Guest Post: Other Women’s Kitchens – Alison Binney

Alison Binney’s pamphlet Other Women’s Kitchens is the winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2020.

For me, the kitchen is often the most appealing room in any home. In the house where I grew up, we had a dining table at one end of the lounge, which was only ever used when guests came round. All our other meals were eaten in the kitchen, so all the most interesting, impactful conversations I can remember are located around that small table, in the most intimate space in the heart of the house.

Some of my happiest memories are of cooking with my Mum – first as a small child entrusted with cutting out mince pie lids or stirring jelly cubes into boiling water, and later as an equal, experimenting together with Delia’s latest twists on old favourite recipes. And that kitchen was where the action happened too – the chip pan fire that we put out with a wet tea towel; my Mum’s shrieking encounter with a mouse that leapt from a sack she’d brought in from the garage; the gash from the cheese slicer to which my left thumb still bears witness. So much, also, that was less dramatic but more influential – all those conversations over cooking, over eating together, overheard from the family phone on the kitchen wall.

Assorted jars and utensils on a kitchen surface

When I was hunting for a title for my first poetry pamphlet, I was not surprised, then, to be drawn to the final phrase of my poem Every time I came home: ‘dreaming of other women’s kitchens’. This poem recounts a time in my life when I was finding it hard to live up to what I felt were impossible ideals: a time when it seemed as if all my school and university friends, my cousins, and all the children of everyone my parents knew, were getting married, and then having children. Where the family kitchen had always been a space of comfort and camaraderie for me, I no longer felt confident in my place there, uncertain, like so many young gay people, about how my identity as a lesbian might fit with my parents’ expectations of me. The idea of other women’s kitchens, where I might experience an easy acceptance and a sense of fulfilment that I could not otherwise be sure of, felt like a very appealing fantasy.

It struck me, once I looked at the pamphlet through this lens, just how many of the poems in it are located in kitchens, or in kitchen-like spaces, or make reference to food. There’s the makeshift kitchen in a wicker barn where Anne Lister and her partner Ann Walker brew tea and coffee on the last day recorded in Anne Lister’s diary. There are the married women who ‘came home hungry, smelling of lentils’, after their encounters in a supermarket car park. There’s ‘tea with the lady mayoress’ in a found poem sourced from an old edition of the Girl Guide Handbook. And then there’s the kitchen as the location of a first date – probably just the sort of kitchen, complete with ‘individual chocolate mousses’, that my younger, uncertain self would have been delighted to know was waiting for her in the not-too-distant future.

Teapot and two mugs

I’m thrilled that the cover for Other Women’s Kitchens, painted so skilfully by Kate Winter, captures the mood as well as the appearance of my parents’ kitchen. I also love the shadowiness of the two superimposed figures, which allows plenty of space for imagination and interpretation. The teapot at the centre represents for me that sense of comfort and companionship integral to the essence of a kitchen – the place not only where significant things happen, but in which, so often, they’re mulled over, digested, poured out.

Alison Binney

Cover of Other Women's Kitchens by Alison Binney which shows a painting of a colourful kitchen with two greyed out figures in it.

Other Women’s Kitchens is Alison Binney’s debut pamphlet of poems and introduces us to a gifted new voice who writes with flair and feeling about coming out and coming of age as a gay woman in 21st century Britain. The collection explores the challenges of discovering and owning a lesbian identity in the 1980s and 1990s and the joy of finding both love and increased confidence in that identity as an adult. An adroit admixture of the heart-wrenching and the humorous, the book features shaped and ‘found’ pieces, traditional narrative and compact prose poems. Beautifully entertaining, pointedly political and often very funny, Other Women’s Kitchens is essential reading.

Other Women’s Kitchens is available on the Seren website: £5.00

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Karaoke King – A Playlist by Dai George

To celebrate publication of his new collection Karaoke King, Dai George has created a playlist of songs which tie in with the collection. Read on to find out what he chose and why.

The cover of Karaoke King shows a drawing of a white, teenage boy wearing a white shirt with a yellow and brown vest with horizontal stripes. He has his head on one side and his glasses are wonky. He is wearing a crumpled yellow crown.

This confident second collection by Dai George addresses the contentious nature of the times. Always deeply thoughtful but also alternately ebullient, angry, curious, ashamed, the poet moves through urban and digital spaces feeling both uneasy and exhilarated. As with the Auden of the inter-war period, there is a feeling of history shifting, as a younger generation confronts its ethical obligations, its sense of complicity and disappointment. Ecological crisis hovers in the background, glimpsed in the ‘Fooled Evening’ of a world whose seasonal rhythms have fallen out of joint. Karaoke King also contains numerous reflections on popular culture, culminating in ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, a sequence at the heart of the volume speaking to urgent contemporary questions of ownership and privilege, pain and celebration. 

