INTERVIEW by Nicky Arscott and Greg KoehlerNWR Issue 110
Stallion Ford, a Collaboration of Imagery and Poetry in Comic-Book FormNICKY:
We took as our starting point the attempt by Samuel Roberts of Llanbrynmair (preacher, pacifist, vehement anti-slavery campaigner) to set up a Welsh utopia, Brynfynnon, in the wildernesses of Tennessee in 1857. Not much is left of it now but piles of yellowing letters in uncatalogued boxes in the National Library of Wales. I spent many days poring through these in order to get a sense of what it must have been like to leave the place in which you had lived your whole life in order to settle an unknown territory.
The letters gave me a poignant insight into the problems faced by the Welsh in Tennessee, including the fact that the land had not been sur- veyed properly prior to purchase, leaving many of them with no option other than to join relatives or friends in cities in Pennsylvania or Ohio. For those few left behind at Brynfynnon, problems with Merino sheep, horses being poisoned by an unknown species of plant, and, finally, the outbreak of the American Civil War, left the settlers disheartened and vulnerable to violence and near-starvation when their farm was repeat- edly ransacked by soldiers.
Greg and I met while studying creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. A true contemporary Southern poet, Greg’s poetry – full of history whilst colloquially very modern – made him the perfect voice to explore a retelling of some of the deep and rich stories that accompa- nied the phenomenon of US emigration from Llanbrynmair (the parish is reputed to have been the source of the most emigrants, per capita, to America of any in Wales). This is definitely just the tip of the iceberg: there is so much material to mine that it feels as though we are just get- ting started down a long, dusty road.
As a visual artist and a poet I am always on the lookout for new ways to merge word and image. The poetry comic book seemed the most natu- ral way to play with my own interpretation of Greg’s poems. What we have tried to do with it is take the sense of hopeless longing that was so prevalent in those letters, and attempt to show how it runs through different people and places and periods of time: kernels of desire and failure that make these stories of emigration so human and alive.
While few Americans will know of Llanbrynmair and the large numbers of Welsh immigrants who left that village and came to the States, it is my hope that drawing attention to this fascinating story will be both entertaining and edifying as we shine a light on little-known stories from the Celtic diaspora.
As a visitor there in 2010, I was struck by the beauty of the low- slung mountains and the fields of grass roamed by grazing sheep. The place reminded me instantly of Appalachia, of the ancient hills and vales where thousands of Welsh immigrants made new homes in Tennessee and Ohio. The similarity of the landscapes, of the atmospheres of age and honour and remote dignity, are apparent in place, but also in the language and stories and hearts of the people who live there.
lives in Llanbrynmair, Powys. In 2014, she was the visual artist-in-residence at the Hay Festival. Her poetry pamphlet, Soft Mutation
, was published in 2015 by Rack Press. www.nickyarscott.co.uk
poetry chapbook, Tiny Ceremony
, is published by Mayonnaise Press (USA). He has written for the Kenyon Review Blog and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in Austin, Texas.
This project was made possible by a Research and Development Grant from the Arts Council of Wales.
previous interview: Ellie Rees
next interview: John Barnie: A Happy Pessimist?