Photo credit: pret-a-portrait | Interview by Zoë Brigley
“My work has an absorption in the baby or child, reaching into their sensual, physical and emotional world through imagery, speech and metaphor”
St David’s, Pembrokeshire
By the Irish sea, gorse lanes, he races to meet the Magic Lady. I’d memorised your white, nun-like aura, made you a story in our night; expected you to surprise us, step from your Goddess plinth, smiling. A lowly greeting at the bend, you hung, cooped at the well, untended, asleep to your charm, daffodils rotting in arms. My son is happier to seek coins for the well. Carid, you must wish, I insisted on the holy. To the nunnery, doll’s church, over the fence, in dusk. Marching on the neat lawn, my rebel son – legs no longer than a fox’s. Angels in the garden stir. Opening the oak door, to a mother, Jesus to chest – poised to launch into this bird cage of a church. You are a breathless cast, squeezed. Pale at the altar, pleading for colour, a voice for the sisters: Blodeuwedd, Rhiannon, Cerridwen, Gwenhwyfar… My son tugs to go – tiny church ghost in the stone’s dust, lips dry for water, breath steaming on a line of candles. We step back in the aisle, mosaic lit, necks crooked, and in a last halo of sun, Non, Mary, woman! Springing from your arch, flesh from glass, you dance, veil tossed to stars.
Children feature in your poems quite a bit. I was delighted that you were recently Highly Commended in the Wales Poetry Award 2022 for your poem ‘First Steps in Fishguard’. Do children lend themselves to the poet’s point of view which might include seeing things anew?
Thank you, yes, my Poetry Wales Award poem explores the momentous first few steps of my son! As Gwyneth Lewis so wonderfully reflected, it was not a ‘flashy’ poem, but used imagery around childhood to reflect the mutuality of the mother and child, such as my face akin to the ‘nursery rhyme moon’, eye contact, ‘the jigsaw of us’ and ‘that safe collapse’. I was so happy to hear the poem had been recognised in the Award. In general, yes, my son – Sol – appears in my poems in what I call the ‘third space’ of motherhood (or parenting). I describe this as an eclipsed place of transformation, on many levels that shifts the poetic eye.
The child in poetry can bring so much, from lateral viewpoints, wonderfully surreal dialogue and of course growth, phases, and perspectives that in my PhD I worked hard to reflect and narrate poetically. The child offers perpetual first experiences that bring wonder and celebration and ideas on role and rebirth for the mother. Commentary on the labour of parenting both historically and contemporaneously comes with the child-parent interweave as aesthetic conduit. My whole thesis explores motherhood from a triangular analytical tool (on motherhood, sexuality, and place) and is dedicated to the poetic ‘I’ as mainly an epistemic maternal ‘I’, which pivots on shifted perspective culturally, socially and personally in response to pregnancy, birth and early mothering. I look at oppositional interplays in ‘egg space’ a lot and aim for my poems to spotlight and elevate the hidden, taboo, conflicting or overlooked areas within mother-work. I have poems about birth trauma, the ‘funereal’ drive home from hospital, breast-feeding, potty-training on Mother’s Day, losing the first tooth, quest journeys, conversations on death and so on. The backdrop to many of my poems is single parenting, and I see this as concentrating the ‘third space’ of motherhood.
My work has an absorption in the baby or child, reaching into their sensual, physical and emotional world through imagery, speech and metaphor, whether that be the ‘caterpillar spine’ of the neonate in Birthday, the ‘world as a tightrope’ in First Steps in Fishguard, his ‘legs no longer than a fox’s’ in St Non or the son’s more advanced musings and reflections between mother and child of love as ‘a lost creature’ in Eros. I find that the child in poetry expands my lexicon and imagination, for example using colour, animals and simile in ways that embrace the child’s discovery of the world. My son, Sol, really has been the primary force and motivation of my reawakened poetry over the last ten years, and my three new chapbook collections pays special thanks to his witness, inspiration, and encouragement.
This poem features St Non whose stories and versions of stories about her have always fascinated me. What is the attraction for you?
