The Write Out Loud interview: Rhian Edwards
Young Welsh poet Rhian Edwards has won a place on the shortlist of the prestigious Forward prize for her first collection, Clueless Dogs, after last year winning Wales's top performance poetry award. Now she has given an email interview to Write Out Loud’s Greg Freeman, in which she discussed the “juggernauting” of poems, mortifying admissions on stage, and why it’s good to know your poems off by heart.
Congratulations on being named on the Forward prize shortlist for best first collection, Rhian. When did you start writing poetry? What was your first success?
I first started writing poetry in 2003 in my early twenties. My first success was arguably going to Unplugged at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden with the one and only poem I had to my name. I was asked immediately afterwards by Niall O’Sullivan and James Byrne “would you like to be paid to do this?”. They ran a night called New Blood. As a result I had a month to prepare a 20-minute set of poems. A couple of months after that I won the very first Poetry Idol at what was Shortfuse at the Camden Head. After that I very firmly had the performance and writing bug and became prolific.
It was said of you, along with Jacob Sam-La Rose, when your names were announced on the Forward shortlist, that you both bridged the gap between performance and page poetry. What would you say about this? Do you think there is a gap?
There appears to be a demarcation between stage and page poetry and the latter seem to look down on the former. It’s a division that probably largely stemmed from the beat poetry generation and has become even more marked with the emergence and resurgence of hip-hop poetry. I regard myself as a page poet who reads well. However, as I have done a lot of readings and because I do incorporate music into my set as well as poetry, I am frequently referred to as a performance poet. By my own admission, I try to make my readings entertaining, simply by talking to the audience in between poems, making them relax, giving them a preamble to the next poem. But more often than not, this is a device to enable and prepare them for the next poem, giving them space to breathe so that they can properly digest each poem without feeling overwhelmed or as is frequently the case, bored.
Furthermore, poems tend to be about the human condition and mine tend to be very confessional, so it confuses me why poets often preclude acting ‘human’ and normal at their readings. I have attended readings where poets have juggernauted through their collections without pause, and frankly it’s difficult for even the most die-hard poetry lover to ostensibly endure up to an hour’s worth of non-stop poetry. Sadly poetry is often regarded as one of the poorer cousins of the arts, and page poets often frequently come across as almost apologetic and timid when they deliver their poems. They simply wish to scramble their way to the end and alight the stage as quickly as possible.
As a result one often misses a great deal of the content. And given that poetry is such a concentrated containment of language, I feel it is the poet’s moral obligation to enable the audience to receive as much of it as possible. This is reason I remember my poems off by heart. That way I can address them directly to the audience and simply by delivering the poem clearly, you are enabling them to garner the meaning of the poem. Also I think audiences find it quite disarming when a poem is directed at them. What is also surprising is when you think of the amount of effort the poet has invested in the writing of the poem, the innumerable drafts, only to sabotage its quality with a poor reading.
Poetry is hardly a lucrative literary career. But the best chance you have of selling books is by showcasing your material to the best of your ability at poetry readings. It is after all an oral and bardic tradition where poems were ingrained on the poet’s memory. And there are plenty of excellent “page” poets who read fantastically well who would never be labelled “performance” poets, which include Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Hugo Williams, as well as the late poets Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas.
However, it was great validation to discover my poems actually worked on the page regardless of me being a good reader, when Seren accepted my unsolicited manuscript, having never heard of me and basing their decision solely on the poems’ merits.
I know Jacob Sam La Rose and I have read with him in the past. Our Forward shortlisting was based solely on our “page” poetry and hopefully it is indicative that the division between page and poetry is finally becoming blurred, which I think to encourage the reading, popularity and future of poetry, may become obligatory.
What is your funniest / most embarrassing recollection from live performance of your poetry? Do you enjoy performing live? Does it still make you nervous, or is it just a tremendous buzz?
My most embarrassing recollection was when I asked the audience at Latitude if anyone was having an affair. One woman put her hand up and announced not only was she having an affair, but she had brought the other man to the festival and left her husband at home. I suppose I was courting such disaster by asking such a ludicrous audience question.
My poems tend to be very confessional and autobiographical and I am terrible for making ad-libbed and mortifying admissions between poems. But I suppose that all contributes to the fact that my poems are about the human condition. And I suppose there’s nothing more human than laying yourself bare and admitting to your fallibilities and idiocy.
