Emily Blewitt: A New Voice in Contemporary Welsh Poetry

As her debut collection draws both popular and critical acclaim, I caught up with Emily Blewitt to talk about poetry, labels, and contemporary women’s writing
emily-blewitt
Emily Blewitt. Photograph: Michael Willett

When did you begin writing?

On one hand, the answer to this question is: since I could write. I was always writing stories when I was a little girl. And reading – I was a very enthusiastic bookworm! I never intended to write poetry; I didn’t think I’d be able to, though I loved reading it. I didn’t see how I could write poetry; I didn’t know how to go about it. But when I was seventeen, for the first time I saw a contemporary poet in action. I heard Kate Clanchy perform her work, and she was brilliant. She showed me that poetry could be accessible, powerful, sexy, exciting. That was the seed, though I didn’t start writing poetry properly until my early twenties, after I signed up for some extra-curricular writing workshops during my Masters degree.

What is it about poetry that appeals to you? 

For me, poetry has an immediacy about it. It can speak to us forcibly and directly. It has truth (different from accuracy) and music to it. It can take us somewhere, and continue to do so, because it is so layered with possible meanings. It’s slight compared to, say, a novel, but it can pack a punch far above its weight. I love its rhythms, its urgency, its vitality, its power. 

“For me, poetry has an immediacy about it. It can speak to us forcibly and directly.”

This Is Not A Rescue (Seren Books)
This Is Not A Rescue (Seren Books)


This Is Not A Rescue
is your first collection. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of putting it together? 

Well, firstly I should say that I didn’t know I was writing a book until near the end. I was just writing poems, and publishing them in magazines and anthologies, and then suddenly I had enough material that could be hung together and shaped into a collection. I began discovering themes: what had I been preoccupied with? What kind of story (or stories) was I telling? I started thinking about this body of work as a body of work. I was, of course, too close to it to see all of the connections. A few trusted friends – and my editor – helped me shape the manuscript. Some poems were culled; some new ones were written. And the manuscript changed significantly in the two years between acceptance and publication. The fates, I think, were also at work during this period: success in the Forward Prizes for ‘This Is Not A Rescue’ (highly commended for best individual poem) made me realise that, actually, that was the title poem. The idea of rescue was a central theme in the book. The final months before publication were very busy – there was lots of editing, proof-reading, copy-editing, ordering and reordering, looking for cover images, deciding who to mention in the acknowledgements (the answer is: everyone), finalising blurbs…    

What subjects do you tend to return to in your work?

Love, loss, rescues, family, depression, sexual abuse, popular culture, the domestic space, being Welsh, animals. There are always animals.

Some of the poems deal with difficult and traumatic issues. In what ways do you think poetry as a medium can reveal or articulate experiences that might be otherwise go unseen or unheard?

If poetry is ‘for’ anything, then surely it is this. I could apply the same principle to literature as a whole – or any form of art. I think, though, that poetry is particularly good at articulating the unseen and unheard because it is both immediate and layered. It is a close-reader’s form: the more you read, the more you get from it. 

“It is a close-reader’s form: the more you read, the more you get from it.”

In addition to being a poet, you are also a doctor of literature. Your PhD thesis explored representations of motherhood in literature and science. Has your academic research informed your poetry?

No – and yes. I kept the two projects quite separate in one sense: my PhD was not in Creative Writing; I did not write these poems with an academic career in mind, as I might perhaps have written an article or an academic book. I certainly didn’t write them for the REF. Having said that, everything bleeds through: my interest in women’s writing, contemporary poets, maternal experience, the body, and feminism are just as influential as any extra-curricular exposure to horror films and Paranormal Witness. 

Emily Blewitt at the Hay Festival
Emily Blewitt at the Hay Festival

Your collection engages with issues of Welsh cultural and national identity. In what ways do you position yourself as a Welsh writer? Do you think such labels are useful?

I think of myself as a Welsh writer, because I am one. I’m interested in the way that Welsh culture permeates experience, and though I am not a fluent Welsh-speaker, I think the ghost of the language haunts my (W)English. Aneirin Karadog and I had a very interesting conversation about how cynghanedd creeps into writing in English, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he found it in some of my poems. I suppose I might be read as someone who is part of the Anglo-Welsh tradition, and that is fine – though personally, I identify more as a ‘woman poet’ or ‘confessional poet’. Labels are to be taken with a pinch of salt, always.

“Labels are to be taken with a pinch of salt, always.”

Your poems are often concerned with constructions of gender identity and performance. Do you think writing about gender can help to address our current political and cultural moment?

I think we are at a significant turning point in terms of political and cultural change. We have people speaking out about the previously unspeakable and unthinkable –  I see women and young people in particular, protesting loudly and bravely, and their efforts put me to shame. For me and my writing, I think it comes back to the issue of representing the unheard and unseen. Since I have a voice and a means of expressing myself, it’s my responsibility to say as much as I can about the things that I feel strongly about. And it’s even more important for me to listen to those just beginning to find their voices. One of the things I am writing about at the moment – I can’t seem to stop writing about in fact – is the impact of sexual abuse. I want to break that particular conspiracy of silence. This exposes me in some ways, but I would rather take this risk than play it safe.

“For me and my writing, I think it comes back to the issue of representing the unheard and unseen. Since I have a voice and a means of expressing myself, it’s my responsibility to say as much as I can about the things that I feel strongly about. And it’s even more important for me to listen to those just beginning to find their voices.”

How can poetry help us to see everyday life in a new way?

So everyday life is important, otherwise we wouldn’t be living it. Here I think of the women poets who dared to write about domestic, bodily experience, and were denigrated for it. I don’t think we necessarily need to see everyday life in a new way: we just need to see it. And some of my favorite poetry is irreverent and funny – just like the everyday.

 

What texts would you say are your key literary influences or inspirations?

If I had to pick a few recent collections to take to a desert island, they’d be: Samarkand by Kate Clanchy, Furniture by Lorraine Mariner, The Art of Falling by Kim Moore, Basic Nest Architecture by Polly Atkin, Roy Marshall’s The Great Animator, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish… There are so many. I’ve left so many out. Kate Clanchy’s students are also incredible – I’m looking forward to reading the anthology that’s about to be published (England: Poems from a School). I think she’s right when she says we forget how to write poetry- children and young people are so damn good at it.

What’s next for you?

I’ve just received a Literature Wales Bursary to work on my next collection, so that’s keeping me out of mischief. I’ve also recently become the Poetry editor for New Welsh Review.

This Is Not A Rescue is published by Seren Books.


About the Author

Emily Blewitt has published poetry widely, her work appearing in The Rialto, The North, Planet, Prole, The Interpreter’s House, Ambit, Poetry Wales, Furies, Cheval, Nu2: Memorable Firsts, and in Brittle Star. The title poem from her debut collection, This Is Not A Rescue, was Highly Commended for best individual poem in the 2016 Forward Prizes, and is published in The Forward Book of Poetry 2017. She is Poetry Editor of New Welsh ReviewVisit her website for more information.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Add Your Comments, Links, and Recommendations

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.