My first encounter with St Non was when I visited the chapel at St David’s in Pembrokeshire many years ago, before I had my son. I was touched by the wild liminal setting on the edge of an epic coastline and the air of intimacy around the sacred Mother Mary. I have a deep spiritual interest the capacity of the mother and creation. The St Non visit showed me several Marys. Firstly, there was the statue by the well that each time I visited seemed to have eroded and the huge cast of Mary in the chapel. The chapel version of Mary sat in the delicate, tiny church, only just squeezed before the altar, she had a different character and poise. I became interested in versions and replications of the Divine Feminine, as well as ideas on rise and fall, time, aging and space as open or restricted in relation to representing the sacrality of mothering.
My poem St Non was written after I’d taken my son to the well and the church, in what I have described as the ‘third space’ of motherhood. Here I was able to again see the features of the space in another perspective, that of material regeneration, potential and the magic and mystery around birth, alongside the practicality of being a mother. The experience of St Non is akin to a complex or maze, there is a winding road to it, gorse paths, an old ruin of a chapel, the rebuilt ‘bird cage’ of a church, the chattering well, gentle hills and a quiet retreat centre, with the Irish Sea framing it. Being a site of mythic connection to St Non as the mother of St David, this also interested me that space can be associated with origin of story around nation, mythic persona, and juggle with masculine and feminine icons. I later found out that St Non was apparently raped. This cast a new light on the subjects search for feminine support in other aspects of deity in mythic Welsh Goddesses, and in my final stanza to show her independent physical joy and psycho-spiritual liberation.
Your stanza length varies. How do you know when it is time to have a stanza break? Is it a turn in events or a turn of thought? How do you decide?
My poetry, as is many people’s is very visual. In some ways I am working akin to a film script, moving from scene to scene, but it really depends on each poem, as I don’t always use stanza breaks and often break to a new stanza for dialogue, which I always italicise. The stanza needs to be a whole poem in a way and have done its job in that scene or room (in the Italian translation). There is usually some pivotal action, thought, object or image in each stanza, otherwise it appears vacant and I am left with poetic frustration! In St Non there is a logical connection of shifting place and journey, as the poem’s stanzas moves from the lane, the statue and well area, the chapel garden, through the door and into the revelation by the altar.
Some of my poems use enjambment with lines to spread the action or thought into the next stanza, for suspense or flow. I don’t have an exact rule but if it’s a very brief stanza, such as a single line or word, that has to sit in context usually as a powerful emotion such as loss or loneliness or some sort of hiatus in relation to the subject. I use stanza breaks to occasionally pause from the poetic intensity around, say, trauma or abuse, to allow everyone to take a breath! Conversely at times, I edit out stanza breaks to form claustrophobia, heighten pace or reflect an emotional overload in the text. Words gather to form community in a stanza and that always relates to the title or poem’s impetus. I ask what am I conveying and how can I best guide this vision or idea through space? There will always be options, sometimes a simple scene by scene stanzaic structure is exactly right, especially for such a traversing plot-based narrative that is so spatially set, step by step, as in St Non.
In St Non I wanted to convey something quite ephemeral to the reader, so I chose not to blur or confuse through overly experimental structure of form. Other times, I break stanzas up, fracturing the lines with indents to show discord and disruption. In my prose poems, the conforms of poetry and spacing are challenged and I don’t include any stanza breaks. Although the exception to this is in an epistle poem to my blood, called Dear Blood which ends on a single word stanza,
You can now watch Guinevere reading her Highly Commended poem First Steps in Fishguard at the Wales Poetry Award 2022 Awarding Ceremony, recorded in May 2023, here:
Guinevere Clark (she/her) holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Swansea University, exploring the poetics of motherhood, sexuality, and place. Her first collection is Fresh Fruit and Screams, (Bluechrome). She’s Highly Commended with Hammond House (2022), and Ambit (2020), appears in Magma, A3, Minerva Rising, Black Bough, Culture Matters, Atlanta Review and was shortlisted for the Wales Poetry Award 2022. She teaches poetry at The Taliesin Arts Centre and for a Welsh Government funded writers development project. She is part of the George Barker family
You can follow her on Twitter @guinevere_baubo, Instagram @guinevere_clark_poetry, and Facebook as ‘Poetry by Guinevere Clark‘
Her website is www.guinevereclark.com
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