In the latest in our series of essays on the creative process, Sion Tomos Owen divulges how he composed his eclectic collection of writings and artwork, Cawl.
In Welsh “Cawl” literally translates to broth, but it’s more than that. It’s a mixture of sustenance, memories, warmth, family, a collective bowl that everyone can dip into, feel satisfied and in if they want, there’s always more. There’s a saying that you never step into the same river twice since it’s always flowing; well, I believe you never eat the same cawl twice since it’s always simmering away. Maybe that sounds a little too heavy on the metaphor for a title to a book but it was always my intention to name it such because of these reasons. I like to think of myself as a creative polymath, so the book was a collection of everything I’d created over the course of around four years from poetry to prose, non-fiction to cartoons.
It seems popular to knock Richard Llewelyn’s How Green Was My Valley, but when I read it as a homesick 13 year old in a French caravan it had a lasting effect on me. To think that someone once wrote about where I was from and could vividly describe the food my mamgu would still cook truly pleased me. Then I learned that Llewelyn wasn’t even from the Rhondda and there were far better and more diverse works of fiction by the men and women of my valley within one compacted bookshelf in my local library under “local fiction”. I gobbled them up like literary second helpings. After finishing half of these titles I knew I wanted something I had written to be amongst those plastic sleeved and numbered paperbacks.
But I never set out to write Cawl – the pieces were written and drawn everywhere. The short comic Disgruntled Employee, were literal incidents that happened in work and were where I took out my annoyance (and sometimes anger). They began as doodle therapy. I only have three originals since they were drawn hastily on whatever I had to hand, sometimes in a toilet cubicle, a store cupboard or while sitting through a dreadful meeting. Some were tweeted then discarded. I didn’t pay much mind to them until some began getting retweets. The comic Birth of a Daughter: A dad’s side was the fruit of the waiting game in the labour ward of Royal Glamorgan Hospital. My wife went in for an induction so as we sat I began to draw the ward, but things went quicker than expected and within a few hours my daughter was born. It actually took 6 months to draw, redraw and edit (on my wife’s insistence) the 16 pages of those few hours that changed our lives. Originally, I thought it would be a unique keepsake compared to the gigabytes of photos that were taken in the immediate aftermath and since live tweeting the birth was vetoed, a comic was my second choice.
Some of the poems I’d been working on for a while, tweaked from competitions but the one I worked on the most was “Write about what you know: In praise of a valley”. My parents have an heirloom bookcase in their living room that’s filled with dad’s art and Eastern theology books, mam’s books on opera and reflexology. I was always drawn to the hidden gems they’d collected; The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, Gwyn Thomas’ collected short stories. In my teens, as was my prerogative as the eldest, I would provoke my younger brother into physical scuffles and one day I went too far and he tackled me into the bookcase, smashing one of the hand blown glass panes. My parents were livid, but after ensuring we were both ok and treating my lacerated back, I remember my dad picking one book out to check. Rhondda Poems by Rhydwen Williams, a predominantly Welsh language writer’s hyper-local book of poems in English. He opened it and I saw that it was inscribed on the inside in my grandmother’s cursive script: Happy Xmas Tom 1989 Love from Bet. A gift to my Tadcu (my father’s father) in his final year; it also had a small golden cross bookmark on the page of the poem, “In praise of a Valley”.
A few years later when I was working in a secondary school I read the poem, was blown away and felt compelled to write an after poem. I wrote most of it while on dinner duty sat on the mould-stained, scuff-walled stairwell of the disused (and misused) section of the school I was working at. Pen in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other, I would mull over a phrase while sending pupils back to the hall or scolding them for littering. This was the worst period in my working life due to a my being forced to take on far more than I should have been doing at the school. One morning I had an anxiety attack and couldn’t bring myself to open the front door. I got a spell of prescriptions from the doctor and took a fortnight off. During this time there was a Welsh National Theatre week at the Parc and Dare theatre in my hometown of Treorchy, where they performed Rachel Trezise’ Tonypandymonium. That week there was an open mic poetry event. Being a normally confident bloke who had sung and read before hundreds of people, I fucking hated being reduced to a twitching shrunken mute who couldn’t meet anyone’s eye. I knew I needed to shake off the tightening around my chest and I poured every broken, angry word into the spotlit mic for the ten minutes it took to read.
It was the first time I’d read it aloud.
I won the open mic and it shook me out of my fug. They asked me back the following week to host the final event and write a poem based on the Rhondda Assembly takeover, which eventually became “The stone from which our blood is drawn”.
The two essays were never written specifically as essays, they were pieces I began writing from annoyance at a political situation that I didn’t feel I had enough information on. I went to the places I thought could deliver the information and became even more confused. The first,”The Poet, the Donkey and the Quandary“, was written when a fresh-out-of-college post-grad who foolishly swooned at debate-changing Clegg and tried to understand the Labour stranglehold on my valley. I went to hustings and meetings only to be faced with something that had little to do with politics and much more with staunch nostalgic ignorance. The second “How to Project the Country Next to England“, began as a travelogue from my trying to explain to foreigners on holidays where Wales was. But what it produced became something completely different after a run-in with more ignorance, only this time from within the Welsh Government itself, through a flippant remark by a minister at a poetry reading in Roath. The difficulty with writing non-fiction I found was that so many parts of what I was writing sounded fictional. The minister in question was actually dressed in a fedora, a trench-coat and a scarf and scuttled off into the night after I tried to question him further.
Almost all of the stories in Cawl were seeds of exercise, beads of sweat dripping from my forehead onto the page and running into a few thousand words. I don’t run very often and am currently in sedentary mode but in my bouts of huff n puff, I like to run up the mountains. “The Miller” and “Every Cloud“ was to be part of a Dystopian Valleys triptych after running in baking heat through the preparation works for Pen-y-Cymoedd, Western Europe’s largest on-shore windfarm. Between the beacons and the mountain paths I ran, a vast forestry commission covers the heads of the valleys, down the Afan, Neath and Cynon Valleys and lends an Americana to the landscape that planted saplings of McCarthyesque grotesqueness to a few of the stories. I was particularly influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God when writing the title story about a lonely old “Welsh mam” with a unique need to feed who lives deep in the forest. The farmhouse is actually based on a real house I used to pass. The grandmother of a friend who lives there was overjoyed when told this, but she is also yet to read the story…
I am crap at editing, I find it difficult to cut things. I’m anti-austerity even in my writing and keep adding words, but I knew that my editor’s notes on “Running into the Ground” were spot on. The difficulty lay in the fact that I had written it in the depths of redundancy, while at the time of editing, we had moved into a new home, we had a beautiful new daughter and I had recently presented my first ever television documentary series highlighting the best the Rhondda had to offer. I couldn’t ask for a better job. I don’t know whether it shows that I’m less of a good writer and better at bending reality into fiction but either way, I struggled for weeks to write anything remotely decent. Then Brexit happened and I plummeted into the perfect despair to edit the story and it was done in a day.
The final pieces in the book are a translated poem about the history and future of Wales and Cymraeg. Unlike most translated pieces, being a bilingual author I wrote both English and Welsh poems at the same time, almost a section at a time. Certain parts of the Welsh poem are different to the English since it is loosely based in rhyme but also because some phrases and idioms work differently in Welsh. I’ve never written like this before but thought I might as well start with a poem that embraces a bilingual topic while standing as an example in itself. It embodied what I wanted Cawl to be, a bi-lingual mix of diverse topics, styles and substance. I hope people enjoy the taste as much as I enjoyed cooking it.
You can order a copy of Cawl from the publisher’s website.