Friday Poem – ‘If I Could Wake’ by Cath Drake

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘If I Could Wake’ by Cath Drake from her debut collection The Shaking City.

The shaking city of Australian poet Cath Drake’s debut poetry collection is a metaphor for the swiftly changing precarity of modern life within the looming climate and ecological emergency, and the unease of the narrator who is far from home. Tall tales combine with a conversational style, playful humour and a lyrical assurance.​ The poet works a wide set of diverse spells upon the reader through her adept use of tone, technique, plot and form. She is a welcome new voice for contemporary poetry.

The Shaking City is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘How to Celebrate a Birthday’ by Katrina Naomi

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘How to Celebrate a Birthday’ by Katrina Naomi from her latest collection Wild Persistence.

Wild Persistence by Katrina Naomi is a confident and persuasive collection of poems. Written following her move from London to Cornwall, it considers distance and closeness, and questions how to live. She dissects ‘dualism’ and arrival, sex and dance, a trip to Japan. The collection also includes a moving sequence of poems about the aftermath of an attempted rape.

“Funny, moving, surprising, unflinching and, above all else…joyous.” – Helen Mort

Wild Persistence is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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An Interview with Euron Griffith

When he smiled it really did feel as if the chilly Caernarfonshire wind had stopped for a few seconds and as if the place had suddenly got warmer.

When Miriam fell in love with Padraig life seemed simple. But soon she discovered that love is a treacherous business. Everything changed when she met Daniel. She was taken down an unexpected path which would dictate and dominate the rest of her life.

Spanning three generations of a North Wales family in a Welsh-speaking community, Miriam, Daniel and Me is an absorbing and compelling story of family discord, political turmoil, poetry, jealousy…and football.

Miriam, Daniel and Me is the first novel in English by Welsh author Euron Griffith. In this interview, Euron tells us what inspired the novel and discusses what its like to bring a book out during a global pandemic. Scroll to the bottom to see the details of the virtual launch taking place this Thursday (30th July).

What was the inspiration behind Miriam, Daniel and Me?

Believe it or not, initially this was going to be a book about my lifelong obsession with the Beatles – a kind of ‘music memoir’ of how the band’s music reflected incidents in my own life. This seemed to make some kind of sense since I’d already written a short story collection called The Beatles in Tonypandy (which was a satirical fantasy on what ‘happened’ when the band moved to South Wales and took up pigeon fancying in 1967!) and so I wanted to write about them in a more personal and less surreal way. It soon became clear to me, however, that I was becoming more interested in the context of the piece – that is, my own experiences of my upbringing and my family history – than I was in the Fab Four’s peripheral and distant part in it. I found that the concept was becoming laboured and that I wasn’t making it come alive for myself and, therefore, it probably wasn’t going to work for anyone reading it. So the Beatles were soon rejected in a cruel, Decca-like fashion!

There were parts of my family history that I only had a vague knowledge of – my paternal grandfather for instance, whom I had never met because he died before I was born. I remember my granny and my dad telling me the story of how he had died suddenly in his chair after returning from the quarry one night but that was all I knew. I filled in the blanks myself – guessing here and there as to how things might have happened. The same was true of my mum. She had fallen in love with an Irishman before she met my dad but I didn’t know the whole story. As a kid I recall my maternal grandad showing me little bits of electrical handiwork this Irishman had constructed – little light switches etc. – so I knew he’d been an electrician and I’d seen photos of him so I knew he had red hair…but nothing much else. Only tantalizing fragments.

Once I’d stumbled across a photo of my mum walking down a street with him and, on the back, someone had written ‘Dublin’. She must have really loved him to go there for a visit. Especially in those days when travel wasn’t such a common thing. So here I did the same as I did with the story of my paternal grandad – I just tried to fill in the gaps. To make sense of it all. It soon grew into something of an obsession and, slowly, I saw that there was a novel brewing here. I weaved in my dad’s experiences as a poet and a goalie – how he had been invited for a trial with a big club once (in real life it was Bolton Wanderers but I changed it to Preston North End in this book…not entirely sure why to be honest!). Now, as I stand back and look at the finished piece, I can see that the overarching theme seems to be the notion of chance, often driven by love or passion, and of how it can affect the course of our lives.

