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“It’s about having the courage to say what you mean”: In conversation with Gwyneth Lewis

Gwyneth Lewis is the former National Poet of Wales, the first writer to be given the Welsh laureateship and was recently appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2022 Birthday Honours for her services to literature. Her poetry has been proudly reproduced in six-foot-high letters on the Wales Millennium Centre’s façade in Cardiff Bay.

Natascha: You’ve been hosting poetry reading classes here during Hilary term as Balliol College’s writer-in-residence. What made you want to come back to Balliol and how have you found it now that you’re back? 

Gwyneth: I was here as a graduate student doing my doctorate and it’s been very sweet to come back older, and not having to write a doctorate. It’s been just a delight. I’ve been given the opportunity to have serious talks with people who are serious writers here and it’s been a huge privilege to think through some of the issues with people who are committed to their writing. I’ve been, I shouldn’t have been but I am, surprised and delighted by the passion that people feel about their own writing. I mean, we, as students used to do it. I was active in the Poetry Society, and I knew a lot of writers, but to actually have the college provide the opportunity is a completely other thing. It’s very enlightened, I think, particularly because I don’t see the skills of good academic writing as all that different from good creative writing. In fact, I think they’re indistinguishable. It’s about clear thinking. It’s about having the courage to say what you mean, not what you think other people want you to say, that’s really key. 

Natascha: Would you be willing to speak a bit about what you’ve been working on whilst in residence here at Balliol College?

Gwyneth: I’ve not worked on it as much as I would have liked but I have got a critical book in process about how to approach poetry without fear. I think, as a genre, it’s considered very inaccessible by a lot of people. People have been put off, I think, by feeling as if poetry was talking in a language that you don’t understand and that you’re excluded from it. Well, that’s not good poetry! I feel very strongly about that. So, I’m writing a critical book about that and how to really approach it with confidence and how not to be daunted by both writing and reading, which are very similar processes, because you can’t do the one without the other.

Natascha: I was looking at some of the work that you’ve done in the past and it’s not all just poetic works. You’ve worked in various genres, forms and mediums. Is there a specific medium that you felt was strongest out of all of the ones that you’ve tried? Or do you feel that they all have their own advantages? 

Gwyneth: Well, my first love is poetry. I was writing before I knew really what it was – since the age of seven or so. It’s the closest to my brain wiring. But then I also liked writing television scripts, because of the discipline of having to push on the story visually rather than using words. I found writing plays very difficult. I have massive respect for playwrights. In an odd way, no matter what the form is, I find I have similar preoccupations in all of them. So, it’s great to be able to bring out different aspects in, let’s say, a novella or nonfiction book. I enjoy the variety because I get easily bored. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again.

Natascha: I find it really interesting that you’ve written poetry in both Welsh and English. I was reading a Guardian piece that you wrote about your relationship with poetry in the past, and your Welsh identity. Do you feel that you can express yourself better in one language than in the other?

Gwyneth: Well, yes. I mean, I was bilingual from an early age, Welsh being the first language. I think there’s a way in which the first language you speak is more intimately wired into your brain so I noticed I write more quickly and well [in Welsh]. But because I have that split second [to think], in English, I can do things in my second language that I can’t do in Welsh. I do speak other languages too although I don’t write in them. I think it’s like having a camera with a different focal distance, or a different lens in it for every language. What fascinates me is that when I tried to translate a book of Welsh poems into English, I found I had to change more or less everything, to give a cultural equivalent because your audience is different in both languages, politically different, historically different in their experiences. 

Gwyneth Lewis' poetry on the façade of the Wales Millennium Centre.
Gwyneth Lewis’ poetry on the façade of the Wales Millennium Centre. Image Credit: Lewis Clarke/CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Natascha: Your piece of poetry on the Wales Millennium Centre is said to be one of the biggest reproductions of the poetic word in the world. How was it seeing something that you conceptualised being reflected in the real world on such a grand scale?

Gwyneth: Amazing. Yeah, I mean, really amazing. And fortunately, I still like the words. You know, because if imagine if you thought, “Oh, that’s a weak bit of it”, that would irritate me enormously. But there was something about the spirit of that building, and what the aspirations were when it went up, that helped to write the poem. It was a very thrilling experience. Although I had an irrational fear when I first saw it, that there would be a spelling mistake. But there isn’t.

Natascha: How long did you spend working on that project? 

Gwyneth: Well, the way you phrased it is interesting, because I wrote the words in a weekend. But I had been thinking about the building for a long time, because I applied for a job in it so I knew what the building was about very well. But I didn’t try to write any words until the very last minute, until the deadline was nearly up, so I just got lucky.

Natascha: What I also found really interesting was that you’d studied at Cambridge and then went to Harvard, to then come to Oxford to do your post-graduate in 18th century forgeries. How did you find studying in America and what made you want to come back to study that specific specialty here at Oxford? 

Gwyneth: Well, I went to America because I was a bit stuck as to which language to write in. At the time when I was an undergraduate, English poetry was very much looking down on the Welsh language and culture and yet English poetry wasn’t terribly interesting. I mean, there were interesting poets, but as whole scene wasn’t that exciting. I thought there was more interesting work going on in America. It gave me a chance to take time to assess politically what I felt comfortable with and that’s when I made the switch to writing in English. Then I discovered, “Oh! I don’t have to stop writing in Welsh either. Why can’t I do both?” It seems obvious now looking back at it, but it was an agony at the time. The reason I wanted to do the forgery is because one of the foundational scholars of Welsh language culture was a forger himself, and he had a vast archive of writing in Welsh that hadn’t been explored when I came here. So, I put him in the context of other forgeries that were going on, which weren’t really forgeries. They were just politically contentious pieces of literature. I wanted to look at the politics of that. 

Natascha: So, when you do get the chance to write your poetic works, or any kind of works, do you have a favourite writing spot or a favourite location? Or is it just where and when it grabs you? 

Gwyneth: The main thing is to have a door that you can shut or a nest that you can build like a corner of a sofa. I make nests everywhere and I write a lot in bed because it’s unofficial time. You can be more daring. 

Natascha: Do you have a favourite spot in Oxford that you just go to for inspiration?

Gwyneth: No, but I’m always on the lookout. Although, I went into the Bodleian for the first time in a long time and the air was thick with hysteria, in the same way as it was when I was a student, it was exactly the same.

Natascha: That’s the perfect way to describe it. Just to close off the interview, I was wondering if you had a favourite memory of your time here in Oxford? 

Gwyneth: There’s plenty that I remember with shame. I can’t isolate one. I must say that handing in the doctorate and the degree ceremony for getting the doctorate was wonderful, really very dramatic. You file in in a black gown, and you go out in a scarlet and blue doctoral gown. I enjoyed it a lot simply because it was great to have it finished and to know that I never ever have to write another one.

Natascha: Yet you’re back in the same town.

Gwyneth: Yes. It is it is wonderful to have been allowed back in to see other people at the beginning of that period when I know what they’re going through because it isn’t an easy place Oxford. It has many, many wonders to it but it can be a tricky place to maintain your morale so it’s nice to be able to pass some things on to people that I thought helped, you know, and to say, just enjoy it as much as you can.

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