‘it’s not all about the words, it’s not all about their meanings’
Holly Porter takes the literary long road with lloyd robson as his innovative prose-poem cardiff cut is reissued in a new edition as part of the Parthian modern series.
The Cardiff-born writer reminisces on his literary career in Wales and how his life has changed in light of his move to the other side of the Atlantic.
This new perspective offers several interesting reflections on the past as robson sheds some light on everything from the metamorphosis of Cardiff as a city in the 1990s, to ‘the corrupt, self-serving politician [as] an internationally-recognised force’, along with his own personal and literary journey that has positioned him as a singular-voice in Welsh literary culture.
‘some of the best dialect writing in these islands, ever’ – niall griffiths
With it being over twenty years since the original book was published, Peter Finch, in his foreword to the 2021 edition of cardiff cut, declares the work ‘on the edge of the avant garde’. But before robson found his niche as an author, writing began simply as an outlet of creativity for his teenage self and a cheap one at that, needing only a betting slip and ‘one of their stubby pens’ to get the literary juices flowing.
However, the innate pleasure robson had for writing was evident even as a young child when he got his hands on a typewriter for the first time – he ‘couldn’t type for toffee’ but nevertheless loved tapping away at the machine.
From this, robson realised that when it comes to writing, ‘it’s not all about the words, it’s not all about their meanings’, a sentiment that is surely echoed in cardiff cut and the author’s personal life.
Around the time robson began to throw himself into his writing, he also became involved in a course for people who stutter, ‘first as a participant and then as a facilitator’.
With his stutter now overcome and his speech whole again, words become more than their meaning and take on a whole significance of their own.
avoidance of capital letters
cardiff cut almost certainly seems to value how words are presented just as much as their meaning, and thus, we arrive at the origin of the book. Rather than it being a work in isolation, robson details how his books preceding cardiff cut, such as edge territory and letter from sissi, influenced the conception of the early 2000s novel-turned-prose-poem:
‘sometimes they overlap, sometimes they’re divorced from one another, but they’re all links in the chain. cardiff cut began with me stitching together notes and stray words and lines simply for my own entertainment and to give myself a break from mining for and writing far darker material – i needed a palate cleanser, a spirit lifter – so if there is a direct line between previous works and cardiff cut it would be that had writing the ‘crash poems’ not been such a miserable fucking experience i probably would never have escaped to what became cardiff cut.’
As you may have noticed, robson is consistent in his avoidance of capital letters where one may typically use them.
For example, robson does not capitalise ‘I’, which he explains is ‘down to a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve lost sight of or have continued evolving, but i do remember it was a well-thought-out decision on my part and had nothing to do with e. e. cummings, whose poetry i could take or leave’.
What else he remembers is this: he could think so much faster than he could type. So, instead of his thoughts getting lost before they had even hit the page, robson decided to speed up the typing process by neglecting to use the caps key on his keyboard, thus easing his frustration.
As robson tells it, ‘from that basic practical need came a whole slew of artistic thought, such as realising capitalisation at the start of a sentence was basically redundant’, and thought that by removing the capitalisation from the letter ‘I’ and his full name, that it may ‘play down the suggestion of ego’. Not to mention, the author much prefers the look of his name when written in lowercase anyway.
In regard to his writing, the creation of musicality within his works is something robson works hard to produce and feels that sacrificing the use of capital letters for this purpose is not an overwhelming loss.
This is something I believe most would agree on after reading the first page of cardiff cut which is devoid of any capital letters, along with the rest of the book’s pages. robson describes what you will find within these pages as ‘a bonkers swirl of literary elements and socio-political reflection and cultural references and humour’, though deliberates if it is really much more than that in his eyes.
The author is under no illusion that this book will ‘change the political climate of the western world’, and besides, that is not why he wrote it. Yet, if enjoyment is the principal reason for the creation of this novel, and robson manages to execute this purpose for the reader, then inspiration is inevitable.
Furthermore, the ideas robson touches on in cardiff cut concerning the profound transformation that the city underwent in the 1990s, are hard not to become invested in upon reading this book since modification and intense change seems to be the theme permeating the new century so far. robson’s depiction of Cardiff thirty years ago seemed to anticipate this:
‘Cardiff at the time was in a period of flux and was undergoing a major rebrand. when it came to destroying solid assets in order to facilitate ‘new development’, the city had previous form; a rap-sheet as long as your arm. i wanted to capture the Cardiff that existed at that time – not every aspect, obviously, but some of it – and at least reference the cynicism on one side, the cheery sales pitch on the other, and the powerlessness of the average Cardiff person.
‘the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation wasn’t set up to improve things for the residents, it was set up to provide economic stimulus – to presume economic stimulus automatically improves the lives of the residents is naïve to say the least. the huge bulk of the investment was in the new, so-called Cardiff Bay commercial area, not the existing residential area of Butetown.
‘there was loads of this shit and the locals were expected to swallow it. doesn’t mean there shouldn’t have been new development, but some of the priorities and methods were wrong.’
