Nerys Williams on the Art That Made Her

Nerys Williams on the Art That Made Her

Nerys Williams, author of Republicreflects on the process of writing a collection which draws together poetry, music and the visual arts, and tells us about the five books which inspired her as a writer.

Writing the volume Republic felt a little like retracing my key encounters with music, poetry, film and painting from 80s to the present. Republic’s composition began as an urgent response to questions of identity provoked by the UK referendum. From the  early drafts it was clear that the project would dissect what it is to inhabit a language that is under threat. I was keen to make Republic as discursive as possible. Many of the volume’s prose poems are my response to anti-Welsh sentiment voiced on social media. Reviewers have graciously pointed to Republic as an experimental work. In some ways it had to be. However, it finds a strong lineage in modernist poetry (and earlier). I did feel I was writing within a tradition, which gave me some comfort.

The following five works offer a bridge between my version of west Wales and the world. They are not displayed as badges of “cultural capital”,  but as my encounters with new ways of thinking about music, identity, politics and language. Whenever the writing of Republic became a little lost, self-indulgent or threatened to lose its integrity, I reflected on works that I deeply admired. These five encounters –always reminded me of what is possible. They  are works that make the heart beat a little faster…

Datblygu Wyau  LP (Anhrefn 1988)

Wyau (or eggs) was a portal into a new world and marked a personal change from respecting  to loving the Welsh language. David R Edwards’s mordantly funny lyrics captured the “parchusrwydd”, or conservatism of those who policed Welsh language culture. Pat Morgan and Wyn Davies’s arrangements offered an alternative vision of a Welsh musical tradition. Datblygu have travelled with me across the decades, and are uncompromising. Such integrity came at great physical cost to Edwards; his empathy for the overlooked and underappreciated stays with the listener. Dissecting the lyrics from the music is impossible. Who can resist a sampled hairdryer or childlike mouth piano chiming with Edwards’s statements about life, love and culture in small communities?

Jean Toomer Cane (1923)

Jean Toomer’s three sectioned volume Cane, incorporates prose, poetry, lyrics and drama. It is linked to the 1920s African American cultural movement, The Harlem Renaissance. African American poet Langston Hughes praised Cane as being “like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.” Focusing on the American South’s traumatic history, Toomer offers a radical revisioning of the book form. He referred to it as his “swan song” to the American South. In many ways can be read in conjunction with writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s recording and transcription of oral storytelling. Toomer’s work juxtaposes cruelty and barbarity with intense lyricism and the melos of the spirituals. Cane resists categorisation. The bravery of Toomer’s writing as he chronicles community, history, transition and diaspora still haunts me.

Wim Wenders Wings of Desire  (German: The Sky Over Berlin) (1987)

Filmed two years before the reunification of Germany, this film made me catch my breath when I first saw it in 1990. Its two main characters are angels whose compassion for the humans they observe offers such hope. Near the beginning, Wenders’s camera eye lingers on a “cathedral of books”- a library full of unexpressed thoughts heard only by his angels. There are strains of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry in Wenders’s visualisation. Being too young to fully recall the release of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, and growing up during  the tail end of the Cold War,  this feels like my version of “Heroes”. Nick Cave makes a cameo appearance, an angel falls In love, black and white film bleeds into colour. Listen to an elderly man (as Homer) address childhood through Peter Handke’s poetry with such delicate lines as: “When the child was a child/it was the time for these questions,/ Why am I me and not you?”

Lyn Hejinian My Life (Burning Deck, 1980; reissued Sun and Moon Books, 1987 Green Integer Green Integer, 2002 and My Life in the Nineties Shark Books, 2003)

Lyn Hejinian’s volume has been a touchstone for me over the decades. I found her work through the essays of two other San Francisco Bay Area poets, Robert Hass and Michael Palmer (also key influences). My Life is a rule governed work, its first rendering was written by Hejinian at the age of thirty eight. The volume initially contained thirty seven sections each with thirty seven lines. Over the decades, Hejinian has republished the work, each time adding additional sections and lines to mirror her age. Hejinian’s work introduced me to the poetry and poetics of “language writing” a diverse body of experimental poetry from the East and West Coasts of America. This loose collective used poetry as a testing out of propositions and ideas. Hejinian’s essay collection A Language of Inquiry (2000) has been crucial  in allowing me to view poetry as a form of  investigation. In short, My Life offers an alternative form of lyricism. Hejinian reminds her readers that memory is always mobile, informed by the time of its commitment to the page.

Osi Rhys Osmond  Hawk and Helicopter (2011)

I grew up knowing many versions of West Wales. There was the pastoral West promoted by tourism; 1970’s self-sufficiency communities; my own Welsh speaking village community and more indecipherable the landscapes occupied  by the Ministry of Defence. Military West Wales operates in camouflage- but it is omnipresent. Osi Rhys Osmond’s delicate series,  Hawk and Helicopter, documents sunsets in Carmarthen Bay. Osmond settled in Llansteffan not far from the Ministry of Defence’s missile testing camp in Pendine. In the paintings, the pastoral is disrupted by military hardware. A chinook helicopter, training for Afghanistan, intersects with a hawk’s flight pattern. Osmond’s paintings show how an area of outstanding  natural beauty is disrupted by militarism. He alerts us to a connection between the local and the global, the pastoral beauty of West Wales is implicated in a theatre of war.

Republic by Nerys Williams is availalable now from Seren Books.