Karaoke King – A Playlist

The Lumineers – ‘Ho Hey’

The Platters – ‘The Glory of Love’

Teddy Pendergrass – ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’

McFadden and Whitehead – ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’

Frank Sinatra – ‘New York, New York’

Big Star – ‘Nightime’

David Bowie – ‘Station to Station’

Treorchy Male Voice Choir – ‘Myfanwy’

Lord Laro – ‘Jamaican Referendum Calypso’

The Ethiopians – ‘Train to Skaville’

The Skatalites – ‘Guns of Navarone’

The Uniques – ‘People Rocksteady’

Alton Ellis – ‘Rocksteady’

Derrick Harriott – ‘The Loser’

The Paragons – ‘On the Beach’

The Techniques – ‘Love Is Not a Gamble’

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – ‘Croaking Lizard’

The Congos – ‘Nicodemus’

Bob Marley & the Wailers – ‘No Woman, No Cry’

The Uniques – ‘My Conversation’

Gregory Isaacs – ‘Soon Forward’

Sister Nancy – ‘Only Woman DJ with Degree’

Yellowman – ‘Zungguzungguguzungguzeng’

Sizzla – ‘Babylon A Use Dem Brain’

Count Machuki – ‘More Scorcha’

The Heptones – ‘Party Time’

I-Wayne – ‘Living in Love’

The Maytals / Sister Nancy – ‘Bam Bam’

Charles Trenet – ‘La Mer’

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Thunder Road’

Dusty Springfield – ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’

Bob Dylan – ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’

In another lifetime, I tried to be a music journalist. A teenage pop nerd, I grew up reading too many issues of Mojo and the NME, and built my identity in large part around the songs that gave me solace, joy, a sense of difference. One way or another the journalism thing didn’t happen, but my new collection of poems, Karaoke King, maybe represents an attempt to grapple with the legacy of that obsession.

Poetry, of course, can’t offer what journalism can: it can’t give you facts, analysis, coherent narrative, or if it tried to do that it would be very bad at it. What it can do, though – maybe – is capture how songs hit the mind. It can sift significance, and work towards some understanding of how an individual stands in relation to these musical artefacts that are at once fixed, specific, culturally determined, and yet endlessly transmissible from radio to radio, mouth to mouth, ear to ear. From the liturgical prayers I heard being sung at Canton Uniting, my childhood church, to the Neighbours theme tune, Karaoke King is full of songs overheard, half-remembered, reapproached, transposed – hauntings and visitations. I thought it would be fun, and maybe interesting, to put together a playlist for the collection, with a set of ‘sleeve notes’ fleshing out the story of how these songs came to be there.

Close up photograph of a vinyl record  playing on a turn table.
Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

The first four tracks all come from ‘Poem on 27th Birthday’. Set in a hilltop bar in Italy, and written more or less in situ in September 2013, it was the first poem I finished after wrapping on my debut collection, The Claims Office. I tried to be more open and porous in writing than I’d allowed myself to be till that point, and for me that meant tuning into the ambient sounds, letting them bleed into a collage. The dominant tune is an earworm blaring from a nearby car stereo, a sweet-natured, folky track I recognised but couldn’t place – later I found out it was called ‘Ho Hey’ by the Lumineers. It’s the sort of song that Adolescent Me would have scorned, but in a charmed moment it came across, in the words of the poem, ‘as nothing less than the Glory of Love’, a nod to the great doo-wop song of that name by The Platters.

The other songs filter in from a compilation of ’70s funk and Philadelphia soul that the barman switched on to replace the slick elevator jazz that had been playing till then. So we have a singer I recognised, Teddy Pendergrass, singing a song I didn’t know in the moment but later tracked down as ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’ – one of his first solo singles, a four-to-the-floor disco ripper about breaking somebody’s heart – and this soon flows into ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ by McFadden and Whitehead. Songs touching songs, overlapping, building resonances. I most certainly did love the addressee of the poem, so it’s the McFadden and Whitehead song that takes over, its message of empowerment modulating through the speaker into gratitude for love.

More earworms, next, with Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, overheard on one of my many circuits of Clissold Park in Stoke Newington over recent years. The poem it’s taken from is called ‘The Park in the Afternoon’, which unsurprisingly is about parks in the afternoon, but also the neoliberal cult of productivity that turns people into a political problem if they have nothing to do at that time of day. I loved the weird euphoria of this song, with its glitzy promise of inclusion – I wanna be a part of it! – being reclaimed as an anthem of solidarity or defiance.

