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Best of 2021: A selection of cultural highlights from the last 12 months by Taz Rahman

01 Jan 2022 9 minute read
Some of the books selected by Taz Rahman, details in text

Looking back over busy and productive 2021, Cardiff based writer Taz Rahman shares an in depth round up of some of his cultural highlights

Taz Rahman

A year that arrived surreptitiously packed in distant smoke and starbursts, and is suddenly retreating with its tail tucked in Omicron – that was 2021.

The fireworks above the rows of East Cardiff terraces, each year starting a few minutes earlier than the City Hall clock’s declaration of the next year, felt like the only bright moments of the lugubrious demise 2020 had planned for itself. Except that there wasn’t a ‘Winter Wonderland’ or revellers huddled next to the City Hall welcoming the new year.

It came with the lonely smell of spilt lime cordial on my windowsill and distant firecrackers lighting up slated roofs all the way to the Bristol channel.

I spent many hours during the first few weeks of January observing frozen bubbles on the Feeder Canal. The canal is tucked between the twin arteries of Lloyd George Avenue and Spooner Way connecting the centre of Cardiff to Cardiff Bay.

The daily visitor taking this shortcut to their destination north or south are startled by the sight of a bulbous staccato in the canal, the bit where a willow had fallen in a storm some years earlier, now hemmed by duckweed and shrubs that are too dense in summer to individually decipher by the plant identification app on my smartphone.

The mallards and moorhens don’t require the 1st Viscount Radcliffe to partition the generally inaccessible interior under the weeping willow for the nesting season, doing it all by themselves and without a rifle-butt in sight. Along the visible exterior of the stretch of the willow and the other branches is the territory of coots, grebes and the odd cormorants until early summer.

Touching the feet of elders

Most late afternoons, there lurks the cowering shadow of an old grey heron. The cultural significance of this whortleberry and sumac clad sleepy stretch of the former Tiger Bay is not rooted in the past of soot and ocean-going coal heavy steamers. For me, this half-mile walk served as the inspiration for most of the poems and stories I conceived in 2021.

The ice was noticeably thick one late January morning along the stretch of the canal that narrows further under Schooner Way, connecting the canal to Atlantic Wharf. Raucous mallards skated towards me smelling the torn bits of sourdough rye bread in my palm, one affable specimen braking its final burst of momentum in touching the tip of the light orange beak on my left shoe.

There is the Bengali tradition of touching the feet of elders before each journey. I could sense the poignancy of permission in this quacking touch, but like the young waiting for the ‘ashirbad’ (blessing) to be over as soon as possible, the excitement lay more in the journey ahead for this particular mallard – the slow bursting of the January bubble, the coot fathers suddenly manning up with the arrival of the young, the grey heron waiting even more patiently in lengthened shadows for the grebe chicks to hatch in late April, and for the feasting year to finally begin.

A word of warning to the reader deciding to trudge down Feeder Canal with a fistful of fancy bread: the lone swan is fussy, but shall pleasingly gorge upon the finest naan bread; the mallards shall eat any bread; the grebes shall ignore all your best doughy offerings; and finally, the coots detest rye bread, but love bits of custard cream. I am not a zoologist. If this diet goes against the grain of any alms-giving legislation or general feeding advice by the RSPB, please follow the experts, not a poet.

Image by Taz Rahman

Exceptionally rewarding

On a late February morning, I started the first draft of a story about a man who spent his nights under a tarpaulin battling aphids, spread thin in one corner of Alexandra Gardens behind the late Victorian grandeur of Cardiff City Hall. The man walked along the Feeder Canal each day to touch the feet of Ivor Novello, in Cardiff Bay.

As soon as I had completed the first draft of the story, the phone rang. It was Dela-Rose Katso-Hill from Literature Wales, congratulating me for being selected as one of the 12 Welsh writers for the Representing Wales 2021 writer development programme. The story I was writing that morning, Glamorous Night was chosen by Jenny Elise for one of her ‘Story Time’ reading sessions in May 2021.

The Literature Wales scheme, which formally started in April, came at a time when I had just started to feel at ease with referring to myself as a writer. In February, South Bank Poetry was the first notable poetry magazine to publish my poem ‘Seamstress This was followed in March by another poem, Butter, selected by Jonathan Edwards for his final edition of Poetry Wales.

Alongside the opportunity to learn and network with the literary and publishing community in Wales, the most important aspect of the writer development programme for me had been the opportunity to be mentored by the inimitable Zoë Brigley a Bloodaxe, Parthian and Seren published poet and writer who has subsequently become the editor of Poetry Wales, one of the most revered poetry magazines in the UK.

Mentorship is an exceptionally rewarding gift for any emerging writer. The influence of Zoë Brigley is palpable in how I have felt emboldened to write in a more sensual manner, combining nature with lore and taking greater risks in everything I write.

This newfound confidence has led to another poem Chocolate being published in the winter 2021 edition of Poetry Wales, various poems being shortlisted for other publications and a poetry pamphlet being longlisted by a Wales based publisher.

The significant literary opportunity that has left its mark on me this year was being asked to be one of the three judges alongside Matt Haigh and Nia Morais for the inaugural Poetry Wales Pamphlet competition.

The long list of chapbooks the judging panel had to read to select the eventual winner were by some of the best emerging poets writing today. The winning pamphlet by S L Grange, Bodies, and other Haunted Houses, is boldly imaginative and is a much anticipated 2022 publication by Seren Books.

Another literary highlight of the year for me was being asked to be a peer-reviewer by the Books Council of Wales. Publication grant applications for books are peer-reviewed by individuals from the literary community before the Books Council makes its final deliberation. I was honoured to have the opportunity to delve into a major anthology featuring 60 writers, many from Wales, by a major independent publisher Broken Sleep Books.

One aspect of my literary journey that I am immensely grateful is the opportunity to interview Wales based poets, document poetry nights and work on literary documentaries. The Youtube channel Just Another Poet is a digital platform documenting the poetry culture in Wales, connecting poetry lovers to poets and exploring the cultural significance of poetry.

The interviews this year have featured Dyfan Lewis, Abeer Ameer, J Brookes, Aaron Kent, Alix Edwards and Ifor ap Glyn. There were only a handful of live poetry nights to document as a result of Covid19 related social restrictions, however, the significant gathering in Cardiff, YesBarddoniaeth featured many notable poets and writers from Cardiff such as Mike Jenkins, Eric Ngalle Charles and 2021 Wales Book of the Year winner Catrin Kean

I have confined my 2021 reading highlights to a mere ten books – eight volumes of poetry and two novels. This had been a difficult task as I read so many wonderful poetry collections and pamphlets as well as novels and short story collections during the process of the year:

100 Poems to Save the Earth, Seren Books, edited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans, collates many sumptuous conversations with nature and about nature, addressing the beauty and fragility of the planet we live in.

Inhale/Exile, Seren Books, by Abeer Ameer is a moving collection of precise poems about histories, conflicts, displacements and journeys navigating between Iraq and the UK.

Hymns Ancient & Modern, New & Selected Poems, Parthian Books, by J Brookes is a magnificent set of sardonic and unsentimental observations about life from an influential Cardiff poet.

Collected Pamphlets, Broken Sleep Books, by Aaron Kent is a visceral journey through the experimental and novel, all the while remaining true to the poet’s working class origin.

Poor, Penguin Books, by Caleb Femi is a startlingly beautiful rite of passage through the North Peckham Estate in London, by a boy tempted by Nike Air Jordans, the poems questioning and defining what it means to be young and black.

Postcolonial Love Poem, Faber, by Natalie Diaz is a set of poems about ecstatic desire, the erosion of history and the bodies of the indigenous, a collection rightfully shortlisted for last year’s Forward Prize.

Small, Parthian Books, by Natalie Ann Holborow combines poems about the body, sensual wanderings through India, and questions and reinterpretations of  familiar mythology.

A Year in the New Life, Faber, by Jack Underwood, shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, is an intriguing and innovative collection of poems that demonstrate the possibilities of language and poetics, combining subjects ranging from new life to imminent social collapse and public unrest.

Somebody Loves You, And Other Stories, by Mona Arshi is a novel about the silent experiences of two British-Indian sisters growing up in London told through a hybrid collection of vignettes, making this an intriguing read.

Four Dervishes, Seren Books, by Hammad Rind is at once dazzling and playful, the characters and the subplots intriguing, satirical, touching on everything from injustice to religious bigotry, the novel is masterful storytelling by a Cardiff writer.

Taz Rahman is a Cardiff-based writer of poetry, fiction and plays, a literary documentary maker, photographer and founder of Just Another Poet, Wales’ first Youtube channel dedicated to promoting the poetry culture in Wales and is one of 12 writers chosen by Literature Wales for the 2021 Representing Wales writer development programme award. Along with being one of three judges for the inaugural 2021 Poetry Wales Pamphlet Competition, he is a poetry collection peer-reviewer for the Books Council of Wales. His poems have been published in Poetry Wales, South Bank Poetry and in the upcoming ‘Uprising’ anthology (Carreg Gwalch, 2022). His plays, ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Ithaka’ have been performed at The Gate arts centre in Cardiff.

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