Interview with poet Joy Howard, author of Foraging, who also runs a small press, Grey Hen, so we wander off the point a bit. This is a phone conversation with added images, the sound isn’t great but we’ve included it for completeness. Only a couple of days left until the end of the Arachneversary celebrations!
You can buy Foraging from our webshop, but if you want that August discount, you need to get a move on, it expires 31st August at midnight. Use the code ARACHNEVERSARY at the checkout.
Joy: As someone who has never been rooted in any particular location, I am especially interested in how the opposite of that – in your case Wales and Ynys Môn – makes your poetry particular and different. What would you like to say about that?
Ness: I never really thought consciously about how much I write about place until more of my work was published and people started commenting. I’ve always felt deeply rooted to Ynys Môn and to Cymru- to the landscape, history, language and stories. I grew up living with one set of grandparents in the North but also frequently visiting my other grandparents in Swansea in the South. They were all great storytellers and they (together with my primary school and Sunday school teachers) instilled me with a great sense of my roots and of stories bursting to be told.
School holidays were often spent making the long, (up to 7-hour journey because of travel sickness) across the length of the country. I was fascinated by the changing landscapes and the place names, often knowing their order off by heart. On these journeys, I learnt so much of a history that wasn’t taught in schools from the meaning of names, folklore to story behind graffiti on walls.
As you can imagine, living on a small wind-blown island, the sea can’t help but show up in my writing too. I’ve never lived more than a couple of minutes from the shore. I was brought up in a village with the Irish Sea in front of me and the Inland Sea behind me and I now live on my husband’s family farm where the spring tides come into the fields not far from the house.
Also, growing up in a bilingual community has had a great influence on my writing and I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages in general. In school, I also studied German, French and Latin. One of my neighbours was German so we often played German games in her garden and at Christmas we sang ‘Silent Night’ in Welsh, English and German. I love the different sounds of languages and the weaving between more than one language.
Joy: I am a lifelong fan of R S Thomas – has he been an influence in your writing? Anyone else in particular?
Ness: I’m a great fan too and his poetry collections are always at hand to return to. Although I was aware of him for his activism when I was growing up, I was very much a later comer to his poetry. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realised that he was brought up a few miles from me and I’d attended the same secondary school as him. Even though I studied literature up to a degree, we didn’t study any Welsh writers writing in English, so I do feel cheated that he wasn’t celebrated at that time. Thankfully that has changed.
I read a lot of poetry, so I probably have been influenced by many and I enjoy a great variety of styles. Names that spring to mind today would be Mary Oliver, Menna Elfyn, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison but that list leaves many others out!
Joy: Do you feel that gender/sexuality/age also have a bearing on what you write?
Ness: I sure they must. I was very aware when I began studying literature that we weren’t studying many women writers or poets. In the first few years of secondary school, we were given a poetry anthology to read called ‘Reach Out’ (which I confess, I still have). It has 100 poems in it, and at the time I counted that there were only 3 poems by women. This stayed with me, so I suppose I always felt a sense of how easy it is not to be heard.
Joy: And following on from that, do you also write ‘outside your skin’ so to speak?
Ness: I hope that some of my work gives voices to others too. I attended a workshop many years ago where we asked to rewrite a piece that we had written from other person’s point of view, either from another gender, age group, opposing side etc. I use this exercise on my work sometimes to try and see if another angle adds a new dimension and, in an effort to make sure I’m not being too blinkered.
Joy: I see that you have also written a number of plays – which is your preferred medium?
Ness: I enjoy writing both and often a play will start as or turn into poem or a vice versa. As I get older, I seem to be writing more poetry, but I do have ideas on the back burner that will hopefully turn into plays.
I like the anonymity of writing plays in the sense that you can hand it over and can sit with the audience (even if you heart is racing). On the other hand, poetry is something that I can work on while I’m doing other things whereas plays tie me to the desk.
Joy: How was it working with a translator?
Ness: I was lucky to have met Sian Northey in a playwriting workshop the year before my collection was published and she encouraged me to write more in Welsh. Afterwards, I also attended a workshop of Sian’s and learnt so much about sitting with the meaning of the poem before starting to translate.
When Cherry asked if I would translate a few of the poems into Welsh I asked Sian if she would proof-read and make any suggestions and thankfully, she agreed. From my side it was a free and easy conversation and we emailed back and forth. She was very gracious at pointing out any grammatical errors or ‘camdrieglo’ (incorrect mutations) and it was a joy to see the finished poems.
Joy: I’m devastated that all Grey Hen Press readings have been cancelled for the foreseeable. Do you enjoy performing your work?
Ness: It must be such a difficult time as readings are such a lifeline and disappointing that events are being understandably cancelled.
Although I still get nervous, I do enjoy performing. I think it’s a catalyst to improve your craft and to find out when things don’t work. I also love meeting and listening to other writers. I enjoy going to open mics and I’m a member of a few local groups that organise events. I’ve got so much out of these chances to perform.
Joy: What projects are you currently working on?