‘Night Time’ by Big Star is one of the darker songs on this playlist, a theme tune for a run of poems in the first section of Karaoke King which map a hard time in my life – a dark night of the soul. The song itself is quoted in a poem called ‘Rock vs Pop’, an elegy to Roddy Lumsden. Roddy and I bonded originally over music, meeting on an internet forum called Black Cat Bone where debates like ‘Rock vs Pop’ could become seriously heated. Big Star were the sort of group that exposed how hollow that dichotomy is, and I know Roddy was a big fan of their legendary, troubled third album, Sister Lovers. It’s another song about wanting to be a part of it – At night time I go out and see the people – only this time there’s no Sinatra-esque bravado: the irony of that desire is painfully apparent the moment you hear Alex Chilton’s fragile, haunted vocal.

Photograph of boxes of vinyl records stacked in a shop.
Photo by Alano Oliveira on Unsplash

David Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ is more literally about a long night of the soul – a long and disoriented journey. The poem I wrote about it for Alex Bell and John Canfield’s ‘Bowieoke’ night (and subsequent anthology Cold Fire) tries to capture the sense of blackout and damage on that record, but also to deconstruct the iconography of the Thin White Duke, his persona of the time. Whiteness is of course a part of that formulation, and it’s one of the tacit themes of this book that white pop music culture must grapple honestly with its numerous, often unspoken debts to Black musicians and Black musical idioms.

The place in the book where I’ve tried to confront this legacy, as openly as possible, is ‘A History of Jamaican Music’. The reggae songs on this playlist all offer up quotations and allusions from that sequence, and taken together I think they make for a great, roughly chronological listen. I’ve written about the genesis of this sequence before, so don’t want to belabour the point. All I’ll say here is that, just as these musical selections offer one, partial journey through the rich heritage of reggae, so too do the poems, from my own, very subjective perspective. I wanted to reflect honestly on my relationship to a music and a culture that is too often enjoyed in a passive or exploitative way by British people. These are indeed songs of joy – and songs that can, and should, be enjoyed widely, I believe – but also struggle and complexity; songs, moreover, that could never wholly belong to me, or anyone in my position.

Before we get to them, though, we pass through a song from a culture that is indisputably my own. ‘Myfanwy’ is beautiful, of course, and probably familiar to many people. The title poem of the collection remixes it as a death fugue, a mouldering totem for a certain dubious, romantic myth of Welshness – so I’m glad to pay tribute to it here as God, or the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, intended it. Reading that poem, the eagle-eyed might spot a few references to Twin Town, a film I still love despite its ridiculous, shallow, very unromantic vision of Welshness. (The title of the collection itself, Karaoke King, is a moniker given to the film’s hapless Elvis wannabe, Dai Rhys.) The film’s final scene of a sea burial serenaded by a suited and booted male voice choir crooning ‘Myfanwy’ sums up much of what is funny and pathetic about those old myths and their modern revivals. Maybe one day we’ll be able to hear ‘Myfanwy’ differently again, stripped of all the pageantry.

Photo of a colourful Bob Dylan mural on the side of a building in New York.
Photo by Weston MacKinnon on Unsplash

There’s a wistful turn to the final few songs on the playlist. Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ wafts in like the last day of summer or the first of autumn, a mood I wanted to channel for a poem called  ‘September’s Child’. That in-between, nostalgic cusp state more or less represents the situation with my hair right now. ‘Poem in which my hairline recedes’ is the vessel for those (rather trivial) anxieties, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ is the sonic foil – another yearning cusp song, only this time one that stands on the brink of impossible self-realisation and success.

After that, yet more ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’ from Dusty Springfield, one of my favourite singers. From my teens I’ve always been drawn to classic girl group pop and its soft-soul, adult-oriented offshoots – Dusty, Dionne Warwick, the songs of Bacharach and David, Goffin and King. I saw in this music a model for my own hopelessness in love: solace and fellow feeling in a woman’s voice, when it was women that I yearned for. The poem ‘Obsolete Heartbreak Suite’ is a type of farewell to all that, and an attempt to reckon with the gendered dynamics of the art form, with its unequal distribution of male and female creative labour. I still love all those Brill Building songs but the drama and intensity is second-hand now, thankfully.

