Festival Readings: Summer 2018

24 07 2018

Remember the snows before Easter? The storms personified with cousins’ names? In a spring that seems an age ago now, I accepted a series of invitations to read at literary festivals.  They seemed so far into the future, that despite advising everyone on Twitter and Facebook to ‘tattoo the dates’ on their forearms, I didn’t plot the events on the kitchen calendar myself.  So it was that July became the month my wife now refers to as ‘three readings and a house move’ and that kitchen calendar is somewhere in a box-fort in the shed.

The RS Thomas festival in Aberdaron, I discovered too late, had clashed with the Terry Hetherington Awards Prize at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea and the launch of Cheval 11, which I had co-edited with Rose Widlake.  Fortunately, getting to Swansea on a Friday night from North Wales, is as notoriously difficult as getting a fixed moving-in date from a buyer’s solicitors, so I was excused the odyssey to South Wales by the founder Aida Birch, and encouraged to drive West Walesward to deliver a talk on the many guises of ‘Iago Prytherch’.  Or, more to the point, the many interpretations of Iago Prytherch according to the many guises of RS Thomas.

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Susan Forgerty had organised a weekend of activities celebrating the life and work of Thomas and his wife, the artist, Mildred Eldridge.  My own reading, for which the gallery space in the National Trust Centre at Porth-y-Swnt was uncomfortably warm and uncomfortably full, was a rewarding and fulfilling hour.  As well as sharing my own poems and revealing how they were inspired by the RS Thomas I’d been force-fed at school, spoon-fed at university and has been cluster-feeding on thereafter.  I was fortunate to hear work read by poets in the audience and, most special of all, had the opportunity to listen to Jack Rendell read his poems from Cheval 11.  Having had anecdotes about hedgehogs and moles exchanged on the night, it was a perplexing Saturday morning to encounter both animals on our journey home.  The hedgehog, curled in my son’s unbelieving hands like a dragon’s egg; the mole with his paddling paws and sleepshut eyes.

At Lit Caerleon, seven days later, our solicitor was on holiday and the house move was still to be finalised.  So, my wife and I travelled to Newport, abandoning the empty boxes in the hallway, where we were greeted into the event marquee by the most welcoming of hugs from Rajvi Glasbrook, who, along with her husband Jon and a committee of benevolent literature-aholics organise Wales’ most intimate of festivals.  After my own reading, I spent a few wonderful hours in the company of writers and poets and readers and met a cast of names that Twitter had made me feel were as friends: Tony Curtis, Mab Jones, Murray Lachlan Young, Natalie Holborrow, Joao Morais, Dan Tyte.  I met another talented poet from the Terry Hetherington Award, Niall Ivin, and revelled in the conversation between Gary Raymond, Craig Austin and Patrick Mcguinness.  Their pertinent debate about being unable to witness history as it happens about you, yet being compelled to reflect on in art reminded me of two A-Level years of dismayed notetaking about the Corn Laws, and to question whether Brexit will be more astonishing for students in two hundred years than it is presently.  Everybody was having too much fun to tell me that the roads would be closed until midday the next day for a cycle race I’d never heard of.

And then we moved house.

Subsequently, I travelled alone last weekend to Holyhead to read at the Gwyl Cybi Festival in the Ucheldre Centre while my wife waved a wallpaper steamer in goodbye at me as I challenged the summerholidaycaravantailbacks of the A55.  Having judged the poetry competition for the events, together with Manon Ros, I was eager to translate the anonymous entries into real faces and accents.  Vanessa Owen and Karen Ankers had assembled a line-up of local singers and poets and had encouraged applicants from across Wales and Northern England to attend to read their verse.   Martin Daws read an memorable, impassioned ode to Bethesda, James Lloyd read two poems from Cheval 11, and a breathless Matthew Smith arrived from his Swansea-origin in time to announce: his first time in North Wales; first time camping; first time entering a poetry a poetry competition, and, as I was about to discover, hearing the poem I’d selected as the winner being read aloud in a hopeful but unknowing voice; first time winning a competition.

