The final days: residency at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse

25 10 2016

The Boathouse crowds eddied in the bright light all week.  As the weather calmed and the sun visited more generously, tourists to Laugharne sat by the wide bay for longer and longer.  On one welcoming day, a pair of dog-walkers and their muddy corgi,  arrived when the River Taf was heavy in the estuary and left when it was barely visible; we’d spent much of the afternoon in the Thomas’ yard together.

Commonly, visitors would arrive like the garden’s resident robin, flying down in fleeting sortees and disappearing just as anonymously.  Some came in passing flocks, such as the affable murmuration from University of Wales Trinity St Davids, staying to pick at Welsh teas, to share scones, to warm their wings.  They spoke in a vibrant rabble of Mandarin, French, Canadian and the yard seemed hushed and dusky when they’d flown away.  And others were regular migrants, visiting the Writing Shed and the Boathouse on an annual, or more frequent pilgrimage.  

The writer and poet John Bilsborough came to collect some books from his residency the week before.  He showed me the stunning collection of writers’ names and messages he’d gathered in his career journal: R.S. Thomas; Victoria Wood; John Betjemen.  Another artist to visit was the seascape painter Gareth Hugh Davies, who brought his family of illustrators for lunch.  All indulged the drawing challenge with their unique styles, Gareth’s daughter indulged me with her sketchbook which was flawlessly assembled and carefully beautiful.  

While other guests were noteworthy for their energy and vigour, such as a rare pair of articulate children from Penrith who produced the most-savage of sea imagery.

And memorable for their charisma, as a poetess and her husband who drew and drew and drew and shared their literature passions as though we were long friends. 

 

After work one day, I visited Newport and read at The Lonely Crowd launch evening.  Heavy roadworks choked the journey there, and the M4 on the drive home felt as long as a continent.  Though the few hours spent in the Murenger were more stimulating and satisfying that I could have gleefully anticipated.  Hosted by John Lavin, readings from Tony Curtis, Carla Manfredino, Alix Nathan, John Freeman, Craig Austin, Rebecca Lawn formed a collage illustrating just how intriguing the literature scene is in South Wales currently.  Chris Cornwell read his ‘Last Night Down Whetstone Road’ in a voice glossy with Dylan’s aesthetic verve for phonetics, Gary Raymond read a story about immigration and fear and stereotype, and veiled pertinent satire around wonderful, characters such as the tale’s ubiquitous Ellis.       

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Ordinarily, on a Friday afternoon, I’d be stood in Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn’s assembly hall, watching certificates be awarded to inspired learners.  On this occasion, they were watching the boathouse and writing shed through my eyes.  Or, more precisely, through a FaceTime connection.  The Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Raynor, was in attendance at the school, together with a local MP, and they observed the whole school attempt a modern twist on a Dylan Thomas poem:  ‘Have you Ever Seen Half Term

On the weekend, my wife arrived with my son and we took the work from the week along Dylan’s route about Sir John’s Hill.  While retreading ‘The Birthday Walk’, she helped me film a video compilation of illustrations, my son made atmospheric leaf rustling effects and lingered precariously on steep images.

On one afternoon, when Dylan’s door was leaned shut, two ladies from the boathouse improvised a reading from my poem ‘Caitlin’, in response to Dylan’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ and I filmed it to store for when my debut collection, ‘Conversations’, is published next year.  Or for when Judith or Elen achieve fame in their respective fields of ceramics and translation.  Back at ‘The Pelican’, housing and feeding me until I began to bloat and sprout tight curls of hair, I was given lessons on sculpture and whisky by the artist David Gunther.

And yesterday, I drove my family home.  Home.  Up the serpentine Aberystywth Road.  My son was poorly as we passed Dolgellau, poorly as we approached Machynlleth, as though he was already enduring withdrawal symptoms from his brief time in Laugharne.  Reflecting back today, I too feel a stab homesick for a place that had become so welcoming to me.  

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Residency at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

19 10 2016

Day One, Two and Three

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Arriving at the house each morning has been scintillating.

Because of the Boathouse’s autumnal, late-breakfast starts, I have been allowed and extra hour to walk Sir John’s Hill before doors officially open, and have been refreshed and challenged by the unique way of starting a day.  So, on the broad hill opposite Dylan Thomas’ riverside home, instead of the morning commute and the breakfast routine, I have been counting wrens, identifying distant mountains, trying not to appear alarmed at advancing dairy cows.  In place of registering a class of effervescing pupils, I have had an entire bay of calm space to indulge in.

