David Woolley interviews Menna Elfyn.


David Woolley, who is reading as part of The Captain's Tower event at Bristol Poetry Festival on Sunday 18th September, talks to Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, also featuring at the festival, about her writing life and influences.

Menna Elfyn is one of the most extraordinary poets of her generation. She has been publishing for five decades, and has carved a reputation for her poetry in both her native Welsh, and in English, where she works with a handful of fellow Welsh poets who translate, or, more accurately, interpret her work. Even more amazing is the reputation she has forged as a tireless poetry-traveller, constantly on the move, reading her work at festivals all over Europe and the rest of the World, like a female Welsh poet version of Bob Dylan, while at the same time managing to head up the MA in Creative Writing at Trinity College Carmarthen! She's been a bit less roving recently though, and I managed to pin her down via email, to ask her about her career:  

DW: So Menna, it's extraordinary to think that you've been publishing now across five decades.  You say that the first one - the 70s - was one of 'the heat of the moment... raw in craft, but tumultuous'.  Of course, all truly good poetry must have learned its craft, but often these days I'm tempted to wonder if there's not just too much craft around, at the expense of some heat and tumult.  With all the academic teaching of writing now - you do it yourself of course - do you think there may be some truth in this?  

ME: When I mentioned the first volume 'Mwyara' (Blackberrying), I was thinking of that era in particular - it was the time of great upheaval in Wales with the Welsh Language Society organising campaigns of civil disobedience. America had their civil rights and I was part of the movement for language rights as Welsh in the sixties and mid seventies was frowned upon. My whole education was through the medium of English but Welsh was my language and the language of the home. I felt at odds with the whole world. How could I not have written under those circumstances. I came from a literary family (my father, a renowned hymnist) and so my Welsh was rich and colourful and yet all around me English was dominant if not oppressingly so.

The irony of course is that I fell in love with English language poets such as  Frost, Bishop, Dickinson, Yeats, Whitman, and felt an affinity with them that Welsh poetry at that time lacked. No wonder my first book is a mish-mash of various styles and traditions. There were protest poems there about the Black Panthers (strange as I was a pacifist as all Welsh Language Society members had to be as non-violence was at the heart of what we were about). A few stints in police cells, prison, etc created within me the necessity to write - that feeling of not being complete without bearing witness.

Carolyn Forche's book about bearing witness is at the very heart of my poetry and it is evident even in the early book. The second book was written - all 20 poems -within the space or lack of space of finding myself in hospital with a miscarriage and won a big prize at the National Eisteddfod in 1977 - they are raw poems indeed and as I was so unsure as to whether they were 'poems'  I entered the competition under a nom-de-plume. So yes, the urgency to write regardless of craft is evident in those early books, struggling too to write and bring up children and still be the campaigning person.

Is there too much craft around? I'm aware that I too am director of a course in Creative Writing at the Trinity Saint David University but I tend to shy away from teaching poetry. I much prefer to look at other genres where craft is indeed imperative. Not that I disregard craft as being important but I sometimes want that 'necessity ' of writing poems to be at the forefront of a poet's life. Craft follows of course - it must.

One should want to know everything one can about poetry in due course. Perhaps in due course is the correct procedure (who would have thought of poetry as procedure - now I am talking like an academic!). No, there is something about poetry which lies at the well of one's heart and it takes a while to draw from it. I've sometimes rushed poems out without the distilling needed. I guess that's why I am now perhaps and sometimes a better poet. Only perhaps and sometimes, those are words that a poet must always use. I also like to quote Szymborska who said in her Nobel speech that a poet must always say 'I don't know'. I tell that to my students and they feel reassured that in poetry there is a wisdom that one tries to capture and sometimes it's a different domain to knowledge. I do sometimes read poetry, what I call clever poetry and contrived poetry and wonder what it's all about. I think Heaney said a similar thing about not being able to teach 'technique' as such.

I live a constant interference between two languages - English and Welsh - and that tension of looking for the clear voiced waves as in a radio is very important to me. I'm also aware that Welsh even though the strides we've made might still disappear  by the end of the century.

