Gwyneth Lewis: Writing Poetry

Stanford University welcome everybody to how I write Hilton Open zinger I'm the Associate Director of the Human Rights enter I worked with honors and advanced riders and this is an event co-sponsored by continuing studies program and especially tonight the Stanford Humanities Center which is where we are as well as the Creative Writing Program this is a series that's been going on for eight years now of conversations with writers of all sorts poets novelists engineers chemists historians political scientists at a university or in life a lot people have to write in all sorts of ways especially at the university even if they're mathematicians and we want to discuss with people the different ways that people approach writing the different work habits the different style issues that come up all those sorts of things and in the course of eight years the one thing that we've found out is that people are incredibly idiosyncratic and have their own very firmly established habits styles of doing things and it's been quite a learning experience finding out the different ways that people do it if you saw in the Stanford reports today there was an article about how I write on web and you saw some of the quotes of some of the things that ways that people work and you can check that out if you want on the Stanford website today any case really a pleasure to have a conversation like with Gwyneth Lewis who is a now I'm not going to get this right the creative what's the official at the the Community Center and the Stanford Institute for creativity marks an emergency okay appropriate for Welsh so okay so so when after spending the year at Stanford working on projects and has a really extensive career as a poet as a nonfiction writer as a radio documentary producer playwright television also playwright the librettist did I leave anything out in terms of genre that's about it right and she was the first Welsh national poet in 2005 and as the one book that we have here is a collection of her books and of poems in English called chaotic angels but they're also here pointing to these because though for sale to an about the true story of a marital rite of passage and and a classic title and a terrific book sunbathing in the rain a cheerful book on depression and so a wide range of styles are wide range of approaches genres to writing and the way that we do this is pretty straightforward I invite our guests to say whatever she was like about writing and then I engaged in questions conversation for a while for about a half hour and then we open it up for all of you to engage in the conversation as well now there is a little wireless microphone in the back we don't really need it to amplify in here but one of the things that we're doing is that we are recording this so that it would go on the Stanford on i2 where you can go now there's at least one on YouTube but Stanford and iTunes and some of the conversations are up there you go to the arts and humanities section and then scroll down to featured contributors and see the how I write icon and there are about 10-12 of the more recent ones that are up there now that are fascinating if you're if you want to learn how Leonard Susskind who is into physics writes or Terry Castle the last one we did here at the humanity Center professor of English have she writes so that's the wide range so welcome everyone and welcome to enough and so any opening thoughts about how you write well I suppose I'll give a bit of background it's really good to see everybody here tonight there thank you so much for coming on not very nice evening weather-wise I'll give you a bit of background about how I started to write because there's a whole history that we have that develops with with a an activity like writing I started completely out of the blue when I was 7 years old and I think it was a wet Easter holiday and we couldn't play outside so for some reason I decided to write a long poem in rhyme about the rain and you know it's long and it's very very bad except it has some things rhyming you know but it has a child called day or and he's smoking simply because it has to write you know I needed the rhyme word so I was being pushed around by words at that point with experience you get pushed around less by them I think or you learn stand up for yourself so I wrote from a very young age and discovered that there was a local paper in wealth and I was writing in Welsh at this point because we speak Welsh at home and there was a club where you could earn money by winning a competition writing so this was a great incentive I thought book tokens it was that's right so I would put in poems for that and then I think some of the unselfconsciousness to do with children's writing disappeared at the age of twelve or so because then we went to high school and writing poetry is not a cool thing to do at that age but I wasn't particularly concerned with being a cool person but but I think I did suffer internally for for doing the thing that it was I suppose I feel it's a compulsion and I do know that whenever I have tried not to write in life I've been deeply unhappy so it seems to be a non negotiable item in my life I have tried to do without it so as you can see from that statement I feel somewhat ambiguous about being a poet later on I went to Cambridge to study English literature which is not guaranteed to help you write at all because you become so daunted by the literary canon that it completely shuts you up but I think it's a very good training to be a reader which every writer needs to be a reader as well and then I got completely stuck because the big issue of which language to write in reared its head so I didn't want to go back to Wales because it would have been too difficult to write in English there because of my my own community being a Welsh speaking one and I didn't want to stay in England because writing in Welsh was considered so eccentric it was on a par with Morris dancing I don't know if you know about Morris daddy thing but if you know the men dancing with the little bells it's regarded in that way which is not the way it's not an encouraging way to be regarded as a writer so I came over to America and found a wonderful to missamma permissiveness here and was encouraged by some writers that I rated and well the whole world rates but by some world-class writers too to begin writing in English and to allow myself to follow to allow my writing to follow a creative trajectory of its own and to let my life follow it not