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Every day has had involved meeting with visitors to the Boathouse and encouraging them to share in Dylan Thomas’ imagery, particularly in regard to ‘Poem in October’ and ‘Vision and Prayer’.  And each day will remain memorable for intriguing exchanges or unique encounters: the passing visit to the house by Wales’ Young Person’s Laureate, Sophie Mckeand, and by the Irish author, Andrew Phillip Smith; a visit from Noel James, the ubiquitous driver of the touring ‘writing shed’ around Britain during the Dylan Thomas 100 celebrations; having Scottish poetry recited effortlessly by a lady from Shetland while her son and I watched in amazement, meeting the kindest of folk and shared in their kindest of tales, their poetry recommendations, their thoughts on Dylan.

The most common sensation I’ve experienced though is a blend of euphoria and sadness, for most people who have shared their ideas with me have continued to comment, ‘I haven’t spoken about books in a long time,’ while others have modestly footnoted that their artistic achievements took place, ‘a long, long time ago’.  That a simple sketch, such as this one,  can be the first drawing a qualified illustrator has completed in over a decade, is giving the collective poem a value I had not anticipated.

The rediscovered experiences are paired with utterly fresh ones: yesterday, I read aloud some poetry in Dutch, was asked to ‘be quiet’ while the documentary on Dylan played, was beaten at ‘paper, scissors, stone’ by a four year old (who may have actually been three), stroked a dozen dogs and, finally, did not see the estuary mist up on sudden and heavy rain.

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I even managed to scribble to quick poem, based on a wonderful line Joyce fed to me earlier in the week, and that I had almost forgotten:

‘The weather arrives on the tide, leaves on the tide’

The weather arrives with the tide,

Leaving a grey-windowed sky,

Stilling the house in Sunday parlour silence.

So families wring their wet afternoon

Strung out like a dripping queue

Of clothes, heavy on a washing line,

Blown about the autumnal house:

The apple-red mantelpiece,

red-currant skirting, alder-red cushion,

and Dylan’s windy voice gusts upstairs,

ruddy-cheeked visions and prayers.

The weather leaves with the tide,

And leaves the bay shining,

Glowing, as thick and full,

As a charged glass of red wine.

Each Boathouse day, I have been made to feel entirely welcome by the staff: Toby answers my questions without showing frustration, and gives me enough of his knowledge so that I may, in turn, appear knowledgeable while misinforming visitors; Joyce and Lindsay introduced me to the local gull population, Paul showed me pictures of his stunning portraits, Carol her poetry, Judith her sculpture.  They are blessed with enough craft to inhabit a gallery, but instead have been modestly introducing me as the ‘resident artist’ – mostly before I’m asked for coffee and cake from an arriving tour party.

(Thanks warmly to Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn in Colwyn Bay for allowing me the time to be away, and to Nic and Arthur who are doing the same.)





Montgomery Christmas Lights

29 11 2014

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When the heads stopped surfacing at the window –
like skimmed stones – there jarred three blue-tit taps at the door.
A man, mittened by orchard shadow,
pointed and hurried –
his torch dimmed, his urgency thinned –

as he passed me in the passage.
I followed him to the garden’s velvet dark
and discerned there ten muffled men,
all bowed to the pit,
quarrying prayers from the coal lawn.

The sunken outhouse roof
became a brokenbacked hillside
and a figure nearby shone as a distant beacon –
a cigarette in the sea –
until another pyre ignited and burning bulbs

lit up the garden like a skipping rope.
Once they gathered their fireflies,
Waved, thanked me, locked the shed,
Urged me to indoor warmth,
I sat at the glass and saw as dullness settled again

a dew grew gold and recollective. When I slept
I dreamt the scene but flourished the loop of light
with the familiar – the church clock, flicked ferns,
a wheelbarrow reservoiring. And, as I woke to winter’s slim sun,
I discovered my garden still decorated in memory.

This poem was written following a request at the ‘Poetry Takeaway’ event at the Gregynog Festival. A ten minute poem based on the anecdote of a resident who recalled her recent discovery of the town centre’s decoration in her shed.





Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard

28 11 2014

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Tell me your tasks in order:
list them listlessly
in stuttering staccato,
the squared silence saturating
every cloistered chore.

Bleach the affection
from your midnight routines,
scrape a space each-
a grave scratching of a plot
beside my breaking coldness.

I will peninsula this dark
and you will be my coves, my sea,
beachcombing the lonely bays
of this marriage together.
Tell me your taks in order.

This poem was written following a request at the ‘Poetry Takeaway’ event at the Gregynog Festival. A ten minute poem based on the event organiser’s necklace bearing the quotation of the first and last lines.





Touch and Go: Dylan Thomas in Montgomery (15/16th November)

12 11 2014

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Poet in Residence – Dylan Thomas’ Writing Shed – Chester Literature Festival

13 10 2014

The one way system to the city’s traffic had tide changed. There was a new estate in the street I had expected to park my car in.  Chester had been building in the six years since I’d left it and my walk to Dylan’s writing shed was diverted by streets newly formed and structures newly thriving.