Finally, we come to ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ by Bob Dylan. After listening to the glorious official version from Highway 61 Revisited, do seek out the alternate takes that are collected on The Cutting Edge, a box set covering Dylan’s time in the studio during the famous ‘Thin Wild Mercury’ years of 1965-66. It’s the sound of those false starts and early drafts that I wanted to capture in ‘The Mercury Mine’ – Dylan’s painstaking, instinctive graft as he toys with a phrase until he gets it right, rearranging speech parts, nudging them into better arrangements. It’s something of a cliché to talk about ‘pop perfection’, and I’ve loved enough brilliant, three-minute pocket symphonies to understand what people might mean by it. But I think a space for poetry opens up whenever we encounter pop imperfection – hesitance, provisionality, the formation of ideas. That’s one way into it, anyway. Another might be to follow what happens when we encounter perfect music amid the mess and imperfection of our lives.

Dai George

Listen to the playlist in full on Spotify.

Karaoke King by Dai George is available now. As this week is #IndependentBookshopWeek, why not buy through bookshop.org?

Ilse Pedler: Being a Poet and a Vet

This week we publish Ilse Pedler’s debut collection Auscultation. In this post she reflects on finding time to write around her career as a vet and how this inspires her poetry.

The cover of Auscultation shows a stethoscope against a white background with an orange and brown butterfly resting on the chord. Beneath the image is an orange box with the title and author name.

Auscultation means listening and specifically, in medicine, listening to sounds that come from the body’s internal organs. If listening is a central theme of this collection, it is also about being heard. Ilse Pedler is poet of breadth and depth. There are poems about waiting rooms and surgical instruments, about crisis calls, about overhearing farmers and pet owners and colleagues. There are poems about surviving a stern childhood and a heartbreaking sequence about being a stepmother. This is a compelling set of poems from a striking new voice.

“Unique and utterly original.” – Kim Moore

How do you juggle writing poetry with a demanding career, particularly a career like veterinary medicine? Being a vet is not so much a job as a way of life. You come to live to the rhythms of animals, their needs take priority over your own. Work becomes a river; fluid, broken over rocks, never ceasing.

I’ve always written but during university and early years in practice, life as a vet was so all-consuming, poetry was squeezed to the very periphery. Slowly though, it began to filter back, sometimes it was people’s stories, sometimes it was the relationship between an animal and its owner. I started to feel the need to write down what I was experiencing. I also became frustrated at how little time I had to devote to poetry, until I went to a reading by Dennis O’Driscoll who worked full time through all his career. His comment on the dilemma of work and poetry was ‘Just write’. This became my mantra in the following years and I found myself jotting down fragments and ideas in between seeing clients or after I had finished an operation and on more than one occasion, I pulled over into a layby on the way back from a visit to write a few lines.

At first, I was hesitant about sharing my poems. I thought, because I hadn’t studied English or had a background in the arts, my work probably wasn’t up to much. It wasn’t until I went on a poetry course and another participant said, ‘isn’t it wonderful, you have a second language.’ I realised that being a vet may actually have its advantages.

As a vet I had a rich variety of experiences and emotions to draw on. I’ve seen cases of cruelty and neglect but also moments of extreme tenderness and dedication, I’ve known people go without food so they can afford medication for their pets and I’ve known people whose only reason for getting up in the morning is their animals. The consulting room is a privileged place and consulting effectively is an art as well as a science. The ability to draw out the back story and to get to the heart of the matter is a skill that is learnt over time. Farms are also unique; they are places of rough practicality and particular language; there is a bluntness there but also a gentleness.

We vets spend a lot of our time reading and writing clinical notes. They are our observations of patients and although factual, these notes are far from ‘clinical’, they are a record of what we’ve seen, felt, heard or smelt. Medical language is full of colour and dimension, it is muscular and vital. We observe our patients closely and we record what we feel about them. I found not only did I did have a whole other language to draw on but I had a scientist’s eye for detail and precision.

I feel so incredibly privileged to be a vet; animals have an honesty and in the case of animals like horses and cattle, a majesty too. They love and trust unconditionally and I am constantly inspired by them. If I can capture any of this in my poems, I will feel I have truly become a poet.

Ilse Pedler

Ilse Pedler’s debut collection Auscultation is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Katrina Naomi – Wild Persistence, A Year On

A year on from publication of her collection Wild Persistence, poet Katrina Naomi reflects on her experience of publishing a book during the pandemic.

A year ago, when I realised I couldn’t hold the launches for Wild Persistence that we’d planned in Cornwall and London, I’ll admit to having a few tears. Daft but I felt that Wild Persistence was the best book I’d written and I really wanted to get it out there. Book shops were closed, as was pretty much everything else. How the hell was this new collection going to find its audience?

