Archive for July, 2018

Meic Stephens (1938 – 2018): A Personal Appreciation by Robert Minhinnick

In 1971, at Bridgend Boys’ Grammar Technical School, I began studying ‘Welsh Voices’: “an anthology of new poetry from Wales”, published by Dent, edited by Bryn Griffiths.

Crucially for me it did not include the description ‘Anglo-Welsh’, which I first encountered several years later. I was seventeen, and part of a family that saw writing and painting as normal occupations.

But, a modest, maybe secretive boy, I did not share the song lyrics I was collecting in an old Human Biology exercise book. I think there were hundreds of them, arranged in notional record albums.

Double albums? Triple albums? These were suddenly possible, it seemed. I could hear the tunes of the songs in my head but couldn’t write them down.

I suppose everybody at the time was reeling from the transformative effect the 1960s in Wales and the UK had on life. I saw myself as a songwriter, with a guitar he couldn’t play, a pitiful collection of records, and a headful of untranslateable music.

I was still too young for ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966) and ‘Sergeant Pepper’ (June, 1967). ‘Welsh Voices’, about to have an equally cataclysmic effect (on myself at least) appeared in 1967.

My father, especially, had written. Some of his stories appeared in outlets such as ‘Herald of Wales’. I still retain a thick stash of Albert Minhinnick’s short stories, as I do his 1945 diary, maintained while in India and Burma.

‘Welsh Voices’, I am sure, was part of a post-war cultural reaction, indeed, rebellion. (Might ‘revolution’ be allowed?)

Political motivation was part of the reason for its existence, and a groundswell of frustration, indeed exasperation, with post-war Wales. There was a belief that life should be better and had to change.

Yet what I liked most about the anthology was the phrase-making of certain writers. Thus I recall Herbert Williams’s ‘Jones the Grocer’, with his hands “pale as lard”. And Robert Morgan’s ‘4c Boy’, a vivid portrait that immediately resonated with my own experience in Penyfai.

Crucially, there was a brief biography for each of the contributors to ‘Welsh Voices’. One of these was David Jones, who puzzled while illuminating in individual lines. In 1981 I found myself attempting to write an MA thesis on this writer.

Another of the contributors I studied in ’71 and ’72 was someone called Meic Stephens. The name was ‘unusual’.

In 1972 I failed an entrance exam for the civil service, and (secretly both appalled and delighted) I decided to take my own writing seriously, other options having closed down. I believed writing was both something I had chosen and something that had chosen me.

Herbert Williams, Robert Morgan and David Jones were impossible to locate in the Cardiff and south-east Wales telephone directory. But ‘Meic Stephens’ (spelled thus) was given his own entry. Therefore he looked important.

My letter to Meic went unanswered. However, eventually, a letter arrived from someone called Sam Adams. He explained he was editing a ‘new poets’ issue of a magazine titled ‘Poetry Wales’. Would I care to submit some work? I was a callow nineteen.

The first time I recall meeting Meic Stephens was in an office of the Welsh Arts Council in Museum Place, Cardiff. An imposing man, he said complimentary things about my writing, and a new volume I had published in 1979 called ‘Native Ground’ (Christopher Davies.)

Because of his office address I understood that Meic was important. What I was unaware of was the fact that he had been largely responsible for bringing into being the system of grant aid, support and subsidy that transformed publishing in Wales and allowed a modicum of literary professionalism to flourish.

Meic wanted people to think differently about language. For him it was the lifeblood of culture, community and nation.

I think I understood Meic’s fervor for the Welsh language. Yet in our house in Penyfai there were no Welsh speakers, and I developed a one-eyed adherence to English.

Writing by any other means was never suggested, although one of my father’s uncles, Gabriel Minhinnick, published in Welsh in the ‘Merthyr Express’.

If some Welsh had adhered to us, as does sheep’s wool to barbed wire, somehow the bloody sheep had escaped.  Incidents such as my Welsh teacher in Bridgend Boys Grammar using corporal punishment (with a dap across thirty posteriors) on a whole class because of their lazy Welsh, didn’t help.

Yet I recall speaking to my grandmother about the language, and a particular conversation in which she defined the word ‘digraen’ (pronounced digran).

Digraenwas an important word because sometimes a batch of washing might be so damnably described. Having ‘no grain’ on your washing was unpardonable.

Her Welsh came from the Llanharan of her birthplace, and one of the several pubs named the Cross Keys in Dowlais, where she was required to be trilingual to communicate with the Spanish foundrymen in the local ironworks.

My father chipped in too. His Welsh was much poorer but in the Rhymni where he was born, a stinging insult was that someone might be ‘didoreth’ (hopeless or useless).

In a way my whole life as a writer has been linked with Meic. He was fourteen years older than I, an age gap that in in 1967 or ’77 or ’87, was massively important.

