Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

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.

NIA DAVIES

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!

Handwritten in Danish

By Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese

A window display in Rue St-Sulpice stopped me on my walk from Luxembourg Gardens back to Île Saint-Louis. Pages handwritten in ink turned to sepia. Signed by Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, André Gide, André Breton, Paul Éluard… I studied the curvatures, crossings-out, spacing and creases on the faded paper. Suddenly this unexpected encounter turned more intimate – I couldn’t ask anyone about these pages. The shop was closed for the holidays.

Just before the holidays, I visited an exhibition in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. One hundred and one Danish poets were invited to contribute to a handwritten anthology. Each was given one spread of white A4 paper and asked to write a text by hand in black pen. The text was supposed to be signed and accompanied by a black-and-white photo of its author. The invitation was issued by Kenn André Stilling, who in 1974 conceived the predecessor: Seventy-eight Danish Poets: A People’s Book, a handwritten anthology edited by Knud Holten and Dan Turéll (whose work translated by Thomas E. Kennedy was presented in Poetry Wales, autumn 2010).

‘The manuscripts will, without further editing, be printed (facsimile), as they are received by the editors. Within the given format, you are therefore free to layout as you wish. You may write only a little or fill the pages, with whatever you like: poetry in the broadest sense. We only want to stress that the contributions should be unpublished, preferably created specifically for this occasion,’ explained Holten and Turéll forty years ago, and their exact words (reproduced in the exhibition programme) were guiding the next generation of contributors, who were promised a bottle of good champagne each at the opening. Meaningfully, to me, the Royal Library had asked to keep the manuscripts. Since the curators wrote of handwriting as ‘definitely in decline today,’ I thought all these gestures showed that someone cared, after all.

The exhibition presented not only the poems handwritten for the occasion, including the work by poets known to Poetry Wales readers: Niels Hav or Morten Søndergaard (whose picture, a dark profile against darkened waters, reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen’s silhouettes). It also showed manuscripts composed much earlier, the oldest by Thomas Kingo (1634-1703); or more recently, by Dan Turéll (1946-1993) himself, a poem with an English title, ‘Some more Copenhagen Days.’ Two female poets interpreted the invitation in their own way: Janina Katz (of Polish descent, who died last autumn, so her handwritten text truly lives on) included a colour photo of herself; Mette Moestrup wrote in red ink.

I was studying the curvatures, angularities and spacing mostly on the crisp white paper, but one faded copybook pulled me back. It belonged to Inger Christensen (1935-2009) and was opened on its first page, which happened to be also the first page of Det (It). Her small letters proceeded resolutely, one by one (no joined-up writing, hers), across the thinly ruled slightly yellow paper. Intriguingly, the copybook was turned sideways, so the letters didn’t follow its ruts; instead, they formed their own lines vertically from the bottom of the page. The opening words and sentences, those accepted, were underlined by Christensen in red. Four or five lines down, the first crossing out and the first consideration of four alternatives. The following lines resumed their orderly procession up the page.

Leaving the exhibition room, I looked once again at the wall facing the entrance, which stopped me on my way in. Big handwriting in Danish, not quite a message of doom. The English version clarified that, indeed, I had seen some hope: ‘These are the ordinary words that bear us over the mud beneath the thin ice…’. These words, ‘commissioned by life,’ had found their own space. In my notebook I carried away a poem I copied, by hand, handwritten by Martin Glaz Serup (b.1978):

 

At tænke

__på et sted

er at tænke

__på noget andet

 

To think

__of a place

is to think

__of something else

 

I have a chance to learn more about this ‘something else’ in Serup’s poetry, as a couple of his poems are published in the  recent issue of Poetry Wales and I am preparing to review his English-language book, The Field (Les Figues Press, 2011; http://www.lesfigues.com/author/martin-glaz-serup/. I wonder how different it will be reading this in print.


Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese is a contributing editor at Poetry Wales and a translator of poetry.

Literature Funding in Wales

Zoë Skoulding writes in response to John Goodby’s ‘Dealing With the Dylan Thomas Centenary’

 

Dylan Thomas was capable of presenting a simplified view of Wales when wartime necessity demanded it. However, while a propagandist film script like the one he wrote for Wales – Green Mountain, Black Mountain (1942) is full of social and historical interest, it is not usually confused with the poetry for which he is rightly remembered and celebrated.

