The Birthday Waltz

6 12 2017

A piano accompaniment by my friend, Daniel Trevithick, of a poem featured in Issue 8 of The Lonely Crowd.  The poem was written during a ten day residency in the Dylan Thomas Boathouse and seeks to interpret the voice of Vernon Watkins as he searches for his friend Dylan Thomas in and around his Laugharne home.  The poems structure is based on Thomas’ The Birthday Walk.

Daniel is a guitarist and percussionist in the band Black Mountain Lights.

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Cheval 10: Edited by Rose Widlake, Glyn Edwards, Jonathan Edwards

28 06 2017

This week the Terry Hetherington Award celebrated its tenth birthday.  The prize, created in memory of the eponymous poet is awarded annually to a Welsh writer aged between 18-30, and was won by Christopher Hyatt.

The award was presented at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea and featured readings from many of the writers published in the associated Parthian anthology, Cheval 10.

Editing this anthology with previous winners Rose Widlake and Jonathan Edwards was a great privilege.  The book features a tender foreword by Terry Hetherington’s partner Aida Birch, and his poem ‘The Veteran’, an intelligent preface Editor Jonathan Edwards, a front cover designed by Sion Thomas Owen, and new storied and poems by over twenty talented writers.

 

Cheval 10 is available from Parthian books for £7.99 and also includes previously unpublished work by Katya Johnson, Thomas Tyrrell, Kathy Chamberlain, Mari Ellis Dunning, Conor Derbyshire, Thomas Baker, Marina Baker, Martina Biavati, Rylan Clarke, Ellen Davies, Rhodri Diaz, Rhian Elizabeth, Emily Green, Kimberley Houlihan, Lucy Ann Jones, Philip Jones, Rebecca Lawn, Lowri Llewelyn, Cynan Llwyd, Mercia Louise, Jonathan Macho,  Patricia Mathes, Lucy Menon, Durre Shahwar Mughal, Nathan Llywelyn Munday, Jack Orchard, Rhea Seren Phillips, Jack Rendell, Jessica Mae Shelley, Gareth Smith, Christina Thatcher, Daniel Williams and Rhys Owain Williams. https://www.parthianbooks.com/products/cheval-10

To submit work for next year’s prize, and for consideration in Cheval 11, please follow http://chevalwriters.org.uk/young_writers_award.html

 





Review: ‘From the Fortunate Isles’ by Tony Curtis

28 03 2017

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This book gives accommodation to five decades of Curtis’ career in literature.  Selected poems from ten collections are housed adjacently, with forty new poems, building ‘From The Fortunate Isles’, Curtis’ latest project, abutted at the gable end.  Here is a terrace of verse, akin to a loop of sea-staring houses strung along a Pembrokeshire shore; multifarious in tone, diverse in size, unique in structure, this is a collection, ‘where the light and summer sings’.

Within clearer, more prevalent themes of Curtis’ verse – South West Wales, identity, war, his father – there are subtly similar features.  Two poems from the 1983 collection ‘Letting Go’, ‘The World’ and ‘Tortoise’, ponder the concept of legacy.  ‘Tortoise’, the sole narrative poem in the book, recounts the discovery of an errant hibernating pet in a neighbour’s loft:

Just that.  A shell, hard, perfect and whole.  Inside, a shrunk ball of jelly.

Curtis reflects on the grotesque image that begins to take residence, like the tortoise itself, ‘lodged in the back of the mind’ until he is prompted to question the bleakness of a predestination, where a body can be outlived and made redundant by its skeleton:

to travel and come to nothing

On the page parallel is ‘The World’, which announces its portentous subject in the opening line, ‘this is how it ends’ before almost listing the cataclysmic events that occur as humanity recedes: ‘Russian subs…acid air…fire…the Third World / eats itself and starves.’  The final stanza delivers mankind back to its origins and to a fearful inheritance:

And farther out floating

towards them on a floe

a man,  a woman and a child waving

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Half a lifetime ago, Tony Curtis was a lecturer of mine at university.  In one workshop, he spread images of John Digby over the wide table and encouraged his undergraduates to address the surreal collages.   ‘There are two ways of looking at a thing’, he implored.  Six of these artworks, ornately decorated Moorish doorways used as window frames looking out to terrain populated by Grecian figures, dinosaurs, lighthouses, Victorian bathers, are aligned with their respective poems from the 1998 collection ‘The Arches’.  ‘XXII’ concludes with a stanza on the duplicity of language:

            This was ever the way –

            from the high clarity    

            the waves of confusion

            turn into the words

            that lead us astray.   

