In the latest in the Writers’ Rooms series, we visit the writing space of poet, playwright and editor, Menna Elfyn. Elfyn has published ten collection of poems, and is regarded as one of the few Welsh-language poets to have an international reputation. She has also written plays for stage and for BBC Radio and television in a writing career that goes back forty years. Elfyn was also the co-editor of Bloodaxe’s highly acclaimed Book of Modern Welsh Poetry.
I’ve always loved the word ‘stydi’. It is where my father, a minister, sat at his desk during most of his day. It is where I, when he was away visiting members of his chapel, discovered all kinds of books. It could also have been called a library as his books were wall to wall on theology, philosophy, novels and poetry. Especially poetry. It’s where I fell in love with books, found solace in their company as well as found them ghostly spirits at times. When I was a child I’d pass his door, always shut tightly and hear him talking to God. Or that is what I thought. Only later, did I realise that he was reading aloud his sermon in preparation for its delivery that coming Sunday.
When I started writing in my own study, I too talked my poems out loud, hoping perhaps for a nod from God! There is something spiritual about a room where creative work happens. The grand name for study or office in Welsh is ‘myfyrgell’ – a cell for meditating/thinking deeply. I do so love that word as it captures what one is trying to do—to go deep down – it’s the ‘hall’ in a ‘cell’ that Waldo perhaps saw? In my house in Llandysul, I had such a myfyrgell—it opened up on to a deck which was wonderful in the summer, the door ajar, and one was able to step outside and feel enclosed between the tall hedges of our garden. There were interruptions of course—my two cats, a ying and yang in nature, one laid back and deaf, the other a cat with attitude would demand that I open the door for them, constantly, even though we had a cat flap. But writers, if they are honest, love interruptions.
Now, for the past three months, I have a ‘myfyrgell’ on the top of Penlan Road in Carmarthen, which is a great place to write. I do, mind you, busk around though and spend writing time at our dinner table in another room. It’s the table I love and has a history of its own in that it was my grandmother and grandfather’s table in their smallholding in LLysderi, Drefach; then it became my childhood family table. In dark oak, there is a splodge of a lighter tone on one side as I spilt nail varnish remover on it once, and when it came down to me and my family, it fell off the top of a mini estate while we were delivering it to our new home in Penrhiwllan. Remarkably, it survived with mere scratches, a miracle indeed. My children did their homework on it, parties galore ate and drank on it, the ones we attended and probably those which happened when we were away, all received sustenance on this very table. It also allows me to write in longhand, endless drafts of poems—a computer may be good for dialogue and plays but there is nothing to beat the spreading out and splurges of writing poetry, draft after draft.
The only regret of moving is that my library has now been cut down to size and I have had to donate so many books to the free books place down in Pensarn where you can pick up three books a day there. One day a few weeks ago, I remembered that I had written a poem on the blank page of one book of poetry so I rushed down to retrieve it – and, to my amazement saw Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in a stack nearby. I lifted it knowing it was one I foolishly had thrown away only to hear a bearded man announce — ‘That’s mine’. That could have been a wonderful beginning to a play couldn’t it? Who is its real owner! I shyly left him to it, regretting my foolish action. What other books did I chuck away I wonder, all for the sake of that awful word ‘ downsizing’.
And now I am back at my desk with my long row of dictionaries tucked under the desk and books from the Basque country stacked on it. As one of eight writers chosen to take part in the European city of culture in Donostia/ San Sebastian in a project on ‘Correspondences’ I need to write another letter to my collaborator—Arantxa Urretabizkaia, and tell her of my latest writing activity. I will also make the most of spending time in my ‘myfyrgell’ before travelling as a poet to many countries before the year is out. But even in a hotel room, one can easily turn it into a ‘myfyrgell’, at the turn of a key.