Rhian Edwards

In Conversation with Rhian Edwards

Rhian Edwards is a multi-award winning poet and musician. Her first collection of poems Clueless Dogs (Seren) won Wales Book of the Year 2013, the Roland Mathias Prize for Poetry 2013 and Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice 2013. It was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2012. She is also the current winner of the John Tripp Award for Spoken poetry.

John Lavin: The idea behind A Fictional Map of Wales is to create a series of individual portraits of life in 21st Century Wales, thereby creating an honest, albeit fractured, vision of the nation as a whole. The thinking behind this is that art, despite the very fact of it being the product of someone’s imagination, can, perversely enough, offer a truer reflection of society than either newsprint or historical documentation. Do you think that this is true? And do you think that it is important to write creatively about Wales – or indeed any location – in order to understand it?

Rhian Edwards: I agree with this. I’m a strong proponent of write about what you know, which is why my poetry and even my fiction tends to be semi auto-biographical. That way at the very least I can derive comfort from the fact that I’m painting an accurate picture and can’t be criticised for being disingenuous. I always want honesty to be at the heart of my way, that way I don’t have to force the pathos.

Do I think it is essential to write creatively about Wales? Yes and no. I don’t think Wales gets the credibility it deserves, particularly regarding the beauty it has to offer. I think the media are prone to focus on the mining towns that have become dilapidated over time, the crime, third generation unemployment. Little air time or press pagination is devoted to the Wales we know best.

The setting of a scene and location tends to be integral to any story. Though I feel I didn’t even scrape the surface or even begin to describe my chosen Welsh town, except in terms of the Husband’s animosity towards it and the Wife’s stubborn loyalty to the place. But then I suppose that is a realistic reflection of how people respond to their environment. We’re not constantly engaged in wistful monologues of embroidered descriptions. For the most part we’re just dealing with the everyday, actuality of inhabiting a place and in this case it forms the crux of why this couple are at loggerheads. Moreover, it is interesting to perceive a place through the eyes of both the native and the foreigner. It gives the location more balance.

I remember the first time I read Sheepshagger by Niall Griffiths. His vivid and dark descriptions of Wales were rather seductive. I had never read a piece of fiction based in Wales before. It made me rather proud to be from his literary landscape.

I believe that ‘Beyond the Perforation’ is by far the largest piece of prose fiction that you have written to date. Do you find the process of writing short stories significantly different to the composition of poetry?

Very much so. This is also the first thing I have written since having my baby ten months ago. I’m usually a poet by trade and accustomed to fashioning and re-fashioning a single page of text over a period of a month. But the permissible word count for this was absolutely terrifying.

Poetry is all about show and not tell and it doesn’t necessarily need a beginning, middle and end. Prose is about showing and telling, so I’m ostensibly breaking the cardinal sins of poetry while trying to conjure a discernible conclusion to the whole thing.

Initially I found I was treating the short story like a poem, constantly revising and editing the same page of text without actually progressing beyond the first page. However that could be attributed to procrastination and panic.

Also poetry is very much about not forcing your ideas upon the piece and letting the poem be what it wants to be. As a result I was in a complete flap when it came to resolving the story. On the one hand, I should have mapped the story beforehand but I’m glad I allowed the story to lead me to its natural and organic conclusion.

I should write more prose because I do find it liberating. I have carte blanche to be funny, which is where my prose often leads me. With poetry, I often feel somewhat staid and straitjacketed by the notion of ‘loading every riff with awe’ and comic asides often feel frivolous and superfluous in a poem, as well as self-conscious.

The narrator of ‘Beyond the Perforation‘ seems to identify strongly with her hometown of Bridgend, which she thinks of as ‘imperfect’, while she also suggests that she ‘would defend the place to the death with a broken pint glass.’ When ‘even the maternity ward at the local NHS hospital reminds [her husband] of a makeshift wing in M*A*S*H’, you feel as though the narrator takes it as a deeply personal attack. You feel that her intransigence on the issue of refusing – ‘I wasn’t fucking moving anywhere’ – to leave Bridgend, is bound up with the feeling that in rejecting Bridgend her husband is also rejecting her. Is this the correct reading?

