies.

Spring 2015 Editorial

By Nia Davies

Something Marilyn Jones told me on my first week of work at Swansea Central library in early 2008: libraries would never have been invented in today’s world. With this the place seemed miraculous; the sweeping views of Swansea bay, its blend of high, low (and everything in between) culture, the invitation to discovery and, away from the children’s zone, a self-imposed hush. Seven years later, with a financial meltdown not exactly behind us, and a term of conservative-led government, Marilyn’s words seem rather too contemporary and ominous. Recent news, reported first in the South Wales Evening Post but not to the library staff themselves, is that the council are selling the building and relocating the library back to the centre of town. Putting the books into the heart of the neglected city centre is not a bad idea. But the fear is the move will be an excuse to cut and scale down. People are naturally suspicious because they understand by now that austerity has been used as cover to rearrange the fabric of our society along far from equal lines. How often do we hear ‘we can’t afford this’ from those who can definitely afford it themselves? It certainly feels as if incremental cuts are slowly dismantling the hard-won structures that empower people. Poetry Wales  itself has received a 12% cut in our grant that seriously threatens our ability to publish – we are already on an incredibly tight budget.

These quiet radical places contain multitudes. Libraries are anti-consumerist, they are anti-neoliberal even. Free books! Shared knowledge! All very dangerous to the ideology of labour and spend. In Cardiff I attended a mass read-in to save the library service in early February. The council in this case listened to the outcry, but for how long will we have a proper service? Libraries are an easy target for cuts, not just because the books themselves, so innocuous in their appearance and the act of reading so quiet, not just because they can be labeled ‘luxuries’ in the narrative of austerity, but also because it’s easy to say now that no one needs libraries any more, it’s all available online. Free books. Shared knowledge. If you can get to a computer and use one, ‘it’ is all there in your blue-lit face.

All the free computers in this library were in use as I wrote this – there is huge demand and need. Many of these library users have no phone or computer, nor any warm place to go in the evening. Knowledge should be available for free for all and digital technology does offer this possibility. But the free web jostles with the bought web. It’s lonely, heavily surveilled and influenced by the agendas of corporations and governments, it splits our attentions, it is full of bleak narcissism and it’s not very good for our brains or bodies.

And of course all this free stuff is making it near-impossible for content creators such as writers and journalists to make a living at all. But we can’t turn back now, this still-new world holds abundant opportunities. The digital age forces us to ask questions of our ancient institutions. What is a library for? Not all libraries have kept this question in mind – many have been forced by tight budgets to stock a narrow range of poor quality books and information and leave little physical space for discovery or study. But there are many like Swansea which understand the magical potential offered by a space designed for asking questions; all kinds of questions, from the most practical advice on survival in the new welfare system to the most probingly broad questions of all. And whilst higher education is now impossible without indebtedness and with education secretaries emphasising ‘employability’ over ‘education’, libraries are one of the only truly free things left that allow people to inform, connect and empower themselves in their own chosen way. To live and make things properly we need access to ideas and knowledge. We also need a wide and intelligent arts provision. And free healthcare.

In the US you’ll see gushing examples of ‘people power’ in the writing communities: fundraising campaigns for the highly respected writers who have existed without health insurance for years and are now in their old age struggling to survive and pay for their care. But as the US brings in Obamacare to alleviate some of this, the NHS is gradually being sold off. So in 20 years time we might not be discussing the latest cuts to poetry magazines (long forgotten relics?) but instead how poets will be able to write at all after a taking on a 0 hours contract at Amazon to pay for their lifesaving treatment. How will people be able to read at all after an exhausting day packaging and dispatching books from the Amazon warehouse to the wealthy literati in a distant metropolis? Swansea Central library is just over the road (several roads) from one of these windowless, heavily surveilled, metal Amazon boxes. And, even though I wasn’t paid much more than minimum wage when I worked in the library, I could still take home all the books, films or music I fancied and no one would police my choices. I met all kinds of people. Libraries are the Utopia to Amazon’s Dystopia. Even as I write this however, I read that Amazon are now using robots to do their dispatching for them and so the enterprise becomes completely humanless.

