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Rhian Edwards on poetry, performance and persistance

The young Welsh poet speaks openly about the excitement of first-time publication, the unnerving presence of her mother in an audience and her abject refusal to listen to an iPod.

Rhian won the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry 2011-2012.

Rhian won the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry 2011-2012.

1. Congratulations on publishing your first collection of poetry, Clueless Dogs. How does it feel to have a collection of poems to your name? And where did the title, Clueless Dogs, come from?

There’s nothing quite like seeing your book for the first time and having all your A4 poetry drafts sifted and compiled with a cover and a spine and your name all over it; not to mention then having your own poetry book tucked between the multitude on the mantelpiece.

Strangely, I found it very difficult to read the book once it was printed and bound. I think once you’ve proofed your poems within an inch of the lives, you see your old poems more like an editor than the poet who wrote them.

The title comes from a line in one of the poems in the book called Outcast Hours.I settled upon the title Clueless Dogs quite early on, though was a little worried that it would attract the review line ‘Clueless Dogs was clearly written by one.’

2. You started writing poetry in your early 20s. What made you start? Was poetry something you enjoyed as a child and teenager?

I must admit feel I came to poetry quite late on. I wrote poems as a child but not as a teenager. I remember being blown away by Ozymandias when I read it at 15, but apart from that I rather loathed the way poetry was taught. The fact we would pick our way through every line of a poem and dissect it like a cryptic crossword in reverse. Treating poetry in this surgical fashion took so much of the feeling out of it.

It wasn’t until I met a tableful of poets at a late night bar in Soho in 2002 that I really discovered poetry. They had all been attending the poetry open mic ‘Unplugged’ at the Poetry Café and enticed me to come along the following week.

I thought it was amazing that this world existed where people congregated in a small cellar and shared their poems and more importantly had the confidence to share their poems. In my arrogance I simply thought, “Well, I can do this”, and it went on from there.

3.   Do you think of yourself as a page or performance poet, and do you think there is a gap between these forms?

I regard myself as a page poet who reads well. I initially started as a performance poet, but then I realized I was dumbing down my writing in a bid to be more of a comical, rhyming poet and more entertaining. (Even poetry audiences are secretly relieved when the funny poet comes on and they always guarantee the most applause).

It was around 2004 that I started making the transition. I wanted my writing to stand alone in its own right, irrespective of whether it was read well.

I think you can sometimes disguise bad writing with a good performance and by the same token you can sabotage good writing with a bad reading. There are plenty of good poets who are also good readers like Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Hugo Williams, yet you would never lump them in the category of performance poet.

I think there has long between a gap between performance and page poetry and I believe slam and hip hop poetry is its own brand of performance poetry. However, I do think the gap is narrowing. I think there is a new generation of page poet emerging, including the likes of Helen Mort, Joe Dunthorne and myself, who learn their poems off by heart, read at festivals, organise poetry events and, at the same time, get published in recognised poetry magazines.

4.   You performed with Benjamin Zephaniah on 1 December. How was it? Do you get nervous before you perform? 

It was a peculiar evening in many ways. I felt rather unsure of myself, maybe because it was a reading with just Benjamin and myself – and I was a tad in awe of him. Also, my mother was in the audience and that always unnerves me.

However, it went well and afterwards I was surrounded by a gaggle of 16 year old boys, complete with braces and incredible hairstyles from Monmouth Boys School, which was quite charming. A couple of them bought books, but mainly I was signing their reservation slips.

After nearly 10 years of performing, I still get very nervous beforehand. However, that nearly always dissolves the moment I get on stage or stand before the mic. Sometimes I worry that I’m going to forget the words as I tend to go up onto the stage without a copy of the book and rely solely on memory.

Rhian

Rhian has been performing poetry for 10 years – but still gets nervous beforehand.

5.   What is the funniest – or most embarrassing – thing that has happened to you while you were performing?

I once asked the audience at the Latitude Festival if any of them were having an affair. One woman put her hand up and divulged that she was in fact on a dirty weekend with her male mistress, who was sitting next to her, while her husband was at home. It was quite hard to recover or even revert to poetry after that admission. I just wanted to ply her with more questions. I was told later on that the confession did make the audience rather uncomfortable.

6.   Where do you find inspiration for writing your poetry? How much of it is based on personal experience?

I suppose I find the inspiration everywhere. I always have a notebook and pen with me. In my naffness, I refuse to ever listen to an iPod of anything, in case the music distracts me and makes me miss something. It’s almost all based on personal experience – apart from the cannibalism poem.

7.   Do you tend to craft your poetry on paper or out loud? Where and when do you do most of your writing?

It’s a combination of both, usually. A turn of phrase usually comes to mind which I then speak aloud and then note down. I tend to do just as much composition while speaking aloud and walking in the fields as I do sitting down in front of my computer at my desk. However, I constantly read each line out loud as a way of hearing the line, hearing its musicality, whether it flows or scans or whether it jars and falls over itself.

8.   Who is your favourite poet and what is your favourite poem?

My favourite poet is Hugo Williams. My favourite poem is by Matthew Francis and is called Blizzard.

9.   What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring poets?

My most important advice is to remain tenacious. Keep sending poems out to poetry magazines. Draft an Excel Spreadsheet with the titles of poems down the side and the titles of different poetry magazines along the top to keep abreast of what you have sent out and what has been accepted and rejected.

Attend as many poetry readings as you can to road-test new poems and also to network. The poetry community is one of the loveliest groups of people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. It’s also a great way of getting gigs. Other poets either recommend you or poetry organisers happen to be there in the audience, not to mention occasionally editors.

Also I think it’s really important to workshop your poems, even if it means showing your poems to a poet whose work and opinion you trust, once a fortnight in the pub. Workshopping and receiving feedback is a brilliant way of becoming a better editor of your own work.

Sorry that was more than one piece of advice – it all boils down to the same thing fundamentally!

Further info:

clueless dogs

Clueless Dogs is published by Seren and is available to buy for £8.99.

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