When I got home, my wife had pulled the wallpaper from the living room and exposed the names of the former incumbents on the walls.  The following day, a tourist stopped outside and, brittle as old paper, wound his way up the short, steep drive.  He revealed how he’d lived here when the house was first built and how the signature on one of the walls was his.

Having enjoyed a month of hearing others’ poetry, I felt a new poem had just announced itself at my new front door.

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A Feast of Words: Gwledd Conwy

29 10 2017

Just as the final workshop of the weekend grew the longest of shadows, a family crept inside the Conwy Youth Centre, at the corner of Bodlondeb Park and the Agriculture Site of this year’s Feast territory, and asked whether it was too late to write a poem.

While their parents wrapped themselves in the steam of their tall coffees, a brother and sister from Chester began searching the event programme for lines of text that could reside in a sensory poem, and rephrasing them so they were ten syllables each.

We discussed rhyme schemes and rearranged an order, argued over a title and an ending and settled on a completed poem.  The process of finding and writing and discussing and publishing took fifteen minutes.   The family helped me wash the cups I’d used over the previous days, to take down the washing line of free verse poems about pumpkins, crab fishing, small houses and sprawling castles, to return the furniture to its familiar grooves in the carpet and to switch of the lights.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Feast of Words site was hosted by the storyteller and host of Venue Cymru’s Young Storyteller of Wales 2017, Bethan Mascheranas, and by Bangor University, whose affable, academic lecturers spoke on themes of ‘identity’ and the ‘home’, and of the unique teacher, Mr Kite, who inspired a set of ubiquitous lyrics from The Beatles.

I found a window for a break and walked amongst wide crowds down the Main Street, a tide of visitors at the harbour and back through the stalls and stands in the park.

Unlike Saturday, when I kneeled on the floor like an anchorite assembling webs of poems all afternoon and stood only to swoon and clamour about the visits of the linguist David Crystal and poet Patience Agbabi.  A fine day.

Tomorrow, while all the detritus is being cleared from the quay, the marquees are being eased into hibernation and the offices of the Feast begin planning the 2018 event on a page of exciting, nervous blank paper, I may cross the bridge to Conwy and write up a poem I began while sitting at the dock with my wife on Saturday evening.  I hope very much to, it was a kind moment in a charmed weekend.





Recent Publications: Noble Gas Quarterly / The Lampeter Review / The Gull

4 03 2017
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Nobel Gas Quarterly is a journal that seasonally publishes art, poetry and prose online. The Spring issue, which was released last week, contains rich new work by an international menu of aspirational writers, not least Beth Gilstrap, Benjamin Winkler and Craig Burnett.

The journal can be read online, for free, at: http://noblegas.org/

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The Gull, only in its second issue, is already an acclaimed collective of Swansea genius assembled by its editor Chris Cornwell.  It is brazen in its ambition and irresistible in its apposition of artwork, poetry, playscript, interview and cartoon. The pair of photographs, by Ian Kalinowski are typical of this entirely atypical, but free, magazine.

247 other pages of original art and writing can be enjoyed at: https://thegullmagazine.wordpress.com/the-gull-issue-no-1/

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TLR, The Lampeter Review, is the prestigious journal from Lampter’s Creative Writing Centre.

The recent issue, which arrived to my house in a beautiful binding, is also available online here: http://lampeter-review.com/

On page 48 is a poem by Simon Cockle that could embody this entire magazine: it is academic, thoughtful and will insist you return to it frequently.  The editorial, by the writer and poet Kathy Miles, is worthy alone of anyone’s morning commute reading.

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Next month, poems will feature in Zelda Chappel’s pertinent collection ‘A Furious Hope’, The Cardiff Review and a review of Tony Curtis’ collected poems, The Fortunate Isles, will be published on the Wales Arts Review.





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.)





O Captain! My Captain!