Katrina Naomi with a copy of Wild Persistence

I remember talking to Amy, my editor, about possibly shifting the launch back from June 2020 to September 2020. I’m glad we didn’t; with hindsight, nothing would have changed.

Seren said: ‘How about a virtual launch?’. I’d never done anything on zoom before, I barely knew what it was. In short, I was terrified of it. How would I get any connection with people via a cold screen; there’d be no feedback, and no drinks (and no cake), and no nattering afterwards? Can you tell that I hated the idea? But it was all that was possible.

I did a trial run with Seren, tried to pretend Zoom was where it was at, and that I was looking forward to the launch. I didn’t trust or understand the technology. The morning of the launch, I practised my poems in the park, in the mizzle, reading to a friend, us both sitting well away from each other, as though we’d had an argument. That evening, to try to get over my terror, I wore one of my favourite outfits, a red and white ‘40s suit, wore the new shoes I’d bought for the original launches – even though no one could see them. But I knew I’d got them on. I dabbed cologne on my neck and wrists, and put a flower in my hair. I was as ready as I could be.

I remember how sick I felt, I hadn’t been able to eat, until I saw that over 100 people were waiting to be admitted to the launch. People attended from France, Canada, the US, as well as friends from up my street. It gave me a wider audience than I could have imagined. I really, really enjoyed it.

Since then, I’ve been doing readings at events across the UK, and in the US. All from my little room, with a glimpse of Penzance harbour between my neighbours’ roofs. It still feels slightly unreal but I’ve come to love performing into my screen, remembering to prop the laptop on two dictionaries and to speak into the camera, marked by two lion stickers either side of the camera’s wonky dot.

Katrina Naomi signing copies of Wild Persistence in The Edge of the World bookshop

But I didn’t get to go to Mexico to work on a project, (environmentally, this might not be a bad thing), and it seems people don’t buy as many books at online launches and readings. Still, I’ve been doing lots of radio and podcasts, which has been great. Seren say the book’s been doing well. And I’ve been selling signed copies of Wild Persistence via my website all year, reusing recycled envelopes so I’ve only a handful of copies (and envelopes) left. I recall one woman buying a copy of Wild Persistence, then ordering another 30, ‘to give to my friends’. My local bookshop, The Edge of the World, has been reordering and I’ve signed three or four batches there, since they’ve reopened.  I haven’t been further than Cornwall, I’d love to know that my collection’s in other bookshops in other towns and cities. But I don’t know if that’s true. What’s been great has been people (particularly people I don’t know) posting photos of Wild Persistence on Twitter; I’ve seen my book propped up on garden steps, or next to a mug of tea with breakfast, or in an artist’s studio, and, once, on the end of an Essex pier. I’ve loved that.

Wild Persistence on the shelf in The Edge of the World bookshop

But I’ve missed seeing people. I haven’t been able to do a single reading, live, in public, in a room, with people. I miss seeing people’s reactions – whether they’re bored or excited by a particular poem. It’s harder to gauge which poems work online, you don’t hear the collective hush or the poetry ahhh, or get a laugh or an intake of breath when a poem hits home.

A year on and I’ve just had my first festival ask if I’m willing to read live, in a room, with people. I hesitated for a moment, and smiled. Though they couldn’t see that. But I’ve said yes. Yes. Yes. And I’ll probably wear my new shoes.

Katrina Naomi

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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Guest Post: Tony Curtis marks International Conscientious Objectors Day

Today is International Conscientious Objectors Day. Celebrated on the 15th May every year, it is a day to remember those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill, both in the past and today. There have been a number of notable COs within art and literature in Wales and in this guest post Tony Curtis reflects on them.

Concerning Some Conchies: A brief survey of some notable COs in Welsh art and letters

On May 15th this year we commemorate International Conscientious Objectors Day. In my 2007 book Wales at War: Essays on Literature and Art  I found myself writing a chapter on pacifism and conscientious objectors in Wales. I was ill-prepared, but had been let down by a fellow academic and the book was past its projected publication deadline. There have been more useful sources published since then and I have more reasons to re-visit the subject having found out about my father’s court-martial in 1943. I try to deal with this in the poem ‘Pro Patria’ (From the Fortunate Isles: New and Selected Poems, Seren, 2016) but I am still to be convinced that his leaving the army and brief imprisonment can be explained by the CO story some members of my family clung to.

Whatever happened, the whole thing’s been
washed away – personal feelings, the loss of face,
a Field General Court Martial
before they packed you off to Lincoln Prison
and a cell alongside the ne’er do wells,
Quakers and spivs, malingerers, wastes of space.

