INTERVIEW by Kittie Belltree

NWR Issue 100

Interview with Rhian Edwards

Rhian Edwards
Rhian Edwards’ debut collection, Clueless Dogs (Seren), was shortlisted last year for the Forward Best First Collection award. Her debut piece of flash fiction, ‘My Mary Jane’, accompanied by an image of Paul Edwards’ oil painting, is published on 25 May in NWR 100. Rhian will perform this story at a NWR launch party to celebrate twenty-five years in publishing and the hundredth issue, at Hay Festival on the evening of Tuesday 28 May. Also on 28 May is an event with NWR editor Gwen Davies, Cynan Jones and Lloyd Jones.

NWR: Congratulations on your recent appointment as Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s
Writer in Residence. You’ve described this role as being ‘nothing short of a dizzying chocolate box based on all the different artistic disciplines and groups I will be able to engage with during my time here.’ What kind of projects have you been working on, and how do you see your own writing practice developing as a result?

RhE: What a God awful description I gave; sounds like something out of Forest Gump! It seems my literary ability seems to seize up when I have to come up with a quote for a press release.

At this stage, two months into my stint which finishes at the end of May, I can give a comprehensive breakdown of who and what I’ve been involved with:

Twelve weekly creative workshops with participants in a drop-in centre run by Mind Aberystwyth. We’re now in the process of compiling an anthology of poems to crown the end of this intensive, 3 month process of workshopping and writing new poems.

An ‘Only Poetry Aloud’ workshop with third year Aberystwyth University Creative Writing students, teaching them various techniques to improve the live performance of their poetry, as well as how to bridge the gap between page and stage poetry. I also did the same with Lampeter Masters students.

A Poetry Takeaway in the Arts Centre, where people approached me asking for poems to order. I had 5-10 minutes time to hash together a poem on my laptop and then write it up in neat on a keepsake bookmark.

Sitting in on various classes and activities such as the Pre-school bilingual class, the Writers Distillery Poetry Group, the Yarn Storytelling Group, the belly dancing and the ballet class, in the hope this would generate some ideas for poems.

The Poetry Group, I have found invaluable for workshopping the poems I have written during the residency, as well as broadening my own poetical knowledge. The group alternates workshopping individuals’ work with examining other themes and the work of other poets.

The Pre-school bilingual class was completely surreal, it couldn’t help but inspire a poem.

Guest submissions editorship of Honno Press, combing through their submissions and coming up with their Poem of the Month for the next nine months.

I have been writing a blog, which I think has been published somewhere but I can’t for the love of God find it.

I created a monthly spoken word cabaret called ‘Chinwag’, which hopefully will be the legacy of the residency. I wanted to create this spoken word evening as a way of consolidating all the separate branches of literary groups and classes that are housed in the Arts Centre, yet remain completely separate. It seemed strange there was no established informal evening where everyone could showcase their work. I also wanted the audience and participants to extend to the creative writing students from the university, the MIND workshops and Lampeter University. My aim was to keep it snappy, remain strict with time, so that the open mic couldn’t drag and also to invite two guest speakers, one prose writer and one poet.

Reading with Damian Walford Davies was held at the Arts Centre on 15 May to showcase poems from my current collection Clueless Dogs as well as to road test the poems that have culminated from the residency.

Open Studios were hosted along with the other artists in residence on the 24-25 May. My poems from the residency were projected onto the walls of my Heatherwick Pod. Even though it wasn’t necessary for me to partake in this, I felt jealous of the other artists being able to fling the doors of their studios open to the public to exhibit what they had done. And I thought it would be a lovely opportunity to show my work through a more unlikely medium than just a straight reading or it being simply couched in a book.

NWR: A lot of your recent projects involve collaborations. What attracts you to working in this way and is there a particular artist or artform that you would like to work with?

RhE: I must confess, all the collaborations have rather fortuitously come to me.

Literature Wales have been wonderfully generous in suggesting my name to other artists looking for a Welsh writer. That’s how I got the commission to rewrite one of the Arabian Tales with the composer Pete Wyer, which was performed at St Davids Hall last October. That is also how I got to collaborate with the conceptual artist Laura Reeves at the G39 Gallery this year.

Similarly, the sculptor David Annand was pitching for a commission to design two sculptures in my home town of Bridgend and as a rule, he tends to commission a local poet to compose a poem that eventually gets inscribed on the piece. That way the public art has a greater chance of belonging to the town. On that occasion, he approached my publishers, Seren, and they gave him a shortlist of local poets whom he met in turn. He later won another local commission in Tondu, and as we had collaborated so well before, he lassoed me in.

What was spectacular about this collaboration is that he allowed me to have so much input into the actual design of the sculptures and the seating. In fact the two figures in our first collaboration ended up being based on two family members of mine. And with the Tondu sculpture he may be immortalizing my pet dog in bronze.

The great thing about collaborations is that they incite you to write something you would never ordinarily written had you been left to your own solitary devices.

My next collaboration will hopefully be with the wonderful photographer Emyr Young. David Hurn and John Fuller did a wonderful book combining poetry with photographs and we would love to do the same.

NWR: Considering the traditions of bards and troubadours, and poetry’s roots as
an oral form of expression, is all poetry, in effect, a performance?

RhE: Not all poetry is a performance. I must confess I tend to bristle at the terms ‘performance poetry’ or ‘performance poet’. I don’t think poetry should be a dry and lifeless reading by the writer where you feel yourself physically ageing during the course of the reading. Similarly, poetry doesn’t have to be a performance laden with gimmicks in order to win the audience’s attention.

