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talks to Alex Pryce
Issue 57 ◊ Mar/Apr/May 2013
I am visiting an Edwardian house in Cardiff to speak with Wales’ former National Poet, Gwyneth Lewis. Lewis is chatty and enthusiastic, but she is also a good host, so she equips me with a cup of tea and some cake before we settle down at the dining table to discuss writing, reading and living your subjects.
Lewis is perhaps primarily known as a poet, having published nine collections in English and Welsh, and securing accolades including an Eric Gregory Award in 1988 and Y Goron (the Crown) at the National Eisteddfod in 2012. Robert Minhinnick once claimed that ‘no other poet in the UK works to such a high level in two languages’. However, she is an increasingly dynamic and productive writer in a number of different modes and genres. In recent years she has published a novella and two works of nonfiction, and written opera libretti and work for radio and theatre. She used to work as a television producer and director for the BBC, and now tells me that ‘making a documentary was one of my forms too’.
I begin by asking how she manages to produce work of such a high standard not just in two languages but in so many different genres. She acknowledges that while each has its own ‘particular disciplines’, the ‘fundamental dynamic’ of writing is the same for each mode. The process, she says, is like growing salt or sugar crystals at home: ‘You dip a piece of string like a wick into a solution and wait for the crystals to accumulate on it. Each form or language is like a different solution and produces different crystals, but the principle is the same’. It is her fascination with such experiments that makes writing such an invigorating challenge.
Lewis enjoys exploring scientific analogy and harnessing the precision of scientific thinking in literary works – both as Writer in Residence at Cardiff University’s Department of Astrophysics and during her tenure at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. And these interests surface repeatedly in her work. In Zero Gravity (1998) she wrote about her astronaut cousin’s journey to the Hubble Space Telescope; A Hospital Odyssey (2010) is a book-length poem about her husband’s cancer treatment; The Meat Tree (2010) is a sci-fi inspired novella.
Research, experimentation and discovery are a key part of her writing process too. ‘You don’t just float around hoping to be hit by lightning,’ she says of the whims of the artistic muse. ‘It just doesn’t work that way. I can’t just sit down and pluck things out of the air. There is a period of thinking about the form, of research, of vocabulary collecting and planning – and then I force myself to get it down, facing the horrible humiliation of getting something on paper.’
Lewis was born into a Welsh-speaking family and acquired English later in lessons with her father and by playing with local children. She went on to study English Literature at both Cambridge and Oxford.
Yet, despite the marked differences between English and the Welsh language, Lewis tells me, ‘You aren’t aware of the borders, it is just language – and I’m going to use every linguistic resource at my disposal’. Elaborating on this point, she claims, ‘As a poet it would be like tying one arm behind your back if you didn’t think about writing in all the languages that are available to you. It isn’t an issue of cultural loyalty. Your artistic loyalty comes first, and your first priority is language.’
Lewis’ novella The Meat Tree is part of a series of stories published by Seren that explore the themes of the Mabinogion, a famous medieval Welsh manuscript. But Lewis set her tale not in the 11th Century, but several millennia in the future as two Inspectors of Wrecks explore a ship found drifting off Mars. On it they discover virtual reality consoles through which the mythic world is visited. ‘It’s a parable about how it is to live as a poet,’ she says. ‘So it has its dark sides too.’
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