John Goodby’s article on Dylan 100 highlights a problem with some of Literature Wales’s  current approaches. Dylan Thomas has been simplified into a brand, which in turn has been made to stand for ‘Wales’ – a version of Wales that does not accommodate the full complexity of the culture, particularly in its bilingual aspects. Aside from this, as Goodby points out, Literature Wales  is concentrating many of its resources on the Dinefwr Festival and on literary tourism, projects which appear to be more concerned with marketing its own brand of literary Welshness, on its own terms, than with working openly and collaboratively to promote the growth and renewal of a diverse literary culture in contemporary Wales.

If funding were unlimited, this would not matter at all. However, it matters a great deal when Literature Wales’s other kinds of support for writers and their work, which cannot come from anywhere else, have been reduced. Its Writers on Tour project, which has been important for many years in enabling independently organised readings across the whole of Wales, now contributes a smaller percentage of the costs of a literary event, making it much more difficult for small organisations to access it. Writers’ Bursaries, which have been crucial in many Welsh writers’ development, have had a significant reduction in funding. Wales Literature Exchange, which funds translation of Welsh writing, and which has built strong reciprocal relationships with literary cultures around the world, has had its income from Literature Wales cut when it already had access to far less funding than equivalent organisations in even the most recession-struck European countries.

These valuable but endangered structures are those that enable the growth and confidence of literary communities by connecting personal, local and international participation in Wales as a living, complex, bilingual culture. They encourage individual and collective contributions without subordinating them to a single branded identity. They mean that new writers can come from all backgrounds, and that opportunities are not limited to those who can already afford to take time out to develop new projects, or travel and connect with other writers. They imply a level of trust in writers that has been one of Wales’s greatest cultural strengths, and they show an understanding of how literary communities are built at many different levels. Trust and support are needed to sustain the future achievements of Welsh writers, but both seem to be diminished in Literature Wales’s current vision.

Economic circumstances, as everyone understands, have meant a reduction in funding all round, but they do not fully explain what appears to be a change of priorities within Literature Wales. As readers and writers in Wales, we have a right to voice concerns about how public funding for literature is being used, and I share those raised by John Goodby.

 

Zoë Skoulding

‘And I am dumb(ed down) to tell’?

Dealing with the Dylan Thomas centenary

By John Goodby

 

An extract from Poetry Wales Autumn 2014

June 2014. We’re halfway through a year-long celebration of the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas. Under the umbrella of DT-100, hundreds of events have been organised by a slew of organisations, from the Welsh Government down, with the various shrines (Laugharne, the Boathouse, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Mumbles, the Uplands, Fitzrovia) near-continuous hives of activity. There’s an astonishing amount and variety of it – not just the usual workshops, exhibitions, readings and festivals, but an Under Milk Wood opera, postage stamps, notebooks repatriated from Buffalo, even a travelling Dylan Thomas writing shed. As an ‘expert’ I’ve been involved in a fair bit of it, consulting and broadcasting for the BBC, lecturing in Bangor, Swansea and Aber, holding forth in libraries, theatres, churches. Under the circumstances it might seem churlish, perverse even, to say that there have been worrying gaps in the coverage. Hasn’t Dylan Thomas been done proud, even if he has almost been done to death?

It all depends what you mean by ‘coverage’, and the extent to which Thomas’s writing itself has been addressed, as well as the responses to it. Certainly, the legend, and the rather unrepresentative handful of works everyone knows, have had a good airing. This is as it should be; Thomas himself was an entertainer and a performer. However, he was at root a daring modernist poet. Much of his best poetry is in this vein, and even later works like ‘Fern Hill’ rest on it. Alongside the responses I’ve sketched above, then, any centenary programme worth its salt has a duty to help general readers discover more about what makes Thomas’s work tick, what makes it unique.

