Interview by Zoë Brigley
“I take the position of observer, and my creative practise then unleashes an energy which has its own personality. I wouldn’t trust it with a butter knife, let alone anything else“
The Book of Plants and Insults
Abide tranquillity, boy. Must not seize coiling phlox to classify Πανδώρα. chocolate-eyed merch dives into bell jars, riotous declensions immure legality— Boy expires woman, fraying pinking Hoodie; she will concede a a close-up up of her gratuitous conk, spittle flecked caramel ghost material, bully-stretched so an exercise ball with- ering, ribbed and pounding; she comes at you.
Could you explain cynghanedd (meaning ‘harmony’) a little bit for a general audience and explain how it influences your poetic practice?
The Welsh metrical tradition is an ancient poetic structure that draws on the repetition of consonants, in addition to rhyme, rhythm and stress. The tradition pre-dates the fifth century with famous examples such as Taliesin and Aneurin using early variations in their poetry. However, my poetic practise has chiefly been influenced by the works and values of the Poets of the Princes, who were medieval Welsh court poets. You can find out more about them here or in Singing in Chains by Mererid Hopwood (Gomer, 2004).
The Welsh metrical tradition began as an oral craft and it is closely associated with the Welsh language. Its aim is to maintain harmony within each line of poetry. The tradition is made up twenty-four measures and four metres. The metres, known as cynghanedd in Welsh, are a vibrant structure which nurtures musicality over narrative sense, especially when its rules have been adapted into English. Indeed, the structure is often presented in a similar way to musical notation with a caesura dividing a line into two or three parts. Consonants are balanced between these parts, and even when the consonants do not match exactly then sound will always take precedence over form.
As someone who does not speak Welsh, my relationship with the tradition is different from a Welsh-language poet. However, while this has disadvantages, it also allows me a sense of freedom. Cynghanedd in English has been written by many poets throughout history, yet it has never been codified in the same way that it has in Welsh. So, accountability is exclusively the responsibility of the poet. I took this responsibility seriously by dedicating my creative and academic energy into learning more about the tradition to then adapt it in a knowledgeable way. I have been using characteristics of the tradition for nearly seven years now.
The line of poetry below is a visual representation of cynghanedd. As a student of cynghanedd, I found that its rules are easier to decipher when written down. Although I would recommend that the line be read out. This is an example from my own work:
a.ur.ae. a.sea. rose. R S / R S
Here the consonants are mirrored on each side (’R’ and ‘S’). This pattern is known as cynghanedd groes; however, stress is a key factor in cynghanedd. The patterns of stress change with each metre but generally it should fall at the same point on each side. I could have done: russet / rose (’R’ and ‘S’ fall on similar syllables) but because of ‘set’ it becomes cynghanedd draws, or the bridging harmony, where certain consonants do not form part of the repetition and therefore are not counted. Although, the repetition of the ‘S’ sound might not be beneficial to the harmony of the line, especially when a distinction between the bridged consonants and repeated consonants is required. In short, cynghanedd requires a grander vocabulary than I possess, which is why I use a thesaurus.
Yet, the restrictive nature of the tradition forced me to narrow and condense my language, effectively distilling each image or voice to its source. It is the emergence of these perspectives and voices that I found to be exciting because the tradition forced me to think outside of my usual poetic practise, creating an opportunity for these voices to speak. The above line formed part of a poem written in one of the twenty-four Welsh forms, and the end-word had to match with a pre-determined rhyming structure. There are more exact examples of cynghanedd in the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, to name a few.
Even using characteristics of the tradition, my poetry has been defined by the Welsh metrical tradition. I was initially drawn to poetry because of the rich and varied history of traditional poetic forms and metre which I discovered as an MA student at Swansea University. However, I came across Singing in Chains by Mererid Hopwood (Gomer, 2004) at Dyffryn Gardens near Cardiff in their gift shop. I had heard of the tradition beforehand as a student but I had dismissed it as Welsh-language poetry, which has become the most common misconception about my work. I devoured the book in a night and its contents became almost an obsession: I researched the history of the tradition further in the university library as well as the poets who used it. Later I began to adapt the forms then metre into English.
The tradition introduced me to a wild and vivacious Wales that was threateningly unfamiliar. Yet, I felt at home in this history and the deeper I delved, the more I saw other people emerge within its narrative. I felt cheated by my education that had not offered me this history, choosing instead to focus on a generic sense of Britishness. The tradition has given me the confidence to add my voice to a Welsh narrative by guiding me into the complexity of the country. My poetry aims to contextualise Welsh history for a broad audience but the forms and metres are themselves a way of reaffirm a Welsh connection.