A piece of advice I recall from Curtis’ teachings was the need ‘to always begin strongly and end strongly’; he prized the first and final lines of a poem more than any others.  Thumbing through the two hundred and fifty pages of this book, it is clear that Curtis’ adheres emphatically to his own precept.  The thirteen poems taken from ‘Preparations’ are particularly charmed with resolutions of momentous, pacing, funereal sadness.

We turn our backs on a sky that goes on forever.

(Return to the Headland)

…our dead friends and fathers,      

 on the road, at the desk, looking over our shoulders.

(Poem for John Tripp)

 

Under the sun, the prodigal sky,

there are no healing waters.

(My Father in Pembrokeshire)

Of the forty poems from the eponymous collection, ‘From the Fortunate Isles’, many are observational, many are elegiac.  The title poem is languid and ambling and warmly reveals an encounter with street vendors and performers in the Canary Islands.  Against a theatrical drop of a menacing and rough Atlantic sea, Curtis experiences a hiatus and a temptation to ‘let loose of it all’.  The title of the poem, an allusion to a classical myth about idyllic islands reserved for favoured or blessed mortals, is slightly ambiguous: it is a simple reference to geography; it is hyperbolic in Curtis’ appreciation of holiday paradise; it is an acknowledgement to the artists and writers that both the poet and the collection mourns.

Elegies to the landscape painters Peter Prendergast and John Knapp-Fisher, to the poets Dannie Abse and Dylan Thomas, to the memory of his father, to personal friends, usher in the reflective mood and, once more, the theme of legacy:

if my ashes were emptied out here.

(Wanting Choughs)

Start strongly and finish strongly; the final poem of the book, ‘Seamus on the Tube’, does exactly that.  Reading Heaney’s poem ‘The Railway Children’ amongst a train filled with commuters ‘looking away, not looking away’, the narrator of the poem becomes mesmorised by their own escaped nostalgia.  Although it is written in second person narrative, it seems safe to assume the poem is autobiographical and consequently, safe to assume, from the final words of the final poem, that Curtis is content with all that he has built; serene in his legacy.

Reaching Warren Street, you’ve read it

Four or five times, absorbed the innocent wisdom

And sense of the thing.  Those people opposite

See a crazy old man mouthing words, appearing to sing.





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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Audio-recordings of two new poems

9 10 2016

An introduction to two poems and recordings of both.  There is also some context to each poem and their origins.

These poems, together with one other, were published in the Lonely Crowd last week.





JackdawQuarterly writers’ group: Summer meeting

30 04 2016

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Feel welcome to read a poem or an extract of prose, or to simply listen along to others on the theme ‘panic’.

 





That Talk: Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage at the Chester Literature Festival

24 10 2015

The hall is pleasantly packed and hums
with whispered voices like a weekday wine bar
or an autumnal garden near the village road.
The space echoes handsomely.

The compere stands outside, a robin
singing warm welcome, his wings wider
than the open doors. He shuffles from foot to foot,
checks his watch, nibbles a fingernail.

Across the room is a face I see and recall. Remember?
We talked on a commuters’ train to Crewe, before you
interviewed me for a place on a teaching course there.
Then shared the trainride back home, a decade ago.

The poets arrive, bless the congregation
with a shared prayer and then sit. The raised stage
quickly becomes a kitchen conversation and invisible smokes
of cigarette coax concealed wine glasses,

chandeliers soften to down lights,
coughs become the dog yawning and both men forget the crowd
that listens like an eavesdropper to their secrets,
complicit. Each hopes the other won’t reveal them.