I love performing live. I still get tremendously nervous and tend to rush to the loo about 10 times before going on stage. I also tend to have several glasses wine to calm the nerves beforehand too. Mercifully I still remember the poems. I am quite envious of people who stick to herbal tea or water before going on stage. I could never be so disciplined.
The poems in your first collection, Clueless Dogs, are mainly personal, about childhood, growing up, and relationships, but there are also others, like Going Back For Light and The Welshman who Couldn’t Sing, that muse on coal-mining and the Welsh love of song. Do you think that cultural background will always be there and reflected to some degree in your work?
There is definitely a very Welsh sound to my poetry and I think that derives from the lilting intonation of the dialect and language and also because I am a musician and singer. The sounds of the words are very important to me. I often edit by walking and talking to myself, which is another way I manage to get the poems into my bones. And the choice of the language is often dictated by what sounds right, even if it means inventing phrases and language. Both poems are very personal. The Welshman Who Couldn’t Sing could be described as an elegy for the living, it is about my father. And Going Back for Light is about a great-grandfather who I never met, but heard plenty of stories about. In a way that poem became an elegy and gift to his daughters. I am sure my cultural background will always be there in my poems, especially now that I have moved back to Wales.
You also come from Bridgend, where there has been an unexplained spate of teenage suicides in recent years. You address this in a poem in your collection. Did you think the subject was unavoidable?
I think it was unavoidable because the epidemic and the fatalism it suggested bore little resemblance to the town where I had been born and bred. I wrote it at the time the death toll was still on the rise and it was fundamentally a single draft poem. It reads more like reportage than my usual style. But I probably felt both obliged and to a certain degree entitled to write about the subject because of my roots here. When the whole thing was happening, I was still living in London and my father constantly sent me newspaper cuttings. The whole thing was quite surreal, given the fact it is such a small town and was attracting such widespread coverage.
Is writing poetry a full-time job for you, or do you have another occupation to make ends meet?
I wish writing poetry was a full-time job for me. Fortunately I am currently on a Literature Wales grant but will soon need to return to work. I do make a little pin money doing workshops and readings but not enough to live on. However, my husband I are in discussions as to the possibility of me being a kept woman, enabling me to write full-time. In short, sadly I do have another occupation to make ends meet. Let us say nothing more.
How did you feel about making the Forward shortlist?
Over the moon, delighted, surfing cloud nine. All the clichés rolled into one. I yelped when Seren phoned me that Tuesday to let me know the news.
Who are your poetic influences/ heroes?
Hugo Williams, Paul Farley, Matthew Francis, Dylan Thomas, Dorothy Parker.
What would be your advice to young, or indeed, aspiring poets of all ages?
Just hang in there. It’s taken me just under 10 years just to get my first collection out. Persistence is key. It won’t just happen for you. Try and be disciplined in sending your poems out for publication. Find out where all the readings are in your locality to road-test poems and get a name for yourself. Learn your poems off by heart if you can.
Learn to accept criticism! The best way of regarding and treating your poems is to take them as far as you can, they are never finished. Try and find a poetry mentor or buddy whose advice you trust. You don’t have to do everything they suggest but take notice of what they say, roll the ideas in your head and act or ignore accordingly. Feedback can often make a poem better and your ambition must be to make it the best poem you possibly can; your poems should not be about ego.
Get manuscripts together for the competitions such as Foyle Young Poets and the Eric Gregory. These kinds of competitions are a good way of getting your name out there, being recognised early on and learning to put a manuscript together. Helen Mort is already a household name in the poetry world and she hasn’t even published her full collection yet.
If you can attend residential workshops, I highly recommend it. Especially if you are suffering from writer’s block. A workshop supervisor simply forcing you to write then and there is often the best tonic. And you’ll have a greater output than you ordinarily would.
Finally, try and publish a pamphlet of poems before aiming for the big Full Collection. It’s a great way of testing the water and of having some wares to sell at readings. If you can, get it published with the likes of Tall Lighthouse, Doughnut Press and the Templar Poetry Competition.
Is it true that you’re newly married? It’s all happening for you right now!
It’s true. I got married two weeks ago and we only had a week to organise the wedding! We got married at City Hall in Manhattan which is the equivalent of an Argos wedding, complete with a butchers ticket and your number being shown on a screen. I must confess, it has been an incredibly eventful month!
Rhian Edwards’ collection, Clueless Dogs, is published by Seren at £8.99
PHOTOGRAPH: PETER MORGAN