the other way around that's the way I think I believe it happens for me my life comes out of the writing my writing doesn't come out of my life and it's quite spooky sometimes when you look at your own work in retrospect in UCR that was already there you know before I lived it so we spent three years in America and became very influenced by American poetry and then went back and got got some books written and I think see one of the big discoveries for me and while I was in create a writing school they didn't teach you like they they taught you how to revise and technical things but they didn't teach you about the whole life thing about writing and learning that has been a big education for me for example that you know the need for discipline ah you know that that it it's always worthwhile presenting yourself at a regular time whether you feel inspired or not in fact writing has very little to do with feeling it has to do with regularity and a permissive attitude towards your subconscious so for me that means more or less rolling out of bed and getting straight to writing in fact I have difficulty getting out of my pajamas somedays because I'm writing from the first thing in the morning while my dreams are still vivid and I do dream a lot there and that started dreaming solve a lot of my problems there's also the feeding you're writing that that needs to happen and that means research it means reading it means educating yourself in areas that are not to do with writing it means looking after yourself I mean there's this whole mess of be unhappy right here which I think I mean I think and the happiness comes to knock at our doors in life often enough that we don't need to invite it so I think we actually have to look after ourselves physically and psychologically and I do to the best of my ability and that's how you get some writing done so that's a kick off you know there's a lot of things that you just raise that I would want to follow up with and maybe hopefully I will but I want to do something a little bit unusual for me you know by the way speaking of writers taking care of themselves we have books for sale thank you sign no what are you working on now and how that's what's unusual usually started a little bit earlier than work up but and what has that process been just whatever it is now I believe you were working on a play other things know you're behind the times and since since I saw you I've been writing my first novel ah yes I was commissioned by a press in Wales to do a real retelling of a medieval Welsh Miss called the map well as one of them called the mabinogi on and there's a mist which is about a woman made out of flowers and it's it's a very interesting story it has rape people turning into animals incest brothers having to live as man and wife it's a lovely story so I've just rewritten that as a science fiction novella so I've just given that first draft in and you're quite right at the same time I'm working on two plays which have been commissioned by theaters in Wales and they are retelling of the retellings of the Clytemnestra story you've heard some of that because we did a reading at the Clayman Institute so they staged plays are a new form for me as is the novella so I'm trying out a lot of different things and it's a great very exciting thing to be able to do I've discovered I've got carpal tunnel syndrome and I've discovered that writing more words has its has its price it does indeed and whereas we you know writing poetry is a few words much thought but at the same time member I'm working on my next book of poems and I've just brought out a book called a hospital Odyssey which is an epic poem about well what it says a journey through a hospital and that I think is going to be on Amazon and available on Amazon soon now it's interesting two of the projects are commissioned yes so in some ways you've been given them yes I have to work that's right to respond for tonight yeah yeah but what's also interesting in the way that hospital Odyssey I didn't know about but you also have written I find it really kind of fascinating about the shuttle oh yes yes space exploration I love the idea of being the writer in residence in the Department of astrophysics that's right in the University of Cardiff so you go into a lot of different directions for material or for interest I'm interested in a lot of things yes and so how now given the the myth story then jumping off into it being science fiction like what was the process for you in terms of thinking about that and thinking there through well I only said yes to the Commission because I had an idea because I mean imagine being commissioned to do something that you hadn't no idea what you might do it always has to be a technical problem for me to be interested in it in writing you know how can I make a space journey interesting because that you've mentioned the space poem there's a series of poems in year called zero-gravity and my cousin is an astronaut and we got invited out to the launch no astronaut language space language what a gift to a writer but then on the other hand without using it intelligently it could be deeply deeply boring and alienating you've just been showing off space language and there's little point to that that would just be vocabulary exhibitionism so at the same time as we were doing going to the launch my sister-in-law was dying of cancer so I started thinking about the broader theme of journeys and people going out of sight and whether they disappear or not and so on so forth so from from then on I knew I had a poem and then at the same time we had the hale-bopp comment came so we had three journeys at the same time did you see the hale-bopp it here it wasn't it wonderful yes so one thing feeds another do you know what I mean it's it's a question of putting two things or maybe three things together and seeing what happens between them it's never a question of just one thing in a room on its own you can't do anything with that so I immediately had an idea of doing I mean a lot of science fiction does use mythology as its basis anyway so I thought why don't I use it the other way and set the mythology in the science fiction and in fact I really enjoyed doing it except for the carpal tunnel problem but I think you have that the secret is with working with Commission's and I'm quite used to that because there's national poet for example they would say right we're opening a new wealth Parliament building it's a kind of wall once-in-a-lifetime event write a poem please now talk about stress because you know that everybody in Wales is going to bitch about this poem because they'll say well I could have done better and they're quite entitled to say so so how to do something that is true to your own abilities as a poet into your own interests while not while not missing the public occasion and it's a fine balancing act but in Wales we're quite used to doing this because poetry has a role in public life or even in private life as a form of entertainment almost so it never seems to me a difficult thing to be said I mean you could say to me now write a poem about a tree which has got a crow in it and a pink bicycle and I would sort of get interested once you've thrown in the pink bicycle you know yes you know because there's got to be a way of making it work but there's no pink bicycles no no no the building on the back of the book there that's the Wales Millennium Centre which is this theater and I've written words which are there six foot high on the front of the building and the way that happened was I mean again I sort of commission except it was at the last minute they had been trying to find words for a long time and hadn't managed it and the chief executive said would you have a go gwyneth we've got a weekend to do it to describe the aspirations of a new building a new theatre so I thought well there's nothing to lose you know so I had a go at it and we came up with something that we liked and it's great in Cardiff now it's become almost a symbol certainly for Cardiff almost Wales people you know they get you see the building on the news as an image for Cardiff yeah exactly like that and people say I'll meet you under the words you know which is nice I like that in these stones horizon sing know the national wealth National Opera Company is in that building as a resident among other theatre companies and writing organisations and so on so forth well so one of the things that of the ways talk about writing and commission etc people have this notion of poetry especially being this magical inspirational right okay and you ought to there are many there are many ways well yes I mean it's I think you there is a way in which poetry is a very shy animal and it comes only if you stand still for it and you have to treat it like as if you were stalking an animal and if you make a lot of noise yourself it's not going to come to you you need to keep keep quiet a lot of the time and know when not to talk and to notice little nibbles I keep a notebook and there are little nibbles that come to me during the day something of the back of my mind that ID or something that somebody else says and they get lost unless you pay attention to them and write them down so there is a stalking aspect to poetry there is also good old-fashioned thinking that can create a poem and I think poetry and you know great poetry is perhaps some of the most intelligent cerebral activity that you can have so it's not just a question of getting carried away by emotion there's there's many many more fibers to it than that but I'm afraid it is rather stubborn and you have to allow it to come rather than to take to it that doesn't work as we know well you explain the one at least one way that you work is rolling out a bit in the morning in your pajamas that's always helpful and so is that the mean time for the daily mornings are good for me yes I think simply because there's less of the front of your brain activity going on you're not cluttered up I mean for example I could never listen to the radio in the morning because I need to be listening to the radio in my brain which hasn't isn't quite quiet yet so I find that very helpful in fiber nearly when I moved in with my husband we nearly parted ways because he wanted to have a conversation over breakfast I said this can't continue you know so he's learnt he knows not to talk to me in the world well do you the whole process of revision and now I've got a race revision yeah that doesn't happen in the morning or does it I mean I've been until recently very much not a reviser because everything came in the first draft I would get one line right and then move on to the next line but recently I've become interested in revision as a process of its own perhaps it has to do with the fact that I've written a lot of formal poetry and just having finished you know six thousand lines of a hospital Odyssey I'm interested in free verse at the moment because I've done a lot of rhyming rhyming is quite different from free verse if you write a lot of rhyme there is a way in which you're a rhyming from the end of the line backwards and you don't know how you're going to get from one rhyme word to the other but somehow it comes and that liberates the subconscious and comes up with some very and unexpected connections whereas with free verse it's more the rhythm of thought I mean there is of course rhyming internal rhyming and a metrical measure that's going on that has to be kept whole but as you change the thought the shape of the poem changes so I'm actually revising a lot at the moment and enjoying that process and revision for prose is yes revision yes or more I prose I find it easier than poetry in some ways it's getting the exact right word every time isn't as crucial it's it's more the rhythm of the narrative that you to get right if you don't get that right and if you don't get the clarity of the storyline right you've had it then so I think the the crucial part of prose laid lies in a different area of its body you know in sunbathing in the rain which is a marvelous book in a hybrid of a personal account and reflection and advice you you actually write quite a bit about writer's block yes the kind of blocks that you had particularly with two languages and cultures and the thing that you described at the beginning of freeing yourself up to come by coming to the u.s. anyway and so I was wondering what happens now when you get stuck I want to ask you about writer's block because you wrote a book that has so much of that in there right but have things changed for you in terms of those moments where you go hmm now what well there's there's there's a kind of amnesia for this process that goes on I mean whenever I say to my husband I'd never gonna write again and he says you always say that and I said I've never said it before and he says yes you have and it's always a sure sign that something's about to happen and then the other way the other thing is this is too difficult I can't do it and he says you always say that and I say I've