27 07 2014

He claps lined hands together,
rubs one through the palm of the other
as if he is testing its grain.
His tongue is swung over
the gate of his grin like a leg
that kicks in time to the clock hands.
Not daring to turn, we all check the hour
through his face, see how his eyelids pull
tautly and tremble when the lunch bell comes.
And then he staggers forward for the chase
to clear a solar system of balls from the yard. But,

today he stops, his frame ducks
in the doorway, and turns.
‘No one late this afternoon. No excuses.’
His foot draws a slice out of the ox blood
carpet tile; it guillotines literature in two,
announces lunch.
Usually, we run up the hill
to my house in time for Neighbours, Home and Away,
fry the bacon black, throw it down the hatch,
then back, back, back,
in time for the fifth period bell. But,

today we refuse to rush the plan
we’ve rehearsed. Hudd’s bag heaves
with goods nabbed: chorizo, quail eggs, cigars,
sangria. He strategises on stealing
the absurd from Iceland – theming
thefts to evade suspicion. He taps his nose,
‘No one inspects the Spanish exhibition.’
We watch Dead Poets’ Society in confessional quiet
until he purges himself of his mum’s worries:
all the missed lessons; the Advocaat bottles;
pornos wrapped up in university prospectusus. Prospectusi. Prospectuses. ‘But,

today we’ll call the school and pretend to be God’, I say
we’ll reassure his mum to seize her own days.
He won’t look at me though,
he wants to sew the introductions
back in the books. And so we return,
too late to escape punishment, two heads
for the axe. We expect him sullenly staring
out the at the car park, brooding
at the bumpers backed up against the window,
dwelling on our transgression,
a hand rested on a telephone. But

Instead he’s standing on a desk, helicoptering
his arms, vibrating the room, stamping
on Jones’ book, screaming, face blooded
by belief. The boys are in triumph,
applauding as one congregation. Their chorus
carries him aloft. And I understand too late,
that we are outside, silent and holding nothing.

O captain! my captain,
you didn’t make our seconds slow
you didn’t crave to see us gone,
you ached for us not to go.





The Grave of a Ground (Port Vale 2 Crawley Town 2, Saturday 6th August 2011)

30 01 2013

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There is sense in cemeteries and symmetry
in gravestones. The cross is a puzzle of stations
but when I link the points I find flags,
badges, shields, coffins.

The workshop could be replanted with offcuts,
try oak Mr Williams grins. Stable for the table.
He traces calloused fingertips on a spiderweb grain.
Black ash is cheap and cheerless.

He shows me how to saw odd angles so they sleep
as snug as dovetails, then preaches to the class
of my dedication: lathing late, sanding all spring.
Diligence makes the best bookcase.

He never asks to see my plans, discerns cab’net
when I mumble casket. He signs a yellow slip
so I can work through lunch drawing and etch
three chalky white letters on the lid.
Dad is in the Head’s office all afternoon,
loudly warning my mother I’m macabre. He nods,
she sobs and my name is shadowed out from
the school show brochures in thick marker.
Sir wouldn’t look at me the Saturday,
my brother and me screwed on brass handles
and trudged it home. It was David’s idea to take it
to the stadium, prop it against the Railway Stand
to take turns stealing glances at the game
but men touched the casket like mourners
as we passed, offering to shoulder the weight.
‘A coffin’s not as heavy as a death,’ said a voice

outside the Bull’s Head and he lay a folded scarf
inside the lid. Pin badges and pennants and papers
thrown in as the landlord sang sermons. I rang
the pub bell’s lonely chime as the procession filed away.

People eddied in the swell outside the ground
rolling against the metal gates in grumbling waves
until sirens stanched the flow. Helicopters hummed
all evening and the heat dripped out the day.

While the weatherman’s arm covered the Potteries
from overnight storms, Mum warned me not to sleep
through my alarm. Her voice smoothed silences
dug up by news footage of a match day melee.

I found photos of the coffin and the crowds
in all but one of the Sundays and read reports
of riots until the print was fat with rain.
I posted the puddles with each paper.

They hadn’t even mentioned my name.
There was nothing noted of how I’d mixed ink
with filler to cover the screw holes,
contoured the edges so it’d be lighter.

Outside the club is an ashen mound. A handful
of black sawdust, weightless and portentous.
A coffin is not as heavy as a death.