In Conversation with Nia Davies

In Conversation with Nia Davies

As of this Spring, one of the world’s most admired poetry journals, Poetry Wales, has a new editor. As magazines strive to remain relevant in the digital age, and as poetry continues its eternal struggle to be heard, Gary Raymond catches up with Nia Davies during her visit to the Erbil Literature Festival in Iraq.

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Gary Raymond: You are soon to take on the role of editor of Poetry Wales. It has a great history and plays an important role in Welsh culture; what is your vision for it in the modern age?

Nia Davies: I’ve been rummaging around in five decades of archive material and seen the huge scope and depth of what Poetry Wales has done. It does play an important role not just in Wales but also in Britain where it was one of the few magazines to be truly international and, in turn, known beyond the British Isles.

A poetry magazine is a miscellany of different perspectives which matches in some ways the distractedly digital modern age. Poetry Wales under my editorship will be connected and visible in this fractured, multi-directional world where discovery is all and attentions are short. But there is still great appreciation for the role a printed page plays in our reading life – to focus and relax into or to travel with. I think PW can exist in both modes.

A vision is also quite a grand term for what is really simply my taste (and belief) in poetry. But I have a genuinely broad taste and I’m open to excellent poetry of any hue or method that makes me feel something. That might sound vague but I tend to find what makes me feel makes others feel too, sometimes in the same way, sometimes differently. So I’m interested in poetry from the traditional to the vanguard, to the confessional or the idea, from linguistically complex to simple. Poetry intersects with other art forms in very interesting ways and I’m keen to explore this – we have an essay by Chrissy Williams in our summer issue on poetry and comics, for instance.

I suppose to find out the finer detail of the vision you will have to read the first issues I edit – from Summer onwards.

How is the preparation going for your first edition?

It’s currently being typeset. We’ve got poems from Deryn Rees-Jones, Karen Owen, Mark Waldron, Sarah Gridley, Damian Walford Davies, Joe Dunthorne and many others! As well as Chrissy Williams’ essay we have two short pieces by Sian Melangell Dafydd and Steven Hitchins under the theme of (re)generation. We also have an essay about poetry as heterotopia by Rhys Trimble plus reviews of new books by Tiffany Atkinson, Zoë Skoulding, Christine James, Margaret Lloyd and others.

You are a young editor, and this is a prestigious post. Can we infer a statement of intent on the part of Poetry Wales in your appointment?

Well, I don’t know who else applied for the job so I don’t know what the intent was.

I do find each of Poetry Wales’s generations intriguing however, and understand that in its 50th volume it is entering another new generation, that is still completely connected to the past. One project I’ve initiated, ‘(re)generation’, is asking poets in and from Wales of my generation who grew up in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to talk about their influences and connections with other generations of poets. This is in order to map how generations are connected to each other and to give a small indication of where younger writers here are coming from. This is one distinct project which will run throughout the volume. Generally I intend to publish poetry and essays from all generations.

As you say, Poetry Wales has an international presence. Which Welsh poets do you think are the most international in outlook and ideas?

Last autumn I was at the North Wales International Poetry Festival which involved many Welsh and European writers. It is a really unique festival, truly innovative, international and intimate too. We are incredibly lucky to have poets from all over come to Wales for these festivals and events. At occasions like this I’ve seen that Welsh writers are very interested in international writing, many are multilingual and are themselves translators. I’ve been lucky to work with several Welsh poets who are seriously engaged in the literatures and languages of other countries, are very committed to translation and are very good at it.

And, having been involved with several translation workshops or international events with Wales Literature Exchange and Literature Across Frontiers, I’ve found that most writers, given the opportunity, can be or become very international in their outlook. Because, in the end, it’s all about human connections. I’ve just been talking to some Iraqi poets here today in Erbil at the International Niniti Literature Festival about issues affecting women. Many of our poems are quite feminist. We do share many views, though they may live the issues much more harshly, or at least differently, than I do in the UK. So though we live in different conditions and write in different traditions and scenes, the empathy and approach we bring to life through reading and writing is often quite similar. Once we connect and communicate, it’s very usual for poets from different backgrounds to find common ground in terms of ideas and approaches.

