Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Interview with Christopher Meredith

Christopher Meredith is a novelist and poet from Wales. Though he works mainly in English, one of his books for children is in Welsh and he also translates from Welsh into English. He is a professor of creative writing at the University of Glamorgan. His most recent collection of poems is The Meaning of Flight (Seren) and he has just completed a new novel, The Book of Idiots, which will be published in 2012. He is also involved with five artists in the project "Bog-Mawnog", responding to fire damage on a mountaintop in the Black Mountains in Powys. A booklet of Meredith's poems, Black Mountains, with images from the artists is being produced by Mulfran and there will also be an exhibition about the project in Brecknock Museum, 16th July to late September.

Toy Revolver

He loves its pointed symmetry
the lazy, opened hook of trigger
stock shaped to the palm
like a lover's hip,
opens it like unstoppering a flask
of magic that might spill.

He holds the chamber,
sectioned like fruit, close
to see each scoop and groove
each empty socket in the disc,
counts with a fingertip
six spaces for the dark seeds.

SHEENAGH: You're hard to pin down in several ways, and one is genre. You write both poetry and prose; can you do both at the same time(ish) or does it have to be either/or?

I've found that writing a novel can often become all-consuming, and I do little other writing than that sometimes.

But with my second novel, Griffri, I was putting a collection of poems together at the same time as beginning work on the fiction. I was also writing full-time, which helped. What I did was at first to work on poems in the morning when I tend to be the closest I ever get to fully conscious, then have a break and do the background work for the novel in the afternoons. It's set in the 12th century so there was a lot of that to do. As the collection got more finished, so that I was tweaking, rewriting, organising, etc., and I got to the point where I was ready for the serious writing on Griffri, I swapped the pattern and worked on the novel in the mornings and worked on the poems in the afternoons. Later still the work on the poems was pretty much finished and I worked on the novel alone. It's the only time I've worked systematically like that, and I found that changing the task helped me get more out of the day. I had to go back to earning a living as a teacher and the last third of Griffri and its final redraft were written in those tough circumstances. The central character of Griffri is a poet and some scraps of poetry figure in the book. One of these, a free translation of a medieval Welsh poem in fact, made its way into the collection. And a piece of 'prose' from Griffri, reworked into lines, appeared as a poem in a later collection. So there is some interplay, and I'm sure that happens at a subtler level too.

But your question raises the puzzle of when it is that we're working. I think it's hard to be off duty as a writer, and with something as big as a novel, you may often have other projects floating in your mind while working on draft 2 page 180-something. Sometimes I have a piece or a phrase in my mind for years before it makes it on to paper. If it refuses to go away, eventually I'll write something. When my first novel came out I remember a journalist asking me what I was working on now (a standard question) and instead of talking about my next novel or the next book of poems, I remember saying, 'I've got this phrase, "sidereal time", going round in my head.' It was about eight years and two books later that I wrote the first words of the novel Sidereal Time.

SHEENAGH: Do you see yourself as a novelist who also writes poems, a poet who also writes novels and stories, a Man of Letters? And I know you have family connections with the theatre; have you ever written or wanted to write in that genre?

CHRIS: I wrote a not very good script of about 90 minutes for stage over 30 years ago. I never seriously tried to do anything with it - I think I knew it wasn't good enough, though it wasn't absolutely awful. I learned a lot in writing it, about pace and rhythm, and about patterning imagery. Later, in the middle of writing my first novel, I think, I wrote a short two-hander called The Carved Chair. I wrote it for radio. It never got broadcast, but it was staged in The Sherman in Cardiff and published in Planet. I've written a short commissioned historical play for children for radio. I'm proud of that one, a 20 minute script covering 25 years of medieval history with 3 actors for 7 to 11 year-olds, written in about 5 days. I'm specially proud of one sound-effect cue: 'Sound of Hereford Cathedral burning down.' A short story written from two points of view, called 'Averted Vision', was broadcast on radio using two voices, so it worked as a kind of play, though they only paid me the short story rate. That was all a long time ago. I don't regard myself as a playwright. Good playwrights are very rare, I think, and they fill me with admiration.

As for how I'd describe myself, I tend to put novelist first, then poet then translator, but in the case of the first two that's just because you have to put something first, and on the whole, people buy more novels than collections of poetry. I'll leave the choice of labels to others.

SHEENAGH: And as a translator, you are also on the border of two languages, as it were. Though English is your usual medium for original work, you've written a children's book in Welsh and translated Welsh books into English. What does being bilingual mean to you as a writer; do you notice one language having an effect on your use of the other?

CHRIS: I started to learn Welsh in a desultory way at the age of about 19. It's hard to believe now, but at the school I went to in Tredegar no Welsh was taught officially at all. Learning Welsh is one of the most important things I've ever done.

