Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Conference Report- 'Dylan Unchained'

This September saw Dylan Thomas's ugly, lovely town celebrate the man, the myth and of course the work with a three-day conference. Organised by Kirsti Bohata, Director of CREW, the conference included not only a wide variety of papers but poetry readings, exhibitions, a new play- and a bus full of old books, courtesy of Jeff Towns's Dylan's Bookstore. We were delighted with the number of delegates who registered for the event, and with the high calibre of papers delivered. The conference got off to a great start with our first keynote lecture presented by Dr Leo Mellor (Cambridge University). Dr Mellor's keynote, '"On almost this incendiary eve': Dylan Thomas and the apprehension of war' placed Thomas within the context of WW2 poetry, arguing that Thomas's inclusion within this canon destabilised this body of literature- fitting as Thomas's war poetry dealt with the violent destabilisation and fragmentation of the body through language. Mellor placed Thomas also within the context of the Neo-Apocalyptics, and argued that art that would once have been seen as surrealism became realism within the war context. As well as his role as propaganda-generator during the war, Thomas's poetry also dealt with the broader concern of the period, how to make art from destruction. Mellor's paper also raised certain key issues and themes that would reverberate through the conference in the papers of other speakers.

Two parallel panels followed Mellor's keynote, one on Dylan and translation with a video of a multi-lingual reading of Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle , and the other on Thomas's relation to modernity and literary modernism. Andy Webb (Bangor University) discussed Thomas's short story collection A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog using the theoretical paradigms of world literary studies. Webb argued that the uneven development of capitalist modernity, where emergent social organisations co-exist alongside residual, local, traditional cultures, is reflected in Thomas's short stories, resulting in feelings of alienation and a crisis of self-representation in this uneasy space between these two competing cultures (obviously added tensions due to the linguistic tensions in Wales). Gareth Downes's paper, 'Dylan Thomas and the Enactment of a Modernist Pastoralism', explored Thomas's modernist appropriation of the pastoral, looking especially at one of Thomas's best-known and probably most anthologised poem Fern Hill. Downes explored how Thomas's use of the pastoral juxtaposed a celebration of childish innocence with a yearning sense of loss and tragedy. The pastoral, in Thomas's hands, embodies the tension between utopian idealisation and mythologizing on the one hand, and the deep sense of existential anxiety that runs through Fern Hill. Our leading Thomas scholar, Professor John Goodby, whose recent book on Thomas's poetry can be found here, talked us through the mammoth task he has recently completed, an annotated edition of Thomas's collected poems. This eagerly-anticipated book is due for release in October. As an added treat to this first night of the conference, we were thrilled to host a poetry evening at the Taliesin Arts Centre (organised by John Goodby) with poets Ian McMillan, Geraldine Monk and David Annwn. The readings were a delight, and what shone through was the warmth and humour of these poets, something I'm sure Thomas would have approved.

The second day of the conference followed on from the success of the first day, and the quality of the papers continued to be very high. The first panel, 'Dylan and Wales' featured papers from Charles Mundye, who recently edited Keidrych Rhys's poetry, looked at Dylan and his literary friends. Despite his well-known association with the Kardomah gang, Thomas is still often looked at in isolation. Mundye dismissed the myth that Thomas was a stand-alone poet by exploring his friendship with the Welsh-Argentinian poet Lynette Roberts and her husband Keidrych Rhys, poet and firebrand editor of the journal Wales. The second paper looked at this idea of creative influence further by exploring Thomas's influence on Ceri Richards's 'Force' paintings. Certain papers looked at Thomas and popular culture, while CREW's Kieron Smith explored how Thomas's 'intricate image' is being used in his centenary year as a means of rejuvenating his flagging hometown. Thomas's ghostly image raises a number of issues for us to consider: can this proliferation of Thomas's face, from the side of buses to beer mats (yes, really) contribute to a deeper engagement with Thomas's work, or are we just dealing with the surface image of Thomas, his creative and cultural significance stripped from him? Our second keynote of the conference was CREW's founding father, Professor M. Wynn Thomas, who gave a typically majestic lecture on the significance of nonconformist culture to Thomas's work (and indeed, personality). If you haven't already, Professor Thomas's book In the Shadow of the Pulpit is must-read. After this, we headed over to the Dylan Thomas Centre for the exhibition of Thomas's notebooks, followed by the announcement of the shortlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize at the Waterfront Museum. This was followed by the conference dinner back at campus and, in a desperate attempt to create an aura of mystery, I won't divulge the details. What happens at the conference dinner stays at the conference dinner...

The last day of the conference (where many delegates managed to look, if not necessarily feel, that they'd had an early night with nothing stronger than Horlicks) saw a diverse range of panels, ranging from creative responses to Thomas's work through performance to theoretical approaches to Thomas's poetry. Rhian Bubear's paper applied Lacanian theory to Thomas's work, exploring the excess of the signifier in Thomas's poem, 'Now this Insect'. Tomos Owen (Bangor University) used with the work of an equally difficult theorist, Jacques Derrida, and argued that  through his birthday poems, Thomas was already involved in his own commemoration. The last lot of papers looked at Thomas comparatively, with comparisons made between Thomas and Arthur Machen, Seamus Heaney, Kingsley Amis. There was also a panel on Dylan and America, and Thomas's connection with America has been mythologised. Fresh from the success of the show Dylan Live (a heady mix of lecture, music, spoken word and poetry, in English, Welsh and Breton) Daniel Williams spoke about the connections between Thomas and jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who were both seen by the Beat poets as figures of cultural revitalisation, sources of primitive energy to save bland bourgeois America. Poet David Annwn discussed, with the help of recordings, Dylan Thomas's connection with avant-garde film-maker Maya Deren. Thomas, in the one occasion he met Deren, was dismissive and patronising of her work, which Annwn suggested may have been linked with a deeper misogyny (my own opinion is that Thomas was a bit of a prat to everyone, regardless of gender). Finally, David Boucher explored the significance of Thomas on Bob Dylan, arguing that Thomas wasn't the only or even the main influence on the young Bob Dylan. Our final keynote came from Professor John Wilkinson (University of Chicago), who, through close readings of Thomas's poetry, looked
at the effacement of the caesura in Thomas's poetry.

As well as celebrating Dylan Thomas, we also gathered together at the end of the conference to commemorate the life and work of the late Nigel Jenkins. Friends, family, students, colleagues and admirers (and there are many) shared their memories of this great poet, teacher and champion of Welsh culture. It was a warm and deeply moving event, and a fitting tribute to a towering figure. Finally, after even more wine (Jack Rabbit- no rubbish in Swansea!), playwright D. J .Britten's play about Thomas's last days in New York, Chelsea Dreaming, at the Taliesin.

We are deeply grateful to everyone involved, delegates, speakers and organizers. We are also grateful for the support from CREW, RIAH, The Learned Society of Wales and the Dylan Thomas Centre. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi gyd.