In the centre, however, the city remained similar: same pubs, The Red Lion (where I will forever remember watching Liverpool’s fortnightly Champions League melodrama simmer as surprisingly as any Dickens’ potboiler), same squares of grass (the Cathedral cricket strip that I watched fallen catches break like birds’ eggs, then clutched a fizzing ball on the boundary in the gloom), the slightly squalid Town Hall square (that my girlfriend of a decade, in the middle of Christmas Markets, let me leave our lonely love behind).

It was exhilarating to step in the Writing shed again, to sit in the sagging wicker chair and look up at the portraits of Brooke, Lawrence and Dylan himself.  It was a relief to be away from my nostalgia and enter somebody else’s.

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The first gentleman who asked for a poem declared, ‘I’m not a great lover of poetry, music is the new verse’ and, thus, verbatim, I wrote down the opening lines of a piece which tracked the calm cadence of his voice and compared him, albeit kindly, to sheepdog and candle smoke.  He took his poem like a medicine, wincing, then swallowing the concept whole.

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The next couple, watch checking restlessly, requested a poem for their forty-fourth anniversary.  They told me that, four years before, they had celebrated their Ruby Anniversary but this one was one for a dinner, calm, the afternoon, a walk on the walls.  I don’t think they came back to claim it.

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And the afternoon strode on and I was quickly left clutching a pad of bespoke poems that had nothing but titles.  I wrote one about a local charity, one about the journey on the A55, one about poetry, one about a woman’s wonderful neologism, one about pens, one about pain, one about, one about, one about.

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When it began raining the crowds huddled away and I held on to a stack of orders.  But instead of filling them out, I contrasted the swollen, pencil point-eyed poet from the Collected Stories I was using to lean on, with the one in the Augustus John painting above the shed window.  I wrote for a minute and cursed him his infinite flaws.

The final poem I hung to the washing line was for the festival organiser, who asked for something to remind her of a Bucket List success in Moorish Spain and the watercolours it had stirred in her.  The poems I have still to produce are for a creative writing student from the local university, for a kind fellow of the festival who gave me the compelling catalyst ‘hedgehogs’ and for the two people who have rolled the Writing Shed both around their imaginations and the country for the past year.

So, when I left and followed my footsteps back to the car, I tried to think of how I write something that would do more than acknowledge the efforts of the last pair, something instead that could crown their commitments.  Something that will aptly say thank you to them for taking Dylan Thomas to schools and imaginations, something that will thank them for bringing him back to me.

Somewhere damp, burrowed under the crimsoned leaves of Aumtum, I’ll find the right words searching for worms and tease them out into the weak winter sun.

In a fortnight, when we will fill the space again at the Touch and Go: Dylan Thomas in Montgomery event in Mid-Wales, I will begin by pinning up these poems.





Dylan Thomas’ writing shed

18 08 2014

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Dylan Thomas’ writing shed snuggled into place on Conwy’s quayside, it looked like it had grown on the wharf naturally. The Liverpool Arms, pouring into the view from his open curtained windows, seemed as though it was musty with tales of Thomas’ games of cats and dogs, of Caitlin, of Vernon Watkins, bruised bottles, and of words worming.

I settled into the wicker chair and tried to write nine poems. In twelve minutes. The queue for the ‘Sunday takeaway’ hadn’t abated and the clothes line, full of thematic requests varying from Whales to Wales, had begun to sag slightly. I wrote, trying not to move anything on the desk, trying to move myself from any tourists’ photograph, trying to look a little at Thomas’ gallery of faces, his lists of assonance, trying, trying.

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And when I had conquered the orders and the glutinous diners were licking the bones of my briefest verse, I hastened off to read a selection of nature poems in the Guild Hall. Between Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Martin Daws, and its Poet Laureate, Gillian Clarke, my poems felt rushed and riddled and the hour was longer than it seemed. But the room was full and the audience was kind enough to smile when they were supposed to, frown when I prompted to. And all the books I took were gone when I left.

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The day before, a string of wonderful writers collected words from Conwy’s web of walls and we amassed poems from the produce. Hinton’s bookshop provided their cloister for the task, their kettle for the process.

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In the evening David Crystal enchanted an audience on the ‘100 words that made English’ and spoke of the reasons why ‘roe deer’ was a crucial to the language as ‘thingy’ and ‘dooberry’ and ‘Twittersphere’.

The highlight? A Spanish couple who arrived to Dylan’s shed and, instead of taking a poem, took away a request for one. I gave them the catalyst ‘charity’ and they gave me back ‘A Toast for Glyn’. Inside the poem were the lines, ‘now, he’s the host of Thomas’ ghost’ and, for that sentiment alone, thank you.