We are fighting to keep PW an independent space for poetry and ideas. Of course we are seeking support lest we become that forgotten relic. But meanwhile we are in need of and offer our solidarity. New creative economies that are based on collaborative action have to be formed. And I still feel tempted to dream. For instance, isn’t it time we had own multilingual Llyfrgell farddoniaeth / Poetry library? A physical and digital space for our country’s most prized cultural heritage. The spaces, the books, the passion and the poems already exist. Poetry libraries across the border were set up from private collections by people who wanted to open up their personal libraries and they are now funded in part by public money and housed in central venues. It’s perfectly possible: it just requires the effort of collaboration. And taxation too. I hear it costs taxpayers in Wales just 32p a week for arts provision. Some can and should pay more. Some need to get access to their arts in the first place. We should use and re-imagine our libraries for a new age but we must also fight for all of our commons.

 Poetry Wales Volume 50, issue 4, Spring 2015 is out now.

Swansea Central Library

Swansea Central Library

Poem: At Flint Castle by Sarah Corbett

The Devolved Voices project based at Aberystwyth University is investigating the state of Welsh poetry in English since Wales’s devolution ‘yes’ vote of 1997. A series of interviews and filmed readings with a whole host of poets associated with Wales is available at: The latest in the series is from Sarah Corbett. Sarah also reads a poem ‘At Flint Castle’ which is published in our Winter 2014/2015 issue. You can watch it below.

On Violence and Empathy: Winter Editorial

From Poetry Wales Winter 2014/2015

I started writing an editorial about violence. I realised that this was going to be a violent issue. I wrote myself questions like this: Is Wales safer than Mexico for women? Why partake in poetry when poetry cannot on the face of it do much about violence? When does a depiction of violence become a re-enactment? What is the violence that uses no force?

I wrote down some statistics: There are 43 student teachers currently missing in Mexico, handed over to drug cartels by corrupt officials. Four women were killed by men within the space of a couple of months in Wales in 2009. Still in the UK in 2014, 2-3 women are murdered by men every week.

I wrote and rewrote this piece. Because the poets in this issue whose work I was thinking about, assembled over the late summer in 2014, can never be solely defined by the violence their writing bears witness to. From some of the poems by three Mexican poets translated by Richard Gwyn – Julián Herbert, Luis Felipe Fabre and Fabio Morábito – to Hannah Silva’s ‘Kathy Doll’, to two War Reporter poems by Dan O’Brien, Mir Mahfuz Ali’s poems reviewed by Joey Connolly and Ilya Kaminsky’s poems of a ‘Deaf Republic’ at war. This work considers violence but is much more than this.

So could the act of grouping these works together like this under what we might call editorially, perhaps suspiciously, ‘a theme’, be a form of re-enactment? It’s possible. But in placing this writing side by side I was struck by the different ways poetry deals with violence. And empathy. I was struck by the way these writers ‘open both eyes in the dark’ and write what they see, as Roberto Bolaño put it more than once. Bolaño himself was such a writer. His enormous novel 2666  is dominated by the ‘part about the killings’ in which he describes in flat stark detail the repeated brutal murders of women in a fictional city, based on Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico. Instead of becoming desensitised to each of these descriptions – and they really do go on – many readers report of being sensitised like I was. Disturbed.

The shock of the scale and repetition of violence can do this. Should do this. ‘One skull next to another next to another skull’ (as Luis Felipe Fabre puts it) or ‘invisible house by invisible house by invisible house’ (Ilya Kaminsky in ‘We Lived Happily During the War’). Writing that shocks, antagonises, bears witness to or imagines violence can create radical empathy. ‘At least touch what you kill’ writes Julián Herbert in ‘Dark’, his speaker telling of a night spent with his arm in the crack between two beds trying to prevent his young son from falling to the floor.

