It’s still pretty wintry, but there are glimpses of spring. The French teenagers are back, looking out over the Taff from their vantage point on the footbridge, and pointing at the birds. The sky is clear first thing but it rains in the afternoons. These past few weeks I’ve said goodbye to three umbrellas. I’ve seen the local kingfisher twice.
It’s February and I’m just two months away from the publication of my first full-length poetry collection, This Is Not a Rescue (Seren Books). I’m excited and nervous. I feel both proud and like an impostor waiting to be caught out. Like February, some days are sunny and clear, and others bring hailstones big as marbles. I’ve been having photographs taken of myself as a poet (by the lovely Michael Willett – see below), putting on poet clothes (just like normal clothes, it turns out) and I have even bought a laptop (the previous one was borrowed: I was a poor postgrad student).
The book is coming out: I am a poet. Yet there’s this little niggling voice that calls me out. You are not what they think you are! You are in disguise! it says. Is my disguise good enough? I wonder.
I’m reminded of a comment that Jonathan Edwards made the last time I listened to him read. He said something like This poem, this one, is not really a poem; it’s more of a short story that I’ve snuck in, really. I do that with my poems and I hope no-one notices. I started laughing and exchanged a meaningful look with a poet friend of mine. Jonathan Edwards and I share an editor, the fantastic Amy Wack. It seems like we both try to fool her that this poem, this one here, is in fact a poem (the niggling voice says No! No it’s not!). But Amy can’t be fooled. Of course it’s a poem. She’d send it back if it wasn’t (This is not actually a poem, she’d write, Do better). This is what we fear.
And the funny thing is, while waiting for the collection to come out causes the niggling voice to emerge frequently and painfully, with ideas above its station, the process of putting together a collection has the opposite effect. When I am writing and editing and arranging and reading old drafts I am not thinking about the disguise. I am thinking about the poems. I am making the poems. If they are hunks of stone, I am hacking and chipping away at them (with various degrees of force and delicacy) until the sculpture emerges. If they are exposed film, I am in the dark room waiting for them to develop into photographs. If there are words, I am there with my pen in my hand, scratching out and adding in better words, phrases, line breaks, punctuation, until there are poems.
For example, I recently rediscovered a first draft of what would become a poem called ‘How to Marry a Welsh Girl’. It wasn’t even in my notebook – it was on my phone. I must have been out somewhere and not wanted to carry any extra weight, and then – well, bloody typical. Inspiration struck. That’ll teach me.
It’s dated 13 March 2015, at 20.25 (What day was that? Maybe I was at the pub?):
For a dowry you get what you’re given,
the chapel, prolific regions of sheep and jackdaws, circling
hills and black mountains, the usual ropey singing
at chapel, the local pub they don’t speak English in, that brings out
the buffet at half-time – cheese and pickle cocktail sticks, corned beef.
How it’s no business transaction – the handsome pizza boys my mum eyes up
for my sister ask, Do you know the Evanses from Porthyrhyd?
Compare schools – My second cousin Daniel? He’s no older than you.
And at Llanarthne the village hall welcomes us with palms open –
offer their best tea set and buffet, they’ve got seating for 150 and it’ll cost us a song, next to nothing, cariad. You’ll be wanting the flags out,
pray it won’t rain but if it does it’s lucky. The wooden spoon means you’ve won
your in-laws over; you’re Welsh now, oh my Saes, look what you’re marrying
into. Boys, it’s traditional to have a punch-up at a wedding.
You’ll want some nice photographs. There’s lovely. Priodas, wedding.
And here’s the actual poem, which a few months later, made it into The Rialto – and also into my wedding ceremony:
How to Marry a Welsh Girl
It’s not so much about asking permission
as thieving. For dowry you take what you can,
get what you’re given: the chapel, prolific sheep, jackdaws, circling
hills and black mountains, the usual ropey singing
at the pub they don’t speak English in, cheese and pickle
cocktail sticks, pasties, corned beef. I book the catering
because the handsome pizza boys my mam eyes up for my sister ask,
Do you know the Evanses from Porthyrhyd? My second cousin Daniel?
At Llanarthne the village hall welcomes us with palms open –
their best tea set and crockery will cost us a song.
Cariad, it’s not so much about Welshing
as fleecing. My heart lies cooling on the griddle
next to the currant-filled cakes. Here’s a hint: I’m stirring
the cawl or knitting socks in a corner, disguised as an old woman
in a tall black hat. If you still want me, you’ll have to make off with me,
and even then my da and brawd won’t give up the chase. If I tear my dress
while getting away, that’s love; if I keep myrtle in my bouquet, we’ll grow sons.
Since you’re a Saes you won’t know to carve a lovespoon,
but I’ll tell you that birdsong in the morning
means luck; there might be donations of cheese, money, wool, bacon.
Quite a lot has changed here, and quite a lot has stayed the same. The bones of the poem are there in the original draft; the notes provided enough of a spark to light the fire. The biggest thing the final draft does is add rhythm and form. The folklore also came later. While writing the poem, I read about traditional Welsh wedding customs. I also played about with these a little (ahem, poetic license, ahem). Most of the traditions described are true. Some are adaptations of the truth, because, well, they worked. And that’s in keeping with folklore. Aural versions of tales get repeated, paraphrased, transcribed and transformed. Interestingly, there were other adaptations made to this poem: I had to remove the chapel reference for our civil ceremony. And it was my mum who read it during the ceremony, not me (I later read a different poem at the reception during my speech).
So I suppose I’m a poet then. Yikes. This collection is the culmination of about five years’ work, but it feels like the beginning of a journey rather than its ending. I’m not sure where the next step will land, and I hope it’s solid ground and that the landscape is interesting. That niggling voice is keeping me honest, though. It makes me keep working at it.