The story is told through the eyes of multiple characters, particularly by three generations of Miriam and Daniel’s family. How is this inter-generational perspective important to the story?

The flippant answer would be that I get bored quite easily and I like to allow myself to dive into different characters and styles of narrative. But there is a more stylistic reason for it too. I love the way classic Victorian fiction such as Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White utilize a playful and effective way of presenting events through different viewpoints. I was also influenced in this by the films of Kurosawa and Quentin Tarantino. I was keen to hurl the reader back and forth without always giving an initial indication of when something was happening in ‘linear’ time because I thought it would heighten the dramatic effect. I suppose a simple example of this would be the rat poison incident (no spoilers!). The novel began with Miriam and Daniel’s story but, around this, there gradually grew the context of their lives- what happened before and what happened after (with the unnamed son). I played with time more outrageously in my last Welsh language novel Tri Deg Tri about a hitman where chapters were numbered in relation to the sequence of the central character’s ‘kills’ rather than to chronology. So I have form! Some readers found it puzzling but more, so I’m told, found it exhilarating!

My other challenge here – admittedly rather grand and insurmountable – was to try to write a kind of Welsh ‘bildungsroman’ – the story of a family and personal development featuring several characters. I was introduced to Buddenbrooks as a student and Thomas Mann’s masterpiece has stayed with me over the years. It certainly influenced me more strongly as this novel developed and the overall shape became clearer. Needless to say I could never come close to such a perfect piece of art but it gave me something to aim for! Aim high. Always aim high…

You build a clear picture of village life in 1950s and 60s Gwynedd by bringing in other members of the community and the events affecting their lives, namely the investiture of Prince Charles. Why was it important to you to bring this to life in Miriam, Daniel and Me?

It was a matter of context. Of filling in the canvas and making the whole world more real and multi-layered. I am a keen painter and there is a clear link, I reckon, between visual art and writing. Paul Klee once said that he liked ‘taking a line for a walk’ and that’s how writing begins for me. A line followed by another and, gradually (if you’re lucky), a world forms – a picture. Then it’s a matter of filling in the details. Picasso once said that the most difficult part of any painting was knowing when to stop. He was obviously right (when was Picasso wrong about anything??). In my own case I only recognise when to stop when it comes to re-writing. The first draft is always a sketch. I really don’t think you know what the book is until you’ve stepped back and studied the overall shape and pattern. It needs time. Re-writes. This novel went through at least three major re-writes! Curiously perhaps, this novel was also mainly written in London so there was an extra layer of distance there. James Joyce once said that he had to move to Zurich to write about Dublin. He wasn’t wrong about much either…

The book is coming out in very different circumstances to those any of us could have imagined but the BBC reported last week that Brits have been buying more books during lockdown. What makes Miriam, Daniel and Me a good lockdown read? What do you hope readers will take away from reading it?

Books and records are an obsession for me and if people are reading more and listening to more music then, in my world, that’s a good thing. Online trading is obviously booming in both these markets but I do worry about the wider context of physical retail – not only from the perspective of people’s livelihoods but also from a rather more selfish one. I really find wandering through shops and cities soothing and exciting so, in lockdown, I miss the bustle of the high street – the sights and sounds. When I was in London I would often hop on a bus in the afternoons and go to the middle of Piccadilly Circus and then wander around Soho just to soak up the atmosphere and work out things in my head to do with this novel and with other matters. I’m hopeful that things will return to normal soon.