I would say that was a spot on reading. As I mention in the story ‘your hometown is like the black sheep of your family and only blood relatives have the natural right to slag it off’.

Most people have a love/hate relationship with their hometown but you can’t escape from the fact that it somehow forged and sculpted you into the person you are. And I think we all become rather protective of our hometown when an outsider comes in, who can never have the same relationship with the town as you. They will always be a tourist, which makes their indictment of the place unwelcome. And even if you agree with some of their criticisms, you somehow feel they lack the natural right to voice them.

The story also appears to suggest that the rationale behind farming out personal problems to an unknown third party with vested interests is a dubious one at best. In fact, the way that you describe the counsellor’s manipulation of the couple put me in mind of the way that the government is increasingly minded to involve private companies in public sector areas such as the prison system and the NHS. Are you suggesting that we, as a society, are increasingly far too comfortable with delegating responsibility to third parties?

Very much so. What is more it perpetuates stasis, the act of doing nothing because suddenly you’ve outsourced your own volition. Whereas before you abided by your own self-will, expediting decisions effectively and swiftly, counselling can often create a lag, forcing you into second-guessing yourself before acting. As a result, you dare not act without the validation and approval of the mediator. Everything is conveniently postponed until the next meeting. Ironically the most common soundbite at counselling is to take ownership of your decisions, and yet it breeds a culture of deferring them. After all, the marriage counsellor’s raison d’etre hinges on the fact your marriage is in a state of conflict.

Do you have a particular writing routine?

It changes and since having the baby it has somewhat ground to a halt. Time has never been such a precious commodity and I feel as if I’m permanently chasing my tail.

I used to be only able to sit down to write when I felt everything else was done, tidied and put away and there was no one else around. This is something I am learning to dispense with. While writing this short story I was entirely reliant on my baby’s unpredictable nap times, at which point I would drop everything, even if I hadn’t washed and cleaned my teeth, to just sit down and write. This also meant I had to write while my husband was watching sports on TV. It made me realise that when I had to write I could write, even when the circumstances weren’t favourable and slightly chaotic.

Poetry is still my main preoccupation. Usually a line comes to me while I’m walking and I note it down in my moleskine notebook. If I feel a poem is germinating straight away then I start fleshing it out either in the notebook, during train journeys or while walking (this is also how I get the poem in my bones and learn my poems off by heart).

It’s only when I feel there really is a poem blooming i.e. I have 4-6 lines that I sit down and type it out. And then it’s a case of re-visiting it, re-fashioning it, leaving it alone and then coming back to it. I wish I could conveyor-belt poems out of me, but sometimes the best poems are resolved months, even years after the initial draft.

Are there any writers that you would consider to have been a particular source of inspiration to you?

Hugo Williams, Paul Farley, Matthew Francis.

Seamus Heaney described the role of poet as that of the diviner in the village. He describes the ‘craft of dowsing or divining [as] a gift for being in touch with what is there, hidden and real, a gift for mediating between the latent resource and the community that wants it current and released.’ Do you feel that this is true in relation to yourself and your view of the poet? (It seems to me that both in this story and in your poetry there is an eagerness to bring fresh vital news to the page, both for your own benefit and for the benefit of the community at large.)

I don’t think I have the self-confidence to profess that I am somehow a mediator or diviner of truth. I still feel writing is a vanity project and I’m incredibly humbled by the fact that other people wish to hear or read what I have to say and that I can forge something of a living out of it. I try to write something that I would find interesting to read and then I edit it within an inch of its life to try and make it the best poem or story it can possibly be.

Only very recently I realised that my real education in writing stemmed from working at a comedy club for five years. For the most part I worked in box office, but I would usually get to see most of the show and that was when I heard crisp writing at its best, strong visual imagery that often veered into the surreal, the tragic comedy of everyday relationships but with an inventive and off kilter take, while pitching the language perfectly to crescendo into the last line with the ultimate pay-off.

