Monday 6 April 2009

After the Conference 2: Three Poets

Dr. Matthew Jarvis, Anthony Dyson Fellow in Poetry at the University of Wales, Lampeter, kindly agreed to write a report on the poetry reading that took place on the evening of March 28th.

Three Poets at Gregynog

The recent Association for Welsh Writing in English conference at Gregynog – organized by CREW’s Daniel Williams and Sarah Morse – brought together three poets for Saturday night’s after-dinner slot. First up was Jasmine Donahaye who seems due to follow in the footsteps of Pascale Petit as one of Wales’s most distinctive contemporary poetic voices. Donahaye’s first volume, Misappropriations (2006), was short-listed for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Award, and the controlled emotional impact of her plain language work – so significantly indebted to American traditions – made the reasons for that nomination abundantly clear. What’s so good about Donahaye is that, alongside a significant aesthetic, her work also has a compelling central core of subject matter and imagery, emerging from the troubled politics of the Israel-Palestine situation. Her accentuated, pulsing reading manner created an almost-hypnotic aura in the room, and the crowd listened in an unsurprisingly hushed fashion. I await her second collection, Self-Portrait as Ruth (due imminently from Salt), with considerable interest.

Donahaye was followed by Childe Roland – pen-name of Peter Noël Meilleur, the French-Canadian concrete poet who moved to Wales in 1979 and who has been, as Nigel Jenkins indicated to me, pretty much ignored by the poetry establishment here ever since. A bad mistake, in my opinion. Roland has a near-perfect ear for poetic sound, as the second piece he performed (‘Jones, the Poem’) made obvious. It should give some sense of his impact that this poem was greeted by a spontaneous burst of applause. And the crowd’s laughter peppered the performance as a whole, because it’s clearly the case that poetry is considerably to do with ready wit and sheer linguistic fun for this particular writer. But perhaps the highlight of Roland’s set was his ‘Shearwater Oratorio’, which tracks the journey of the Manx Shearwater from Argentina to Bardsey Island and which draws on a Morse-code ‘translation’ of the bird’s cry. Performed by Roland and three audience members – including a rather surprised Daniel Williams, who was told he was taking part just before the performance started – this is a rich and intriguing work, which weaves together English and Cymraeg phrasing. In fact, linguistic pluralism seems to be a feature of Roland’s work; his first poem of the evening, ‘Bardsey Island’, reappeared a little later in French and then in Cymraeg. If you’ve never read any of Roland’s work, you can find both ‘Jones, the Poem’ and ‘Shearwater Oratorio’ here, and if you haven’t heard him perform, there’s a recording attached to this useful essay about him. On the basis of what we heard in this session at least, Roland is an abundant and joyous poetic talent who I’d be delighted to have as a future National Poet of Wales. Petition, anyone?

The final reader was CREW’s Nigel Jenkins, a significant presence on the Welsh scene since the late 1970s and thus the best known of the three – and (like Donahaye) also a speaker from earlier in the day, when he’d revisited his work on Welsh missionaries in the Khasi hills of north-east India. For me, the highlights of Jenkins’s reading were his rumbustious piece ‘The Creation’ (from 1998’s Ambush) and a selection of the punctuation poems from his 2006 volume Hotel Gwales. In a brief moment of conversation with me afterwards, Jenkins modestly dismissed ‘The Creation’ as little more than a joke in poetic form. (For anyone who doesn’t know it, the premise of the poem is that God creates a Wales so abundantly full of natural beauty and wealth that the Archangel Gabriel asks the Almighty if he hasn’t rather overdone it – to which the divine reply of the cutting final line is ‘Not if you look at the neighbours I’ve made ’em’.) Well, a joke it may be, but ‘The Creation’ is a great performance piece – just like the small dramas of those punctuation poems – as the crowd’s enthusiastic response made clear. And of course, the whole set was also a showcase for Jenkins’s richly resonant bass, which must be one of the best reading voices around. As a rather eminent member of the audience said to me afterwards, somewhat wistfully, ‘I want a voice like that when I grow up’. Me too.

You may just get the sense from my comments here that I enjoyed this particular event. And you’d be right. This was as good a poetry reading as you could hope for, and the three poets in question – each quite different – worked together extremely well. To be frank, I hope they team up again, because it was an unusually good combination: passionate seriousness, sonic vivacity, and sharp wit. Anyone out there thinking about setting up a reading really should get on the phone and try to book them all, post-haste.

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