In terms of what people will take away from this book there is the obvious factor of enjoyment of course but one of the reasons I wrote this book in English was because I don’t think north Wales and the ‘north Welsh experience’ has been explored as often in English language fiction as its southern counterpart. Most people when they think of Wales think rugby and the valleys but this is not strictly accurate. Rugby meant nothing to me when I was growing up and still doesn’t. Indeed, I vividly remember our PE teacher damning it as ‘a game for fat boys who are too slow for football’! My world when growing up was formed by television, football and pop music – the Monkees, The Man from UNCLE, Leeds United, Thunderbirds and Monty Python. Not by chapel or the Eisteddfod or Gareth Edwards. I never ‘got’ Shirley Bassey or Max Boyce and there were no coal mines in my part of Wales. I’m not entirely sure what ‘Wales’ is. My guess is that there are at least twenty versions of it and I didn’t think the story of mine had been told.

We’re hosting an online launch for the book later this week. What can attendees expect at the event?

Well Jon Gower is a perceptive reader and I’m intrigued to know what he thinks of the novel. He always has an interesting perspective on things. I’m thrilled that Rakie Ayola has agreed to read a few passages from the novel. She is such a brilliant actor. Hopefully the conversation and the readings will stimulate all the many thousands tuning in via Zoom to buy the novel and send it to the top of the Sunday Times best seller chart…

Finally, a question lots of writers have probably been asked recently, but have you found lockdown a particularly creative time? Is there anything you’re currently working on?

Writing never stops for me. After finishing this novel I immediately returned to a manuscript I started ten years ago and have been working on intermittently since then. I finally finished it just before last Christmas. It’s a peculiar, surreal ‘historical’ novel based on the adventures of a gentleman traveller. Influenced by ‘Don Quixote’ and more modern pieces such as ‘Life of Pi’ it features a man mistaken for Jesus, a three-legged cat, a serial killer and cannibalism. So it couldn’t be more different to Miriam, Daniel and Me! It’s called The Confession of Hilary Durwood. Since lockdown I’ve started another novel. I was up to 40,000 words before realising that it wasn’t much good so I scrapped it and started again. It’s much better now.

Before Covid struck I played regularly in my band Six Sided Men but, naturally, all that is on hold now. But I’ve been writing tons of songs and recording them myself on my little portastudio (driving my wife mad in the process as we have inadequate soundproofing!). I’m currently recording some Christmas songs I’ve written and will include these on a CD for friends when the season for merriment arrives…

I’ve also been painting and drawing. So yes. A worrying time in many ways. But I can’t say it’s been entirely unproductive…

 

Miriam, Daniel and Me is available now from Seren: £9.99

Join us for the virtual book launch – Thursday 30th July, 7:30pm. Euron will be in conversation with Jon Gower and actress Rackie Ayola will be reading excerpts from the book. Email sarahjohnson@serenbooks.com for the link. Full details here.

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Guest post: Sarah Philpott introduces us to ‘The Seasonal Vegan’

Today, we publish Sarah Philpott’s much-anticipated new book The Seasonal Vegan, and who better to introduce it than the author herself.

The Seasonal Vegan by Sarah Philpott is a kitchen diary of seasonal recipes with a delicious mixture of fine food writing and beautiful photography. This guide to eating with the seasons takes a realistic approach to shopping cheaply and sustainably and proves that the vegan lifestyle is anything but expensive. As well as tasting good, these dishes look beautiful thanks to the wonderful photography of Manon Houston.

 

Season’s Eatings

I can’t think of a more apt time to write about seasonal eating. With food security at risk more than ever thanks to the Covid outbreak and Brexit (it’s still happening, in case you’d forgotten), it might be time to think about what we’re eating and where it comes from.

I started writing The Seasonal Vegan over a year ago when things were very different. I always try to eat seasonally, mainly because it tastes better, and I wanted to create recipes inspired by the different seasons.