Meic’s editing was crucial. He created the magazine, ‘Poetry Wales’, in 1965, and he would always refer to it as “my magazine”.

My own editorial stint for ‘PW’ was 1997 – 2008. This included my choice of work for “Poetry Wales: Forty Years’ (Seren, 2005),  which excluded that chosen by Cary Archard for his own celebration of the magazine’s first two decades.

I remember at one of its launches in Cardiff, Meic and Sam Adams (another ex-editor) turned up and mildly heckled. They didn’t approve of the ‘international’ direction the magazine was taking. It seemed a healthy disagreement to me.

But most notably, Meic Stephens specialized in editing truly monumental tomes. Certainly he gave the impression that vast assemblages, such as ‘Linguistic Minorities in Western Europe’ (Gomer, 1976); the ‘Library of Wales: Poetry’, (Parthian, 2000); the ‘Oxford Companion to the Literatures of Wales’, and the later ‘The Old Red Tongue’ (with co-editor Gwyn Griffiths, 2017)), comprising translations from the Welsh, were designed as requisites for every Welsh household. No civilized home could exist without them.

This monumentalism is in strict contrast to the paucity of his own English language verse. ‘Exiles All’ appeared in his own Triskel series in 1982, including certain of his poems in ‘Welsh Voices’. I purchased it in WH Smith in Bridgend alongside, yes,  ‘The Boy Inside’ by Sam Adams.

For me, Meic’s English poetry constituted his best writing and I was always excited when discovering that rarest of rare birds, a new poem in English by Meic Stephens.

Meic’s own poetry was gradually dominated by his Welsh language output (Welsh being his third language), especially verse written in the Gwenhwyseg of south-east Wales.

He liked nothing better than surprising literate Welsh speakers with his abilities in his own extinction-threatened  dialect.

In this way he might have had something in common with my maternal grandmother, with her own rags of Gwenhwyseg, An extraordinary thought.  (Meic’s last e-address was defiantly ‘hwncomanco’- “this one over by there”. Maybe she would have appreciated Meic’s ‘Ponies, Twynyrodyn’, from ‘Welsh Voices’.

Meic Stephens is one of two particular people who dominated my early life as a writer. The other is Cary Archard, happily alive and vigorous, who inherited the Triskel Press of Meic’s creation, and edited my contribution to the Triskel series.

But I am drawn especially to Meic Stephens because of his ability to combine politics and activism (including non-violent direct action) with cultural endeavor.

I didn’t experience literary Wales before Meic, but I am told by some it was, in English at least, unrecognizably arid and timorous.

Meanwhile, I will reread his novel, ‘Yeah, Dai Dando’ (Cinnamon 2008) for me his most surprising creation; his English autobiography, ‘My Shoulder to the Wheel’; return to ‘Green Horse, edited with Peter Finch, (Christopher Davies, 1978); and pick my way carefully through ‘Wilia’, his poems in the Wenhwyseg (Barddas, 2014).

I will also rely on Meic’s collected editions of the poems of Harri Webb and Glyn Jones; and turn   for delightful education to his collections of obituaries, most notably ‘Necrologies’ (Seren, 2008).

And yes, there is so much more, such as his biography of Rhys Davies, (Parthian, 2013). Indeed, there is hardly a bookshelf in my house to which Meic has not contributed.

Diolch yn fawr am bobeth, Meic Stephens! Matchless.

Robert Minhinnick 13.7.18

‘The Mabinogi’ by Matthew Francis – a review by Eurig Salisbury

It was perhaps inevitable. Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf in 1999 made fashionable the work of translating into Modern English old texts deemed (often justifiably) inaccessible to a modern audience. His most notable successor in this work is Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Night (2007), and the trajectory of both works seems, in hindsight, to lead on unavoidably towards the fringes of Welsh literature. One is an Old English text written in England but set in Scandinavia prior to the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, the other an Arthurian Middle English text at home with the Matter of Britain and set in the West Midlands, in sight of the Welsh borders. Where to next?

Seren Books’ recent New Stories from the Mabinogion series seems to have shown the way. The re-imagining in prose of the eleven native Welsh tales in Seren’s series both mirrors the originals in terms of medium but also, crucially, differs enough in tone and substance to allow for a strong degree of independence. Francis’s retelling, on the other hand, despite being in verse, more closely resembles his original source material in terms of style, scope and medieval setting. This lends the work a great deal of legitimacy, but also handicaps it by highlighting its many structural deviations.

But there’s the crux. A reader with no knowledge of the original Welsh text may have little idea of the author’s deviations, and care even less. The poetry undoubtedly works. It moves along at a good pace and colours the action in a way that a medieval scribe would have had little time for. Pwyll and Arawn meet ‘in the still gaze of the stag’ not long since slain, whose ‘filched chitterlings’ the hounds ‘guzzle’. Matholwch’s ships approach the Welsh coast from Ireland, first as a ‘swirl of mosquitos’, then as a ‘flotilla of seagulls, / salt-water swans’, but they are in fact ‘more complicated than that’ and become ‘something human’.