never said it before I really mean it and he's that's part of the process I I don't think of writer's block as writer's block I think I think there are reasons there are various reasons in your life that you're not honoring the craft or the art and I've always seen it as for me there's a connect between not having the right to kind of address to poetry and things not going well in life and that includes suffering from depression whereas I think if you have a healthy take towards things like not knowing which you have you spend a lot of time not knowing whether you're dealing with rubbish or not as your right not being sure if it's going to work out that's what you spend a lot in that time in that territory you learn not to be quite as daunted by these these conditions and you learn with experience to not let it ruin your the rest of your life because you know you also have to carry on living so you come back do you do let's say write something that's totally you know unsuccessful just satisfying yes put it away come back to it I always keep them and you never know you never know but I have to have a lot of unsuccessful things in the drawer yes I do and that's the beauty of writing is you don't have to do it in public and that we don't have to show anything that we don't you know I think is okay all right speaking of public let's open up the discussion for everyone here now whoever starts first gets the microphone and again we want it so that you'll be on the recording not that we have to broadcast in the room here and then when you're done if someone else wants to speak pass it to that person okay so here we go listen to your carpal tunnel I'm wondering do you use these same tools to write poetry or prose or the various or at the various stages in your writing you know when do you go to the when do you go to the keyboard when do you write with a pen or a pencil er I mean it's a couplet novella have done for my carpal tunnel I I write poetry with on on paper with a fountain pen it's a question of respect and of being dressed properly for the mousse although you can you can write it with anything I'm not fetishistic about it you know that is my preferred method but I will write right with anything prose gets done on the computer and yeah that's that's basically how it works but the poetry I kind of need to see the whole thing and it's possible as usually is possible to see the whole thing yes but I'm rather old-fashioned in that way would you like them yeah pass the mic over here it'll take a moment that way we'll be assured yes well part of the skill of writing over a long period of time is trusting your subconscious to come up with a solution that's better than what you would deliberately think I come up with lines I little snatches of words that come up in I mean I'm sure this happens to everybody not just poets things that come in the middle of the night you think oh yes of course what why didn't I think of that I think there's also a good method in let's say I swim a lot and I get quite a lot of ideas as I'm swimming it's a question of taking your mind off the intention to do anything and there's that paradox isn't it then you fulfill your intention by not aiming for it I think it's part of that but I did write once a dream a line of poetry which I haven't been able to use ever and it's something to do with spent rocket fuel and I thought that was the most poetic thing I've ever heard it's lousy but I thought it was pretty impressive in my sleep you know other people I was gonna have some follow up with what you're saying there why do well I know that well think when you're swimming and you come up with an idea a lot of people do this it's it's it may be the outfit whatever it is but it is this thing where you're distracted yeah so to speak so that you can then think about it I know this happens with students in my classes all the time because they're looking at me and I know they're thinking about something else no you have to park them somewhere where do you put well I park him there um and it's a spatial thing in fact I remember asking some poets in Wales where their muse was in relation to their body and everybody had a different answer you know for some people it was there for some people it was there it's it's because you know when things are going well it's a physical sensation I've heard people say it's a bit like a headache in the temples my stomach is where it goes I know it's in my stomach so yes but I think you have to lock it off in some form and have an Amana k– I mean I do lose bits involved but I usually have a mnemonic using the first letter of the of the sort so if I'm thinking of how I say peppermint if I come up with a line about peppermint tea for example I would say right number one peppermint P and then something else would be a no but quite often I get what the P in the O stands for so they do get lost but it tends to work most of the time well especially swimming it's very hard to jot something know do you ever get ideas of the shower this is something else I found summer is very good washing dishes is very good yes it is yes there is one professor here get so many ideas in the shower she put up a grease pencil board and actually writes in the shower that's interesting yeah so pass the microphone back there I'm curious about bilingual skills one sees a poet's work translated or an author's work translated into another language have you ever tried translating a Welsh poem of yours into English or vice versa and have it how does that scan for you well um it's an interesting process I don't like to translate my own work I find it boring because I've already done one poem and there there is a way in which there are two different audiences for the two different languages so I want to write a completely separate poem but when I have translated literally I can do it in one draft straight off with the rhymes in the right places so it's as if there was another version going on at the same time in my subconscious so even one one language is being written to were there so there's something strange there's a shadowing one language shadows the other I believe yes you wouldn't expect it English and Welsh relief not really no and in fact metrically they're quite different oh yes yes we do rhyme to the enth degree internal rhymes assonance Occidental rhymes oh goodness me in fact wealth strict meter poetry makes the sonnet look like free verse yeah so it's extremely intricate and ancient here we go you mentioned the distinction that you're