For a while now, campaigners, food writers and chefs have advocated seasonal eating because it can have a positive impact on the environment and local communities. Now, in these unprecedented times, access to imported foods might become more difficult, and so seasonal eating is more important than ever.

You can still buy pretty much anything you want at the supermarket all year round – and fruit and vegetables tend to be ignored by panic buyers – but there are some very good reasons to eat with the seasons.

Buying seasonal produce is generally better for the environment because it requires lower levels of heating, lighting, pesticides and fertilisers than at other times of the year. Eating fruit and vegetables that have been grown in the UK reduces the energy needed to transport them from other countries – 26 per cent of all carbon emissions come from food production – so eating British asparagus in May uses less food mileage than buying what’s flown in from South America – ­and, of course, it’s tastier.

Because food in season is usually in abundance and has less distance to travel, it’s also cheaper. It costs less for farmers and distribution companies to harvest and get to the supermarket or greengrocer, which means that a British tomato bought in peak harvest season in August will cost less than one bought in January. And it’s not only cheaper at the big supermarkets – if you can, shopping at your local greengrocer, or farm shop can be just as cost effective. And although farmer’s markets can be a little pricier, you’ll be supporting a local business and you really do get what you pay for in terms of freshness, taste and quality.

Now, I’m no gardener (the flat we live in doesn’t have a garden) and I’ve never grown my own vegetables – not yet, anyway – but I love nature and I notice the change in the air as the months go by. Wouldn’t it be dull if we ate the same all year round? Nothing beats a warm stew with squash or beetroot when it’s cold outside, and now, at the peak of summer, we can enjoy succulent strawberries, tomatoes, broad beans and peas.

Eating seasonally is sometimes seen as inaccessible or elitist, but it really doesn’t have to be – and it’s possible to cook and eat fruit and vegetables in a way that’s  easy, inexpensive and tasty. Studies show that only 31 per cent of adults in the UK eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – with just 18 per cent of children doing the same – and that’s something we need to address.

The Seasonal Vegan isn’t about being perfect, puritanical or prescriptive about eating what’s in season, but it does celebrate a rainbow of fruits and vegetables and all their health benefits – and it might inspire you to eat and cook a bit differently.

 

Recipe: Cucumber Gazpacho

Photograph by Manon Houston

 

15 minutes, plus 2 hours in the fridge

Serves 4-6

 

Ingredients

2-3 cucumbers, cut into chunks

1 onion, peeled and diced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 slice of white bread, roughly torn

350ml hot vegetable stock

4 tsp rice vinegar

1-2 tsp tabasco sauce

1 tbsp sugar

Fresh basil

Flaked almonds

 

Method

1. Blend the cucumber, onion, garlic and bread using a food processor or a hand held blender. You should end up with a fairly smooth mixture. Tip into a large bowl and pour over the hot stock and the other ingredients and stir. Leave to cool, then when at room temperature, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours

2. Serve with toasted flaked almonds and torn basil leaves.

 

The Seasonal Vegan is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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Recipe: Summer Berry & Coconut Milk Ice Lollies

Get a sneak peak of what’s to come in Sarah Philpott’s new book with this delicious recipe for Summer Berry & Coconut Milk Ice Lollies from The Seasonal Vegan.

A kitchen diary of seasonal recipes with a delicious mixture of fine food writing and beautiful photography. This guide to eating with the seasons takes a realistic approach to shopping cheaply and sustainably, and proves that the vegan lifestyle is anything but expensive. Features recipes for all seasons, a section on dishes that can be enjoyed all year round, and menu ideas for special occasions.

 

Summer Berry & Coconut Milk Ice Lollies

10 minutes, plus freezing time

Makes 4 lollies

Ingredients

1 x 400ml can full fat coconut milk

1 punnet strawberries, hulled and sliced

1 punnet raspberries

1 handful fresh mint, chopped, stalks removed

Method

In a large bowl, stir together all the ingredients and spoon into ice lolly moulds. Place in the freezer and when frozen, remove from the moulds and enjoy.