What is certain is that I had several writer and artist friends who really had been COs and had suffered the consequences. Two of the earliest and most valued supporters and influences on my early writing career were Glyn Jones (1905-95) and Roland Mathias (1915-2007). In 1940 Glyn had registered his objection to the war, despite the fact that, as a teacher, he would have been unlikely to be conscripted immediately anyway. He was sacked from his teaching job in Cardiff, but later found another post. Glyn’s reasons for protesting were rooted in his Christian belief. His position is an interesting contrast to that of his friend Dylan Thomas, who sent letter after letter to Glyn and others in a desperate attempt to avoid conscription. Glyn’s close friend, the artist John Elwyn (1916-97) was also a CO. In the middle of his studies at the Royal College of Art, in 1940 he objected and was directed to farm work in what was then the village of Lisvane, north of Cardiff. His paintings of Ceredigion are luminous and celebratory, as in this fitting cover to Glyn’s Selected Poems.

More determined and honest in his position than Dylan was their contemporary Roland Mathias, the poet, critic and founding editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review, who was jailed twice for his objections. Roland’s father had served as an army chaplain in the First World War and had retired before the Second with the rank of Colonel. However, Roland’s mother was a firm and unyielding pacifist who had no sympathy for army life and profoundly influenced Roland. He was adamant; the wing forward for St Helens RFC, “One scarcely expects to find a pacifist in a rugby pack”, as a glowing match report observed, absolutely refused any wartime activity that might have been seen to condone the fighting.

On the occasion of his second term of imprisonment, with hard labour, his pupils at the Blue Coat School in Reading raised the money to secure his release. For he had suffered:

Seven-square days that bleach and crack
Between the wells and balconies
And concrete exercise…

The significant Welsh language poet Waldo Williams (1904-71) wrote of the horrors of the Swansea Blitz in ‘Y Tangnefeddwyr’.  He was from a Baptist upbringing, though later a Quaker, embodied the two main strands of conscientious objection in Wales – religion and politics – as he was also a Labour Party member in the Thirties. Waldo maintained his position throughout his life; he lost his teaching job in the war, and he later refused to pay taxes to support the Korean War. He too was jailed on two occasions as a protest against conscription and National Service: “The sick world’s balm shall be brotherhood alone.” Williams was undoubtedly influenced by the poetry and politics of the older Pembrokeshire poet T.E. Nicholas.

T.E. Nicholas (1879-1971) ‘Niclas y Glais’, was a pacifist through both world wars. He and his son Islwyn were jailed on ludicrous charges of fascism in 1940. A committed Christian and Communist, a non-conformist minster who later trained as a dentist, Nicholas wrote his admired Prison Sonnets after spells in Swansea and Brixton and these were published during the war. He had also preached consistently against the Great War and would surely have been imprisoned then if he had not been an ordained minister.

In the last decade of his life I became friends with the writer and artist Jonah Jones (1919-2004) whose remarkable life has been celebrated in the Seren books An Artist’s Life and Dear Mona: Letters from a Conscientious Objector (edited by son Peter Jones). Fascinated by John Pett’s illustrations to Dylan Thomas poems in issues of Wales magazine, Jonah followed his fellow Conchie into the army as an unarmed medic in the Parachute Regiment.  He described the exhilaration and terror of jumping: “…when I jump, once I’m in the slipstream, I just ride it like a witch riding her broom.” After jumps over occupied Europe in support of the Allied offensive Jonah arrived at the Belsen concentration camp. After witnessing those horrors he said he knew his objection had been wrong.

Dear Mona Jonah Jones

The artist, collector and critic Arthur Giardelli (1911-2009), as a teacher in Folkestone, was evacuated to the south Wales valleys and there, after his sacking as a CO, was instrumental in setting up the Dowlais Settlement. After the war, Arthur moved to Pendine, then into south Pembrokeshire; he contributed greatly to the practice and teaching of art in Wales for the next sixty years, particularly in his innovative paper and shell constructions and his work for the 56 Group. His re-location to Wales, as that of the refugee Polish Jew Josef Herman, was one of the significantly positive consequences of the dislocation that war can bring.

Emyr Humphreys is one hundred and one years old this year. The pre-eminent novelist of the twentieth century in Wales, his work is predicated on a non-conformist faith which meant that he registered as a CO in the Second World War and, in common with Jonah Jones, worked on the land. He later undertook relief work with displaced persons in Italy and Egypt. For over sixty years his books, broadcasting work and criticism have reflected a commitment to Wales that is unparalleled.

Therefore prepare the stage for a decent action
Present the right alignment for a crime
International crisis is a personal situation
Prison, wall, bandage and the lime.