There was a better chance of managing this in Thomas’s case than in that of just about any other poet, given Thomas’s iconic status. On the eve of the centenary year, thousands already knew something about his writing, and were fascinated by it as well as by him. It would almost have been easier to offer some bread, as well as the inevitable circuses. And to do so would have meant creating a genuine, lasting legacy; not just an enjoyable nine days’ wonder, but a raising of the cultural level of Wales – indeed, a way of showing that Wales took its culture seriously, as well as knowing how to sell itself and how to enjoy itself.

The two bodies, above all others, with the chance to realise this possibility, were Literature Wales and the British Council. All the other players could legitimately argue that they had other primary agendas; these two alone could be said to have an obligation to broaden horizons, to do more than serve up what people already knew. Yet both, it is now becoming clear, decided to ignore it.

There isn’t space here to deal with the British Council’s failings. Suffice it to say that efforts to throw off their upper-middle class image seem to have led to wild overcompensation, a desire to be seen as ‘street’ at all costs. Their ‘Bible Black and Starless’ Thomas programme, in Argentina, India, US, Canada, Australia and the USA, has been notable for a focus on dance, music, theatre – on anything, in fact, but the actual writings. Its launch to a one-third full Reardon Smith Hall in December, with an African-American keynote speaker, Kevin Powell, an expert on rap and hip-hop who, it was embarrassingly clear, knew nothing about Dylan Thomas, set the painful tone. Apart from a few admirable initiatives, such as the dramatization of Adventures in the Skin Trade, the vast bulk of the literary aspect of ‘Starless and Bible Black’ involves sending abroad the same Welsh poets who would have gone anyway, but under a Dylan Thomas banner. Shunning anything that remotely smacks of analysis, there are no talks, seminars or workshops, nothing picking up on Thomas’s visits to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Ireland and Iran, no reference to the interest European poets such as Tzara and Celan showed in him, or the forty-two different languages he’s been translated into, nothing on his crucial role in breaking West African writing in 1952. You’d weep at the squandered chances if it wasn’t all so ludicrous.

Literature Wales, who promote Welsh literature in Wales itself, have done more that is good. Hannah Ellis, Dylan Thomas’s grand-daughter, is rightly keen to use her grandfather’s work to develop children’s love of literature, and Literature Wales’s Dylanwad schools programme reflects this. But the same fear of seeming too literary (but this is Literature Wales!), of the desperate desire to seem of the moment, has produced a plethora of media-friendly events – ‘mass poems’, competitions, tourist opportunities – whose main aim is to signal popular engagement, without any attempt to increase understanding of Thomas’s work or leave a lasting impression. The commercial flavour is evident in their lavish DT-100 brochure, four-fifths of which is devoted to the ‘Dylan Odyssey’ cultural tourism strand. This may be because Literature Wales’s DT-100 funding comes from the Welsh Government’s Tourism, not its Culture budget, and he who pays the piper calls the tune; yet the absolute absence of events with any intellectual content is striking nevertheless. It’s not that the Dinefwr festival and kayaking in the Towy are bad (though tourism and festivals are arguably better left to the specialists); it’s more that these things, fine as they are, ought to be secondary, not the substance. Just where is the provision for those curious about the origins of the amazing style of 18 Poems works, for example? Or Thomas’s take on science, religion and gender? Or on just where he fits into the story of twentieth century poetry? Nowhere, is the answer – alas. And given that it’s Literature Wales’s specific task to do this (who else if not them?), such a lack amounts to a dereliction of duty.

Apart from the funding tail wagging the literary dog, there are several reasons, it seems to me, for this. An inexperienced leadership and external pressure may be part of it (it’s hard not to see Peter Finch organising a Dylan Thomas centenary poetry festival, for example), but there is the more basic, enduring fact that Thomas’s own paradoxical spirit tends to trouble authority. He’s hard to place in poetic terms, and the current intellectual climate, in which an overweening corporate power tries to project its values into every cranny of the cultural sphere, is particularly inimical to what he represents. While Thomas’s own popular positions invite readers towards his complex poetry, a more market-oriented consumerist populism reduces them to saleable ‘themes’ and ‘messages’, sees textual resistance as an irritant, not as a challenge to be relished, an obstacle to success defined by the tourist pound, attendance figures and accessibility.