 

Photograph: Manon Houston

The Seasonal Vegan is available to pre-order on the Seren website: £12.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Poem in Which She Wears Her Favourite Wedding Dress’ by Katrina Naomi

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Poem in Which She Wears Her Favourite Wedding Dress’ by Katrina Naomi from her new collection Wild Persistence.

Wild Persistence by Katrina Naomi is a confident and persuasive collection of poems. Written following her move from London to Cornwall, it considers distance and closeness, and questions how to live. She dissects ‘dualism’ and arrival, sex and dance, a trip to Japan. The collection also includes a moving sequence of poems about the aftermath of an attempted rape.

“Funny, moving, surprising, unflinching and, above all else…joyous.” – Helen Mort

Wild Persistence is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Join us for the virtual launch of Wild Persistence on Thursday 11th June at 6:30pm live via the online platform Zoom. Email sarahjohnson@serenbooks.com for the link details. 

Watch Katrina read her poem ‘Maybe Owls’ on our Youtube channel:

Friday Poem – ‘This Is The Drawer’ by Rhian Edwards

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘This Is The Drawer’ by Rhian Edwards from her new collection The Estate Agent’s Daughter which is published on Monday 1st June.

The Estate Agent’s Daughter is the eagerly awaited follow up to Rhian Edwards’s Wales Book of the Year winning debut collection Clueless DogsAcute and wryly observed, the poems step forth with a confident tone, touching on the personal and the public, encapsulating a woman’s tribulations in the twenty-first century.

“…fast-talking, wise-cracking and worldly wise” – Zoë Brigley

The Estate Agent’s Daughter is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Join us for the virtual launch of The Estate Agent’s Daughter on Tuesday 16th June at 7:30pm live via the online platform Zoom. Email sarahjohnson@serenbooks.com for the link details. 

An Interview with André Mangeot

Resonant, complex, rich in heft and texture, these are mature poems that grapple with serious themes. Beautifully crafted, and partly inspired by the poet’s love of the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia, they address the natural world, its endangerment and other pressing global issues from multiple perspectives, and with great lyrical power.

‘A thought-provoking book for turbulent times.’
– Matthew Caley

André Mangeot’s new collection Blood Rain confronts the degradation of the planet and individual lives and choices with a steely lyrical grace. In this interview, he discusses the relationship between nature and poetry and our own connection to the natural world.

Blood Rain features poems set in a variety of geographic and historic locations with several of them focusing on Welsh landscapes. What is the importance of these poems within the collection and what is your connection to them?

It’s often said that landscape is a character in itself and it’s true that location is often my starting-point. This is probably most evident in my books of short stories, True North and A Little Javanese, where almost all are set in different countries and an evocative urban or rural landscape is as vital in bringing the story to life as authentic protagonists. In Blood Rain, with one of its key themes being challenges to the planet, including the natural world, there are a number of poems set in locations that I know and value (North Wales, the Lake District, North Devon) – and habitats which are threatened in one way or another.  But ‘setting’ is equally important for poems set further afield or in other times (the trenches in WW1, occupied Europe in WWII, Romania under Ceaușescu) that touch on another form of ever-present threat – our propensity for violence and conflict.

Nature is a theme that runs deeply through the collection. What is the connection between nature and your poetry and what does poetry bring to your experience of nature?

I’ve always felt more comfortable at a distance from cities and the urban environment – though for much of the time they’re unavoidable, of course. And for now I do live in a city, so the contrast between noise/pollution/crowds and most rural settings makes time in the latter all the more special and vivid. Nature clearly works on the senses, on the unconscious, before any poem begins to emerge and evolve.  Thereafter, crafting a poem forces one to focus ever more closely on detail – both what’s being examined and for word-choices, imagery, form etc.