That's why I must not waste any more time and write as best I can in order to stop that from happening.

DW: You say that the youthful phase was followed by having children and fighting for causes.  Childbirth, naturally enough, of course, but less common the causes. In the publisher's notes for Merch Pergyl - your collected poems in Welsh 1976 - 2011 (Gomer), you mention 'peace' and 'the miners' strike'. You don't specifically mention the Welsh causes of language and devolution, yet I know that you actually spent a little time at 'Her Majesty's Pleasure' on behalf of the language.  Could you say something about those fights, and in what way, if any, that they specifically influenced your writing at that time?  

ME: In the early seventies – I, like so many other people, took part in unconstitutional direct action. America had their civil rights movement and we had a language rights movement. This was a well organised non-violent campaign (we were great followers of Gandhi and Martin Luther King – in fact we’d recite almost daily the creed: to refrain from the violence of the fist, the heart and the tongue). And we truly believed that campaigns such as taking down road signs, disrupting live television programmes, switching off masts and not buying a road licence (but notifying the authorities of such action of course) would lead to peaceful chaos. It did of course but it also allowed the authorities to realise that we weren’t going away and gradually bilingualism became acceptable. I like to think that we managed to achieve all of this (even getting Margaret Thatcher to do a U-Turn on the 4th channel in Wales) through non-violent means.

I took part in many campaigns - the most daring perhaps was breaking into the publication dept of the BBC and cutting up hundreds of Radio Times! The other one in London (was arrested a few times there) was sitting on a zebra crossing in the middle of Oxford St during rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Not a good idea but it does display the kinds of offences and in those days even the policemen were wonderful with us - and always there’d be Welsh language police available who’d want to know where we were from and did we know their aunts or uncles.

As for prison – yes, I did two stints in prison, one in 1971 when I was a student, for contempt of court and once for refusing to pay a fine in 1993. The latter was an important event as the New Language Act was going through Parliament at the time and we didn’t think it was strong enough. Of course, being in prison for a cause such as the language made one a target for those who thought I was mad. I probably was!

But I’ve said many times that I came out of prison a feminist as I realised that many of the women there had no language at all or rather they would find themselves unable to articulate their lives and their dreams for a better future. Prison is hard but you build up a certain resilience.

But being in prison, and campaigning is so very different from wanting to be a good poet. I've avoided writing didactic poems though I did write a few poems about my time there and also the time my husband was imprisoned for similar activities. Writing poetry in Welsh means I have to believe in her, that she is alive and kicking and though it’s touch and go as to whether Welsh will still be alive at the end of this century, a poet’s desire and passion is to make the language so new and urgent that it will still be vibrant and wonderful. A poet can't be a pessimist because poetry is all about affirmations and believing in the 'everlasting yes’.  

DW: Professor M.Wynn Thomas has written that 'you caused controversy' by publishing your poems with English translations, with Eucalyptus (Bloodaxe)  back in 1995 - a launch, incidentally, that was the first of several I've organised for you over the years, on a very snowy night, when the books arrived worryingly late I seem to remember! Two things though on that statement.  Firstly, I get the impression that doing that, and also your strong stance on women's issues, has made you less than popular in certain circles in Wales?  Secondly, it's much more common now, and the whole literary scene in Wales much more open and varied.  Do you think that Wales has grown up in that way, and that those considerations are pretty much irrelevant now?

ME: Not popular! No, I don’t think it's helpful for a poet to be ‘popular’ and in a way what the criticism did (many thought it was sheer treachery and that if someone wanted to read Welsh poetry they should learn Welsh) was to make me even more determined to open my work to all people.

After all I write in the Welsh language because it‘s the language of my imagination but I also write for the whole world. I don’t write just for half a million who could and can read me - I write too for strangers who will discover me some time in the future. I think Mary Oliver says something similar.