As with the British Council, succumbing to this logic has had serious outcomes. No centenary poetry festival. No talks or weekend courses or workshops to dig into the meat of the poems. Nothing on the several new critical studies of his work, or the new edition of the Collected Poems. It’s telling that plans for a bilingual lecture tour of Welsh colleges were dropped in favour of ‘Dylan Live’, a ‘music and spoken word’ show (an account of the creation of this melange of Beat poetry, rap, Thomas excerpts and jazz can be found at www.developingdylan100.co.uk/dylan-live). The excerpts confirm what many who have seen it say about it’s being a rather half-baked affair, and despite the (unattributed) ‘Rave reviews’ on the website a sense of its true appeal may be reflected in the fact that, aside from an appearance at the PEN World Voices Festival, only Literature Wales’ own festival at Dinefwr booked the show. More important, however, was the flawed nature of the basic concept. Thomas may have inspired Beat and African-American poets in his performance and lifestyle. But bohemianism is one of his least interesting aspects, and his poetry has little in common with the improvisational aesthetic of Beat, jazz, and rap. Plus, there is surely a dodgy flavour to a show based on black cultural forms presented by an all-white (all-male) ensemble, and something quite grotesque about its being sent by the British Council to New York, as it was in May. Rather than one of the more egregious examples of cultural coals to Newcastle of recent times, we could have had something that took Thomas’s ‘colour of saying’ out to colleges around the country; but no, that would have been far too elitist and uncool.

The fate of my own main contribution to Literature Wales’s DT-100 programme reflects the same lack of interest in literature unless it is disguised as something else. Back in September 2013 I was asked to give the Gwyn Jones Annual Memorial lecture, on Dylan Thomas, at this year’s Hay Festival. But in April, I discovered that this had dropped off the Hay programme – due, I was told, to Literature Wales’s ‘miscommunication’ with the organisers (although, by odd coincidence, it transpired around the same time that Owen Sheers was giving a lecture on Thomas there). The casualness of ‘miscommunication’– their word – speaks volumes about the lack of interest in a genuine discussion of the poetry. I agreed, slightly reluctantly, to its rescheduling at the Dinefwr Festival. However, when I signalled that I’d be mentioning some of the issues raised in this article in the talk, I received an irate phone call from the head of Literature Wales, and was told that I couldn’t do so because it would be ‘inappropriate’ and ‘upset our sponsors’. When the lecture appeared in the Dinefwr programme it was in a graveyard slot, and had been stripped of its title and my bona fides as a speaker. My own demotion was inconsequential; however, the cavalier treatment of the name and reputation of a leading twentieth century Welsh scholar and writer, Gwyn Jones, was a more serious matter, another sign of Literature Wales’s lack of respect for literature, the final straw which led me to cancel the gig. What’s saddest about all of this is the way that everywhere else is happy to have Thomas’s poetry talked about in detail. I’ve analysed ‘And death shall have no dominion’ and ‘After the funeral’ and others at half a dozen festivals so far, from Dartington to Buxton, and at events in Italy, Ireland and France, and no-one has batted an eyelid or given me the impression that this kind of thing needs sexing up, and can be treated with something close to disdain. It’s yet another dismaying example of a Welsh body grasping at a London trend – the corporatisation and marketising of literature – and copying it slavishly and unthinkingly; the result is Dilute Dylan, Thomas-without-tears, bums-on-seats as the one and only bottom line (excuse pun).

For ultimately, this is the most patronising assumption of all – that Wales can’t take Thomas without some spin or angle added; that he must be dissolved into a word-cloud, packaged as interpretative walks, made over as Dyl.I.an, or even that he cannot possibly be presented by anyone but ‘young Welsh artists’. Why let mere facts prevent the ticks being made in the right boxes, after all? And maybe this is why – though I’d have predicted the opposite in January – the most varied, imaginative response to the centenary has come from the BBC, an organisation sometimes maligned for ignoring Welsh culture. This may be because it is less navel-gazing than others, more resourced, more resistant to commercialism; but it is also, as the Laugharne Live radio festival in May demonstrated, due to open-mindedness. Rather than the faux populism, the BBC took a genuinely populist, eclectic and contemporary approach – Thomas in classical music and radio pub quizzes, Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone and radio essays (personal favourites include Ian McMillan’s ‘Dylan Day’ selection, and Rachel Trezise on Thomas and radio, in which she told of overcoming her dislike of the saccharine bard she encountered at school through her discovery of his darker early imaginings). The BBC wasn’t obliged to cater to intelligent general readers (and their films on the life, poems, and new Under Milk Wood all had their flaws), but at least they gave them plenty to think about.