The poems in Blood Rain are often concerned with ideas of balance, particularly a sense of ‘counterpoise’- giving and taking between humans and nature. What role do exchange, and economy of nature and things play in the poems?

Ideally, any natural exchange between man and nature would be reciprocal and unthreatening. But we as a species have so clearly overstepped the mark – due to a frightening combination of arrogance, ignorance and greed, aided by globalisation – that almost everything is now scarily out of kilter. Levels of comparative wealth and poverty across the globe; degree and frequency of extreme/destructive weather patterns; competition for fertile and habitable land. It’s almost as if, because man has ridden roughshod over natural laws for so long, nature is now fighting back, reasserting itself, proving who has ultimate control.

What do the shifts between nature, war, and family mean to you? Does the quoted ‘warlikeness’ carry throughout the poems, even those not concerned with war itself?

Everything we know is connected, part of a larger, possibly infinite eco-system: each individual to their immediate family and community, the nation, wider world, the cosmos etc.  The natural world is no different: amoebas, plankton, myriads of insects are just the base of a survival chain essential for millions of species – including mankind.  In the natural world we’re used to considering the fight for survival as commonplace; now, perhaps for the first time, reality is dawning that we as a species are in the fight too, and that no law precludes our own extinction.  As far as ‘warlikeness’ goes as a human characteristic, I don’t want to overstate it, but I can see the same kind of mirroring of relationship conflicts within families (three or four poems in the book address mine with my late father, for example) with how resentments and misunderstandings on a national or global scale can escalate into something far more serious.

The title poem refers to the natural phenomena of ‘blood rain’ as ‘an augury of rust’. How would you describe the relationship between poetry and omens or symbols in the natural world?

Our response to poetry, literature – indeed, many things we encounter daily – is largely determined by past experience and the particular memories and sensations these things conjure up, positive or negative.  So this inbuilt, often unconscious association will determine different responses to the same word, phrase or image from one person to the next.  To me this is what’s so exciting about sending a new piece of work out into the world: not simply the act of connecting with others but the certainty that no two people will respond to a poem or sequence the same; each will bring their own experience, tastes and prejudices to it.  Some will find symbols or omens, but almost for sure in different places and forms.  But to return specifically to nature – full of wonder and terror in equal measure – all I’d say is that I’ve tried to keep this ambivalence constantly in mind.

What message do you hope readers will take away from reading the collection? Do you feel this message has become even more poignant amidst the situation we currently find ourselves in?

I didn’t set out to deliver any particular message, and would be hesitant about any collection that did. Blood Rain is just one person’s response to/meditation on current times that are clearly troubling and uncertain for many.  Covid-19 arrived after this sequence was written and published, but has simply underlined the global connection between us, and is a stark reminder of our vulnerability, no different to any other species.

 

Blood Rain is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Iaith / llaeth’ by Katherine Stansfield

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Iaith / llaeth’ by Katherine Stansfield from her new collection We Could Be Anywhere By Now.

In her second collection, We Could Be Anywhere by Now, Katherine Stansfield brings us poems about placement and displacement full of both wry comedy and uneasy tension. Stints in Wales, Italy and Canada, plus return trips to her native Cornwall all spark poems delighting in the off-key, the overheard, the comedy and pathos of everyday life.

‘multi-layered and full of surprising transitions’ – Patrick McGuiness

We Could Be Anywhere By Now is available on the Seren website: £9.99

You can now watch videos of Katherine reading from hew new collection on our Youtube channel! Here she is reading her poem ‘FOG’. 

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‘No Far Shore’: An Interview with Anne-Marie Fyfe

No Far Shore  by Anne-Marie Fyfe is no ordinary exploration of coastlines. She combines travel writing, history, memoir and poetry in an intriguing meditation on the sea, the land, and the maps, lighthouses, islands, north, journeys and other things which mark them. In the process, she also looks at the work of a number of writers for whom the coast has been influential including Elizabeth Bishop, Herman Melville and Virginia Wolf.