(‘Courage’)

Conscientious Objection in Wales may be traced from D. Gwenallt Jones (1899-1968) the Welsh Nationalist and Christian poet, who was one of the most notable COs in the Great War. Conscripted in 1917, he objected and was sent to Wormwood Scrubs and then a work unit at Dartmoor. It may be argued that this tradition and those principles informed and guided later protest movements. The arson carried out at Penrhos, at the proposed site of a bombing school by Saunders Lewis, D.J. Williams and Lewis Valentine at Penrhos in 1936 and later the Tryweryn actions and protests of 1965, are all part of the narrative of resistance in Wales to British policies.

‘Y Tri: The Three’ © Ifor Davies

So too the C.N.D. protests in Wales which included the occasion when R.S. Thomas and others sat down in the road in front of the council offices in Carmarthen town where a nuclear bunker was said to have been built. The Greenham Common fence camps of 1981-2000 which began with the march from Cardiff to Berkshire by the Women for Life on Earth group would also be a significant example of those principles of peaceful protest. The artist Ifor Davies (b. 1935) continues to explore this legacy of protest.

‘Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur I: The Writing on the Wall I’ © Ifor Davies, 2000

There is a tradition of religious and socialist action which in the literatures and art of our country have been an important element in our challenge of self-identification. Today there is an opportunity again to reflect on COs from Wales and their continuing influence.

Tony Curtis

 

Tony Curtis is a poet, critic, essayist and expert on Welsh Art. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including his latest: From the Fortunate Isles: New and Selected Poems. He has also written volumes of critical work on poets and artists and edited popular anthologies of poetry. He is Emeritus Professor of Poetry at the University of South Wales, where he established and was Director of the MPhil in Writing for many years. He has been elected to the Royal Society of Literature and has toured widely reading his poetry to international audiences.

From the Fortunate Isles: New and Selected Poems is available on the Seren website: £12.99

Guest Post: Peter Finch – Walking in a Lockdown

This morning, to celebrate National Walking Month, we have a guest post from avid walker and author of Walking Cardiff Peter Finch. He tells us what walking in a lockdown looks like for him when separated from his fellow wanderer John Briggs and how it is affecting work on their next project.

Walking in a Lockdown

Out, up the hill, it’s always the same hill.  Weave into the road to avoid the next guy.  Smile.  Sometimes they smile back.  Climb.  Runners pass, headphoned, sneaking up behind silently and then zooming on in a rush of huff and sweat.  Advice I’ve read tells me that being laterally near a runner isn’t too bad.  It’s getting caught in the slipstream you need to avoid.  How do I police this?  I’m thinking of adopting a Friar Tuck walking pole.  Thrash it about.  Make myself utterly anti-social but certainly safe.

On the way back down, with the on a clear day splendid views of the city’s high-rise and the sea beyond, I try to imagine myself elsewhere.   Walking the Valleys again. The follow on project to Walking Cardiff.  Writing such a book during lockdown, getting there by Google but pretending it’s real, is akin to studying Macbeth through Coles Notes and never reading the actual text.  Not that we are without some touch of genuine experience.  Both John Briggs, my fellow Valleys wanderer, and I have walked Valley landscape and township extensively together in planned excursion.  We’ve also done this individually in swift half days to scope a place out -a couple of hours rambling Ponty looking for traces of Dr William Price and Iolo Morgannwg and a few more in Ron Berry’s Blaen Cwm checking out the entrance to the Rhondda tunnel and the end of the world streets Charlie Burton painted so well.

We’ve walked these places historically – mine often recalled through fog – a reading with Mike Jenkins at the Imp in Merthyr, as a child accompanying my father to work in Ystrad Mynach,  to one of Harri Webb’s legendary parties at Garth Newydd.  John’s have usually been done through actual photographs.  He’s sent me a great thirty-year spread of black and white coal pits taken across the whole Valley landscape, a detailed set of Merthyr Tydfil done one Christmas in 2014, and then, his piece de résistance, shots taken on a Literary Tour (which, under the auspices of Academi, I organised but, for unfathomable reasons now, did not go on) in the company of Daniel Williams and Nigel Jenkins to look for traces of Idris Davies in the valley top town of Rhymney.

 

Rhymney was the place we were right in the middle of exploring when the virus struck and our ability to walk freely was rudely curtailed.  I’d walked around the centre on my own – found the Idris Davies plaque on the house where he died, seen the Michael Disley statue of the miner and the steelworker back to back over one of Pete Seeger’s Bells of Rhymney and had a cup of tea and a piece of doorstep toast in the café with no windows on the High Street.  Looking later at John’s pics, taken in 2011, that statue looks bright and new.  It looked stained and neglected when I passed.