How, then, might Thomas have been presented? Well, rather than being dumbed down, his apocalyptic, visionary concern with the fundamental issues of birth, death, sex, faith, and (im)mortality should have been faced. He should have been presented for what he is – a Blakean and modernist revolutionary, whose work is experimental and bypasses social surfaces, still a radical challenge to dull contemporary plain-style orthodoxy. ‘Fern Hill’ should have been part of the mix, of course, but poems that more resemble ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ shouldn’t have been treated like dirty secrets. For the point is that, uniquely, unforgettably, Thomas wrote both kinds of poem. He was a hybrid, a product of the industrial-rural, anglophone-cymrophone border zone, caught between two world wars and two literary movements, modernism and 1930s’ realism; his inbetweenness was what allowed to him to fuse Auden’s retro forms with modernist intensity, and also gave him the ability to negotiate ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles. But it also meant that he still straddles the post-Waste Land fault-lines that exist in British poetry, making him difficult to categorise and a provocation to those who prefer neat demarcations.

Tough though it can be, Thomas’s hybridity is central to his universal resonance and his greatness, the way he speaks to our time. He crosses cultures; his body-centredness anticipates modern neuroscience’s feeling minds and thinking bodies; as the first great elegist of the civilian war dead, he writes for Gaza and Homs as well the victims of the Blitz; and his final poems are ecological, deeply concerned for a world threatened by atomic weapons. Above all, he ‘bent the iron of English’, working ‘from’ words, not towards them, mutating fresh meanings within rigorous yet golden cages of stanza, off-rhyme, and syllabic pattern. What greater gift for readers in 2014 than such a challenge to language’s enslavement by the debased discourses of advertising, micro-management and corporate politics?

Although a chance has been missed to develop a longer-term legacy in certain quarters which should have known better, there have been many good things about DT-100. Intentionally or not, it has become a pan-Wales celebration, or carnival, fifteen years on from the Assembly. Despite the efforts of officialdom, some people have found ways to deepen their appreciation of Thomas’s work. Nevertheless, as one advisor to the First Minister warned some months back, unless Wales develops its knowledge economy, its obsession with making itself a tourist destination will soon render it a low-wage theme park. Avoiding this fate requires creating a literary knowledge economy too; one that isn’t afraid of literature as literature, that isn’t based on gimmickry (the old loss of national nerve by another name), the only kind that can make sense of the ‘intricate image’ of reality in twenty-first century Wales.

 

John Goodby lectures at the University of Swansea; he is author of The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall (2013) and the new annotated centenary edition of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. 

England v Wales, or Why I Hate Slams

by Mab Jones  

It’s as if we are blood cells. Okay, the red cells are smaller, but they are just as important as the big, white blood cells. Each has their own job to do and, normally, we all get on pretty well. Today, however, the reds and the whites have been asked to fight. To compete. To battle against each other. Isn’t this what they call cancer?

I am not really a fan of the poetry slam. I hate competition and I dislike putting people into categories of ‘winner’ or ‘loser’. I always feel my main competition is myself, and in overcoming internal blocks to my work. Neither are my poems made for slams, I don’t have any of the fireworks of some of the performers – I don’t jump about like a jelly bean, I don’t do ‘poet voice’, I don’t air punch, beatbox, sing, or really like to complain about life/my life onstage (anymore – I did this a fair bit when I first started out…). I did win the John Tripp Spoken Poetry Audience Award, and have been a finalist in three big slams; but I can’t seem to ‘please’ people enough with what I do… I always end up being more of a ‘people teaser’. Which I guess is how I like it. Anyway…

Here we are, at RADA in London, with two teams: one representing England, and one representing Wales. We are wearing rugby shirts in white and red (hence the blood cells analogy). We will be competing in a ‘friendly slam’ for the Fitzrovia Festival, which is part of the general Dylan Thomas centenary celebrations. The England team is composed of: Abraham Gibson (captain); Molly Case; Penny Pepper; Sean Wai Keung. Team Wales is: Martin Daws (captain); Clare Ferguson-Walker; Zaru Jonson; and me.