The theme of the ignorant and rotten politician, also depicted in cardiff cut through the character of the mayor, seems to be a universally recognised figure, from robson’s birthplace of Wales to his new home in the U.S. After first moving to New York, the writer appreciates that for some Americans his work ‘may be different to what they are used to’, but for New Yorkers at least, ‘being a foreigner with a ‘funny’ accent’ is not anything out of the ordinary.
robson speculates that many Americans are able to hear the relationship between his work and some of their country’s greatest writers, such as William Carlos Williams and Henry Miller – ‘they get the groove even if some of the local references pass them by’.
Speech & dialect
Since the ubiquitous nature of speech and dialect is what gives cardiff cut much of its allure, I was curious to see how robson adapted to living in a country with a totally different vernacular to what he was used to.
What is fascinating is that instead of asserting any cultural or nationalist right to speak in a Welsh way, the author prioritised making communication between himself and his fellow citizens as easy as possible.
Therefore, robson unintentionally formed a sort of hybrid accent that incorporated his Welsh roots (with a bit of Cardiffian), New York influence and the Southern-American accent of where he lives now, in Virginia.
This way of speaking has left the poet doubting whether he will write ‘in a single recognisable accent’ again, let alone a Cardiff accent, making cardiff cut an even more unique product of robson’s cultural identity at the time.
With robson declaring, ‘how i speak has a direct influence on how i write’, his future works are likely to reflect his experience embracing other dialects and cultures, giving his writings the nuance that one can only come by through experiencing something new and choosing to adapt.
However, robson’s association with the U.S. does not end there – his latest original publication that took him on a journey through thirteen states along the Eastern Seaboard named Oh Dad! A Search for Robert Mitchum is a biography turned character study on one of the greatest, yet seemingly forgotten, screen actors of the twentieth century, Robert Mitchum.
The travelogue-style of robson’s fifth book allows the reader access to the author’s individual perspective on masculinity in the modern age, something he seems to still ponder today, confessing that ‘i can be criticised for […] continuing what we now call ‘toxic masculinity’, but i wanted to grow out of that, which meant dismantling my own personal conditioning’.
robson took responsibility for the way society fashioned him to be as a cis man, which was facilitated by the expedition through time that this book took him on. With Mitchum being described ironically as both a ‘man’s man’ and a ‘lady’s man’, robson ‘was looking to figure out how to embrace both of those variations but with more equality and less male privilege, and more wisdom’ which evidently forced him to check his own privilege.
Aside from the portrayal of gender, the author considers the opportunity that Oh Dad! gave him ‘to continue to write between categories’, perhaps in reference to cardiff cut due to the genre of the book being debated a great deal over the years. robson is clearly very aware of this: ‘i have occasionally been criticised (gently) for writing stuff that is “neither one thing nor the other” but i don’t see the point in me writing within easy classification’ and considers Ezra Pound’s direction ‘“to make it new” […] if the work allows for it’.
Upon consideration of the future, robson states that he is unlikely to write another cardiff cut because his way of life has changed fundamentally since then (geographically and, I speculate, introspectively), but also due to the fact that to repeat himself would be a tedious task for everyone involved.
Instead, the writer wants to focus all his efforts right now on finishing ‘a long poem in memory of the adopted-Welsh poet Chris Torrance’, author of The Magic Door poetry volumes, who passed away last year.
robson professes, ‘Chris was a huge source of support and encouragement for me, pre-Oh Dad!, so i feel the need to mark his passing […] it’ll probably read a little like his Aurochs poem, but the subject matter will be the area of Virginia where i now live’.
Reflecting on his past works, robson is now less passionate about writing what he knows, which is what cardiff cut was, a visceral depiction of what he was living, seemingly as it happened.
Now, writing intuitively, he is ‘more enthusiastic about writing while discovering, and being enthusiastic about a project, or a subject, makes writing so much better.’ And who can argue with that?
Here’s the first page. It starts in Newport
sunnyday but cold & slightwindy, gallopt inta town on the back ofa cupa/bacon sarnie, turnd me ankle on corner of newport & fitzalan, leaping out the way of a taxi. nasty stitch in the bargain.
jumpt train wi no ticket as standard. rode the silverbrown doublescore to newport, graveltrack run of quadruple scars watchin steelbars curve soar curl across cities & moorland, via splottbridge hundred yards from me own front door, but no platform.
dock cranes & powerstat, transporter bridge & landfill site, west-bound train goes passt window, inches from me glasssquasht nose in the corner of doorwell & toilet the corridor someone askt if i’ve change but i’m distant.
& no one on door/checkin tickets; from station to subway & the first thing to greet on this city street is the council tax/benefits office, black glassfronted bars, solicitors, estate agents
hit of fresh rain & deplete of sun; the redburn of clouds stormwhipt from the door rush furnaces of llanwern; fumes from corridors of trucks ghosting the M4 coalscab delivery run/pavingslabs coming out of the sun/their cabs: mesht up; in convoy
the westgate hotel
john frost square
gratis launch pissup: had me filla the grape, headed for a rat&twat/pulld me escape, checkt out some bands: (coupla wets down me neck) softrockers ‘ravensperm’ & locally
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.