An interview with the National Poet for Wales
This blog feature is part of a series - “Hiraeth for Beginners” - by Pamela Petro
Gillian Clarke is the current National Poet for Wales, a post she has held since 2008. While both of Gillian’s parents were Welsh speakers, she was brought up speaking English exclusively, and learned to speak Welsh as an adult. Gillian honors her first language by writing poetry in English, and honors her ancestral tongue through her work as a Welsh-to-English translator.
In addition to writing poetry—her poems are studied by students throughout Britain—and translating, Gillian is also a playwright, editor, and founder of Ty Newydd, the National Writers Centre for Wales. She has published over 14 volumes of prose, poetry, and collected poems, and her work appears in numerous contemporary poetry anthologies. Of Gillian’s many honors, the most recent is the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, which she received in 2010: the second Welsh person to receive the medal (the first was Welsh poet R S Thomas, who died in 2000). Upon receiving the award, she said she was “humbled” to be included with “some of my greatest heroes…Auden, Ted Hughes, Derek Walcot, Les Murray, U A Fanthrope and, at the top of my list, R S Thomas.”
Gillian lives in an old Ceredigion farmhouse in rural West Wales with her architect husband, David. She graciously took some time, recently, to consider some of my questions.
Pam: Why do you write poetry?
Gillian: It's a compulsion, and an obsession. I have done it all my life. I write something, if only my journal, every day. Poetry is word-music.
Pam: How has being Welsh shaped your writing? Also, how has living in rural, Welsh-speaking West Wales also shaped your writing?
Gillian: Greatly, I think. I can't compare it to being anything else, of course, but Welsh culture is immensely encouraging to writers, especially poets. Poetry is the national art, a tradition going back to the 6th century, before English existed, and the first poets of Britain wrote in Welsh, so it's one of the oldest European literatures. Landscape, and living in a rural area, are two parts of a continuum, the way we live, the way we write and the environment in which we write. The Welsh language shapes the way I write English. Place, and the people who live in it, share a word: 'bro', or 'cynefin'. The area where I live is famous for poets, so although I write in English, what I do commands respect here.
Pam: In addition to your own work, you also translate Welsh language poetry into English (such as work by Menna Elfyn). Why is translation important to you?
Gillian: I believe translating poetry to be alchemy, an act of transformation. It's not a literal word-for-word job, but the making of a new poem in another language, and it should always be into the translator's first language. It is a bridge from one culture to another. Without it we wouldn't have the Bible, the Quran, the great Russian novels. Translation is essential in Wales, where there is such a risk of our ancient but still living language being overwhelmed by the power - in sheer numbers of speakers - of English. It is astonishing that Welsh survives, thrives, and grows in such circumstances.
Pam: What are some of the duties--and perks!--of being the National Poet of Wales?
Gillian: All are duties and perks - it's fun to be busy! Commissions for special poems come from charities, festivals, organisations celebrating an anniversary, public occasions. They come from the Welsh Government, from architects for public buildings, for walls of museums, for Poems on the Underground (London) which commissioned a new Ode for Joy to replace Schiller's poem to Beethoven's music; and so on. I have written over 50 commissioned poems in three years. Perks are reading in Westminster Abbey, dinner at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury, seats at the opera, two weeks in Washington DC for the Wales at the Smithsonian Folk festival in 2009; Literary Festivals in Segovia, and Granada, Spain; and Kerala, India. In the autumn I go to Italy, and France.
Pam: What is your favorite poem about Wales?
Gillian: Oh dear! What a question! May I have two? Let's say 'The Bright Field', by RS Thomas, and 'Elegy for the Welsh Dead in the Falklands Islands' by Anthony Conran, or 'The Shirt of a Lad', 16th century, Anon, translated by Anthony Conran.
Pam: Can you talk a little bit about your prose work? Do you feel certain subjects are better expressed in prose than poetry, and vice verse, and can you give us examples from your work?
Gillian: Sometimes, I like to expand on a subject and let language flow. That's my excuse for writing prose essays - my prose form of choice is the essay. I enjoy the lovely muscular syntax of prose. It allows me to quote, to have a dialogue with books I'm reading, or to let a thought develop at length. Poems are songs. Prose is a dialogue with the self.
Pam: What poem of your own is closest to your heart?
Gillian: Difficult! If I must, I'll say an elegy for my mother called 'The Habit of Light'.
The Habit of Light
In the early evening, she liked to switch on the lamps
in corners, on low tables, to show off her brass,
her polished furniture, her silver and glass.
At dawn she’d draw all the curtains back for a glimpse
of the cloud-lit sea. Her oak ﬂoors ﬂickered
in an opulence of beeswax and light.
In the kitchen, saucepans danced their lids, the kettle purred
on the Aga, supper on its breath and the buttery melt
of a pie, and beyond the swimming glass of old windows,
in the deep perspective of the garden, a blackbird singing,
she’d come through the bean rows in tottering shoes,
her pinny full of strawberries, a lettuce, bringing
the palest potatoes in a colander, her red hair bright
with her habit of colour, her habit of light.
This blog feature is part of a series - "Hiraeth for Beginners" - by Pamela Petro.
Pamela Petro is a writer and artist who first traveled to Wales to attend graduate school at St David's University College in Lampeter. She speaks Welsh haltingly, with a wing and a prayer--and has visited Wales from her home in Massachusetts nearly once a year. She's written about her language-learning saga in the acclaimed book, Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World Speaking Welsh (Flamingo, 1997), and about Wales and the Welsh for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Islands, and many more. www.petrographs.blogspot.com