In Her Own Words: Women Talking Poetry and Wales

Edited by Alice Entwistle
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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In Her Own Words is a collection of interviews with women poets from Wales. The subjects range in age (from their thirties to their nineties), in geographic location, and in themes and subject matter. The interviews variously explore topics ranging from personal biography, the complex joys and strains of balancing life with art, issues of cultural politics, gender, family life, to the women's often contrasting experiences of various kinds of change, including political devolution. The challenges and tensions associated with living and working - or for Wales-identifying writers like Deryn Rees-Jones and Wendy Mulford, not living and working - in Wales' dual-language culture is a lodestone for the book. Editor Alice Entwistle has selected for interview Tiffany Atkinson, Ruth Bidgood, Anne Cluysenaar, Menna Elfyn, Christine Evans, Catherine Fisher, Gwyneth Lewis, Wendy Mulford, Sheenagh Pugh, Deryn Rees-Jones, Anne Stevenson, Zoe Skoulding, Samantha Wynne Rhydderch and Nerys Williams.


Review By Kathryn Gray, Planet The Welsh Internationalist(218)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A fine scholar, driven by self-evident passion for the field, Alice Entwistle follows the publication of her Poetry, Geography, Gender: Women Rewriting Contemporary Wales, with In Her Own Words, a volume of fourteen interviews with contemporary Welsh and Wales-associated women poets.The skills of an interviewer are, of course, distinct from those of a scholar, demanding the high-wire act of tact and inquisitiveness, of establishing personal rather than purely textual rapport, and of eliciting the trust of participants. Entwistle, on the evidence of this engaging, frank volume, proves that she possess such admirable versatility; one of the principal pleasures of In Her Own Words is how faithfully personalities come singing off the page.

Entwistle has taken a commendably broad, inclusive approach. She includes nintety-two-year-old Ruth Bidgood, alongside figures leading the new generation, such as Zoë Skoulding and Tiffany Atkinson. She includes Wendy Mulford, a poet of the avant-garde, and the indefatigable and internationalist Menna Elfyn. Anne Stevenson-one of the greatest living female poets of these Isles, but not a poet, I think, who many strongly associate with Wales-also finds a place in this volume. In something of a coup, Entwistle has also managed to secure Sheenagh Pugh- a poet who, as far as I know, generally declines participation in female-only anthologies and projects.

For a volume which has adopted a gender-specific selection, readers may be surprised to find that many of the poets included here seem relatively unconcerned with gender. Most surprisingly, given the timing of her emergence in Wales in the early 1970s, Bidgood rejects the notion that there was any anxiety for her emerging as a woman poet. Christine Evans declines to identify as a feminist, even as she speculates that the practice of poetry, and freedom of subject matter, may well amount to an act of defiance. Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch concedes that gender may have an impact on daily life, but declares that '[being] a woman isn't the most important thing about me' and is emphatically not a preoccupation.Menna Elfyn, however, has some striking observations on the predicament of her emergence, as a politicised feminist, against the backdrop of the 'bardic male tradition'. Elfyn wanted the freedom to write as she pleased, and her outsider status would seem to have proved the great gift, enabling her-and her work- to travel widely across countries and languages. Even so, the reader understands this has been achieved at cost, and Elfyn offers a testimony of the impact of her womanhood on her art which is both affecting and energising.

The volume covers an extraordinary breadth of subject matter. Tiffany Atkinson is superb on poetry and embarrassment, declaring her displeasure at the prevalence of irony, and proving herself a champion of sincerity Bidgood, Evans and the late Anne Cluysenaar are compelling on the place of Wales as site of creative flowering. Gwyneth Lewis eloquently illumines the tortured matter of deciding to write in English-and Derek Walcott's influence in empowering her to 'break through this emotional impasse'- while also offering fruitful comment on politics. Sheenagh Pugh is fascinating and various on fanfic, her move to Shetland, and history as source of inspiration.

To my mind, there is the odd misfire. When Atkinson is asked whether she makes 'bread or patchwork quilts', I was somewhat taken aback. Would an interviewer ask such a question of Meirion Jordan or Jonathan Edwards? The matter is made all the more problematic in a volume which seeks, by its very existence, to challenge the notion of woman as, above all, domesticated.(Atkinson's answer, by the way, was no.) And when Evans is asked whether she finds writing 'hard', I did feel the questioning might have been a little more sophisticated. I confess that I also longed for some insights with regard to how these poets consider themselves within the wider, British firmament. Where do they feel they fit in, if at all? Do they consider, that their careers have been hindered, assisted or unaffected by their connections to Wales?What may be the differences for poets more recently emerged in terms of UK reception?Some exclusions surprised me, too: Zoë Brigley, Jasmine Donahaye, and Sarah Corbett. These three are writing some of the most interesting, challenging material now on offer, and their omission was not explained by the introduction, which does not fully set out the logic for its inclusions.

But these are, perhaps, personal quibbles. In Her Own Words will prove a lively, valuable companion for scholars and students in the field, and its accessibility possesses genuine crossover appeal-required reading for anyone with an interest in contemporary Anglophone poetry from Wales. Perhaps, too, I think, it will offer warm fellowship to emerging practitioners, regardless of gender-setting down the wonders, doubts and endless complexities of forging a life in poetry.

Kathryn Gray's The Never-Never was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. She is a researcher for the Devolved Voices project, investigating Welsh poetry in English since 1997 and Wales's Yes vote.

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