Once we engage with each other’s poetry, there is always great camaraderie. I’d encourage poets who haven’t had these opportunities yet to seek them out – go to international festivals and meet people, read work in translation, make connections online etc. It does cost money to travel but there’s a great deal available at home too. There are two events happening in Wales next week involving Chinese writers for example – at Bangor University on the 2nd of May and at Glasfryn in Crickhowell on the 4th, for example.

Could you tell us whether Poetry Wales will be given more of a digital focus over the next couple of years?

In a number of ways. I am planning to make the magazine’s hub of great writing and debate more visible online through publishing work on our website. I’m also hoping to serve the readerly ear with recordings of poets performing or talking about their work. And there will be a digital edition for subscribers who use tablets and mobile devices launching in the summer. We are also now connecting much more with the PW community and poetry audiences online through email, Twitter and Facebook, (so please like and follow us if you’d like to keep up to date and/or get involved!).

Contemporary poetry of any era is innovative, often at the forefront of developmental artistic movements. Are you looking for these works now? Poetry Wales, as an establishment journal, could be viewed as quite conservative, but with a new editor in a technological age it could be in a great position to push boundaries.

I suppose a literary print journal which has been prominent for some time in the way Poetry Wales has is established and thus establishment. PW has had some really radical phases that have subverted the literary establishment. Early on it was very politically anti-establishment, then later quite outspoken about censorship and international issues, shedding light on poetry previously ignored. In 1988 PW featured Jack Mapanje who was a political prisoner at the time and I’m really delighted to have a poem by him in the summer issue. Recently, under Zoë Skoulding’s editorship, PW has been publishing some very innovative work unlike many prominent British journals which tend, or have tended in the past, to conservatively stick to a narrow long-established kind of poetry.

So even though the medium is a bit old school the content doesn’t have to be. Technology does provide opportunities to open up this medium and hopefully reach new audiences. We can definitely be innovative in new ways that haven’t been possible in the past. I’m excited about that. I’m open to collaboration and absolutely looking for work that pushes boundaries, exists beyond the realm of the printed page or is simply a bit different.

Poetry seems to need to perpetually justify itself to those outside of the poetry world, or at least outside of the world of art and literature. What is Poetry Wales’ place in this?

Yes, people are always declaring it dead. And here we are still. I think people say these things partly because, in neoliberal worldview, poetry is not a very marketable product. So it would be dead to those who only look for ‘product’ or work that is made visible by a vast media publicity machine – usually only possible when profit is involved. And in some ways I think the now highly commercialised arenas of rap, stand-up comedy and pop music cater for some of the things that people got out of poetry in times long past – at least in the UK, because poetry is definitely pop in some cultures. In fact, in Welsh culture it is still very important. Curiosity in language is pretty essential to our lives. Of course a magazine for presenting and discussing the art of poetry is a small part of this larger curiosity in language and of the poetry world itself, which has many other forms beside print. But I think Poetry Wales is very important as a support, reflection and invigoration of that world.

You have had a couple of your poems translated into Spanish recently. Can you see poems in Welsh appearing in Poetry Wales in the next few years? Or more poems translated from other languages, with perhaps a focus on Welsh? It has never been so easy to access translated poetry; do you think this access is needed in a magazine such as Poetry Wales?

Because of digital developments and the work of advocates and many wonderful translators we do have better access to work in translation. But I wouldn’t say it’s easy access. Much international work is still simply ignored. Just last week there was a feature on The Guardian website: ‘Top Ten Books About Desert Wars’. All the writers mentioned wrote in English. As if these wars don’t happen in places where people actually live – not least make poetry and art or tell stories. Parochialism in the Anglo world like this is quite embarrassing and, in the end, just very dull.

I see translation as very important for creating understanding between people and generating new approaches to creative work. Because in Wales, thankfully, we have two languages and are well aware of the importance of translation, there’s an openness to other languages and cultures. I see Poetry Wales as playing an important role in this dynamic. Poetry is not made in a national cultural vacuum so a magazine should also reflect an international context. There’s still so much out there waiting to be translated and discovered by readers of English. Not least from Welsh itself, which I am absolutely committed to giving light to where we can with the help of Welsh language editor Eurig Salisbury.

Different language cultures have different poetics, jokes, puns, wordplays, allusions, etc. This makes translation – especially of poetry where language is key – incredibly difficult. But I believe it is absolutely essential in keeping literatures open to reinvigoration and thus essential to a healthy cultural ecosystem.