The judges are 5 ladies, all a little well-to-do, and I have the feeling from the offset that they will not like my stuff. England captain Abraham Gibson performs first, with a funny poem about Margaret Thatcher’s sexual exploits (imaginary of course). It has rude words in it, and seems like a bit of fun. The judges score it highly. Perhaps they will like what I do!?

I am up next, and I perform ‘The Man Who Stares at Goats Too Much’ a little ditty inspired by a newspaper headline earlier this year. The headline itself was ‘Man Had Sex With Goat 10 Times, But He Did Ask First’. It was in the Metro newspaper. It is humorous, with rude words and sexual exploits. It is a bit of fun. I get a very loud, resounding, and enthused audience reaction, probably one of the best I’ve ever received. I wait for the judges’ score…

I receive a much lower one than the England Team Captain. I am at a loss to explain why. But this is the thing about slams… They are very subjective things. In the end, it turns out that the final round features four of the eight performers – those with the highest scores – and these happen to be the four male performers (Abraham and Sean from England, and Martin and Zaru from Wales). The four females are left sitting on the sidelines. Again, I am at a loss as to explain why. I have performed at over 700 events now, and I do not personally feel that these were the best poems or performances. But then, this is my own subjective view, albeit one based on much spoken word experience. Clare, at my side, is a strong performer and multi-slam winner, and Molly’s piece was the most interesting and unusual poem, in my opinion.

But, my opinion is not what matters. The red cells lose to the white. I don’t feel bad about getting the lowest score, or about the Welsh team ‘losing’, though. I know that the crowd liked us and, afterwards, lots of people come up to us to say this, too. Poet Tim Key and celebrity Gruff Rhys Jones both come up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed my poem in particular. I am pleased. But after 700 or so performances, I am confident in my ability to please a crowd – or, tease them, I should say. And slams, well, they, they are not the be all and end all, really.

I leave London feeling happy, just because performing was fun, because the poets were all great, and because we all have a drink and a laugh afterwards. This is the most important part of any event. And, at this, we all definitely, as you might say, take the prize.

Find out more about Mab at www.mabjones.com and follow on Twitter @mabjones

Mab Jones with a Rhino on her Boob

Review: White Wings by John Freeman

Jonathan Edwards reviews White Wings: New & Selected Prose Poems by John Freeman, (Contraband, 2013).

 

Devotees of the contemporary poetry scene – whatever that is – might be most familiar with John Freeman for his poem ‘My Grandfather’s Hat,’ third prize winner in the National Poetry Competition for 2012. It’s a warm and witty observation of family, full of precise and telling detail and powerful and memorable imagery, and I’d urge anyone who doesn’t know it to go and check it out. Some readers might come to White Wings hoping for more of the same, but this book showcases a very different side of Freeman’s work. The volume selects the best from around forty years of the author’s work in prose poetry, and speaks of a poetic life at the experimental margins.

For all that, there are a number of poems in White Wings which focus on family or relationships, and these are often the book’s most memorable. ‘Meringues,’ for example, focuses on the narrator’s relationship with an ill woman:

We were all suffering – the children of course, knowing their mother was ill, knowing it was serious. Her, being ill. Me, looking after the children, having no talk with anyone else.

The narrator deals with this experience by buying meringues for the woman, though personally he’s ‘never liked meringues. They grate and collapse against your teeth, gritty like sandpaper.’ The intense focus on an authentically-drawn relationship here might remind us of the tone of books like Greta Stoddart’s At Home in the Dark or Tom French’s Touching the Bones. The risk with such poems is that old piece of advice given to me when I first started writing about family: if you write poems about your family and your relationships, you will write poems of interest to your family and people you know. One might think that, stripped of the music of form, Freeman’s prose poems run a higher risk of this than writers like French and Stoddart, as there is less, beyond content, for the reader to focus on. But ultimately, like French and Stoddart’s work, a poem like ‘Meringues’ is memorable, and makes us return to it, because it manages that tricky balance of the specific and the universal – because it gets to the universal through the specific. At its heart is the detail of those meringues, so idiosyncratic and authentic, pointing beyond themselves and symbolising the relationship, in a way you can’t quite pin down.