The Book of Plant and Insults does not include any characteristics of cynghanedd but my knowledge of cynghanedd does affect my poetic practise even when writing in different forms and styles, which I’ve started doing more since graduating from the PhD. I’m always striving to evoke emotions through sound, valuing musicality over narrative sense to nurture a poetic style that emphasises Expressionistic [to present the world from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods] values to represent different identities and their complexities through poetry.
I wonder if you could talk about what you hoped to achieve with the innovative impressions the poem offers?
I like the word “innovative” but, honestly, my work is steeped in history as well as current affairs, often taken from journalistic sources. The past informs the present in my poetry, although I take care not to become nostalgic about history or sentimental when discussing trauma. I take the position of observer, and my creative practise then unleashes an energy which has its own personality. I wouldn’t trust it with a butter knife, let alone anything else. It is the commanding force in the poem. In my thesis, this energy took the form of an Entity which moved throughout the collection, a subversive figure that was intended to encourage readers to reflect on their own subconscious bias of Welsh history and its changing landscape.
However, I’m interested in seeing the world through a selection of impressions. This relates to my interest in Expressionism. It is smaller moments which define a person or history, and I’m interested in creatively engaging with those snapshots to represent different perspectives on a single subject.
For this poem, I wanted readers to feel threatened by the voice as well as the woman in the pink hoodie. The image of the woman came from an article I read years ago which was rediscovered recently in my notes, albeit now a nameless uncredited article which makes me feel exceedingly careless. It was about a Welsh-African man discussing racism, chiefly a racist encounter with the aforementioned woman. I’m pretty sure the encounter occurred during a school run. The fast paced and stressful environment of the school run, as well as the feeling of being closed in, was framed by my choice of language (immure’: enclose or confine [someone] against their will). Also, it was my ambition to unsettle readers through a dominating female presence who is “bully-stretched so an exercise ball”. ‘Bully-stretched’ refers to a greater societal influence on the woman perpetuating the violence.
Following on from this, the voice is speaking to a “boy” within the poem but it is also speaking to the reader. I was building to an almost farcical effect of a woman angrily approaching a camera until all that is left to see is erratic flesh. “Gratuitous” is an act done without reason, is uncalled for or something done for free, and “conk” has multiple meanings, including the break down of a machine, fainting or falling asleep, in addition to its more obvious connection to death. This multiplicity further defines my use of language, which I hope escalates throughout the poem to an inescapable conclusion. Although, there are other images in the poem that exist in their own space without being completely disconnected from the primary narrative. Pandora is a key figure in the poem, and she’s introduced through the image of “phlox”.
I’m passionate about plants and their uses, especially their effect on the body. Phlox can be made into a tea to treat stomach and intestinal disorders, in addition to a blood purifier or for treating boils and eczema. Its roots can be steeped and used as eyewash. The poem is about being consumed, as well as lost within a broader more threatening power. “Boy expires woman” yet the voice commands the “boy”. Each voice in the poem is swallowed as if the reader is looking through a kaleidoscope; nothing there should be stable and everything is just getting worse until the poem ends, which by that time, the woman is already there, spraying her “spittle” without regard for human life. I was particularly struck by the fact that throughout Covid-19, some people have used coughing as a means of attack, chiefly when the police are involved. Humans are particularly good at finding inventive ways to hurt each other. This weaponization of bodily fluids is disconcerting. So, to hurt someone you don’t need to touch them, really. You never did anyway, but the pandemic has made it more widely known now.
This leads to my use of Pandora, who is commonly known for opening a jar or box filled with sickness, disease and other evils and thereby unleashing it on the world. I wanted to place Pandora back in her own language by using the Greek word. Thus, making her unfamiliar to a Western readership.
The cruelty of the Greek gods is fascinating, and I am deeply invested in their stories. It started as a shallow interest, instigated by my namesake, Rhea, who was the wife of Cronus as well as his sister. Her story is much more than babies and stones but that’s not relevant here. Pandora was a creation of Zeus, and she was presented to Prometheus’ (he gave fire to mortals) brother Epimetheus as a punishment and as a way of counteracting the blessing given to the world by Prometheus. In her own mythology, this figure is much more complex than presented in Western culture and by removing the familiarity of her name for most readers then a new perspective can emerge and in this poem, the pink hoodie is the contents from an open jar.
There are separate images within the poem, and “Chocolate-eyed merch dives into bell jars” was influenced by a male character from a fantasy fanfiction which explores a relationship between two males in an enforced political vampire-human marriage. And, already I’m picturing the judgemental expressions. The story is about leaping from one madness to another. This delves deeper into the impact upon the original speakers, who have since become lost amongst other dominating voices, and where the Plathian imagery becomes overt. The voice is diving from one jar to another, this madness, far from being debilitating – which in a modern society it usually is – gives the voice an indominable presence.