And being translated has given me enormous joy - two volumes about to appear, another in Spanish Mancha Perfecta by the same Spanish poet-translator, Eli Tolarextipi (though we’ve never met!) and a Norwegian volume of Cell Angel by another poet I only know of by name. And there’s a Hindi request I’ll have to respond to soon . So my family has grown and how wonderful that is. It has also made me aware of my work in another sense - I have translators in English who can do amazing things to overcome the density sometimes of my Welsh. I don’t write in strict metre as such, only as an underlay but believe me anyone writing in Welsh writes in a strict way although I love the danger of the open form. To me it’s like swimming in an open sea fighting the currents, not knowing what peril may befall me or drown me for that matter and sometimes writing in a strict form feels like being in a swimming pool, you go up and down in a confined area from deep to shallow and so on.

The exciting discovery I've come to this year is that although I can't write poetry in English - I love translating other people’s work into English from the Welsh. It’s playing with language, but deep play. The Dutch poet Gerrit Komrij says that translation creates space in a language - it also adds to the osmosis of human knowledge.

Although I fought for the rights of people to use and live through the Welsh language, I never ever campaigned for Welsh to be seen as being superior to other languages. To deny the richness of the Englishes that there are is to reject the depth and breadth of all the tribes of the world.

Even though translation is now becoming trendy (even with English poets), it’s still not widely accepted in Welsh poetry - though the prose writers are really pioneering away, making great strides. It’s back to the conservatism of Welsh poetry, it’s always been a poetry which depended on the bardic tradition and the elders to say what is what. Being a woman I sidestepped all of that. Thank goodness.  

DW: I am, as an English-only reader, engage with your work only in translation. To quote one of your poems, in turn quoting R.S.Thomas,  this is like 'kissing through a handkerchief'. You have, I'm sure, been well served by your loyal band of translators, and let's face it, a kiss like this is better than no kiss at all, but truly, how much do you think we lose in the translation of a poem?  

ME: Didn't anybody tell you that poetry is all about loss anyway!

To be serious we lose things constantly in poetry all the time, the odd phrase, idea, metaphor whooshes over one and sometimes it's that feeling that we remember. That lingering feeling of having touched on something - new, surprising.  I've just finished reading Kathryn Schulz 's wonderful book on 'Being wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error' and perhaps that's why I am so obsessed by  failings, blemishes (Perfect Blemish) in that  we are awash with these imperfections  anyway. I'd love to drag Robert Frost (though I fell in love with him when I was fifteen) and take him by the hand  and  make him take the road - not taken. There he might have found something else. I think Walter Benjamin also has this startling  image of translation - voices reverberating through the forest or trees and people can only  grasp from afar those echoes.

That seems good enough for me. By the way, I've started a poem on the road not taken so that it itself has alighted a  sense of discovery for me if not yet for the reader. Those who constantly bang on about 'loss' are basically fundamentalists who  never see the 'other' picture or possibilities. And there I came back again to possibilities in a Nerudian way.

DW: You say that in the 90s you 'backed away to some extent', spending a lot of time travelling. You were still very much an activist though, carrying the banner for Welsh poetry in many different countries, and this travel, and engaging with poets and others from across the world, must have informed your work in new ways?

You also say that you've become more deep and spiritual in the last decade. Could you expand on that?

ME: I guess you're right in saying that the 'activist' sensibility has never left me. Travelling to such places as  Sri Lanka -at a turbulent time in their history (I wrote a novel for teenagers about a girl child soldier from that experience), has indeed  deepened my understanding of so many issues and the complexity of trying to believe in core values such as equality and peace.  I'm also now a member of a diverse band of activists called artists against apartheid although I am always  the least active because a poet always needs to be immersed in her work every single day. That's why poets/writers make bad politicians apart from the fact that politics has to do with the general and writing the particular (I forget who said that first). Going back to the 'artists against apartheid' it came about as I refused an invitation to a festival in Israel. I felt really bad as I knew the organiser, a fine poet, whose ideals and vision for Israel deserves supporting but part of the deal would be to travel to east Jerusalem and  how on earth could I justify that? I asked another poet who had been whose attitude was 'that poets should go everywhere' but that seemed a lame excuse especially when he said that some of the minders were 'gung ho'. I could not have tolerated that.

