Richard Gwyn

Borderlands: An Interview with Richard Gwyn

Richard Gwyn was born and grew up in south Wales. In 1993 he began a study of illness, language and the body, an interest which he pursued professionally until 2003, resulting in the publication of two books, Communicating Health and Illness (Sage, 2002) and Discourse, the Body, and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). He teaches at Cardiff University, where he is Director of the MA in Creative Writing. Richard Gwyn’s poetry includes One Night in Icarus Street, Stone dog, flower red/Gos de pedra flor vermella (both 1995), Walking on Bones (2000) and Being in Water (2001). He is also the editor of an anthology of new poetry from Wales titled The Pterodactyl’s Wing: Welsh World Poetry, launched at the Hay Festival in 2003. He has published poetry in translation from Spanish, Catalan and Lithuanian, has read his work at many venues internationally, and has collaborated extensively with visual artists in Britain, Spain and France. He is a regular columnist for Poetry Wales, reviews books for The Independent and has discussed his work on TV and radio. His first novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away (2005), set in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona, is published by Parthian in the UK, Doubleday in the USA, and has been translated into many languages. His second novel, Deep Hanging Out (2007) is published by Snowbooks. His most recent books are Sad Giraffe Café (2010), a collection of prose poems, and The Vagabond’s Breakfast (2011) a memoir.


John Lavin: ‘The Reading’ is set in Newtown in the Welsh Marches, a quiet, ‘curiously voided’, place. What was behind your decision to set the story in the Welsh Marches?

Richard Gwyn: I grew up in the Marches, the borderlands, where identity was historically a matter of negotiation. I think that rubbed off. In any case I have always been attracted to peripheral zones, the spaces between entities, or nations. When I was younger I chose to live in Crete for three years – which is ‘Greece-but-not-Greece’; and then in Catalunya, which is self-consciously ‘not Spain’ but exists within that nation’s space, on the borders with yet another nation, France. I have always felt comfortable with the marginal and the peripheral.

I visited Newtown shortly before writing the story, and was struck by the way the town centre has suffered as a consequence of the economic crisis. Pubs closed, shops boarded up, but plenty of cheap chains and second hand shops. The Poundstretcher kiss of death. It seemed to be struggling to maintain whatever identity it had as a Marches market town. You see this across the UK of course, but it seemed poignant to me, because I remember visiting fourteen years ago and finding it quite a thriving place.

In the story, Owen’s identity is compromised by what happens to him at the library. Of course I didn’t think this correlation through before writing the story. It just happened that way, and besides, sadly, the basic premise of the story is autobiographical.

The ghost of Timofey Pnin seems to hover over this story of the little known poet, Owen, travelling to a small town in the middle of nowhere to read his poetry at an event that doesn’t, in fact, exist. Are you suggesting – tongue firmly in cheek, of course – that to be a poet in Wales is as ridiculous an occupation as Nabokov clearly felt that it was to be an Assistant Professor in Russian in 1950s North America? And is Nabokov an influence?

I have always been a fan of Nabokov – especially in my late teens and early twenties. In the sense that we absorb without always being conscious of our influences, I think that Nabokov is an influence on my writing, but perhaps not in any overt way, and no, I hadn’t thought of Pnin when writing ‘The Reading’. I’m not sure, when answering questions of this kind, who my influences are: some are probably more detectable than others. I also believe you are capable of being influenced by writers you have not yet read, but who are in the zeitgeist. Needless to say being a poet in Wales is a ridiculous occupation, or anywhere else for that matter, but I don’t think that has anything to do with Nabokov.

‘The Reading’ appears to be continually debating the validity of poetic expression. Owen ‘dare not consider [poetry] a profession’ and feels ‘overwhelmed by an almost tactile sense of pointlessness’, while a poem found on a church door (presumably by R.S. Thomas), is judged by Owen to be a ‘joyless’, ‘entirely pointless’ piece, causing him to wonder ‘at the capacity of anyone to be a poet in this age, when any foul-mouthed cretin with celebrity status has his words repeated… by millions.’ What are your own feelings regarding the validity of poetic composition in the Twenty-First Century? Do they in some ways mirror Owen’s?

It has been said that the age of the novel was the 19th century and that prose fiction was laid to rest with Finnegan’s Wake. Poetry has died a thousand deaths, especially since Adorno’s famous (and subsequently qualified if not retracted) remark about no poetry after Auschwitz. So if novelists are the ghouls of literature, practicing a dead form, poets are beyond redemption. For this reason literary pundits have to keep telling us ‘The novel is alive and kicking’ (every Booker Prize announcement repeats this mantra) and that poetry has a kind of sacred, quasi-religious mission to continue writing poetry. I’m not sure why poets bother with this kind of self-deception: they know in their hearts they are practicing a dark art, something invisible to the majority of the population. Poets are like the adherents of some weird cult that will not die. This is a caricature, but like all caricatures perhaps contains a kernel of truth. My own feelings are that poetry can only stay alive by reinventing itself. So much poetry today is predictable and dull, either following form for form’s sake or else repeating the slowly self-strangulating obsessions of the confessional ‘I’.