In this interview she tells us more about why she moved away from poetry in this exploration and how the book developed during her journey.

You write that the collection takes ‘no settled form’, and it is written in a mixture of poetry, prose and music. How do you think this enriched the story you were telling?

It wasn’t so much a means of enriching the story, as recognising that unsettledness of form – like the unpredictability of coastal seas – was a way of exploring the story in all its depths. Having published  five collections of often strange & slightly surreal poetry, I’d let much remain beneath the surface. It isn’t just that poetry allows one to avoid explaining – it had also allowed me to avoid exploring. Since I’ve been teaching poetry & creative non-fiction in the US, I’ve been struck by how much hybridity of form, mixing traditions, crossing boundaries, offers certain writers not just a new aesthetic, but precise metaphors for subject matter. And it seemed that, for me, setting out into new forms paralleled setting out into the unknown waters of a deeper narrative.

What commonalities would you say that the writer and sea fearer share? Why do you think literature has such an enduring romantic association with the sea?

I’m not sure it’s specific to writers. So many creatives, whatever their artform, music, film-making, painting, etc, feel the need to grapple with the sea. We have to face its threats & dangers if our options aren’t to narrow down into one safe piece of dry land; & its vastness, its distant horizons have always been somehow magnetic. My puzzle wasn’t just why so many writers are drawn to the sea, or why I’m particularly drawn to those writers, but why so many sea-farers & those who spent childhoods by the sea, went on to become writers.

In the collection, you discuss the idea of ‘journeying map-less’, arriving somewhere without expectation. How much direction would you say you have when you begin writing?

I can answer that with Bob Dylan’s line about No Direction Home, or TS Eliot’s idea that all our exploring will lead us back to where we started and that we’ll know the place for the first time. I guess the book was always going to come full circle, back to Cushendall (where I grew up) after the actual journey (Felixstowe, Orkney, Barra, Hook, Swansea, Martha’s Vineyard, North Haven, Maine, Nova Scotia & on to Cape Breton), after the literary journey, exploring coastal writers’ lives. And, of course, after the emotional journey into my own & my own people’s sea-girt pasts. But I didn’t set out knowing what I would find in terms of ‘understanding’ other writers’ passions, or knowing how my family’s story would fall into place.

No Far Shore is filled with meditations on horizons and edges, which seem symbolic of knowledge and certainty. How do you explain both the thrill and fear that seem embedded in self-discovery?

It’s knowledge & un-certainty really: we know when we’re leaving behind the familiar & trying to map the unknown. The two defining edges are the near edge, shoreline/tideline/coastline, between known & unknown, & the illusory far edge. The horizon appears geometrically straight but actually curves horizontally, as well as falling away from us into the distance & off the edge of the known world. So there is No Far Shore in one sense.  And when I lead workshops entitled Edge of the Depths as I’ve done all along the coastlines I’ve travelled, I’m thinking of both near & far ‘edges’.

As for ‘self-discovery’, in a sense that Joseph Conrad would recognise as clearly as TS Eliot, all voyages are self-discovery &, as with any other journey, excitement & dread are involved.

In some senses it’s been the opposite of write about what you know. It’s rather write because you don’t know! The act of bringing together memory, myth, fact, history, poetic fragments, snatched thoughts, conversations, the act of writing it, is less about retelling & more about exploring.

No Far Shore is peppered with references to mythology. In what ways do you think the sea/or a sea-faring journey reflects aspects of human identity? What can we learn about ourselves from looking to the land and seascapes around us?

In a way all our sources, literary, cultural, historical, local, & family, are what shapes us growing up. So Treasure Island & Greek myth &, say, news reports of a local shipwreck in the years before I was born, stories from local fishermen, conversations on a family car journey, all have equal status: what they all do evidence, though, is the looming presence, since the earliest times, of the sea in our geographic & psychological mindscapes. What we learn from those stories, & from simply gazing at oceans & horizons, is more complex than simply longing, aspiration or awe. Which is what the journey & the book taught me, & is the book’s hesitant conclusion.