writing emanates from yeah life and the life Springs from the writing yeah could you elaborate on that distinction oh yes that's a that's a creepy one it's it's something to do with the fact that I can only live my life fully by integrating writing into that and it's writing is not a thing that happens post facto after you've done something the whole process of perception these happening as you write otherwise it's not creative writing its expository writing which is different because the realization is embodied in the form of the work so I can't possibly know something before I've written about it now you know I have a I like to eat I have to earn a living you know there are ways in which one has to plan and live a normal life but psychically there's something about getting writing gives you a second body and it's it's a strange kind of double life because the second body is not quite the same as the first there's a kind of impersonality to the second body that is almost akin to just practice for me it's not a religion that's different but the discipline of it is is cause on many of the same strategies so for me for me it is a spiritual matter and I can only in visit your future through knowing what I've done in this second body I think that's as much as I could say about it because it is a mysterious process but I have heard it said about in you know four novelists that they can look back at their work and see that they then live it after in a more narrative way it's not quite as clear the relationship perhaps in poetry do you ever find that the pot well yeah I think you sort of said there's the poem writes you you know that is that that's a very good way of putting it because in fact the poem changes you and you know when Yeats are talking about the perception or the perfection you could have either the perfection of the life or the work I think he's talking really about which is the final destination for you and I think that perhaps there two stages of the same process not two two opposing entities well and you ever get a sense of like channeling someone else's voice is coming through you that you're you are speaking for example I think of the myth I'm laughing because I think I think I have this ability enough channeling my own voice so hello is there somebody there but it is but it is is actually not me Gwyneth spice it's a kind of other input more impersonal Gwyneth but it comes through my persona I don't mean to sound as if it's a Ouija board thing it's not but I will I have had a rather spooky experience of noticing an image in my poems which would be quite long ago and then to realize that actually oh goodness me that image became more important in my life not less and that you know images to do say was going to see and my husband and I did end up going to sea and sail in quite a long way we went from Wales to North Africa just in a two-handed boat so and that came out of metaphor really there's a way in which you exchange metaphors and you live them and you live and you live things and you exchange there's a exchange that for metaphor is that there's an economy going on between figurative language and the lived life that is is quite thrilling and that's the good bit about being a writer just be careful of your metaphors could be dangerous yes I think that's a very important point I think of some writers whose metaphors may have got them into – yeah yes I think that's true where is what you want to follow up on that oh you have control over that you have control over that maturity you're seeing something as an image in your poetry and then later in like respectfully looking back and saying oh oh yeah I you know I'm doing this because later that was like brewing around in my subconscious for a while so do you you thinking that when you're writing like you know you're not going to go with it no it's a it's a question I think you're I'm not aware of it one isn't aware of it if if you were aware of it you you would write well you're terrified or you would try and write the wrong things you would inevitably write the wrong things and you'd be doomed and go mad and it would be a terrible thing I mean I think you can only it only works that way if there's the the way in which you do have some control over it is a meticulous attention to honesty and to making sure that you use that the expression of what you mean is as accurate as it can possibly be if there's a cloudiness in any of that I think I mean I have had the experience where you can run into trouble psychologically and things become rather unmanageable yeah someone back there one up and sit back and as you're passing it let me ask you did have you gone through a stage of imitating I'm still doing it I mean of course you learn and learn and learn from everybody and I think the aim is to be a sort of porous person you know we're not yes I use everything I can get my hands on and then my ears are flapping you do you should be very careful what you tell me because I use it but writers steal I mean there there's a whole kind of debate discussion about that and plagiarism well there is there is an issue of plagiarism which has a strict legal definition but in terms of influence I mean I think writers that that is one of the ways you cut your teeth as a writer and I think isn't going to continue to grow you have to continue to to read and be admitting people with different points of view and different rhythms into your into your mind yes I mean true sit in what he said about the pervasiveness and richness of rhyme in Welsh verse yes and also what something that you said in an interview that was in the Stanford report where you talked about how the Welsh language has lots of consonants but that there are soft edges and that's rub molecules off of each other whereas English makes the road straight by force that's it that's it would you recite something yeah a verse for us in wealth yes I can recite just a little verse but this is this is how strict it is Stephen you tell Kyra will be Gibby Dekker podiatrist II with I wrote long Nyassi Alfred on only for doing knee now that's just a four liner but the metrical patterns in that there are their common correspondences of accent a consonants rhyme and yeah consonants I think that covers it all and then some internal rhymes as well so it's it's it takes a lifetime to learn this skill and in fact when I was 14 or so I got invited to to go with the local poetry group which is a group of middle-aged men to go and learn how to do this because you you have to be trained in it but I was very shy because these men you know they were always I got very shy I'd have to explain a bit more about that but but I was taught and a teacher of mine in school I used to go to her classroom I run away from my friends and go off to write poetry in the break she would teach me this system and markets you know it could be correct or incorrect so I was very grateful for that teacher for teaching me that but it's not my preferred mode of writing but there many many people do practices and you know there are national competitions in it which are extremely popular because a lot of this verse is comic as well as profound so does that answer I know the Welsh choral tradition is very rich oh yes something separate but we do like we like talking and we like doing things together yeah well one thing though that you just raised about going to the the writing group with the middle-aged men yeah as a 14 year old girl what is the gender dynamic I know asking Yvonne Boland about being a poet as a woman in Ireland was not easy no no well you know I was welcomed by this group and but I didn't feel comfortable because they were very kind so I can't say that they didn't allow me into the group they did but I mean I remember being told as a teenager oh well you can't be a poet because you're the muse I thought this is this is an example of the metaphor being wrong for a woman in fact the muse is not a person at all it's it's an aspect of language no it's taken me a long time to work that out but I found that extremely destructive comment for a long time because it's quite hard to allow yourself to to make fool of yourself on paper which is what you do first of all before you have worked on your poem and before you are experienced enough to know what might work or might not so there are there is a group of upcoming and the current wealth snap of women poets in Wales who were leading poets in fact you could say now that most of the leading poets are women the current national poet is a woman so I think the and I'm thinking about this increasingly that there is a particular female aspect towards language which is different from the male one and it's a very difficult thing to pin down because we are male you know male and female in our brains you know I believe in one person is yeah you had spoken before about coaxing poetry as a shy animal what was your experience bringing forth the plays and the novella plays are very difficult they're the most difficult thing I've done I'm right in first place so you know that there's the poetry in them but I thought I find the disciplines of ensuring that the action isn't just something decorative is very difficult and that thing of catching the way people speak to each other I don't know I just lost an admiration for playwrights because it is really difficult but on the other hand it's a uniquely rewarding medium because you're using somebody else's body isn't that fantastic I mean a group of them you know megalomania it'd be great but no I found the plays very difficult but enjoyable in a nightmarish kind of way because I am writing about the Clytemnestra myth and then which is pretty potent stuff psychically you know but well but in in in writing a play you have this other element of revision so to speak maybe more immediate than writing upon which is workshopping yes audiences that's reviews imagine I'm going to be rewriting till the very last minute on the place because the you know that the many of you hear it in a voice you know what works and what doesn't it's it's a terrifying medium I think um yes I think the the collectivity of it and the way in which you need the input of so many people to make the same work it makes it highly skilled I think really an extraordinarily difficult medium yourself changing or adapting at all to try and meet the pressures of that process that's different from the writing of the poetry well this is but this is part of a process I'm going to be discovering because I haven't even workshops yet and that will happen later on this year so I'm going to learn a lot more I mean I'm completely new to this experience but one thing that I think helps is that I've always thought of poems as little theatrical pieces with always a speaker I mean I always teach my students to know who your speaker is and to imagine who the shoes what you know if you don't know what kind of shoes the speaker in a poem is right it is we is wearing you there's something wrong with the poem so that I guess isn't fairly theatrical but it's different from writing a proper play it really is I you said we're all male and female within our brains I'm curious as to what you mean by that well I'm not a neuroscientist but it seems to me that there are ways in which for example if you're educated I think the education is perhaps taught of surprise the more traditional male at characteristics of you know being cerebral I mean this is all caricature I feel embarrassed even hearing myself saying this but um you know clarity logic I mean I don't buy that the female side is the less clear you know that is not true because I think that perhaps the thief the female side is more clear but I'm in the I don't know quite how to describe this yet I don't have the language for it it's it's I mean I was talking to well I I won't speculate about that because I'm not too clear but I mean I believe that there was talking to one lady in Harvard last year who was saying that there really is no difference between the male brain and the female brain and there's a hormonal difference but there's certainly a different social experience that would change your voice anyway because what you have to do with your voice in order to be heard is different so the pitch is different that's one thing I do know if anybody has the answer to that question I'd love to hear it several things you said they come into wondering uh to what extent does your process is a writing and maybe a general thinking word oriented and to what extent is it visual for instance when you're writing up poem you were describing the speaker there like a strong visual component yes and when I did one of these questionnaires once it says are you a you know right side of the brain left side of the brain and I'm fairly ambidextrous so for me I think they're both because you're trying to press words into the service as the visual and the visual into the service of you know the words because we're always talking about something aren't we you know there's two ways of listening to a conversation you can listen to what is being said and you can listen to the way it's being said and they're usually quite different or they can be quite different I love you you know that's doesn't help your scenario going on there but you know it's it's and there's a third thing which the playwright would be interested in which is the body language so there's there's a way which all these things play against each other you know okay all can go together that's a good question hi hi I'm just wondering you were saying before that your plot you you don't always feel inspired when you write you have to apply some discipline do you find that like you you've written so many different types on reserve writing that you can switch between them effortlessly is it or or do you find that you've you have to sort of focus on one style and then maybe you don't write poetry for a while because it requires a different aspect and yes exactly that I mean I think there's a way in which I like to have one main thing going on but sometimes when things are going well I would be writing poems and then coming in to write a play and I would always put the poems first because they're the most elusive whereas there's there are forms in which for me there's more willpower involved I mean for example with a commission there's the discipline of the deadline so I know I have to do a certain number of hours every day if I'm going to deliver so the way I treat myself is to say I need to deliver 250 pages to this person it doesn't have to be good I just have to deliver it and of course you make it as good as you possibly can but that's a particular commission discipline but the difficult things are the things that are unfolding that are uncertain and that that would be the poems and that that requires a bit more tender loving care that that's pajama time yeah um do you have you have children and was there a time if you do in your life where you know it was hard to tend to your own writing because other people you know had needs and there and how did you navigate that well I don't have children on my own I've got stepchildren and steppe grandchildren so I haven't brought up children myself but I think I think it's I've had it I've worked at a job at the BBC which was quite demanding I think there's a way in which you have to snatch I'm a great believer in the ten-minute rule you know that you can do if you do 10 minutes before going to work or before somebody wakes up you've got you've not done nothing and you can do a lot in 10 minutes it's surprising how much you can do in 10 and I think there have been times in life when I don't have the freedom to do what I like and I just concentrate on doing what I can I think that's that's probably all you can do but it's question of concentration for those 10 minutes and even if it means getting up early which I used to do before you know so that the rest of life didn't get everything hmm so imagine it's the same with children going around at a certain loss anything I want to say is thank you so much for sharing so personally I mean it's it's so different from what I get on a TV screen or something I mean this is you and maybe just to push that a little more it's almost inspirational to hear your description of being inspired and I'm wondering if you can just push on that a little bit to help explain it to us because it's really a beautiful thing that you're done to take your time to explain that well maybe it's impossible but I want to say thank you well thank you very much mm-hmm I don't know that I can say anything more about being inspired but amazing excuse me now then it's a quest it's really related to how you live your life for me it's a lived thing it's not an add-on and it's not an optional extra it comes out of little decisions made all the time to pay attention to this or not to pay attention to this flower and learn its name or not these are small decisions that are taken over many many years that then come into play when they were quiet and you don't do them thinking okay I'll learn the name for the Torah because I'll need it in the poem one day no you learn it because it's a pleasure to know what those flowers are called for me so I'm just consider myself very fortunate to have a medium in which those can come together those all those different pleasures but it does have its hazards as well you know it's not it's a pretty rough world out there for poets and playwrights and people of such kind so that qualities which are an asset while you're writing such as being open and uncensored of yourself become a liability in the political situations for example in which we often find ourselves anybody who has dealings with the world or in the commercial marketplace so there are there are difficulties and I struggle with those all the time but there we are so and that's not a very inspiring answer that's a realistic answer well you also you know you worked in BBC with deadlines you also worked as a journalist you did other kinds of writing that in some ways plays against or maybe with that kind of process right it certainly it's developed in you this the sensibility of writing is everyday work right that's something that that you do yes accept and and also the I'm and I loved working in the BBC and what was great about that was learning a certain kind of lack of fear about deadlines you know knowing what is required to get things done but you see this they always the possibility with a poem that it might not happen I've just was asked now today a few weeks ago to write a poem for a professor of astrophysics in Cardiff who is retiring would I write a poem and I'm thinking I'll try I'll try nothing came nothing came nothing came and I mean I really would like to write a poem for Mike you know and fortunately something came at the last moment but but it could not have and I just don't know and that requires a certain humility just out of curiosity when you were asked a question about inspiration and you chose an example of learning things you chose a hallucinogenic plant is that a coincidence have you ever tried to – Laura no neither of I except learning the name is enough for me thank you Father I being justice know about the effects if anybody here has tried it especially in your pajamas well maybe this is a good point to read about the doctor is outside anyone who would like it but what's in here are copies of with books and you're welcome to buy them and have you silent yes so do you thank you very much everybody for coming for more please visit us at

14 thoughts on “Gwyneth Lewis: Writing Poetry

  1. I guess time would not allow, but it would have been interesting to hear her say a bit more about how her later poetry is informed by her early grounding in the intricate and beautiful Welsh poetic form (known as 'cynghaneddd'), whereby (in brief and in essence) a seven syllable line is divided in two (where there is a natural break in the middle of the line – a caesure), then all the consonants appearing in the first half have to be repeated (in the same order) in the second half, producing a lovely chiming or echoing effect. So, for example, take a line like, "Guiness du / o gynnwys da" (meaning – "Black Guiness of benificent content." (!). Here all the consonants in the first half ( g-n-s-d) ar repeated in the second half. It is a technical craft which does become a habit, ingrained and somewhat irrepressible!

  2. I can relate to the second body / almost spiritual mysterious process comment and the poem writing you in this lovely candid conversation . Thanks for the gems Gwyneth Xxx.

  3. Edifying responses, comments, and obiter dicta from Gwyneth. Re-watched this video after a long gap. There are some subtle observations I missed the first time round. The creative process is quite mysterious. It partakes of the aleatory as well as the advertent. Her stress on the androgyny of the Muse is quite significant. Your daemon is completely gender-free. It is free enough to be sexless or pansexual if it suits the context. A short poem by Theodore Rhoetke sums up the mystique quite succinctly:


    My secrets cry aloud
    I have no need for tongue
    My heart keeps open house
    My doors are widely swung
    An epic of the eyes—
    My love with no disguise.

    My truths are all foreknown
    My anguish self-revealed
    I am naked to the bone
    With nakedness my shield
    Myself is what I wear—
    I keep the spirit spare.

  4. thank you, good session. any recommendation for other video like this to learn poetry?

  5. Hello,my name is Cecilia Persson, im an swedish poet and writer and also sometimes take some shots, im also a member of sociity of friends both in Sweden and America, are so grateful for inspiration, its very hard to live in Fucking Sweden, idiots have to much power, it slowly makes you "crazy", love Cecilia

  6. Love this, gives me as an Swedish poet and writer, so much inspiration, thank you!

  7. I love how she ACTUALLY answers questions, great talk I picked up some useful tips.

  8. I write poetry and I'm proud of what I've got =D please give my stuff a look-see! I always comment/subscribe/back

  9. Once you have written a poem to be proud of why not enter it into our competition for the chance to win a large cash prize?

  10. God someone shut this guy up in the intro! On and on and on and on.

  11. this is beautiful. and that man leading the group is quite sweet.

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