Poetry has moved its centre of gravity towards prose: the greatest poetry of the past hundred years has been composed in prose. And nonfiction is becoming the dominant prose form, as the novel – with occasional exceptions that prove the rule – runs itself into ever decreasing circles. My own preferred formats today are narrative nonfiction, the personal essay (of which blogging is an expression), short stories (including microfictions) and prose poems. This is the stuff I tend to read. To some extent all of these are ‘marginal’ or ‘hybrid’ genres, which seems fitting for the twenty-first century. Oh, and the novella: we have seen, in spite of the resistance of UK publishers, a big upswell of interest in the short novel or novella, a form which has always been popular on what British people used to call – and which UKIP supporters still call – ‘The Continent’. Personally I have always been more influenced by what was going on in ‘continental’ writing, or in US writing, than what was being written in the UK.

The arrival of the golem halfway through the story comes as something of a surprise to the reader. What is its significance? The poet, Owen, finds himself ‘oddly purified, scraped out [and] reconfigured’ by the golem. He ends the story staring ‘for a very long time’ at a ‘black mark in the vague shape of a spider on the [window]pane’, almost as though the meeting with this amorphous creature has served to deepen his understanding of the complexity – and perhaps, too, of the pointlessness – of existence. Would I be right to think this?

Around the time I was thinking about writing this story, a friend at work, Clare Potter, asked me for a translation of Borges’ poem ‘The Golem’. This is a poem based on the Czech Rabbi, Talmudic scholar and mystic Judah Loew (Borges calls him ‘Leon’), who in 16th century Prague made a golem in order to protect his people from the terrible pogroms being inflicted on them. It was this making of a robotic form, a mindless automaton formed from clay, that appealed to me. Owen, at the point in the story when the golem enters the room, also feels as though he has been reduced to the status of an automaton, so the apparition seemed fitting. Paradoxically this has a cleansing or invigorative effect on Owen, but the nature of this renewal is not spelled out, and is complicated by his reading of the poem in the church portal on the way home, and his observation of the spider-shape on his bedroom window.

Do you have a particular writing routine?

I would like to follow a self-imposed routine, but this can be difficult since I teach at a university, and need to accommodate to a timetable imposed from there. In my ideal world I write from early morning until lunchtime, then attend to other matters, but it’s a long time since I was able to manage this. I try to jot stuff time whenever I can, and count on having longer period of time to pull it all together, which may or may not arrive.

Are they any writers who have exerted an especially strong influence on your work?

Well, yes, although their influence is not always easily discernible. By which I mean I think certain writers have influenced me in my way of thinking about literature and the world, but that influence might not always be easily identifiable in what I write. Reading is so crucial that at times it seems that writing is just an extension of one’s reading. But an important criterion is certainly to read people who make you want to write. For me, such a list of writers would begin with Borges, as he was perhaps the writer who first made me sit up and pay attention, and would include – in no particular order – Proust, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, CP Cavafy, Iannis Ritsos, Antonio Machado, Octavio Paz, Beckett, Nabokov, Calvino, García Márquez, Thomas Pynchon, W.G. Sebald, Joan Didion, Javier Marías, Roberto Bolaño, Rebecca Solnit, Lydia Davis, Anne Carson, to name but a few, but each one of whom has in some way made me think differently about writing and the world.

You have written acclaimed short stories, novels, volumes of poetry and memoir. Do you find it easy to move between different literary modes?

The short answer is ‘see question 3’. I see all literary activity as a continuum, as a single mode of expressive action, and am not really bothered by definitions of genre. The form will find itself to fit the material, not the other way around.

Finally, what next? Is there a new book on the way?

Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his autobiography that when people ask what you are writing you should tell them something parallel to, but slightly at odds with, what you are actually doing. But that seems overly complicated. So: I am currently collecting notes for a memoir (or nonfiction novel) reflecting on travel and reading and other everyday stuff, provisionally called Unfinished Journey(s), and based in part on recent trips I have made to Latin America. This has been made possible by an Arts Council of Wales ‘creative ambassador’ award, which has enabled me to make trips to Mexico and Colombia. I am also working on a collection of (mostly) prose poems, called Stowaway, about a series of journeys, real and imagined, in the eastern Mediterranean, and centring on the network of cities that include versions of Alexandria, Beirut, Smyrna, Salonika and, Istanbul. Finally, I am putting together and translating an anthology of contemporary Spanish language poetry, containing work by Latin American poets born after 1945. This will be published by Seren in 2016.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis