Seren Gift Guide: Give the Perfect Gift this Christmas

We all have them. That one person in the family who is impossible to buy presents for. They’re very particular so food or alcohol is out of the question and you bought them novelty socks last year so what are you going to do? Buy them a book of course!

Here at Seren we’ve got books to suit everyone: fiction addicts, nature lovers, poetry fanatics, art & photography connoisseurs, history buffs, current affairs enthusiasts, fans of biography & memoir – the list goes on. Here are a selection of our top suggestions for those difficult to buy for family members to help you give the perfect gift this Christmas.

 

Books for Fiction Addicts

Significance by Jo Mazelis £9.99 

significanceLucy Swann is trying on a new life. She’s cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes, but only gets as far as a small town in northern France when her flight is violently cut short. When Inspector Vivier and his assistant Sabine Pelat begin their investigation the chance encounters of her last days take on a new significance. Lucy’s death, like a stone thrown into a pool, sends out far-reaching ripples, altering the lives of people who never knew her as well as those of her loved ones back home.

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray: £8.99 

Sugar Hall Tiffany MurrayEaster 1955 and Britain waits for a hanging. Dieter Sugar finds a strange boy in the red gardens at crumbling Sugar Hall – a boy unlike any he’s ever seen. As Dieter’s mother, Lilia, scrapes the mould and moths from the walls of the great house, she knows there are pasts that cannot be so easily removed. Sugar Hall has a history, buried, but not forgotten. Based on the stories of the slave boy that surround Littledean Hall in the Forest of Dean, this is a superbly chilling ghost story from Tiffany Murray.

Brief Lives by Christopher Meredith £9.99 

Brief Lives Christopher MeredithFrom the nightmarish first story set in the South China Sea in 1946 to the final piece, set nowhere at the end of time, Brief Lives demonstrates in a short compass a huge range in technique and milieu and a unity of theme and sensibility. It opens naturalistically but is distinctly non-realist by the close. We meet an ex-collier in 1950 anguishing over whether to return to the pit, a young mother in the early 1960s quietly shepherding those around her through a bleak Christmas day, an industrial chemist in this century plunged into vortices of memories that cause him to question his grasp of the world, and more.

New Stories From The Mabinogion – The Complete Box Set (Unsigned): £80 

In New Stories from the Mabinogion ten great authors take the Celtic myth cycle as a starting point to give us masterly re-workings with a modern twist in a series both various and wonderful. In these retellings of medieval stories from Celtic mythology and Arthurian Britain, we reach the orbit of Mars, the Tower of London and the edges of India, travel in time to WW2 and forward to the near future, see Iraq in drug-addled dreams, and view Wales aslant, from its countryside to its council estates. Each author makes the story entirely their own, creating fresh, contemporary novellas while keeping the old tales at the heart of the new.

 

Books for Home Birds

The Seren Real Series: £9.99

First started by Peter Finch with Real Cardiff and now containing over 20 volumes, the Seren Real Series is a collection of psychogeographic guides that take a closer look at beloved towns and cities from all over the UK. Always insightful and full of interesting observations, made personal by each author’s connection to the place, these books discover the essence of what makes our towns and cities tick.

 

The Living Wells of Wales by Phil Cope: £20.00 

Author and photographer Phil Cope takes us on a journey through the sacred wells of Wales, from the Anglesey to the Gwent. On his way he discovers wells in city centres and, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere – on mountainsides, in deserted valleys, on the coast, in sea caves. They include healing wells, cursing wells, and wells named for saints, Satan, witches, angels, fairies, friars, nuns, hermits, murderers and hangmen. Packed with colour photographs, including some of long-forgotten wells now rediscovered, The Living Wells of Wales is the new definitive volume on a subject gaining a new popularity.

Walking Cardiff by Peter Finch and John Briggs: £14.99 

Join Peter Finch and John Briggs on twenty walks around Cardiff, the bustling capital of Wales. Together they visit the new and the ancient, the difficult, the undiscovered, the lesser-known, the artistic, the entertaining, the quirky and the unexpected. They criss-cross the city, informing, discovering, exploring, and enduring, reviving old routes as they go.Their journeys encompass the city’s history, and record daily life on its streets, in its parks and its famous and not so famous, buildings.

 

Books for History Buffs

Conflict, War and Revolution: My Life by Alessandra Kozlowska: £12.99 

Discovered by the author’s grandson, and written originally in Italian, Conflict, War and Revolution: My Life is the memoir of Baroness Alessandra Koslowska (1892-1975) and is a vivid depiction of her life from childhood to the end of the Second World War. In essence it is the story of her struggle to keep her family together through the huge and sometimes deadly social and political changes of early twentieth century Europe including the survival of two revolutions in Russia and the subsequent civil war, her travels in central Europe during World War One, her life in Italy during the inter-war years, and her internment there, which was almost terminated by German forces.

Forbidden Lives by Norena Shopland: £12.99 

Norena Shopland Forbidden LivesForbidden Lives is a fascinating collection of portraits and discussions that aims to populate LGBT gaps in the history of Wales, a much neglected part of Welsh heritage. In it Norena Shopland reviews the reasons for this neglect while outlining the activity behind the recent growth of the LGBT profile here. She also surveys LGBT people and their activity as far back as Giraldus Cambrensis’ Journey Through Wales in the twelfth century where he reports on ‘bearded women’ and other hermaphrodites. Other subjects include Edward II and Hugh DeSpenser, seventeenth century poet Katherine Philips, the Ladies of Llangollen, Henry Paget, artists Gwen John and Cedric Morris, and actor Cliff Gordon.

Caradoc Evans: The Devil in Eden by John Harris: £19.99 

Caradoc Evans Devil in Eden John HarrisIn Caradoc Evans: The Devil in Eden John Harris has written the definitive biography of Welsh author Caradoc Evans. He investigates what lay behind his writing, and its impact on Wales and beyond. Evans is revealed as a polemicist on issues like the rights of workers, the conduct of the Great War, and the status of women. A leading London journalist, Evans had a popular weekly column in which he responded to readers’ views in trenchant fashion. As Harris argues, challenging convention was his life’s work. Extensively researched and brilliantly written, it is a revelatory and necessary insight into the man, his country and his times.

 

Books for Nature Lovers

Wild Places UK: UK’s Top 40 Nature Sites by Iolo Williams: £19.99 

In 2016 television naturalist Iolo Williams brought us the definitive guide to the top nature sites in Wales. Now he returns with a guide to his top 40 sites in the UK. From Hermaness on Shetland to the London Wetland Centre, from Dungeness in Kent to Loch Neagh, Williams criss-crosses the country. Lavishly illustrated, author and book aim to introduce a new audience to the delights of the UK, be they armchair naturalists or, more importantly, visitors to the forty sites Williams has selected.

Waterfalls of Stars by Rosanne Alexander: £12.99 

Waterfalls of Stars Rosanne AlexanderWhen Rosanne Alexander’s boyfriend Mike was offered the job of warden of Skomer Island, they had just ten days to leave college, marry (a condition of employment) and gather their belongings and provisions for the trip to the island. With great sensitivity, and humour, Rosanne Alexander relates their experiences, including her observations of the island’s wildlife and landscape. With her lyrical evocation of the natural world and its enthusiastic and resourceful approach to the problems of island life, Waterfalls of Stars will inspire and entertain anyone who has felt the need for escape.

Once by Andrew McNeillie: £9.99 

Once is the journey from boyhood to the threshold of manhood of poet Andrew McNeillie. From an aeroplane crossing north Wales the middle-aged writer looks down on the countryside of his childhood and recalls an almost fabulous world now lost to him. Ordinary daily life and education in Llandudno shortly after the war are set against an extraordinary life lived close to nature in some of the wilder parts of Snowdonia. Continually crossing the border between town and country, a fly-fisherman by the age of ten, McNeillie relives his life in nature during a period of increasing urbanisation.

 

Books for Poetry Fanatics

Erato by Deryn Rees-Jones: £9.99 

Named after the Greek muse of lyric poetry, Erato combines documentary-style prose narratives with the passionate lyric poetry for which Rees-Jones is renowned. Here, however, as she experiments with form, particularly the sonnet, Rees-Jones asks questions about the value of the poet and poetry itself.  Erato’s themes are manifold but particularly focus on personal loss, desire and recovery, in the context of a world in which wars and displacement of people has become a terrifying norm.
Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.

Gen by Jonathan Edwards: £9.99 

Jonathan Edwards GenGen is a book of lions and rock stars, street parties and servants, postmen and voices. In the opening sequence’s exploration of youth and young manhood, the author sets his own Valleys upbringing against the ’50s youth of his parents and the experience of a range of pop culture icons, including Kurt Cobain and Harry Houdini. Other poems place a Valleys village and the characters who live in it alongside explorations of Welsh history and prehistory, and the collection concludes with a selection of sometimes witty, sometimes heartfelt love poems.

Regional Poetry Pamphlets: £5.00

Our new series of poetry pamphlets celebrates the beauty, history and lively everyday goings-on in four areas of Wales: Pembrokeshire, Snowdonia, the Borders, and the capital city of Cardiff. Each pamphlet comes with an envelope and a postcard – the perfect stocking filler for your loved ones this Christmas.

 

 

Twelve Poems for Christmas: £5 

This sparkling selection of Christmas poems is the perfect stocking filler for any poetry addict. These are poems full of feeling that resist cliché, that touch on classic ‘Christmas’ themes, but bring them to life from fresh perspectives. The pamphlet opens with Pippa Little’s lyrical and tender poem, ‘St. Leonore and the Robin’, and features poems both humorous and contemplative. Small enough to send with (or instead of) a card, this is the perfect festive treat for your loved ones.

 

Books for Cooks

The Occasional Vegan by Sarah Philpott: £12.99 

The Occasional Vegan Sarah PhilpottThe Occasional Vegan is a collection of 70 simple, affordable and delicious recipes, suitable for newcomers and long-time vegans alike, that will keep you well-fed and healthy. Author Sarah Philpott’s recipes are accompanied by the story of her own journey to becoming a vegan, exploring the ethical and lifestyle arguments for a plant-based diet.  Food lover Philpott shows that embracing veganism certainly doesn’t need to break the bank. Her recipes are homely and easily cooked, suitable for old and young, gourmet cooks and the kitchen novice.

 

Books for Music Lovers

Just Help Yourself by Vernon Hopkins: £9.99 

Just Help Yourself Vernon Hopkins1960. Britain stood at the cusp of new times. In Pontypridd, sixteen-year-old Vernon Hopkins had just found a new singer for his band: a local boy who would come to be known as Tom Jones. Just Help Yourself tells the full story of The Senators – soon to become The Squires – and their lead singer Tom Jones. Vernon Hopkins’ authentic narrative is a revealing look at the highs and lows of the music business, and of London in the allegedly Swinging Sixties. Full of gritty detail about life in Pontypridd, and with great insight into the music business, it is a cautionary tale of ambition and success. Illustrated with previously unseen photographs from the author’s archive.

The Roots of Rock, from Cardiff to Mississippi and Back by Peter Finch: £9.99 

The Roots of Rock, from Cardiff to Mississippi and BackPeter Finch follows the trail of twentieth century popular music from a 1950s valve radio playing in a suburban Cardiff terrace to the reality of the music among the bars of Ireland, the skyscrapers of New York, the plains of Tennessee, the flatlands of Mississippi and the mountains of North Carolina. The Roots of Rock mixes musical autobiography with an exploration of the physical places from which this music comes. It is a demonstration of the power of music to create a world for the listener that is simultaneously of and beyond the place in which it is heard. It also considers how music has changed during this time, from the culture-shaping (revolutionising) 50s and 60s to the present day.

 

Books for Horizon Gazers

No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters by Anne-Marie Fyfe: £9.99 

No Far Shore is no ordinary exploration of coastlines. Anne-Marie Fyfe combines travel writing, history, memoir and poetry in an intriguing meditation on the sea, that explores the unsettledness of living on the boundary between two elements. She explores countless coastlines, her own family history and the works of a number of writers for whom the coast has been influential along the way.

 

Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye: £12.99 

In 2007, in a chance conversation with her mother, a kibbutznik, Jasmine Donahaye stumbled upon the collusion of her family in the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. She set out to learn the story of what happened, and discovered an earlier and rarely discussed piece of history during the British Mandate in Palestine. Losing Israel is a moving and honest account which spans travel writing, nature writing and memoir. Through the author’s personal situation it explores the powerful and competing attachments that people feel about their country and its history, by attempting to understand and reconcile her conflicted attachments, rooted in her family story – and in a love of Israel’s birds.

The Road to Zagora by Richard Collins: £9.99 

When Richard Collins was diagnosed with a progressive incurable disease in 2006 he decided to see as much of the world as he could while his condition allowed. The result is The Road to Zagora, a singular travel book which takes in India, Nepal, Turkey, Morocco, Peru, Equador and Wales. With ‘Mr Parkinson’, as Collins refers to his condition, by their side, he and his partner Flic decide to continue to travel ‘close to the land’ post diagnosis, leaving the tourist trails and visiting places of extremes: the Himalayas, rainforests, deserts. The story of their travels is collected here in a memorable journey around the world, and the self.

 

Books for Fans of Biography and Memoir

The Longest Farewell by Nula Suchet: £12.99 

When Nula’s husband James, an Irish documentary filmmaker, becomes forgetful they put it down to the stress of his work. But his behaviour becomes more erratic, and he is eventually diagnosed as suffering from Pick’s Disease, an early onset and aggressive form of dementia. The Longest Farewell is the true story of Nula’s fight with her husband’s disease, and how this terrible time held a happy ending.

 

Tide-Race by Brenda Chamberlain: £9.99 

Tide-Race is a remarkable account of life on Bardsey (known as Ynys Enlli to Welsh speakers), a remote and mysterious island off the coast of North Wales. Brenda Chamberlain lived on the island from 1947 to 1961, during the last days of its hardy community. The combination of Bardsey, ancient site of Christian pilgrimage, wild and dangerous landscape, and Brenda Chamberlain, Royal Academy trained artist, results in a classic book, vividly illustrated by the author’s line drawings.

Jim Neat: The Case of a Remarkable Man Down on his Luck by Mary J. Oliver: £9.99 

Jim Neat is a remarkable evocation of the seemingly fractured life of Mary J. Oliver’s father. Tinged with the tragedy of his partner’s death and an orphaned daughter, it ranges across the history of 20th century England and Canada. Using the few documents of Jim’s life and a combination of poetry and prose, Oliver adopts a legal structure, making ‘the case’ for the worth of his life. The result is a fascinating and engaging book unlike any other memoir.

 

Books for Art Connoisseurs

Welsh Quilts by Jen Jones: £12.99 

Welsh Quilts Jen JonesWelsh Quilts is an authoritative guide to the history and art of the quilt in Wales. It is the result of expert author Jen Jones’ researches into the subject and her desire to revive what had been a gloriously high-quality craft. Illustrated with beautiful images of the bold designs and intricate stitching of the quilts in her own collection, Welsh Quilts is the essential book on the subject, whether you are a quilter yourself, or simply interested in quilting heritage.

Jonah Jones: An Artist’s Life by Peter Jones: £14.99 

Sculptor, painter, letter cutter, stained glass artist, novelist, academic and administrator; Jonah Jones (1919-2004) was a twentieth century renaissance man. His son Peter looks back on his life, from growing up in a mining family in Newcastle, through his experiences in a non-combatant role in the Medical Corps during the Second World War, to the people and places that fired his passion to become an artist. Jonah Jones: An Artist’s Life is a considered look at the life of one of Wales’ most successful artists.

Try the Wilderness First : Eric Gill and David Jones at Capel-y-Ffin by Jonathan Miles: £12.99 

Try the Wilderness First is the only study devoted to controversial artist Eric Gill’s artistic and religious community in the Black Mountains of Wales during the 1920s, told through the character and work of Gill himself and David Jones, two of Britain’s most significant twentieth century artists. In it, Jonathan Miles explores the influences of place, culture and religion on artistic practice and investigates the effect of the Black Mountains and of Gill’s community on the work of these two important British artists, both at the time and in the future.

Books for Photographers

Living in Wales by David Hurn: £25.00 

Living in Wales is an album of one hundred and one duotone portraits of people who, in the words of David Hurn ‘have enriched my life and that of Wales.’ It is a roster of the famous and distinguished in the fields of science, business, the arts, sport, the law, health, media, politics and religion. Beautifully composed, and shot with David’s characteristic flair for detail, the photographs linger on the physicality of the person, a telling prop pushing the image towards the possibility of narrative. Here is a photographer on inspirational form.

Taken in Time by John Briggs: £14.95 

Photographer John Briggs continues his project to document change in the Cardiff docklands, revisiting the sites and people memorably recorded in Before the Deluge. In the last thirty years landmark buildings have been demolished, docks filled in, the barrage built, maritime businesses closed, and streets disappeared. In their place, a huge redevelopment scheme, gentrification, and tourism. With characteristic honesty and an eye for compelling detail, John Briggs brings these changes to a wider audience in this not to be missed book.

 

Still not found what you’re looking for? Browse our website for more inspiration.

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Friday Poem – ‘Our Mothers’ Bodies’ by Alexandra Ford

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Our Mothers’ Bodies’ by Alexandra Ford. Alexandra’s debut novel What Remains at the End was published last month.

In the aftermath of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans, the Danube Swabians, were expelled by Tito’s Partisan regime. A further sixty-thousand were killed. Seventy years later Marie Kholer travels to Europe to learn the truth about her grandparents’ flight to America. A story of war and suffering, of loss and the search for connection and identity, it is an intriguing debut novel from Alexandra Ford.

 

What Remains at the End is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Don’t miss the launch of What Remains at the End, taking place on Saturday 23rd November at the The Hurst, The John Osbourne Arvon Centre. There will be books, wine and cake! See the full details here

Friday Poem – ‘A Second Whisper’ by Lynne Hjelmgaard

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘A Second Whisper’ by Lynne Hjelmgaard from her new collection A Second Whisper. You can see videos of Lynne reading more poems from the collection on our Youtube channel.

A Second Whisper is Lynne Hjelmgaard’s moving new collection in which she looks back upon her life in New York, Demark, The Caribbean, and London. There are elegies to her late husband as well as to her mentor and partner, the renowned Welsh poet Dannie Abse, who died in 2014. Her lyrics are precise, warm in tone, and suffused with optimism for the future.

 

 

A Second Whisper is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Don’t miss Lynne reading alongside Mary J. Oliver at their joint launch tomorrow, 7pm at Broc Mor shop in Aberystwyth. Find the full details here

Deryn Rees-Jones shares her poetry advice

It was announced earlier today that Deryn Rees-Jones’ new collection Erato has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2019. It therefore felt only fitting that this week’s poetry advice blog came from her.

Named after the Greek muse of lyric poetry, Erato combines documentary-style prose narratives with the passionate lyric poetry for which Rees-Jones is renowned. Here, however, as she experiments with form, particularly the sonnet, Rees-Jones asks questions about the value of the poet and poetry itself. What is the difference, she asks in one poem, between a sigh and a song? Erato’s themes are manifold but particularly focus on personal loss, desire and recovery, in the context of a world in which wars and displacement of people has become a terrifying norm.

 

What first drew you to poetry?

As a child in primary school we were expected to write at least a poem a week. Each poem then had to be illustrated. I took these tasks very seriously and wonder if my interest in the relationship between text and image stems from there.

Where do you look to for inspiration?

The origins of that word inspiration are interesting, aren’t they, that idea of inhalation, but one that originated in the idea of bringing something divine into the human body. I have recently been working on an exhibition with the artist Charlotte Hodes. She has made a sequence of four images, now engraved on glass, with my captions – heat, heart, in-breath, unfurls. Glass is one of those transformative materials, which I have become fascinated by. I’m thinking about it a great deal, and in my mind it also connects with something that has also preoccupied me in the past — snow. I’m interested more generally in heat, in the idea of fire as a metaphor for the creative process. Those captions on glass, which evolved from our shared working and thinking, are a shorthand for ideas I have explored a little more relentlessy in Erato. I continue this thinking about creativity in a book length lyric essay – Fires — that will be published in November with Shoestring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What poets or writers inspire you?

My work as an editor at Pavilion is a huge privilege, seeing books as they develop, working with closely with poets. I learn a lot from seeing that process, and from the close reading that demands. Current poetry books I am reading – Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Mei-mei Berssenbruge’s Hello, the Roses. I read a lot of books about psychoanalysis as a theory but also as a practice, and I have also just started reading two quite different but enjoyable and wise books, Mary Midgley’s autobiography The Owl of Minvera, and Rosi Braidotti’s new book, Posthuman Knowledge.

What does poetry mean to you?

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet at the moment about the way poetry sometimes gets claimed as this universal panacea or in some way becomes fetishized. Poetry is a very important and particular process, but it’s deeply connected to other things that its processes allows – thinking in deep ways, feeling, paying attention, engaging with a community of thinkers and readers, being in the world. I honour the process and the pleasures and excitement poetry brings. But I am impatient when poetry somehow becomes separated from those other processes of which it is a part, and then gets reduced to a commodity.

How do you balance writing poetry with working? If you write full time, what made you decide to do so?

I have a full and busy life, and I’m starting to trust a bit more that the method I seem to have developed over the years, of setting other critical writing alongside my creative work, is a useful synergy. I don’t feel the need to separate that process.

Do you have a writing routine? What is it?

I have lots of routines, most of which include the balance of full-time work in the university and childcare. School drop-off and pick up times, walking the dog are all structures built in to the day. I was recently on an extended period of study leave and I tried to work for three intense hours writing every morning in the local café. That time was ringfenced for critical writing and research, but poems inevitably creep in. If you parent small children on your own, life can feel very closed down in terms of the freedom to simply leave the house, take a walk, run out for groceries, have some time alone with friends. That has changed a great deal now and I am valuing the new freedoms but also, as I look back, valuing that enforced quietness and what it asked of me. I don’t have a specific writing routine when it comes to poetry, but the other routines mean there might be space when I need it.

How do you prepare yourself before sitting down to write?

I don’t. It’s more organic than that. You could say that even though I’m not writing, in notebooks, of which I have many, or on screen, that I am writing all the time, because writing is much more than sitting down and putting marks on the page.

What advice would you give to poets looking to get their work published?

Concentrate on the poems, read – what is being published now, but also engage with poems that have come before. Read internationally. Having a sense of what poetry means in cultures that are not your own is really important; understanding a poetic history as well as a context is really important.

Is it important to build a reputation by submitting to competitions, magazines and journals?

For some poets it might be, it’s one route. I’m more interested in that process as a testing ground for readership and the poem than I am in the idea of reputation.

Do you have any tips for submitting poems to publishers or magazines?

Write your best poem in the best way you can. It’s going back to the idea of seeing publication as a testing ground. Not all the poems in a book work on their own, but can be vital when assembling a book. Keep a humble and critical judgement. Leave poems alone for a while. Trust that editors, who are usually poets, have a good sense of what is working or not in a poem.

What methods do you use to overcome feeling disheartened or to keep positive?

We live in an age of soundbites, some of which are directed at least in a superficial way, at improving our mental health. Of course we all have feelings when work is returned or doesn’t appear to have been read after publication. Poets need readers, and it can be painful not to feel heard or relevant or understood, but processing that part of your professional life is also part of life. I’m more interested in the life part  — how to live ethically, and joyfully, than some sense that we can guard against difficulty or pain without seeing that as part of a bigger process.

Do you have any other advice for fellow poets?

I wouldn’t presume!

 

Erato is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Bicep to Bicep’ by Mary J. Oliver

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Bicep to Bicep’ by Mary J. Oliver, from her new book Jim Neat: The Case of a Young Man Down on his Luck.

Jim Neat is a coalescing of prose, poetry, documents and photographs in which Mary J. Oliver uncovers the life of her father. Tinged with the tragedy of his partner’s death and an orphaned daughter, it ranges across the history of 20th century England and Canada.

Gathering documents, following leads, Mary traces Jim’s story full circle. She presents the case for the remarkable life of an ordinary man. His family and the people who knew him are the witnesses in his defence. The verdict is this extraordinary memoir.

 

Jim Neat is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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An Interview with Robert Minhinnick

Robert Minhinnick is one of Wales’ (some would say Britain’s) most eminent writers. Next month we publish his latest novel Nia, the third book in his coastal trilogy all set in the same fictional resort. Ahead of its publication on the 1st October, Robert talks to us about the novel’s themes, its characters and what inspires him.

 

 

In Nia, dreams, memory and time all flow into one, leaving the reader to decide for themselves what is real and what is in Nia’s imagination. What about this structure draws you to it when writing and how is it important to the development of your characters?

Frankly, ‘madness’ is a big part of my life, and how it is socially perceived. Schizophrenia continues to play a role in my family, via my mother and her sister, aged 93 and 91. During World War II, my father contracted malaria, in Burma. The result was periodic delirium. My writing tries to explore ‘madness’ and delirium, and relate them to memory and dreams and the very act of writing ‘fiction’.

Throughout the book you touch on themes of the environment and climate change. Do you think it is important that authors use their voice to highlight issues to their audiences, and why in particular are they important to you?

You’re interviewing someone who is co-founder of Friends of the Earth Cymru, in 1984, and the charity ‘Sustainable Wales’, ongoing.

This is your third novel set in the same fictional community, each with interlinking characters but separate, stand-alone stories. How have the community and its inhabitants changed over the course of the series? Will we see any more writing set in the same place?

The fairground is a constant theme. It’s a powerful metaphor, a constant source of drama. I can see it from my attic. I like the idea of a particular family or community being examined.  After all, staying/belonging are familiar themes in fiction.

Nia is a book dominated by sunshine, even drought. Limestone Man experienced a suffocating sea-fret. The town’s economic circumstances always play a part, as does its history, and they are very much based on Porthcawl where I live. The street names, for instance, are the names of ships wrecked off the Porthcawl coast.

You take Porthcawl and the Merthyr Mawr dunes as the inspiration for your fictional town. Why did you choose to reimagine that place?

I write about where I live. I decided long ago that I should celebrate Porthcawl and the areas between the mouths of the rivers Ogwr and Cynffig. My writing is one way of achieving this. In Nia, I also celebrate my time in Saskatchewan, and my brief periods in Kerala and Amsterdam. Writing about different places can create an interesting friction – a little like icebergs grinding against each other in the South Saskatchewan river.

Some may say that the structure of Nia is reminiscent of that of prose poetry. How does your long career as a poet influence your prose style?

Originally, Nia possessed chapter names. I dispensed with these at a late stage, as I felt they directed the reader too forcibly. One of my friends is disappointed by the first two novels in that there seems no real ‘resolution’. Of course, I tell him, even death does not resolve matters…

How has your fiction style developed over the course of writing this series? Did the process of writing Nia differ from that of your previous novels? 

I’m older. But still wishing to learn. The character of Nia is developed because some years ago the former fiction editor at Seren, Penny Thomas, told me I should strengthen my female characters.

Nia is obsessed with words. What is your relationship with them?

Well, obsessional might be the correct description.

Another blurred boundary between time and place, comes about through the travel stories vividly recounted by Nia’s friends throughout the book. In what way is the theme of travel important to the book, and to Nia’s story in particular?

I wanted to write about Saskatchewan. There are poems actually written there incorporated into the text of Nia. Also memories of visiting Auschwitz, Amsterdam, Kerala and New York. But the editing process removed many references…

Nia’s perception of her life seems unstable throughout: she constantly questions her own sanity and her role as a mother. These kinds of traits can be seen in the lead characters of your other two novels as well. What draws you to this type of character as a narrator?

All my narrators are ‘unreliable’, and plagued by self-doubt, dreams and delusion. That’s why memory blends into delirium. The fairground is an excellent means of depicting this. I look at the eyes of my grandchildren as they encounter the funfair, or ‘the shows’ as we used to call it, and wonder what they see…

At the heart of Nia’s story, is her dream expedition with her friends into the unexplored caves beneath the dunes. Why did you choose to centre the action of your book on a caving expedition, and what is the significance of the trip to Nia?

It’s a fictional expedition, but Nia doesn’t dream it. Yet she experiences many other dreams in this novel about the dunes, their history, flora and fauna.  ‘The Shwyl’ caves are based on ‘the Schwyll’ cave system, which provided fresh water for the Bridgend area (including the Seren office) until recently, using ‘the Great Spring of Glamorgan’, which emerges in Ewenni.

Thus, it’s a real place, little known yet fascinating. Perhaps Nia feels intimidated by the travel stories of Isaac Pretty and Skye, and it’s her way of competing with two seemingly powerful personalities, who have returned to her community.

Nia will be available on the Seren website from the 1st October 2019. Pre-order your copy now. 

Robert Minhinnick’s ‘Sea Holly’ series is a set of three novels that follow generations of one family – the Vines – and a cast of characters brought up in the same location, which is dominated by the sea, wild duneland, and a funfair. 

‘Erato’: An Interview with Deryn Rees-Jones

Deryn Rees-Jones is the author of four previous collections of poetry, shortlisted variously for the Forward (first collection), TS Eliot and Roland Mathias prizes. Last month, she returned with her new collection Erato, which is a Poetry Book Society Summer Recommendation, but where does she look to for inspiration and how do these themes come through in her work? In this interview,  we talk to her about the new book and find out more about the themes, artists and imagery that inspire her.

 

Song comes through in many of the poems in Erato. In ‘Líadain and Cuirithir’, a poem about tragic love between two 7th century Irish poets, even the woods are singing: “When we sang, the woods sang back”. Do you consciously seek inspiration from the outdoor world?

Throughout Erato, I am thinking through longstanding questions I have about the role of the lyric poem, so often criticised because of its potential for individualism, introspection, and solipsism. ‘Líadain and Cuirithir’ is a lyric which attempts to enjoy its own musical beauty. But – and this is the important thing — I also erase it, score it through — because I’m signalling early on in the book my uncertainty about writing about the complexities of a relationship in an elegiac, romanticised way.  Those erasures and errors continue to be explored as the book expands on its thinking through a series of repetitions. So yes, song is a central part of the book. And I’m trying out what that sense of correspondence between the self and the natural world might be.

As the book opens out I think about all sorts of songs—and test out my feelings and thoughts about and through them. There’s bird song, the little song of the sonnet, the seductive song of the siren, which is also in the modern world, a different sound of danger and distress than the song of the sirens when Odysseus binds himself to the mast of his ship so that he can hear them but not be lured to his death. There is for me, now, in the current political climate, a sense that I need to question, more than ever, what I am doing, with language, in my engagement with the world. The phrase ‘Look Up’ appears on several occasions. With poetry – and I think poetry is an inherently social act — comes responsibility. A long answer to your question! But yes, I do take deep pleasure in the natural world, but always with an awareness that the world exists in a complex web of interdependences.

The poems often juxtapose beautiful images with sombre ones of loss. Can dark moments contain their own moments of inner beauty?

How do we make the privacy of the lyric engage with, be ethical, and encompass the world? Terrible things are happening, and every day on the news or on my twitter feed, I, all of us, become sometimes, for a moment, aware of them. Uprootedness, war, climate emergency… There is always a chance for empathy, for action. But often, we do nothing. One small way I have attempted to deal with all this knowledge of pain and difficulty has been to experiment with the formal ‘beauty’ of poetic structures.  So there are a lot of prose-like pieces which I have tried to structure like a sonnet. They carry something of the sonnet’s ‘little song’ but also need to find a new way of carrying them. So form and ‘beauty’ become thrown into question as they are pulled to a point of impossibility and transform into something else.

“The water and reflection ask / no question of themselves” in ‘Great Crested Grebes’. Do you think that too much introspection can be a barrier to creativity?

We all need to think and feel as much as we can, don’t we? So much in our lives demands that we think and live within often damaging and coercive and reductive systems. Or learn not to feel at all. I feel lucky that the society I live in still feels safe, and relatively free. But what has happened over the course of the last four or five years is a reminder of how quickly things we have taken for granted, can change. Creativity should not be a luxury.

The poems in the Courtship section of Erato are a riot of colour, sound and actions seen through the lives of birds. How do you make your selections of which birds and which attributes to use?

Because of my name, which means bird,  birds are deeply written into a sense of my own identity. Some of the birds in the book hold particular personal resonances; some I went looking for in books and online. I also have in mind birds as creatures which move between worlds of the living and the dead. The wren of Burying the Wren was both here and not here. Sirens in Greek mythology are also half-woman, half bird….

We were compelled to take a deep breath when reading this in the poem ‘Walk’: “I remembered my son’s look. It’s a kind of scary beauty, mum, he’d said one day but I could no longer recall why. / I was scared now / and took a deep breath. It felt like a wounding. I said, But even in the darkness, you know you are alive.” What techniques do you use to let a poem breathe in order to sound alive?

Each poem happens differently. Increasingly poems seem to get harder to write. But Erato is a book that is less concerned with poems as individual objects and more concerned with the sweep and trajectory of a book as a vehicle for thinking something through. I experimented with that in my earlier book Quiver which also explored ideas through the creation of a narrative structure. I would say that I am increasingly interested in using the book form to create an imaginative landscape for thinking. Once I finished Erato I realised that really it is part of a bigger sequence. There’s a piece in Erato, ’Fires‘, which tries to explore the link between trauma and creativity. Later this year I am publishing a little lyric essay/ poetic fragment called ‘Fires’ with Shoestring Press that explores the idea of creativity further. For better or worse, I already have the next book after this mapped out in my head!  So I am thinking of Erato as the first part of a trilogy that explores, even in terrible times, a vital, hopeful universe.

What are you most particularly hoping to find when you look beneath the foliage, the plumes and the clothing, for material to create a poem from?

Just as each poem happens in a different way so, too, each poem has its own task. The important moment for me is in bringing a book together, and asking all those elements which are fizzing away, making their own plans, repeating and transforming themselves, to have a conversation so that they become part of a more meaningful whole.

Your connection to the visual arts, and artists such a Paula Rego and Francesca Woodman, are themes that run through many of your poems and collections. What is it about the visual arts that inspires you and which are your biggest influences?

Critical and creative work often for me go hand in hand. Sometimes I am making conscious connections, sometimes not, and what goes on unconsciously excites me, of course. In Burying the Wren I wrote a sequence to Rego’s incredible and moving dog women pictures as a way of trying to understand them, and also as a way of trying to understand, or at least put words to, my own feelings after the death of my husband. Rego’s pictures address agency, pain, grief but importantly, too, they are pictures of metamorphosis, scratched out with huge energy, in pastel on canvas. I have spent the last two years working intensively on a critical book Paula Rego: The Art of Story, which will be published later this year, and getting to know the trajectory of Rego’s work over the last sixty years so intimately has been a huge pleasure. She has taught me something, I hope, about how to develop imaginative structures, and has prompted me to think about the relationship between the personal and political, the moment, and the historical.  Rego creates a prism of meaning through image, and story, the personal and the fabular. I think this gave me a way of thinking about giving form to complexities of experience in time. Like Rego, like many women artists, Woodman is also interested in representing the frequently objectified female body in a complex way. The body is central to Erato too  – the memory of a beloved’s body, the bodies of saints, the bodies of the dead, observed bodies, dolls’ bodies, the political body…

When reading the poems in Erato we often found tears in our eyes. If they fell on the not yet gestated wildflower seeds in ‘Gardens’, what flowers would you hope they would grow into?

It’s important to me that people are moved by the book. And I am aware that on one level I am telling a very personal story.  I wanted that to be simple and accessible, and around that things are woven in.  ‘Gardens’ is a poem about wishes, about transformations. I would really like to think that the whole book, now it has been published,  is something generative, that is not mine, but which, in making a connection between writer and reader, takes the reader somewhere else.

 

Want to hear more? Deryn is appearing alongside Tess Gallagher and Nessa O’Mahoney at Books Upstairs in Dublin later this month. If you’re local to the area why not pop along? More details can be found here

 

Erato is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘The Glass King of France’ by Sheenagh Pugh

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘The Glass King of France’ by Sheenagh Pugh, from her latest collection Afternoons Go Nowhere.

A fascination for history, both as a source of human drama and a field for artful speculation, characterises this collection of poems by Sheenagh Pugh. In Afternoons Go Nowhere the past seems more relevant to the present than ever, human nature never entirely predictable and often non-sensical, the natural world seeming full of a paradoxical beauty. Complex but with clear themes and lucid, musical language, Sheenagh Pugh’s tenth collection will delight discriminating readers.

Afternoons Go Nowhere is available from the Seren website: £9.99

Sheenagh also features in our Poems from Cardiff pamphlet available on the Seren website: £5.00

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Friday Poem – ‘Starlings’, Catherine Fisher

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Starlings’ by Catherine Fisher, from The Bramble King.

The Bramble King is full of darkly resonant tales, ingenious parables, curiously haunted rooms and palaces, and beautifully observed images of the natural world. A prolific, popular and prize-winning author of fantasy fiction, Catherine began her career as a poet, and Seren published her early volumes: Immrama, The Unexplored Ocean and Altered StatesThe Bramble King is Fisher’s first collection of poems since 1999.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bramble King is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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Featured Image © Alan Hughes

Jayne Joso on Child Characters and her New Book; ‘From Seven to the Sea’

Jayne Joso author of My Falling Down House

Author Jayne Joso has recently been interviewed about how she creates compelling child characters. Her latest book, From Seven to the Sea, features a complex and beautifully written portrait of a seven-year-old girl, Esther.From Seven to the Sea

Children are amazing, they are so complicated and, at the same time, simple and straightforward in many ways, but what they lack is the vocabulary to describe their lives, particularly their feelings, and so it is easy for these feelings, their inner lives, to be overlooked.

You can read Joso’s full and insightful interview here: http://www.skylightrain.com/how-to-create-compelling-child…/

And purchase the wonderful From Seven to the Sea here:  https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/seven-sea

Later this month, Joso will also be discussing her new novel alongside Deborah Kay Davies, hosted by Dylan Moore, at the Hay Festival 2019. The event, taking place on Wednesday, 29th May, 2.30pm at the Compass Studio is entitled Fiction: Freedoms.

Find out more and book your tickets here: https://hayfestival.com/p-15412-jayne-joso-and-deborah-kay-…

Joso will also be bringing her book to the Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, in July; details to follow, so watch this space…