Ness: As part of the multi creative exhibition ‘Unus Multorom’ in Plas Bodfa on Ynys Môn, I’ve been working on a set of micro poems in Welsh and English about 3 female saints Gwenfaen, Ffraid and Dwynwen who were all ‘brought by the sea’. It’s been fascinating to research them and, to realise how much their stories hold true to what we need more of today: kindness, a soothing of the mind and unconditional love. I’ve been working in collaboration with the artist Rita Ann Jones who has produced an amazing sculpture out of recycled plastic which is based on the chains and ropes holding ships in the quay. The poems will be displayed within the sculpture together with salvaged pieces found on the beaches where the saints were said to had arrived at. Due to the lockdown, the exhibition has had to change medium to digital and it will eventually all be found at https://www.plasbodfa.com/unus-multorum-2020 .
I hope to put together a pamphlet of micro poems, a form I’ve been enjoying working with after the call outs from the Black Bough community on Twitter.
I’m also very excited to be reading for a journal later this year.
Joy: Please add anything you want to say that I have left out – and I must order a copy of Mamiaith from Cherry forthwith!
Ness: Thank you for selecting such thought provoking questions.
You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.
With the booktrade suffering, we wanted to make it as easy for you to get lovely things to read as possible, so we have worked very hard to get these in the vitual shops for you. Thanks to Inpress for organising conversions and uploading!
Phew, a bit late in the week, but let’s fly the flag here, before I go back to the emergecy fund application to ACE, refreshed with reminding myself why I do this.
We publish everyone. (Except people who aren’t writers, obviously).
But my first publications as a writer were with a lesbian press, and while we aren’t a lesbian press we are a lesbian-owned press, and we can still use that visibility.
So in celebration, here are our lesbian authors and poets, together with the books they are in, all of which are available from us direct, and from intrepid bookshops, and as ebooks from your usual supplier. There are probably more, but if they don’t tell me, I can’t celebrate them.
Joy: For me, it’s a thought, observation or even a story, in a condensed form. Rhythm, rhyme, imagery, sound associations, line breaks: all play their part in giving the ideas or observations impact and energy. The choice form (or lack of it) can be important too
Cassandra: Why do you write poetry (not plays, stories or shopping lists)?
Joy: Well I do write shopping lists! and indeed a ‘found’ poem can actually be a shopping list!
I have written a few short stories, (humorous) and even begun a couple of novels (light). I have never been drawn to playwriting. I can do characterization but am not good at plot, which is why the novels never progressed beyond setting the scene.
Cassandra: What role does/should poetry play in contemporary life? (How will the current crisis affect that?)
Joy: No different from other ages, I think. To add thoughtfulness and beauty. Always needed.
Cassandra: What is creative thinking? Do you see parallels between creativity and mindfulness?
Joy: It has to be a ‘dunno’ to this one! Except I suppose that mindfulness is linked to concentration on the moment – especially important when writing from seeing/observation
Cassandra: Do you have any contemplative practices aside from writing?
Joy: No, once I start feeling contemplative, I tend to drift off into sleep….
Cassandra: How important is ‘the everyday’ to you in your work?
Joy: I tend to bump into poems – I write a lot about things I see, things that are happening.
Cassandra: In which ways can poetry be a way to insight?
Joy: It’s a great clarifier and orderer of thought, and also produces things you hadn’t thought of…
Cassandra: How much of the author dwells in poetry? How is what you write affected by your gender, sexuality, age, location etc?
Joy: Very much, I think. We are informed by who and where we are in life. I see a special perspective, for example, in older women’s poetry. In addition. I have written plenty about being a mother, and also about being lesbian. Location comes into the ‘bumping into’ category for me as I have lived a somewhat nomadic existence, but I know for many poets it’s rootedness in where they live and feel a sense of belonging that informs much of their work.
Cassandra: I’m fascinated by the relationship between the author, a text and the reader… what do you think about that triangle?
Joy: Poets write I think primarily for themselves, but then comes the wish to share. However, all texts, once they’ve left the writer, become the domain of the reader so are subject to multiple interpretation.
Cassandra: If life is illusory, in what ways is poetry particularly suited to mediate this illusion?
Joy: I don’t see life as illusory – the quotidian is what interest me most.
Cassandra: You are also the poetry editor of Grey Hen Press. What do you look for in a poem?
Joy: A number of things come to mind – precise use of language, beauty, originality, humour, ambiguity, perspective – I could go on, but in the end it’s that elusive something that stops you in your tracks…
Cassandra: Is there a question I haven’t asked you that I should have? If so… please include it.
Joy: This has been thought provoking and enjoyable – thanks for picking me to interview!
You can buy all the Arachne Press books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer. we recommend Hive for ePub.
Foraging finds sustenance in the relics of our personal and collective histories, whether droll, sobering, or sad. Howard’s confident insights show love and respect for “that same tide / which will come for all of us” (“Going Back”).
One of those reviews that reminds me all over again just why I published a book. (She even mentioned how much she likes the cover.)