Family and relationships, though, are rightly only one focus of the wide body of work which White Wings represents. Those of us who strut round with well-thumbed copies of Return to the City of White Donkeys or even Paris Spleen in our pretentiously-tailored back pockets might be pleasantly surprised by the versatility the prose poem has in Freeman’s hands. The volume begins with ‘Alla Luna,’ a playfully enjoyable poem about the way in which culture makes us look at nature. Looking up at the moon, the narrator reflects on how history and poetry affect his perception of it:

It didn’t look any different now some people had been round it…At the moment when I look at the moon I sometimes think of Shelley and Leopardi, and reproach myself for never having written a good poem about the moon, and for having a bad memory for the Leopardi.

White Wings cover - John Freeman

If White Wings explores a range of themes – and I haven’t even mentioned yet the excellent memories-of-childhood poems ‘Not a Girl’ and ‘Sweet Prince,’ which an imaginative anthologist might place on a facing page to ‘Fern Hill’ – it is also distinguished by a variety of styles and techniques. Alongside the largely sequential narratives already described, Freeman tries an interesting range of other things. ‘Summer’ is an intriguing combination of apparent non-sequiturs which move from the lyrical to the colloquial: ‘A womb of threat looms, surprising me. Don’t move buster, you’re surrounded.’ ‘The Man from Leeds,’ by contrast, is full of colloquial personality and reported speech, and is an excellent character sketch: ‘I’ve got a wonderful wife; and sometimes I want to strangle her; but she’s a wonderful woman you know, I couldn’t do without her. I couldn’t.’

Writing in a recent issue of The North, Michael Hulse offers this vision of the contemporary poetry scene:

[The] middle ground is under attack in our time from the mutually exclusive aesthetic extremes to either side. One extreme is populist in character and includes the range of spoken-word poetries…The other is hieratic in character and includes the range of poetries that depend on cognitive philosophy, linguistics, and a historically-derived understanding of the avant-garde.

If I say that White Wings is a book to admire, grapple with and return to, more than it is to enjoy or to love, that’s probably as revelatory of where my own poetics might sit in Hulse’s spectrum, as it is of Freeman’s book. There’s an alternate world in which writers like Freeman are as widely-read and celebrated as Owen Sheers and Gillian Clarke, in which a book like White Wings receives a review of sufficient length to begin to do its range justice. In this world, I’m rooting of course for Freeman to write more poems like ‘My Grandfather’s Hat.’ But meanwhile, I’m picking up White Wings again and turning to another poem. And hey, just take a gander at the look on my face as I do.

 

Jonathan Edwards’ debut collection is My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren, 2014). It has been shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, 2014. 

Review: I’m OK, I’m Pig! by Kim Hyesoon

 Katherine Stansfield reviews Kim Hyesoon’s I’m OK, I’m Pig!, translated by Don Mee Choi (Bloodaxe, 2014).

I'm OK, I'm Pig

Since her poetry debut in 1979, Kim Hyesoon has published ten collections in her home of South Korea. Three have been translated into English and published in the US, and it is selected work from these books – Mummy Must be a Fountain of Flowers, All the Garbage of the World Unite, and Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream – that make up I’m OK, I’m Pig! from Bloodaxe, covering the period 1981 to 2012. The Bloodaxe edition also includes a preface by Hyesoon, transcripts of two fascinating interviews in which she discusses her work and poetics, and an essay by translator Don Mee Choi.

In one of the interviews Hyesoon lists what she considers to be the key words of her poetry: ‘Death, Woman, [South] Korea, You, Seoul, Absence, Illness, Rats, Poetry’. A good example of these themes at work is ‘Seoul’s Dinner’, in which South Korea’s capital is depicted as an insatiable woman:

Pigs enter. The pigs oink and suck on Seoul’s lips. She dips the meat from the pig’s neck in pickled shrimp and eats. Her squirming throat is omnivorous.