Sometimes one has to take a stand although I can see why Ian McEwan wanted to accept a literary prize there. I guess my refusal only hurt me (especially as the poets invited were to go to the Dead Sea for a few days afterwards). Anyway, I've tried to be the kind of writer I am and travel to difficult places such as Zimbabwe (especially as Ihad to send my regular journalist column for the Western Mail via my son just in case). One learns to engage yes, certainly, but also one realises that you can't just visit a country for a week or so and expect to understand everything. I've had a few scary moments but that too keeps a poet on edge as I like to travel alone.

Another problem then from all this travelling is that  as a Welsh language writer, your first audience might like your subject matter less than those audiences who can read you in English translation. It poses a difficult question all the time - why bother if that's the case. But I can't imagine writing poetry in English.  I think it might be easier for prose writers ( my daughter Fflur Dafydd being one who is able to turn out a novel in Welsh one year, and an English one the following year without any hesitation).

As for the spiritual - it has always been there. My father was a very radical minister of religion, a staunch pacifist and socialist who breathed the  works of Emerson, Simone Weil and others. I've always been interested in theology and philosophy and the deep question of how can we be merciful and what is goodness. My first big discovery was Thoreau and then Thomas Merton - I have all his books as well as Albert Schweitzer - he can be forgiven as a missionary because he didn't just preach the word of God -- he healed the sick in the first instance.

I have other people too who have influenced my need for 'solitude'. And that seems to be the crucial issue in this day and age - how can a poet be true to herself and follow her desire for less exposure, refrain from activities, be less visible in order for the work to thrive. Somehow it's imperative in this day and age for the writer to be there, up on stage, mouthing this and that as if she has all the answers . She has nothing except the struggle with words and that is enough work for a lifetime to disentangle. To end with  Simone Weil's words - 'God is proven in some way by the extreme difficulty in believing in him'. I think one could apply that to the art of writing. We struggle.

We sometimes succeed. But we question all the time the significance of our writings when we could be doing other things. But that's a writer's lot I suppose - to always not be doing other things. And sometimes to ask 'why not'!  

DW: I'd like to touch on what M.Wynn Thomas has called 'the feminine character'  of your poetry, and Thomas clearly feels you've been a real innovator, and thus a standard bearer for what follows.  What IS irrefutable, in Wales, in England, Scotland and Ireland, and elsewhere, is the sheer number of, and quality of women poets now writing.  We currently have women Laureates in Wales, England and more recently Scotland, and the close relationship between Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke has certainly helped to promote poetry positively in both their countries.

This is, of course, as it should be - the world represented by many and various poetries - but do you feel a sense of pride and achievement - especially in the Welsh context - to have been in the small vanguard that has helped to make this possible?  

ME: I find this question a difficult one to answer as it's not apparent in Welsh language terms. Yes, there are  women poets now writing but in Welsh language terms they are still  a minority- whether that's because of the competitive nature of Welsh poetry (something I've always felt uncomfortable with) or not. The exciting women writers in Welsh today are writing in prose and that too I guess is significant.  It's as if they've long decided that you can be more innovative in prose or be bolder.I can think of fewer than half a dozen women poets in Welsh who take their craft seriously. Recently, I listened at a national literary gathering to an hour long lecture in Welsh on Welsh language poetry and the  lecturer failed to mention once any Welsh woman poet and when  he came to discuss  the present day managed to side step the two women poets who have been national poets by referring to the one man, Gwyn Thomas, who had held the post. That tells you something of the nature of Welsh poetry and the resistance of the tradition... what is wonderful about writing in Welsh but in translation is that I don't feel such an 'oddity', that there are women poets worldwide who share a similar fate. What is good is that now  we are strong enough to laugh at the narrowness of such attitudes.


DW: We're nearly done, and I can't avoid asking the DT question.  As someone who spent many years of his life involved with the Swansea poet, and has been amazed by the ambivalent (when it's not downright hostile!) attitude the Welsh have towards him,  I have to ask you what you think about him.