Choosing when and how to embellish the original material is the prerogative of the storyteller. Francis succeeds time and time again in adding an extra layer of light and detail that loads an occasionally sparse Welsh text with cinematic immediacy. In that sense, the work can be enjoyed simply for what it is, namely a brilliantly perceptive reworking that elevates the finer points at the expense of narrative sweep.

But what of those who know Welsh? The lasting value of the four branches of the Mabinogi (incorrectly referred to on the sleeve as the ‘first four’) rests on the portrayal of their characters. Whilst Francis’s many structural deviations from the source should not be dismissed out of hand – he could presumably justify his choices, even though few justifications are offered – their effect collectively is to undercut the characters’ development and incentives.

Pwyll’s maturing in the first branch under the tutorship of Rhiannon, his far shrewder wife, is cut short by the astonishing omission of the whole second part of the branch. This undermines Llwyd’s motivation at the end of the third branch in seeking revenge for his friend’s earlier humiliation at the hands of Pwyll – a pivotal revelation that throws into sharp relief the less vengeful nature of Manawydan’s and Pryderi’s friendship – and is bafflingly altered so that it relates instead to the devastation of Ireland. Branwen’s brave and dignified retort to her captors, when asked – courteously for the first time in years – to explain a strange sight on the Irish sea, is likewise absent, as is any mention of the magical island of Gwales.

Furthermore, the restructuring of the four stories (effectively rewriting the last) to fit the narrative of Pryderi – the only character to appear in all four and whose life seems at first glance to follow their trajectory – falls prey to the now discounted theory that enticed Ifor Williams and others, namely that Pryderi was once the focal character for the stories as a whole. Pryderi is a poor unifier for a number of reasons, not least because he is less of a hero than most, but this seems to have counted for little in the face of Francis’s attempt to forge a ‘more straightforward narrative line that appeals to modern readers’. Modern readers can arguably deal with all sorts of narratives, but the underlying impression remains that the stories work best as individual tales that share common themes, and any attempt to force them into a straight-jacket of unity is doomed to fail.

It is, however, by association with Heaney and Armitage that Francis falls seriously short. In introducing old English texts to modern readers, both Heaney and Armitage sought linguistic rights of way into the original that both justified and enhanced their endeavour. Heaney’s troubled linguistic inheritance in Northern Ireland made him wary at first of the Old English text, until he found ‘an entry into further language’ by way of familiar words known to him through Ulster Scots. Likewise, the ‘northerner’ Armitage not only recognized plenty of the Sir Gawainpoem’s dialect, but also detected ‘an echo of his own speech within the original’. Above all, both poets translated from an older version of a language in which they themselves wrote.

Pointing out that he is ‘neither a Welsh speaker nor Welsh-born’, Francis admits he cannot ‘claim the Mabinogias part of my personal heritage’. His brief pitch for validation, however, ‘in the sense that the greatest products of the human imagination are the heritage of us all’, seems rather glib. A lack of natural affinity with a language or a country certainly does not disqualify anyone who wishes to get to grips with its literature, but an awareness of the wider factors involved is key. In the case of the Welsh language, it is essential, for its position as a minority language in relation to dominant English in its own land warrants understanding in any form of cultural exchange.

The fact is that Francis’s version is no translation – it is not described as such except in Gillian Clarke’s quoted review on the sleeve – but rather a retelling. It was based solely on a recent English prose translation, and a casual reader might be excused for failing to realise that the language of the original is still spoken. Welsh is a living language. That the work was written mostly in Wales in a town with an abundance of Welsh speakers, and a stone’s throw away from the National Library of Wales, where the earliest complete text is housed in the White Book of Rhydderch, makes the effective bypassing of the Welsh language all the more surprising.

Its absence is telling. The exoticisation of Annwfn, wrongly labelled as ‘the Otherworld of Celtic myth’ whereas it is in fact distinctly Welsh, as a ‘dreamlike, elusive’ and ‘shadowy domain’ is worryingly redolent of the colonial notion of Celtic otherness. Having the Irish refer to Branwen the sister of Bendigeidfran in a manner reserved today for members of the English upper class, ‘Her Grace His Grace’s sister’, is grating, as is the downgrading of Gwydion, ‘the greatest storyteller in the world’ in the original text, to the status of a jester with ‘the pinched face of a frog, the eyes swollen’. Francis might see himself implicitly in Pwyll’s image, ‘crossing boundaries … into forbidden territory’, but one wonders whether he has returned having ‘gained insights’ or, like a tourist, having simply had ‘an exciting, if disorientating, time.’