As far as writing is concerned this isn't only because of the contact it brings with my country/history/culture etc., though that of course is very significant, but also because of the linguistic-cultural insights it brings more generally, including into English-language culture. Welsh is syntactically very different from English, and in terms of power and influence the two are very nearly at opposite ends of the scale. To have a detailed grasp of this is very enriching. You're multi-lingual and a translator yourself, so you must know how this is. You'll know all those conceptual words in German that we have to explain at length and locute around in English. It's interesting that there's no easy translation for 'embarrassment' in Welsh, other than borrowing the English; that in Welsh we have a single verb for 'to compose poetry', and also a single verb for 'to take advantage' and also for 'to get drunk'; that we use the same word for 'learn' and 'teach'; that we use the same word for 'ladder' and 'school'; that the Welsh word for 'civilisation', unlike the Latin/English term, contains no root-idea of living in a city, but rather appeals to the idea of decency; that the two words for 'imagination' in Welsh contain nothing that suggests an image; that Welsh is much better at the future tense than English, though I'd say not as good at the present tense - and so on. Two languages alongside one another are like two mirrors in parallel. They reflect off into infinity.

There is interplay between the languages in my writing. (I always think it's ironic when people laugh at the use of English loan-words in Welsh, as English is almost entirely made of bits of other languages magpied together in one odd nest. And some people still think it's smart to borrow bits of French and German in their English; odd to find it comic that other languages borrow the other way.) As I write mainly in English, the seepage tends to be from Welsh into English. Recently, I've been commissioned to write some poems for a project based in the Black Mountains near where I live, and part of the brief is that some of it must be in Welsh. I've found it profoundly engaging and challenging to write some pieces in Welsh first and then translate them into English, and in one case to translate one of the pieces the other way. One of the poems plays with the fact that the word 'ffin' - Welsh for 'border' - occurs inside the word 'diffiniad' - 'definition', but I've written the poem in English, and it seems unlikely that it'll be one of the ones I also do in Welsh. The project is about burn-damage on the peat uplands of the mountains, and I've wanted to use plant names in the poems. One of the most common plants up there is bog cotton. The two Welsh names I know for this are 'plu'r gweunydd' and 'sidan y waun', which translate as 'meadow feathers' and 'meadow silk'. As you'll guess, there'll be some seepage there.

SHEENAGH: That resonates, because I've just written a poem based on the fact that the German word Strauss, quite apart from being the composer's name, means both an ostrich and a bouquet. And of course this suggested connections I would not have made otherwise; yet the poem itself is in English, where there's no obvious connection between them at all... It's obvious that someone whose first language is not English will have a different slant on English, a different way of using it, but I sometimes think that is true also of those who learn and use other languages later. Do you think maybe being used to dressing an idea or an object in more than one verbal set of clothes frees the mind in some way, so that it makes leaps and connections one might not expect?

CHRIS: I knew Strauss was ostrich but I didn't know about bouquet. The Welsh for ostrich is estrys, which is half way between the English and German, sort of.

I'm not sure about the 'clothes' metaphor for how language works, but I do think that knowing a couple of languages well is tremendously enriching in all sorts of ways. Often, art itself, and maybe especially literature, uncovers and works with unexpected echoes and patterns. Deep knowledge across a couple of languages I think can help with that, and as you suggest fire new connections.

It can also enrich and change what we make of big conceptual words, as I've already hinted. To go back to the Welsh words for 'imagination', one of them is 'crebwyll' (an 18th century coinage I think), which combines 'creu' (to create) and 'pwyll' (meaning something like sense). The whole word suggests something like 'creative intelligence' or 'creative sense'. It seems to me somehow more active but doesn't so obviously cntain the idea of picture-making that we have in the English word. It also, to me implies a connection between imagination and sanity, part of what makes us in our right mind, so to speak.

SHEENAGH: Following on from that, you've travelled abroad quite a bit in connection with writing, and of course interacted with translators of your work and that of others. Has that given you a different perspective; do you see writers in a European rather than a UK context?

CHRIS: I wish I'd travelled more. Any more invitations out there? I've loved my times in places like the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Israel-Palestine. They've been intense experiences and I've invariably met extremely bright, linguistically very sophisticated people. One thing you glean from these encounters is that outside the bubble of the English language, bi- and multi-lingualism are ordinary. It's a relief, sometimes, not to have to be explaining the complex cultural-linguistic context I come out of, because I'm often speaking to people who are in positions that are in some way similar, whether it's a Slovenian writer living in France or an Icelandic writer living in Berlin, or a Palestinian Druze poet writing in Arabic and living in Haifa. They get it because, oddly we have a lot in common. It's like coming home. I very much see writing in an international context.

