On Being a Poet in Wales
The year 2025 heralds the 30th anniversary of my first collection of poems. They were self-published, the guerrilla tapestry typed out on a borrowed Amstrad computer (from Bob Mole ACW Arts Officer) which I then printed out from a floppy disc at the library where I worked after sneaking in and de alarming the system early on a Sunday morning!
Oh they were the days- 200 copies for £250 printed by Circle Press sold them for £2 at readings and in local newsagents and ended up reprinting 3 times – it was launched at a reading with the late great Benjamin Zephaniah in Blackwood Miner’s Institute. I could call myself a poet now!
And here I am in my 59th year, with the world a million times worse, the negative internal voices’ ‘Are you a poet now?’ on repeat, going back to basics.
So, what is it like to be a poet in Cymru?
I was once on a radio show in 2000 with the living legend Max Boyce and asked him in a rather lackadaisical tone ‘where have you been Max?’ He looked me dead in the eye: I remember his ocean blue eyes piercing through me ‘I’ve never gone away boy’. I was firmly, yet with a Boycean smile, put in my place!
I recount this because in a similar way now when people ask me ‘still writing?’ I breathe deep and say ‘yes, never stopped’.
A poet’s life in Wales is a game of infinite halves. One minute the BBC are all over you, get voted number 32 in Welsh heroes poll, end up on a radio show with Rupert Moon, are smuggled into the Senedd like Johnny Rotten to do a reading because 300 rabid fundamentalist Christians are singing hymns and praying for your soul outside and you sell hundreds of books.
Then it all goes silent and you resign yourself to waiting by the phone for a decade and checking hourly for that elusive email offering you a commission or review that never comes.
You have to keep on writing. No matter who is listening. You have to ‘not go away’( diolch Max).
To be a poet and survive from your art is a battle and I do worry for the younger poets trying to survive in these austere times – to pay the rent, get a mortgage, pay bills and rising food and energy costs.
I have been grateful for Literature Wales and their projects and funding for readings/workshops but it is getting harder as agencies make cuts.
I have always taken words to neglected and ignored communities all over Wales – from domestic violence shelters to refugee groups, from care homes to prisons.
I believe we all have a story and a right to articulate it. This has been an important part of my journey and continues to be soulnourishing.
Only last week after a chaotic workshop at a school in Pontypool with a group of Gypsy Roma Traveller pupils where I wasn’t sure if I had been of any use, I received an email from the tutor saying ‘just to let you know we now have Traveller boys writing poetry. Thank you’.
Every day is different. Small victories.
A million streams
In 2020 I wrote the lyrics for good friend James Dean Bradfield’s solo album ‘Even in Exile’ – we sold over 12000 physical copies and at last look had over 1 million streams on Spotify.
I made more money from 8 lyrics than 30 years writing poetry and it wasn’t that much but just goes to show poetry is not a career choice but something that resides deep inside and one doesn’t do it for the awards (never had and don’t want one), a medal from a cosplaying clown (a la Simon Armitage) fame or money.
It is a lonely, cortisol-swamped bi polaresque existence of being revered, ignored, laughed at, having your words tattooed on fans’ bodies alongside seeing your work in the 50p bin at the charity shop.
But, after a very difficult few years of loss, grief, divorce, health scares, operations and world desolation, every day I am grateful if words arrive and grateful for those who read them.
No matter how vexed things are you must pick up that pen. Though sometimes one loses the faith.
After visiting the Occupied West Bank in June with Martyn Joseph’s Let Yourself Trust what I witnessed will haunt me forever – Lulu, a mother telling of how she were contacted at 5 am by an Israeli soldier to tell her that her home will be demolished in 2 hours – which it was as she and her little children watched.
Or Daoud, who was forced to build his home underground on a mountain his ancestors had owned and farmed for 300 years as the Israeli government had deemed it illegal and adjudicated settlements could be built there – he said ‘I will not be your enemy’- makes me cry when I think of it.
I felt helpless. Useless. A voyeur. Could poetry make a difference? The brave beautiful people we met told us ‘Please go back and tell our stories’. So, that’s what I did.
I couldn’t wait for 2 years for these poems to be published so I decided to release it myself, a hybrid collection of a spoken word album with music by Ethan and James Jones released on bandcamp and a physical booklet (because I need to feel the pages!) – called Inviting the Light – because for so many years I didn’t and realise in another 30 years I will not be here to do so I’m trying.
It won’t sell a million, there’ll be zero streams on spotify, it won’t get me on a show with Rupert Moon (what a relief), no OBE (such a shame) while the fundamentalists have moved on, but, but but…when it all seems pointless I recall the great James Baldwin ‘You think your pain and suffering are unique in the history of the world- then you read’ and so these words may reach someone out there in that cold dark night who needs to be reminded they can and should, invite the light in and for as long as possible, ‘not go away.’
Inviting the Light is available to buy here.
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