Your début collection, Clueless Dogs, won a staggering three awards at the Welsh Book of the Year award ceremony last year. It also won the John Tripp Award and was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize. How did it feel to receive such an overwhelmingly positive response to your début collection? Has it effected your creativity positively, or does it add unwanted pressure in terms of writing new material?

I was absolutely amazed to have won and still am. I’ve never really won anything before, nothing big. And I seriously worried that leaving London five years ago, would mark the end of my literary career. Little did I know that returning to Wales would be the making of me.

Winning the John Tripp Award (both the audience and judge’s prize) and winning the hat-trick at WBOTY, confirmed in my mind that I had managed to successfully bridge page and stage poetry without compromising either, that I was capable of writing something of merit that also had audience and public appeal.

I read both Samantha Wynne Rhydderch’s and Deryn Rees Jones’s collections that were also shortlisted for the poetry prize for WBOTY and honestly didn’t think I stood a chance. I thought I was the rookie nomination brought in to give the shortlisting some kind of balance.

I’ll always remember that day. My father was meant to be coming to the ceremony but blew me off for a golfing holiday and texted me that morning with ‘don’t get your hopes up!’ Instead I took my mother to the ceremony, who kept reminding me not to embarrass her. But at even eight months pregnant, I was determined to get a new hair-do and a new frock, despite the fact I didn’t think I would win anything. I thought this may be the last time I ever get invited to a ceremony like this, so I should make the most of it.

I certainly haven’t become too big for my boots. I am very much humbled by the success of Clueless Dogs. It took me eight years to write the book and it took me well over a year to find a publisher. I had so many rejections in the interim that I came close to giving up poetry altogether, thinking that my parents were right, I was chasing a ludicrous pipe dream.

I was initially reluctant to submit my manuscript to Seren because I heard that were was a waiting period of about three years between acceptance and publication and the manuscript had already been gathering dust for a year. However it was on Robert Minhinnick’s insistence that I submitted the poems to Seren. And I was absolutely amazed when they accepted. What is more Amy Wack, the editor, really fought tooth and nail to accelerate my publication date to just under a year.

Funnily enough, the day I hand-delivered the manuscript to Seren’s offices, I caught the train to a residential writing course, where the main poet read the manuscript and strongly urged me not to publish it.

It just makes me to grateful to think that my bloody-mindedness eventually paid off. I’m glad of the advice I followed in making the poems the best poems they were capable of being. I’m glad Robert Minhinnick encouraged me to submit to Seren. I’m glad of the advice I ignored, I’m glad I didn’t allow the rejections to get the better of me, I’m glad I ignored the eye-rolls of people when I told them I wrote poems, I’m glad I ignored the advice of a leading poet to not publish Clueless Dogs.

And yes, I must confess, I am suffering from second album syndrome. Naturally I want the second collection to be even better, to be a worthy successor to Clueless Dogs without mimicking the content and being a re-hash of the first book.

Finally, what’s next for you? Are you working on a new poetry collection? And is there also likely to be more fiction on the way?

I am currently working on a second collection of poems with the working title Brood.

Whereas Clueless Dogs was full of childhood poems, character portraits and love poems. The second collection Brood comprises a number of nature poems and bird poems and I’m sure a few motherhood poems will find their way into the book too, hence the working title.

My fear is that it may be so far removed from the autobiography and warmth of Clueless Dogs, it may lack the key ingredient that made Clueless Dogs such a success.

I’ve now got three fiction pieces to my name, two of which are flash fiction pieces with the same artist, Paul Edwards. All three pieces of fiction were commissioned, as I’m not sure I would have the gumption to write them off my own back. I do have a lot of fun writing fiction and actually I find the visual prompt a really good way to trigger the tale. So it would be lovely to have a collected short stories to may name as well.

I’m even dabbling with the idea of a children’s book given all the accidental research I’ve been doing every bedtime with my daughter.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis