Susan Walton attended the Poems after Poems course in June with tutors Paul Henry and Stephen Knight. She’s written a blog about her weekend at Tŷ Newydd.
One Friday afternoon in June I was having my hair cut and telling my hairdresser that I was going on a weekend course to Tŷ Newydd. Twenty-four hours later I was re-interpreting the Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.
What? How did that happen?
‘Poems after Poems’ was the course, and its theme was how new poems can grow out of existing ones. Straight after the welcome dinner, our tutors – Paul Henry and Stephen Knight – started us off with an introductory talk about different ways that poems breed other poems, and then they set us homework. Homework!? After complimentary wine? We coped.
The exercises on offer over the weekend covered a range of ways in which existing poems can give rise to new work. We each created an entirely new poem from the information content only of an existing, published poem. Another attendee had already stripped away the original poems’ vocabulary and form, presenting it as prose and withholding the name of its author. This was the furthest degree of separation from the original. I’d never heard of the poem I’d received in prose form: ‘For the Anniversary of My Death’ by W. S. Merwin.
The next-closest degree of separation from the original was for me – if you think of me as attendee C – to write a poem using a scrap from attendee B’s embryonic poem, produced there and then in the room and derived from attendee A’s quick stream-of-consciousness prose (which had been set as a warm-up exercise). Think of a game of ‘consequences’. Oh, and then Attendee A was to critique it.
Then we closed the degree of separation still further, by looking at examples where there is a more obvious nod to the inspiring work of art. I chose to write a poem that echoed R. S. Thomas’ ‘Welsh Landscape’. ‘To live in Wales’ became ‘To live in Welshpool’, and although mine takes off in another direction it still contains a reference to the Welsh language, as does Thomas’, but not in quite the same context!
And so to ‘translation’, an idea which itself has varying degrees of separation from the source. Although my main work is as a proofreader and copy-editor of English, I maintain a healthy sideline in Welsh to English translation. However, I’ve never translated from a language I don’t understand, using a ‘bridging’ literal English translation by someone else. To my surprise, this wasn’t too difficult, once I’d got past the ‘OMG: this is Neruda’ feeling. I stuck to the form of the original, but a fellow attendee was much looser in his interpretation of the same poem, ‘Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche’. Interesting.
Our last exercise was to use a sizeable chunk, quoted whole, of a well-know poem – in this case ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot – as our first two or three lines, and make it up from there. It was intriguing how the Eliot rhythms and patterns persisted through something made up on the spot.
Add the consultation sessions with both tutors; their readings; the help-yourself catering; the interesting and interested chef; and the varied fellow-attendees, and I felt I’d had a well-rounded weekend, as well as a mental workout.
When I got home on Sunday, I was greeted by a Slimming World flyer on the doormat. Did they somehow know I’d been at Tŷ Newydd since Friday?
Susan Walton trades as Sue Proof www.sueproof.wales
You can read her Tŷ Newydd efforts at www.sgwennusue.sueproof.wales