The city consumes and digests; she is a powerful, physical presence. Many of the poems are concerned with the body. It is used as a site – often of epic proportions – to explore physical functionality: digestive and reproductive systems, as well as injury. Vomit, shit and rot return again and again, often coupled with violent imagery:

That woman who has worms coming out of her mouth
please don’t hit her too hard
One sack, two sacks of worms fall out of her mouth
because she gets beaten every single day
Later she even pukepukes out her intestines
and her empty body gets mashed
Oh the stench (‘Rainy Season’)

This inversion of the body – puking up the intestines – demonstrates another recurring trope: a concern with entrance and exit points. In ‘Seoul’s Dinner’ the city ‘eats and shits through the same door’. Such notions of inside/outside are central to Hyesoon’s feminist poetics which engage with the gendered history of Korean poetry. Her preface describes the marginalisation of women in Korean’s poetry and its myths but draws attention to one practice that does give women a dominant role: the shaman’s ritual, where ‘the emphasis is on performing songs and dances’. By taking on the mantel of shaman, the poet is able to inhabit a netherworld – conceptualised as a ‘blackened realm’ linked to state censorship by her translator – in which a woman ‘redefines herself, retranslates herself’ in reaction to patriarchal systems. In writing poetry a woman is both inside the ‘blackened realm’ and breaking from it. Though this can mean she is ghost-like, ‘erased’ by the act of writing, this negation isn’t negative but is actually key to participation. In one of the interviews Hyesoon states that ‘regardless of a poet’s gender, poetry is where night is, where absence is’.

The form of Hyesoon’s poems reflects her engagement with the shamanistic tradition. There isn’t a great deal of lyricism but the poems can be incantatory, with chant-like repetition of lines and words that build to crescendos:

The fact that even the whistle stops to talk
The fact that the whistle stop wakes up from sleep, sweating from fever
The fact that the whistle stop even goes for a walk along the tracks deep in the night
(‘Trainspotting’)

Many of the poems are dreamlike, presenting detailed and surreal narratives. Whilst they are undoubtedly powerful I wondered if a symbolic language was in use that I was failing to decode, such as the repeated references to camels. These symbols might be personal or they could be culturally-specific to Korea, or they might be neither. They didn’t detract from my reading of the work but I felt my engagement with it was perhaps partial as a result.

It is difficult to comment on the success of the translation of Hyesoon’s Korean into English, given my lack of knowledge of the original language and the distinctive style of the English-language poems. In one of the interviews, however, Hyesoon explains that Korean is a phonetic language ‘which allows for possibilities of rhyming through countless homonyms’. She notes that in translation it becomes difficult to share such wordplay. Choi’s translations, therefore, must be taken on their own terms, and as such I would argue that assessing their ‘smoothness’ of English isn’t appropriate here. The chaos of the poems’ subject matter, the lack of punctuation and words running into one another all successfully contribute to the surrealism of the work and its sense of urgency.

In terms of Korean history Hyesoon’s poems do not provide a history lesson, yet as a western reader who knows little about the country beyond war, the division of North and South, and brutal dictatorships, it’s tempting to read the violence of many poems as relating to these traumatic events. But should we? Just because the poet is Korean doesn’t mean her writing should be defined by her country’s history, but in places it is clear that real events lie beneath Hyesoon’s surrealism. For example, the book’s title poem is a sequence that takes as its starting point a foot-and-mouth crisis in 2011. Hyesoon informs us in one of the interviews that three million diseased pigs needed to be destroyed but due to ‘difficulties’ in killing them, many were buried alive. Hyesoon saw comparisons with the treatment of human bodies during the years of the dictatorship which subsequently informed the poem. The sequence is compelling and unnerving in equal measure without that information but it’s even more powerful with it.

Hyesoon’s poetry is like nothing I’ve ever read before. This, of course, is a compliment if you believe that poetry should surprise and test a reader, as I do. It might leave you somewhat baffled if you don’t.

 

Katherine Stansfield’s first poetry collection, Playing House, is published by Seren. She lives in Aberystwyth.

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