SHEENAGH: I like the way you use humour in serious contexts; it strikes me as a great technique for avoiding sentimentality, introducing a sense of proportion and, very often, throwing the serious point into relief, amongst other virtues. But as a writer, it sometimes drives me mad that readers, including critics, don't always "get" what's going on when writers do this. I've read reviewers, of your books and others, who seem genuinely obtuse about it and who take in earnest what seems fairly clearly intended in jest. Do you worry about that sort of possible miscommunication or is it a danger we just have to live with and ignore?

CHRIS: That's a great list of the virtues of the comic in writing. I think you have to live with obtuse responses sometimes. If nobody on earth gets it, maybe you've got a problem. Otherwise keep going. The old cliche that nothing is so serious as comedy has some truth in it, and the corollary that serious work can have a comic edge is also true. Some of the funniest bits of Shakespeare are in Richard III and King Lear, I'd say.

Can't think of reviewers not getting some joke in my work, though there are other things missed.

SHEENAGH: I think I might have been thinking not exactly of a joke but of a tone of voice. There's a poem in The Meaning of Flight called "Toy Revolver", which I've printed here, in which a little boy is enchanted by a toy gun, and I recall some reviewer complaining that the authorial voice doesn't intervene to tell us how mistaken a view of guns this is. Quite apart from the fact that most readers would surely prefer to be credited with a bit of intelligence - and there's another poem, "Homecoming", which is in many way the companion-piece to this and which shows a whole different reaction - I thought this was to miss the word "toy" and the fact that whatever the implications of a gun to a knowing adult, to the child it really is a piece of play. For all the sombre implications of the "dark seeds", there's a lighter side to it, just as in Griffri, for all the terrible, violent events, there is a vein of comedy in the way poor Griffri bumbles through the dirty politics of his day without a clue what's really going on.

CHRIS: Ah, yes. All the humour there's in the misreading. That poor reviewer really missed the point. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think there's enough there without tagging a moralising epilogue to the piece. (Though maybe that really would be funny, like the Jerry Springer show. 'Y' know, folks, we may have learned something today; guns are actually quite dangerous...') He ended up comparing me with the Italian Futurists, who got so excited by violence and machines that most of them rushed off to the First World War and got killed. I can testify that to the best of my knowledge I have never been either Italian or a futurist.

SHEENAGH: Both as a poet and a novelist, you seem to be very interested in form and structure. Your novel Sidereal Time has a very rigid time-frame and in your poems you often both use and invent forms. Is this a challenge, a help or both?

CHRIS: One of the reasons I admire good stage and radio playwrights is their skill with the structures and strictures of their forms.

In all my novels to date the time structure has been important, and is quite different in each case. Shifts covers about nine months, Griffri about forty years, and Sidereal Time five days. The new one is different again. I'm interested in the way time works in fiction, how it can be stretched, compressed, folded, also in how the text exists outside real, 'objective' time, unlike a performance of a play or a piece of music, and how this relates to the fictional time running in the narrative. It makes the reader much more active in how the piece is paced. The reader in a sense performs the piece in his or her head. As fictions, and especially novels, are concerned with the dynamics of life - how we change or don't through time - the odd relationship between fictional structures and time is puzzling and rich.

In the case of Sidereal Time , the five days form a working week and give a sort of five act structure, though it's not like a conventional five-act play story-shape. The book is partly about the drudgery of earning a living so the working week fits that. I give the name of each day of the week in Welsh at the head of each section. More transparently than in English these week-day names represent five 'planets' - the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus. The book has a strand that connects with astronomy and the great insight of Copernicus into the structure of the solar system, and these planets provide some of the image system for the novel.

Some of my poems with more of a narrative feel deal with time in this sort of way too, like 'My mother missed the beautiful and doomed'.

I think more often than not the form the thing takes arises out of the whole material. Very occasionally I've tried following a poetic form as an exercise and it's been a means of releasing something that works. Like you, Sheenagh, I spent a long time thinking that the villanelle was a form I'd never use, until of course something came along that wanted to be that shape. I found that in each repetition I modified the refrain lines to make the thing more argument-like, more cerebral, and I've found I've written a couple more of these modified villanelles.

SHEENAGH: I don't see myself ever writing a villanelle, but I'd wanted for years to write sestinas without ever finding a theme that really wanted to be one. Lately I did, but like you with the villanelle, I was writing a modified version - I'd been reading the sestinas of Paul Henry, which he disguises by playing around with the lineation, so you don't get the tell-tale six-line stanzas with their obvious end-words, and that fitted what I was doing, which was chronicling the lives of spies. Is this coincidence, or is playing around with old forms the best way to give them a new life?