In this way poetry can, I think, create empathy – however incomplete, however nonintentional on the writers part. But it can also critique the structures in which violence is allowed to be repeated. In ‘The Kathy Doll’ Hannah Silva takes words from Fifty Shades of Grey  and intersplices them with Kathy Acker’s texts. She changes words from FSOG: ‘dominant’ becomes ‘child’ and ‘submissive’ becomes ‘mother’. In a recent interview Silva reports reading FSOG for her related project Schlock! It was ‘uncomfortable and disturbing. I find it shocking that the woman doesn’t want a BDSM relationship and yet Grey doesn’t accept this. When she asks if he could please not hit her again because she doesn’t like it, he replies “you’re not supposed to like it”. Yet teenage girls are reading it unquestioningly as if it’s today’s Pride and Prejudice .’

In Dan O’Brien’s poems the War Reporter Paul Watson is looking at the photograph that won him the Pulitzer Prize: ‘The world has become a frame. You’re looking/ at yourself. And we are violating/ whatever makes us human.’ O’Brien’s poems, made in close collaboration with Watson, seem to be about reconstructing or even failing to reconstruct empathy in the face of dehumanisation – including your own dehumanisation as witness. The poem attempts to come to terms with the moment in which Watson took a photograph instead of helping a soldier being mauled to death in front of him;

And I hear
a voice as clear as yours, clearer even,
saying, If you do this I will own you
forever. Forgive me, just understand
I don’t want to do this. No. We have to
do this. Yes. We have to do this until
we don’t.

We have to do this until we don’t. The snippet hints at both a belief and disbelief in this mission – a compromised empathy, because perhaps all empathy is flawed. And a confusion over who is doing the violence. To be sure, the radical empathy of poetry and all art is needed alongside inhuman and staggering statistics if we are to stop the violence that comes in patterns, one skull after another. So I hope this is an issue about empathy as much as it is about violence.

The new Wales PEN Cymru initiative is one way people can work together to create empathy and solidarity in and through literature. I’d encourage readers in Wales to become members.


Whilst writing this editorial the fact of violence came shockingly close to home into the poetry community. On Saturday 1st  of November the poet Anne Cluysenaar was found murdered in her farmhouse in the Usk countryside. Anne was not and never will be a simple statistic or someone to be remembered only for the circumstances of her death. As well as a poet she was a renowned educator, thinker, painter, smallholder and friend to many. ‘Sharing with others a “language of natural signs”, was what Anne as a poet did. It describes her special gift of creative friendship’ writes Jeremy Hooker in a tribute to Anne in these pages – a beginning of an attempt to remember her in the fullest way we can.


Review: Short Days, Long Shadows by Sheenagh Pugh

Sheenagh Pugh, Short Days, Long Shadows, Seren, £9.99, 72pp, 9781781721568

by Joey Connolly
Short Days, Long Shadows by Sheenagh Pugh cover

The blurb of Sheenagh Pugh’s twelfth collection Short Days, Long Shadows describes her as a poet who ‘considers “too accessible” to be the best sort of compliment’. So often the back of a book of poetry sells its author short, but on this occasion the copywriters at Seren are exactly right: there is nothing that Pugh seems unwilling to sacrifice in the interests of creating a poetry of ultimate, uniform accessibility. Of course, ‘too accessible’ is by definition a negative quality: it is too much, too far. The only justification for Pugh’s position, then, is that she can see no other criteria of value to set against ‘accessibility'; nothing that might be sadly lost or endangered by a headlong rush for the inclusive ground of the lowest common denominator. And this rush does seem visible in Pugh’s work.