You cite Elizabeth Bishop’s value of ‘aloneness’ and write of your own desire to discover that ‘other self, deep down’. How do you think the figurative journey through poetry and the physical journey across the sea, differ in unearthing the ‘other self’? How would you define the ‘other self’?

I’d long cherished Bishop’s ‘aloneness’ remarks as touching on something both positive & negative in my own feelings about coasts, isolation & home. Finding or not finding a ‘far shore’, finding the ‘other self’, is simply the long journey towards understanding oneself: an understanding that I’m sure, for some, could be found simply by reading, writing, & contemplating. But for me that understanding required the physical journey, going back to coasts, headlands & harbours, gazing at islands & lighthouses & horizons that Bishop, Woolf, MacNeice, Melville, Tove Jansson & so many more had gazed upon: the difference between ‘research’ at one’s writing-desk & an actual ‘quest’, an ‘odyssey’ perhaps.

You talk about the ‘lure’ and ‘lore of islands’, that ‘Island is illusion’. How influential is the concept of intangibility over your poetry and prose?

On islands/isolation, of course, I’m playing with words & concepts, & while the idea of the desert island in children’s literature always fascinated me, islands can be isolated from the world & yet be some of the most closely-knit, supportive places to live. Like Barra in the Outer Hebrides where my McNeil family originated. Like North Haven in Maine, where I found one of Elizabeth Bishop’s holiday homes: it’s an island outsiders love for its remoteness, its escape from the busy world (unlike, say, fashionable Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket) and that year-rounders, conversely, love for its close community & family ties.

I’ve lived happily with intangibility & a certain evasiveness in poetry that’s never seemed difficult, just a little strange, perhaps, oblique or mysterious. But this new strategy of combining, around each coastal theme, poetry fragments, observations, reflection, memories, facts & – as you’ve mentioned – myth, creates much more tangibility. It’s an approach that allows the reader many different ways of joining me on the journey.

What was your favourite place to visit during the travels that inspired this collection?

Difficult to weigh up, favourite-wise, the tranquility of blue harbours at Loch Eireboll, Fresgoe in Caithness, Fethard in County Wexford, or Lubec on the US/Canada border, against the magic of a moon-silvered midnight in the Western Isles. But the most important times for me were the nights spent in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Nova Scotia, which were pivotal in my thinking not just about her life, but about my mother’s, and my own.

Although the text predominately explores themes of isolation and solitude, it also demonstrates remarkable ties of connection between literature, people, home and place. Would you say we can only understand our ‘aloneness’ by understanding the ways in which we are connected to others?

The ’story’, the exploration, unfolds to show that a desire for solitude can arise from the need, not to imagine an elsewhere, or a future, but for sufficient remoteness from the world to allow us to recapture, momentarily, a vanished past, to spend time in the imagination with people who mattered to us and whose memory is often lost in the noise & busyness of the world. Oddly that desire to be alone with one’s reflections isn’t inconsistent with the desire, as a writer, to share one’s solitary, personal reflections with the wider world in poetry, novels, or books like this.

You end the collection with a coastal soundscape, which among many things, consists of Morse code and music. What inspired you to end the collection this way? How do the visual and audible aids capture what you were trying to convey in a way that poetry and prose alone could not?

Having set out with a sense that many different literary & oral forms of communication have a place in understanding what makes us who we are, I was also aware that – although Yeats says words alone are certain good – there were other forms of communication jostling for attention throughout the essays/chapters: sea sounds, wireless experiments, songs my mother sang, radio waves, lighthouse signals, Mayday messages, a ringing telephone, even car headlights on a coast road… all part of a visual & aural picture that would bring together the various strands, the interwoven stories, the literal & metaphorical journeys.

No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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