It’s the responsibility of the poet to give a good and clear reading, thereby enabling the audience to get the meaning and feeling of the poem and to do the poems justice. The audience wants to be challenged but they also want to ‘get’ the poem and appreciate it. A throwaway reading that is unclear, rushed and willfully obscure, just isn’t fair to the audience or the poem.

I find by learning my poems off by heart, it enables me to communicate them better. It also helps that I can actually look at the audience and summon the images within a poem a split second before saying them.

Talking between poems also helps the audience relax, so that they can focus and ready themselves for the next poem. I have seen poets juggernaut through an entire collection, barely taking breath. And no poetry audience, no matter how devout, can generally digest or endure forty minutes of intensive spoken poetry from the page with no reprieve.

NWR: When you write, do you think about how the poem might work as a performance piece or are you writing primarily as a page poet?

I write purely as a page poet. If you enter into writing a poem and regard it as a performance piece, you are more likely dumb it down, go down the comedy route or worse, launch into bad acting.

As a musician, the rhythms and the musicality of the language in poetry are key for me. I mainly edit and check the scanning of poems by saying them aloud while out walking. This also helps me get them into my bones so that I can recite them without any written prompt. Usually I find if I stumble or forget sections during the walking draft of the poem, that generally means I haven’t found the right words to convey its flow.

NWR: Do you ‘compose’ poems in your head, on paper, or a combination of both?

RhE: It is usually a combination. I start off with a line in my head, note it down and when I get to my desk, I try and make something of it. Then I do the walking edit, where usually a few more lines or alternatives come to me for the revised draft. The composition carries on being a to’ing and fro’ing between these two modes until I have the poem down pat.

NWR: Have you any tips or suggestions for would-be performers?

RhE: Workshop your poems, take criticism and know when to accept or reject ideas. Never ignore the feedback you are given and never be complacent with an un-shown, un-work-shopped draft.

Attend poetry open mics. This as a great way of road-testing new poems and becoming a confident reader. It is usually the best way of being seen and heard and will usually lead to you being booked for extended slots at other poetry events. It is rare you will get booked on the basis of not being seen. What is more, it enables you to be part of a poetry community that incites you to write more and get better.

Never think it’s rock’n’roll to give a throw-away, downbeat reading of your work, unless it’s part of some kind of ironical comedy act. If you act like you don’t care, then why should an audience?

Try not to get too drunk as a way of quenching nerves. It’s a sure way of sabotaging your set and the presentation of your work.

Get rid of the microphone if the venue is small enough to carry you unplugged. Otherwise it can act as a barrier between you and the audience and sometimes the damn things don’t work or aren’t balanced properly. If you can think you can carry it without the mic then do so. We will hear your voice as it’s meant to be heard and there’s something rather naked about dispensing with it. It often enhances a performance.

NWR: You started out as a singer and songwriter, and there is undoubtedly a musicality and lyricism to your page poems in Clueless Dogs. Has being a songwriter informed your poetry? Are there similarities between song-writing and writing poetry?

RhE: For a long time I didn’t realize or appreciate that the two were very much intertwined in my work. In fact I was convinced I always kept the music and the poetry very separate and was quite emphatic that songwriting and poetry were quite different artforms.

But music and certainly the singsong intonation of the Welsh accent very much inform the cadences, rhythms and word choices within my poetry. Occasionally I’ve imposed the template of an existing poem onto an existing riff and they happen to complement each other, at other times I’ve written Poem-song hybrids (‘Pongs’) where the verses are spoken poetry and the refrain is sung.

The only similarity I can think of between songwriting and writing poetry is choosing language that scans and fits the rhythm. Apart from that, my lyrics are much simpler than my poetry and they tend to rhyme. When people listen to poetry, they concentrate, that way you can make the language more concentrated and rich. When people listen to music, they’re usually letting it wash over them, listening to the melody, the instrumentation, the vocal quality and then the lyrics. The audience is listening to so many aspects of the song that I’m not sure it lends itself to the same complexity of language.

NWR: Despite your confessional style, dark humor and wonderfully witty, incisive voice, the themes of childhood, love, and relationships explored in Clueless Dogs are very traditional. Is that something you are conscious of when writing?

RhE: It wasn’t deliberate. For the first eight years, I just wrote poems about topics that interested me or seriously affected me at the time. It just turned out a lot of these poems happened to revolve around my romantic and home life. I wanted to write poems with honest feeling and I probably took the instruction of ‘write about what you know’ too literally.

It wasn’t until I was compiling the first collection that I realized my poems fell under the traditional themes of childhood, family portraits, horror and particularly love. I found that half the poems followed the complete arc of a relationship from its inception to its rather grueling demise, so it made sense to split the book into two sections, childhood and character portraits and then the love poems.

It is only now that I am writing my second collection that I am conscious of the themes I am exploring, mainly because I don’t want to imitate the first book and appear sloppy and unadventurous. In fact, the success of the first collection has probably given me the confidence to explore different themes that are outside the realm of my everyday experience.

By the same token, I’m in a completely different place now compared to the time of writing Clueless Dogs. I have since got married and am expecting my first child, whereas during the first collection, I always seemed to be in a rather precarious romantic situation, which provided no end of poetic fodder.

NWR: When can we expect a follow up?

RhE: I am in no mad rush; after all, it’s only a year since Clueless Dogs came out. I must admit the residency has inspired a series of bird poems which may become a running theme of the second collection. However, the imminent birth of my first child will probably put the writing on the backburner for a wee while. Alternatively it may inspire a whole spate of poems and possibly a book for children.

I was very lucky that Seren allowed me to include brand new poems in the first collection up until a few months before publication. Consequently I had no new poems to hand by the time Clueless Dogs was published. With the second collection, I have had to start off from scratch, which is probably a good thing.


previous interview: Interview with Cynan Jones
next interview: Interview with Lloyd Jones


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