It is ultimately the author’s right to deal with his material in his own way. Precious, dynamic texts such as the four branches of the Mabinogi are to be engaged with, reworked and retold. Seeking meaningful dialogue with the source is not always a prerequisite for engagement, but it is at the very least advisable in a dichotomous state of play between a minority culture – in which the Mabinogi already carries centuries of weight and meaning – and a dominant one. It would be foolish to imagine that such cultural exchanges carry no consequences. When viewed from the other side, a book marketed as ‘an important contribution to the storytelling of the British Isles’ can too easily smack of cultural appropriation. To paraphrase Francis’s description of the otherworld, it may be worth remembering that it is Wales, not Annwfn, that exists ‘just over there, behind those trees.’

Eurig Salisbury
(Featured in the current Issue of Poetry Wales, Summer 2018)

mabinogion_box_set

‘New Stories From The Mabinogion’ by Seren Books

mabinogimap

Poster y Mabinogion by Margaret Jones

 

Nia Davies on Ritual, Poetry Wales Editorial Summer 2018

Ritual, Poetry Wales 54.1

Welcome to a special issue of PoetryWales dedicated to ritual. Ritual marks out this space, that is the page, and a time, that is Summer 2018, as special. Ritual is a performance, a heightened presence, an intention. I invite you to step into this liminal place with us.

But before the ritual we prepare ourselves. We feel the bones in our body which is about to plunge into a river. Or we feel ourselves geared up to read, minds cleared, ready to be filled with language. We ready ourselves to accept the coming chaos. Then for a defined period of time normal rules are upended. Poetry happens. Perhaps we utter names, a mantra or a poem, over and over again until magical something shifts. Perhaps we don masks. Maybe a dance is made or a song sung. Perhaps something is ripped apart in order to be remade. Or we could be joined in union to a person we love. Maybe we whisper words to ghosts, bid the dead goodbye. Perhaps we call attention to the living needs of the world around us and make a live action, a political intervention.

By the time we emerge from a ritual, we have become aware of our bodies and the space we occupy in an altered way. Then we return to ‘normal’ life somehow changed. Perhaps a small transformation has occurred.The ritual may be repeated and repeated. My current research as a poet is on ritual and poetry (part of my doctorate degree in creative writing at the University of Salford). I am exploring how we charge a space, time, objects, bodies and words in the heightened experience of a performance ritual.

And so for this issue of Poetry Wales I have gathered a collection of reflections on this topic. Firstly I include the poems of C.A. Conrad who has been making (soma)tic poetry rituals for some time and here shares with us a selection from a new series. Each ritual contains ingredients for action against the extinctions of bird species in the US. Similarly Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s swims are also environmental activisms, a calling attention to the present, a care-taking of our water ways by way of an embodied transformation. Nisha Ramayya’s tantric poetics forge a relational practice of resistance, listening and loving. Lyndon Davies describes the Ghost Jam, a game of multiple rituals with multiple players where anything can happen in the space of any time in sound, poetry, movement or action. For a moment humans can walk through walls.

And the cover of the issue comes from Rhys Trimble’s charged objects, totems to his performative poetics. It is with Trimble that I recently made ‘Cynhebrwng Aer’ an air burial for poetic texts in yr Caban, outside Pontio, Bangor, at the Poetry in Expanded Translation conference in April 2018. On the day of this issue’s release (July the 1st) we will repeat this ritual at Ledbury Poetry Festival where you can also hear performance from Trimble, Burnett and Ramayya.

Ritual seeks to change something, often by calling attention to the materiality of a thing – perhaps the textures or smells of the land, or water we are swimming in, our bodies and those we share the space with, the sound of the language in our mouths, the brushing of our hands with the hands of others. It is also something we repeat over and over again until something indelible is etched in us and somehow changes us, like the repetition of a line of song enters into our bodies and can be reproduced at any time. Ritual is a live ephemeral event. But it leaves a trace, perhaps in the form of a poem or simple marks on the ground.

This issue also includes a reflection on PW 1968 from Ben Gwalchmai as well as
poems and reviews, some by the Ledbury Critics.We are happy to be collaborating with Ledbury Poetry Festival in multiple ways this year. There will be more to come. We hope!

Poetry Wales survives as an open space for poetic experiment, for charged interactions across poetic cultures and dreamy or daring reflection and criticism in an increasingly bureaucratised and narrow-minded world. We attempt to make language interventions into the banality of homogeny and linguistic imperialism. Thank you for your support.

Thank you for staying with us. We need all kinds of resources to keep it up – financial and otherwise! If you feel Poetry Wales should continue, if you feel this liminal space should exist for longer, please join us as a patron or micro patron. This is a way for you to give us a regular donation to keep us afloat for years to come. To do this visit our Patreon site: https://www.patreon.com/PoetryWalesMagazine 

Diolch.
Thank you.

NIA DAVIES

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