Also, you have a poem in Perffaith Nam - Teaching Dylan Thomas's Muse to Speak Welsh - which plays on Thomas' Hunchback in the Park.

I have to admit I don't really understand this poem. Can you enlighten me?  

ME: You're not the only one! I'm not always sure what I am trying to do with this poem but again I've had some wonderful responses from people all over the world. I remember falling in love with Dylan Thomas's work when I was around 15 years of age-- he was such a huge presence. I didn't understand his poems very well and some are still dense (interestingly, some say I too write in a dense way). His love of language bowled me over although it wasn't the language I was able to write in. And I guess that I understand him in a way so many Welsh language people haven't. There's been a huge  unwillingness by the Welsh poetic tradition to accept him-- whether that  is in some way because he wrote in English  or his lifestyle was deemed unacceptable.

But writers are always more than their mortal selves and sometimes it's in their poetry that their humanity is found and their vulnerability too.

Dylan Thomas's parents rejected Welsh as a mother tongue -- they were of that era and because of that there was all that sense of insecurity - we're back to tensions within and without in his life and I took upon myself to use his metaphor about the hunchback in the park and give it new meaning, making her a woman who could hold her own , be bold-- who wasn't afraid any more of the language or anything. I guess I was trying to assert his right to the language -- that which had been denied him -- his birthright and show him that  the language was also his.

Or could have been and today would have been because that stigma surrounding the language is no longer so apparent or visible or audible.

I still remember people laughing or mimicking my  Welsh accent when I worked in  England a decade ago so surely he too suffered the fate of being Welsh without the 'richness' of the language. I chose lovely words which are words to sustain life - dwr. coed ( water and trees)... etc.

Simple images really and the verse about how the mighty have fallen.

I'm always aware of vulnerability and Dylan was no less  vulnerable that the next but he never quite got the chance to revel in Welsh language poetry though of course on his aunt's farm he heard all the Welsh that was needed. Some maintain to this day that he did understand Welsh or could speak a little. I wonder if the tension between languages also enabled him to empower himself even more in the English language in order to feel a sense of identity that was more than equal to the bilinguals around him.  It is sad that he is so dismissed but it's a trait I also notice in other countries. Whenever I visit another country and mention the poet(s) I've read, the comment I often get 'Well of course, he isn't the best poet we have'. Back to Yeats's little room syndrome or tall poppy syndrome I guess.  

DW: And finally!!

Well thanks Menna.  It's been a great pleasure to have to have re-read a lot of your work for this interview, and to realise anew just how important you've been in so many ways.  I'm doing this piece for Bristol's PoetryCan, where you'll be performing at their September festival, and I think if anyone ever embodied the phrase - that  'poetry can' it's you.  I'm so impressed in your answers by your bravery - as a poet and as a person.  If you had one piece of advice for young poets starting to write now, what would it be?  

ME: Believe in yourself.

Believe also in the power words have over darkness and evil forces  because writing is about affirmations-- it's dedicating your life really to writing - be alive, alert in your work every single day, hard as that may be. And read. Read widely material that will enrich your writing.

The more you read the more you will realise that you need to find your own way into writing-- and don't be put off by criticism.

As Lynette Roberts's daughter said of her mother 'She always knew her own worth'. There can be no better maxim for any writer. Because, perhaps for a  very long time you might be the only one to believe that.  

DW: But don't you think though that you have to be open and prepared for criticism, and to learn when to heed and when to ignore it - and that hard work, aliveness, alertness & reading will help you to do this!?  

ME: Yes, yes. of course. Perhaps it was my clumsy phrasing of it all-- to recognise criticism and to accept some of it but  also to know when to go your own way, yes, it was clumsy. We all need criticism in order to see anew what we were trying to do and the mishaps that occur.

DW: That's great Menna - thank you & goodnight!  

Menna Elfyn will be reading in Bristol Poetry Festival on Sunday 18th September at 3pm with Owen Sheers and Ellie Evans. © 2009 PoetryCan All Rights Reserved.