CHRIS: I 'm looking forward to seeing that sestina. There's something oddly obsessive about some writers' use of these forms. Yet they do provoke you, and sometimes they seem to offer themselves as right for the piece you want to make, or surprise you as they start to develop from the material, at which point you have to work out whether you keep working in that direction. I think playing with and developing forms is just what we do. I think you're right that it's what can make them live sometimes. I also have the notion that working with a form can have other useful effects. It can help anchor your effort in the material rather than in the self. It makes the text the thing. Because the forms are sort of public property, it can make the work somehow more out there too. And the form gives a sort of artificial stiffening to language, so that it resists you as you work with it. Imagine the different levels of stiffness you may get with clay, for instance, according to what you want to make with it. I assume you'd arrange its density, viscosity, cohesiveness and so on to suit your temperament and the kind of pot you want to make. maybe something like that happens with language. We forget the weight, thinginess of language when we use it every day speaking and sending emails. Poetry often restores that and going for a well-established form can do that.

My poem 'Builders of Bab-ilu', in an invented form that borrows from foreign and ancient ways of writing, treats words as if they're the bricks of the tower of Babel that have to be lifted into the sky by concerted human effort. It took me a long time to realise what shape the poem should be - I think this was one of those pieces that had itched in my mind for years - and odd as the form was when I found it, it was irresistible. I've written about it in an essay called 'Miller's Answer'. In the case of another formally odd poem, 'At Colonus', which hasn't appeared in a collection yet but was in Poetry Wales a while ago, I was bugged by a single, four-word sentence repeated from a short story by Dorothy Edwards so much that I built the whole piece out of it. I used only the letters in the short sentence so that the poem has a very limited range of sounds and a sense of effort and continual echo. It was right for the piece, I think, which resolves into the original sentence at the end.

Occasionally there's a sense of challenge, but more often it's an exploration, an effort to discover the shapes that have a feel of always having been there waiting for you to catch up, even though they weren't, and have the feel of being somehow inevitable and indestructible. I don't think it comes off all that often.


The Message
- no secrets which appeared to require concealment were revealed.
                - Anthony Storr, Solitude

She hid her notebooks underneath a board.
All her secret years were what she'd written
And the message - oh, the message was in code.

The Lonely Child, Creative, Bright, Ignored
Kept diaries according to the pattern
And hid her notebooks underneath a board.

Years later, experts come upon the hoard
- Keys to the great writer's motivation -
But the message, ah, the message is in code.

They clap their hands. So much to be explored
Deciphering the secret heart of a woman
Who hid her notebooks underneath a board.

And that unlocking lets light on what's stored -
Eventless commonplaces. An empty room. The burden
Is no message is the message in the code.

She knows the cipher's greater than the word.
What's on display's the fact that all is hidden
So she hides her notebooks underneath a board
And the message is the message is in code.

My mother missed the beautiful and doomed

My mother missed the beautiful and doomed
by a few years.
Where Waugh, hot for some pious ormolu,
dreamed Brideshead
she swept carpets, cleaned grates.

Sepia expects a tear
but none comes. She holds
the yellowed postcard of the House
at arm's length, beyond her two dead children,
two atom bombs ago.

'It was like that film. You know. Rebecca.'
She smokes.
Echo of casual elegance in the wrist, the gesture,
masks slow scorching of the fuse.
The drag of air
accelerates a hundred small ignitions.
'The drive and all. They had a maze.'
Ash hardens into brightness
small flames eat the paper
worming back along tobacco galleries.
She frowns and jewels, salvers gleam the harder.
'Her Ladyship 'ould doll up to the nines
come dinner, like a filmstar.'
The mind drags air through fifty years of fading
burns off the filmdream, comes to other stuff,
makes it glow again.

Through half open doors
down perspectives of the glassy rooms
she hears them.
Iw. Mmn. Yiss. Tongues all twangs and daggers.
The Foreign Secretary stands in the hall
his collar of vermiculated astrakhan
flawed with sparkling rain.

She kneels by the scuttle with
an egg of coal in either hand.
His chauffeur in doublebreasted rig
loiters, one glove removed, ruffles her hair,
sets her neat white cap awry.
'Little Cinderella' he says.

She frowns to brighten memory's fuse,
looks down the maze of galleries where
her people cut the coal.
The hand had rained a blow or a flirtation,
the words half flattered her
and kept her down.

She glances sideways at the tight black boot,
the echo of the bentarmed cross.
Krupp's bombs rain now on undefended children
glimmer through smoking Barcelona.

Unwilled complicity can hurt so much.
She clutches at the deaths of millions.

'A skivvy all my life' she says
and strikes another match.

Links to other poems and information

Breaking Wood - Christopher Meredith reading his own poem on YouTube.
What flight meant - a poem of Chris's featured on Jo Preston's writing blog.
Christopher Meredith's website
Seren, Christopher Meredith's publisher
Christopher Meredith's page on the Contemporary Writers website
A Woollen Line - the blog of Pip Woolf, who is involved with Meredith in the Bog-Mawnog project.
Tags: christopher meredith, interviews with writers, litfic, novels, poetry, translation, wales, ways of working
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