Actually, I am just at a workshop in Iraq right now in the the process of having my poems translated into Arabic and Kurdish, and similarly bringing the work of Iraqi poets from those languages into English. This workshop in Kurdistan has been a brilliant opportunity to open up and ease this process of translation with the help of translators and the poets themselves. It’s organised by Reel Festivals at the Niniti International Literature Festival and I am very grateful to organisations like Reel who are committed to this literary exchange and also those based in Wales, Literature Across Frontiers and Cyfnewidfa Lên Cymru/Wales Literature Exchange for example, with whom I’ve worked a great deal.

In my first issue of PW we have poetry translated from Welsh, Dutch, German and Polish.

Back in November, you (along with poet Amy Key) stayed in Shingle Street in Suffolk in a coastguard cottage out on the shingle beach. I can’t think of a place more aptly named. What was this experience like?

Beautiful and highly useful. Even if at the time I only write a few bits and pieces, I always find a change in direction afterwards due to that intense incubation period. There should be more residencies in the UK.

You have written about the pointlessness of poets writing about places they aren’t all that familiar with, maybe with the aim of making their poems sound more exotic. Will taking this job mean moving to Wales?

I don’t believe in prescriptive rules. Poetry always inhabits a space – real and imagined. I think I’m just bit sick of reading poems with brief exotic references to far away places, perhaps from the poet’s holiday. Or alternatively, when a poem uses the clichés of a particular place and contributes to the erosion of local distinctive culture, adding to its obsoleteness. So maybe it’s just the thoughtless use of place I feel is pointless!

And yes I’m moving to Swansea where I lived previously – mostly because it is a great place to live and I have good friends there. But also because I believe editing Poetry Wales is an act of communication. So it helps to be in Wales in order to better meet as many people as possible, readers and writers. I’m also organising a number of live events in Summer/Autumn 2014 and beyond.

Do you plan to avoid writing about Wales while you are editor of Poetry Wales?

I think that might be impossible. To plan anything and to avoid anything, that is. At least in terms of writing poetry. It is the freedom to do anything with language, or in fact any medium, which makes artistic work possible and essential to me.

Is there a separation, or a need for a separation, of poet and editor? Do you approach poetry with a different mindset in one role than the other?

First of all I am a reader and my readerly pleasure is what makes me want to write and also curate good writing. That initial excitement at finding something wonderful in language could lead to writing a poem or it could lead to me saying to people, ‘you have to read this!’ But thereafter whole other mindsets and skills are needed for both activities.

In the editor’s chair you will no doubt be introduced to poetry you would not have normally come across. How easily do you absorb the works of other poets in your own poetry?

The way artists take in and re-express the work of others, or any stimulus, is a really interesting unconscious-to-conscious process, subtle and unpredictable. If it wasn’t so subtle, or in fact mysterious, it wouldn’t be interesting to me really. Influences tend to need distance – either with time or another mind – in order to be noticed. In my own poetry there have been countless absorptions, some of them brief, fun red herrings, others have evolved and headed off in new directions.

What is your view of Welsh poetry at the moment? And what do think Poetry Wales can do for it or to it?

I think Poetry Wales should reflect Wales’ poetic creativity and invigorate it by presenting exciting work for people to get inspired by. It supports poets to develop and get their work more widely read. Meanwhile, candid critical debate around poetry is crucial to preventing the scene from becoming mired in repetition or conservatism. The magazine, and also in future the PW website, is a platform for this.

Wales’ multilingual culture is completely in awe of language and thus a brilliant habitat for poetry. It’s a supportive and creative time. There are lots of people working with poetry that is innovative, entertaining, important and beautiful. There are some vibrant publishers, new festivals and projects. But public funding cuts continue to chip away at many of the most innovative and necessary poetry outfits – development organisations and venues for example. I’d like to see long term vision and investment for all aspects of the literary scene in both of Wales’ languages and for there to be more collaboration between people. We are fortunate that there are some brilliant poets and organisers who are cooperative and creative with the money that does exist and just tend to get on with making good things happen.

Thanks, Nia; and best of luck with your editorship.

With thanks to Carl Griffin for help in the research for this interview.

Illustration by Dean Lewis