A poet as accomplished and capable as Pugh will rarely complete a poem without anything interesting in it, but the problem here is that so many of these poems find an interesting image,  construction or idea, and promptly close up shop. In ‘Dresden Shepherdesses 1908’, for example, Pugh describes a group of men dressed as shepherdesses, ‘choosing to inhabit, / for this one night, their inner shepherdess’. Despite the pop-psych ‘inner child’ style cliché, it’s an idea with potential to speak about a range of things. Why might these men dress as women? Why might they possess an ‘inner shepherdess’? Do clothes conceal or reveal the subtle fluidities of our gender? How about our bodies? But, for Pugh, simply describing the fact of the cross-dressing is apparently enough work for one poem to do (although I’ll grudgingly allow that the pun on ‘inhabit’/‘in habit’ offers some slight poetic value). There’s no ambition to offer insight – philosophical, linguistic, emotional – because to do so risks losing the audience members who miss the point, or who demur from any argument which might be made, any position which might be taken.

But poetry isn’t all about densely worked philosophical argument, and there are passages in the book which have a slow, accretive atmosphere. It’s a book about the inaccessibility of the past, and of the inevitability of death, irregularly and ineffectively stalled by the casting backwards of memory. These thematics are painted onto a backdrop of Northern places – the Shetlands, Scandinavia – and Pugh does some good work on subtly aligning the sea-dominated, windswept landscapes with the feeling of ageing. It’s an effect that emerges over a number of poems, gradually, the way a picture emerges from a magic-eye trick. But that’s the point: to get it, you need to unfocus your eyes, and consciously disengage your attention from the particulars.

Because paying close attention to these poems is often a frustrating experience. ‘Sea’s Answer’ is one of the most interesting poems in the book. It’s framed as a discussion between a poet and the sea, as they discuss why ‘when I figure you, every image / fails me.’ For a moment, we’re offered a glimpse of language which is enriched by a second dimension, by a language behaving otherwise than as a simple tool, in which words stand simply in for the objects of the world. The poem evokes the sea all the more forcefully for the admission that it exceeds the capacity of language to pin it down: it claims to escape poetry’s usual bag of tricks when the sea says ‘I am myself the metaphor.’ And yet the whole poem is weighed down by Pugh’s evident discomfort with these ideas. It’s shackled by a proliferation of colloquial banalities, of anti-poetic language like ‘(you get that way, at my age)’ or ‘for what that’s worth’. Also instructive is Pugh’s assertion that ‘I don’t believe in clichés; / words don’t just stop working.’

But cliché doesn’t occur when words ‘stop working’. It occurs when language becomes stripped, through overuse, of its metaphorical or allusive significances, and becomes just a familiar string of sounds upon which we can hang old, familiar thoughts. And throughout Short Days, Long Shadows, it is precisely these kind of old and familiar thoughts which seem all Pugh is interested in finding, in offering. Familiar and unchallenging thoughts make for maximally accessible poetry, but they also make for dull, uninspired language.

The problem is that accessibility needn’t be a problem. Heaney alone is QED for that, but the numbers in which people still seek out Sylvia Plath cement the fact that poetry can have mass appeal and still be ambitious, multivalent, strange, and profound. All of which are qualities strikingly lacking in Pugh’s latest work.


Joey Connolly lives in London, where he edits Kaffeeklatsch, a poetry journal. He received an Eric Gregory award in 2012, and his first collection is forthcoming from Carcanet in 2016.

Jonathan Edwards wins the 2014 Costa Poetry Award!

We’re delighted that Jonathan Edwards has won the 2014 Costa Poetry Award for his debut collection My Family and Other Superheroes. The book has been eliciting delight from readers and reviewers since it was published by Seren in 2014 so we’re very pleased that it is getting the recognition it deserves. It is indeed ‘joyous and brilliant’!

Jonathan has a new poem in our forthcoming winter issue – ‘Food Taster’ – which will be out soon. He’ll also be discussing his influences in the spring as part of our ‘(re)generation’ series which looks at intergenerational relationships between poets in Wales.

He’ll also be joining us for a reading on Thursday January 22nd at the Imperial Hotel in Merthyr Tydfil. Join us from 7.30pm!