Libraries Wales Author of the Month December 2022, Angela Graham reflects on the role of public libraries in her writing life.
Cardiff Central and the Canton branch are the libraries of Wales which I know best. In their different ways, but working together, they have supplied me with a range of books which I could never have accessed on my own, either because of cost or because a librarian’s advice steered me towards something I would have issed unaided.
The university libraries of Wales have been a terrific resource, not only for books, but images and film, voice recordings and maps and documents.
What they all have in common is that they offer plentitde, ample resources, more than I imagined; and in that ‘more’ they broaden my outlook and extend my reach into my own life and the lives of others. They nourish. They nurture.
Moving beyond ‘home’ to the concept of ‘sanctuary’ is this collection, Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere, in which author Graham also includes/invites poems from five other contributors. The theme of the book is that, in these turbulent times, sanctuary can be quite hard to find. Where does it lie? Well, here are poems which explore that query and attempt to find out, evoking ideas and evincing emotions along the way as we traverse bombed cities and chapels, evacuation sites and shrines, lakes, holy wells, and even the body itself which, in the poem Chronic is no longer a refuge but a place in which “pain expels me from myself”. Eventually, the book leads to a hopeful conclusion, in which the poet affirms, “We are a home for one another”. This is the bottom line and, fittingly, the final line of the collection.
I found the poems in this book finely written and thoughtful. Despite the intelligence and philosophical loftiness, which I sometimes feel prohibits poets from delving into the dirt via language and image, Graham is a poet who doesn’t shy away from this, delivering, as well as literal bombs, the ‘f-bomb’ in one poem; neither is she one who is unable to explore or touch on concepts of divinity and use of the word ‘God’, which I find more f-bomb prone, gritty poets perhaps feel their own fear of and are less likely to address. Therefore, this comes across as an open-minded collection, and the poems, as mentioned, are very finely wrought, whether by Graham or by her guests. This is a generous inclusion, of course, but Graham is a poet who is skilled and sublime enough, I imagine, not to feel any threat from it or, indeed, from anyone or anything at all.
Bookshop owner, Elin Edwards introduced me to the intriguing Dance Studio in King’s Road Yard. One whole wall is mirror, or gold curtaining, if you prefer that. Very atmospheric.
The audience had great questions after the reading and there was a sense of dialogue because of the contributions people made, bringing their own experience or reflections to the issues that included war, migration, the role of women in conflict, the fate of the environment and the creation of peace and security.
I felt very fortunate to have such an attentive and engaged audience who allowed me to feel that the poems ‘worked’ and communicated well.
What rises in our imagination? The holy or the helpless; the planet we live on together or the contested part of it that is the goal of desperate migrants? Is sanctuary a place, a person or a state of mind? Sanctuary is incontestably a key issue of our time and a major driver of politics. These Welsh writers create together a new stage in our poetic engagement with sanctuary.
NODDFA − A SUT MAE BYW YNDDI?
Beth sy’n codi yn ein dychymyg? Y sanctaidd neu’r digymorth; y blaned yr ydym yn byw arni gyda’n gilydd neu’r rhan ddadleuol ohoni sef nod mudwyr? Ai lle, unigolyn neu ffordd o feddwl yw noddfa? Heb os nac oni bai, noddfa yw broblem ein cyfnod ac yn bwnc llosg mewn gwleidyddiaeth. Dyma’r ysgrifenwyr hyn o Gymru yn mynd ati gyda’i gilydd i greu cam newydd yn ein hymgysylltiad barddonol â’r testun noddfa.
The panel members in this bilingual (Welsh/English) session were former National Poet of Wales, Gwyneth Lewis; co-architect of the Nation of Sanctuary movement, Rev Aled Edwards; novelist of migration and social activist, Dylan Moore and Joseph Gnagbo, a former refugee from the Ivory Coast now living in Wales.
Cardiff Poetry Festival took place over the last weekend in July. I was delighted to read from my collection Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere alongside Hannah Hodgson and Ben Wilkinson in a session of poetry newly published by Seren Books.
Hannah Hodgson’s 163 Days employs an innovative format to chronicle her hospital stay and treatments for a devastating illness: extracts from doctors’ notes are juxtaposed with her impressions of the same events. The objective and subjective side by side. Ot, it should be said, the supposedly objective.
The interplay between patient’s and doctor’s perspectives gives the reader a seldom experienced stand point. We spot the subjective seeping into the medical records of treatment – the doctor’s take, not simply on the symptoms, but on the patient who is experiencing them. This either clarifies or clouds the decisions taken. To hear the patient’s voice almost simultaneously is to encounter a different kind of authority, that of the suffering subject, who is perfectly capable of reading the symptoms the doctor (unconsciously) presents but who is accorded little recognised power. Power, its facets and its use, is a constant throughout the book.
Although one might say that the poetry in this book resides in the patient’s contributions, which employ devices typical of poetry as contrasted with the prosaic and precise medical use of language, part of the book’s appeal is that the affect-less medical notes acquire an emotional intensity as they collide or elide with the poetic voice.
This voice is robust but never strident. This admirable self-control achieves a great thing: it allows the reader to supply the anger, bafflement, hurt.
Ben Wilkinson’s new collection examines relationships, sometimes from a wry perspective, as a poem’s protagonist grows in self-knowledge – painful as well as uplifting – with a deft handling of a variety of forms.
It is particularly interesting to see a contemporary poet ‘coming to terms with’ a long-dead one, in this case, Verlaine: proof that poetic voice can remain vital, challenging and inspiring.
Running (an art or a sport?) is here given a poetic ‘voice’. One way for those not devotees to get inside an activity that can seem from the outside supremely individual.
I had never been to Sentry Hill, near Larne, before going there to be interviewed by Liam Logan for his series on Ulster-Scots writing for Belfast cable channel Northern Visions (NVTV).
The house was built in 1835 , improved in the 1880s, and owned by the McKinney family until 1996. William Fee McKinney (born 1832) collected farm implements and objects from rural life. The house’s interior and contents survive remarkably intact and give a good impression of a farm interior from the earlier twentieth century. It is run by Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.
Liam interviewed me in a small room where many guns and weapons (are those assegais on the ceiling?) are on display, alongside stuffed birds andmaybe an armadillo!
Liam asked me how I came to write in Ulster-Scots. Both my grandparents on my father’s side came from communities with this speech and it has remained in my inner ear, as it were. I have had a lot of help in foregrounding it from people such as Liam and from the indispensable Ulster-Scots Grammar by Philip Robinson; The Hamely Tongue by the late James Fenton (both Ullans Press) and Ulster-Scots Writers’ Guide (Ulster-Scots Academy Press) and comments from the Ulster-Scots Language Society.
I read some of my poems for the camera. I find it a great pleasure to work in Ulster-Scots and would like to do more.
Other contemporary writers featured in the series are Alan Millar, Angeline King and Gary Morgan. All four of us are featured in the booklet produced as a follow-up to the Linen Hall LIbrary’s inaugural Ulster-Scots Writing Competition 2021 (supported by the Ulster-Scots Agency) in which we were all prize-winners.
Dr Pauline Holland, co-author of a biogrpahy of early eighteenth century poet, Sarah Leech, will also appear and Barbara Gray, singer and lyricist. Academics Dr Ivan Herbison and Dr Frank Ferguson are on the roster too.
The technical team at the Crescent Arts Centre prevented covid from doing its worst by facilitating Csilla Toldy (who’d tested positive that morning) to join us via zoom. We missed Viviana Fiorentino who wasn’t well enough to appear.
A key feature of this poetry collection is that four poets, two living in N Ireland and two living in Wales, wrote a poem each with me and my mentor for the collection, Glen Wilson contributed a poem of his own. The bulk of the collection is my work.
I was very pleased that the eminent, British-Hungarian poet, George Szirtes has written of the collection:
“Sanctuary is primarily physical but it is more than that. It offers a spiritual place of safety too. It is a token of generosity from the giver and a source of inner comfort for the receiver. Beyond that, the experience depends on much else in the long run but that first act is invaluable and restorative.
“In this book, the poet Angela Graham has generously invited Italian-born poet and novelist, Viviana Fiorentino; the Welsh writer, Phil Cope; the Hungarian- born poet and translator Csilla Toldy; Irish poet Glen Wilson; and an Iranian poet living in Wales to offer a poem each on the theme of Sanctuary.
The collection is full of moving, serious poems and individual voices. This too is sanctuary.”
That is exactly what I was aiming for: a book that would embody, to some degree, the hosting aspect of sanctuary.
But sanctuary has many facets: the environment, the spiritual, the body and the self, the goal of some migration, the refuge of those in peril…
These themes are explored in the collection.
In the launch some of the other talents of the contributing poets came to the fore.
Glen Wilson composed and performed a song prompted by the collection: There Must Be Somewhere; Phil Cope illustrated his reading of his poem with his own fine photographs; we saw a film by Csilla and Viviana on their experience of coming to live in Northern Ireland from, respectively, Italy and Hungary.
I loved the fact that the audience joined in near the end. They had been invited to add a leaf to the ‘Sanctuary Tree’. Just as, near holy wells and sacred sites, a tree is sometimes held to be a special means of communication with something beyond the ordinary, so we had a tree to which people added their aspiraitons, hopes, prayers. Some of the audience read out their leaf message. This underlined our common being in the world.
And we heard an experience that had taken place on the bus en route to the venue – of encountering anti-immigrant feeling and summoning instead a sanctuary mindset, a refusal to let ht enegative dominate. This stressed how sanctuary can be experienced in the everyday. How we can each be a sanctuary.
The poets shared their poems and the audience shared something of their own lives. The leaves on the tree burgeoned.
with Phil Cope, Viviana Fiorentino, Mahyar, Csilla Toldy and Glen Wilson
“A necessary and urgent response to the world’s increasing crises…” – Robert Minhinnick
Sanctuary is – urgent. The pandemic has made people crave it; political crises are denying it to millions; the earth is no longer our haven. This theme has enormous traction at a time of existential fear − especially among the young − that nowhere is safe. Even our minds and our bodies are not refuges we can rely on. Truth itself is on shaky ground.
Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere addresses these critical situations from the inside. How we can save the earth, ourselves and others? How valid is the concept of a ‘holy’ place these days? Are any values still sacrosanct? We all deserve peace and security but can these be achieved without exploitation?
Belfast-born Angela Graham divides her time between Wales and Northern Ireland. Alongside her own work, she has designed this collection to embody the hosting, welcoming aspect of Sanctuary by inviting five other poets from Wales and Northern Ireland to contribute a poem each. In Wales, Phil Cope from the Garw Valley is an expert on the holy wells and shrines of the British Isles and Mahyar is an Iranian writer who has made a new home in Wales. In Northern Ireland, poet and novelist, Viviana Fiorentino is an economic migrant from Italy, working with migrants and prisoners of conscience, while film maker and poet, Csilla Toldy fled communist Hungary for a ‘free’ life in the West. The fifth poet, Glen Wilson (winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing), acted as mentor for Angela’s work and contributes a poem on migration. Continue reading Praise for ‘Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere’→