John had one well up on me.  He’d also visited the actual Davies grave in Rhymney Cemetery and stood listening to Nigel’s sonorous voice recite extracts from Gwalia Deserta.  Idris Davies, the people’s poet, the miner who could rhyme and make memorable our collective fears and aspirations.  His Maggie Fach and 1926 I’d help turn into poster poems, famous throughout Welsh bedsits for a whole generation, back in the 70s.  It was good to trail in his wake.

South of Rhymney station was a place where neither John nor I had yet ventured.  Here was land once occupied by Bute’s great Egyptian-styled Union ironworks but now vacant and worn.  On it  stood the operation of K J Services Ltd.  This presented the world with the greatest assemblage of broken, bust and otherwise abandoned mechanical diggers and JCBs anyone could imagine. Running for miles.  Visible from space.  There’s a YouTube tour, I discovered, and an overhead walkthrough available on Google Earth.  That’s all we have for now as the virus chases our tails.  When it’s dead John and I will visit in person.   For all this virtual stuff, Zoom meetings, Skype chats, Facetimes, Houseparty romps and desk research until my eyes ache you just cannot do without first person.  Don’t let anyone say different.

Peter Finch

28/04/2020

Photographs taken by John Briggs.

 

Walking Cardiff is available on the Seren website £14.99

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Guest Post: Cath Drake – Inside the shaking city

Cath Drake’s debut poetry collection The Shaking City is due to be published on the 14th April. In today’s guest post, she reflects on its unexpected comfort given the situation we find ourselves in.

Inside the shaking city

“… a guide to staying clear-eyed, combative and caring in unsettled times.”
Philip Gross

My debut poetry collection The Shaking City is due for publication in a fortnight’s time. I could never have dreamed how this endorsement from Philip Gross on the cover, and indeed the book itself, would suddenly take on such relevance in the time of Coronavirus.

While I was finishing writing it, the environmental crisis became increasingly urgent. And just as it is being printed, the global pandemic has also descended on our lives. Now everything is interpreted by the utter transformation and precarity of life in lockdown.

We are all in the ‘shaking city’ together. We all were before but now it’s more obvious. We’ve had to radically change in the face of the pandemic.  We still need to radically change in order to address the environmental crisis, and indeed to survive as a species.

My book explores endurance to change, personal and global – the ‘shaking’ is an energy that holds both the extremes of discomfort and opportunity.

Each poem in the ‘Shaky School Album’ sequence contain ‘shaking’ at a point of change – a release, a realisation, a time when you face the unknown and come out the other side. It can be unnerving and exhilarating.

Some poems explore shaking in the unearthing of trauma, personal and societal. It can take courage and forbearance to face this kind of shaking, essential for positive change, and not to become enveloped by it.

The stories and characters in the book find solace in ways that are helpful or less helpful, often in unusual places or unexpected ways. Both are worth voicing, in the very least to be able to have compassion for all the ways we find comfort.

There are poems about misfits who turn out to be more in touch with their own sense of ‘shaking’ or aliveness in the cracks and corners of society than those following the norm. I wanted to explore mundane and imaginative worlds in order to get closer to what no longer makes sense to me – how our way of life increasingly undervalues community and the natural world.

 ‘This joyful, exuberant, wildly imaginative collection exhorts us all to unmoor our minds, to ‘live’ among the strange and shining.’
– Kate Potts

There is joy in seeing the world anew, in seeing each incredible infinite detail. I believe an environmental lens is vital to wellbeing and survival. I’ve been flying that flag since I was a teenager and when working as an environmental writer, journalist and broadcaster for many years in Australia. It has been very dispiriting seeing this care slip so easily down our list of priorities in my lifetime (although these last couple of years it’s moved back up the agenda, at least before the pandemic.)

The absurdity of not putting our natural world first has always distressed and astonished me and in the book I turn to an Australian folkloric Bunyip to help express this for me.

Another theme in the collection is the difficulty of being so far from home living over the other side of the world. Right now, in lockdown, we feel physically distanced wherever we are. Most of us feel this yearning on a daily basis. I hope it is at least partly, yearning with gratitude – the moments I’ve been able to spend with friends from home are deeply precious memories.

Our city is shaking. Even if it takes all our ability, even if we are particularly vulnerable, can we stay alive to it and come out the other side making better sense of our fragile world? I hope my book can help in some small way to find new ways of seeing in this difficult time.

 

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 to pre-order on the Seren website: £9.99

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