|Welsh Writer Menna Elfyn in Malta|
(Dr. Mary Darmanin)
(The Sunday Times - 14 July 2002)
(Narcy Calamatta - maltastar.com - Thursday, July 25, 2002)
(The Malta Independent on Sunday, 28 July, 2002)
(Maria Grasso - maltastar.com - Saturday, August 17, 2002)
(Stanley Borg - The Times, May 3, 2003)
(Adrian Grima, Clare Azzopardi - Babelmed, 2003)
Menna Elfyn, an acclaimed Welsh writer of novels, plays and
poetry for adults, was in Malta
in July 2002 to lead a number of creative
writing workshops at St. James Cavalier organized by
Inizjamed. Together with Dr. Mary Darmanin she was
also a main speaker
at a public forum on “Woman Writing” that was held
on Wednesday, 17 July in the Music
Room of St. James Cavalier at 7.30pm. The general public
was invited to
attend and entrance was free.
Elfyn is Poet Laureate for children’s literature in
Wales. Although she doesn’t consider herself a “children’s writer”, she
loves writing for the 12-14 age group. “It's the perfect age to address,
challenging and difficult. It also reminds me of the joys of being a
mother, my children's love of life and I get strength from that.”
being brought to Malta by the Mediterranean cultural organization
Inizjamed in collaboration with the The British Council and with the
support of the foundation that runs the St. James Cavalier Centre for
Creativity. Her activities with Inizjamed were coordinated by Clare
Azzopardi (right) and Karen Vella.
years, Menna Elfyn taught Welsh literature at the University of Lampeter
and education at Swansea University. In 1991 she became a freelance writer
and now she teaches one day a week in the MA programme in Creative Writing
“A Christian Anarchist”
Menna Elfyn was born in 1952. She is a
poet, novelist and playwright who writes with passion of the Welsh
language and identity. Dense and elliptical, her poems restlessly search
for the spiritual within the earthly. She describes herself as a
“Christian anarchist” and critic M. Wynn Thomas calls her "one of the most
significant poets currently writing in Wales." Her “conspicuous moral and
political commitments… are always underwritten by her prior commitment to
language. Hers is a subtle politics of parable rather than polemic, and a
style in which vulnerability is the other face of daring."
When not travelling the world for readings, writing workshops, television work and theatre productions, Elfyn lives in Llandysul, where she is currently editing a major anthology of Welsh poetry in translation. "English," she says, "has enabled me to travel the world and be understood, but the Welsh language is my world."
Workshops and Forum in Malta
In Malta Menna Elfyn gave two sets of two creative writing workshops to small groups of people at St. James Cavalier. The first two sessions were for women (not necessarily writers) and were held on next Monday and Tuesday, 15 and 16 July, between 6.00pm and 9.00pm. The other two sessions were open for both men and women and were held on Thursday 18 July between 6.00pm and 9.00pm and on Saturday morning between 10.00am and 1.00pm. Participants were all over 18 years old. All workshops were three hours long.
public forum on Wednesday, 17 July at St. James Cavalier
organized by Inizjamed with the support of YMCA. Apart from engaging with
the audience on the subject of “Woman Writing”, Menna Elfyn read some of her latest work and talked about her novel Rana
Rebel. This is a novel about a child soldier who becomes a suicide
all that's happening in the world,” says Menna Elfyn about her latest
novel, “I do hope it doesn't get banned before it's read. Literature is
the perfect arena to discuss issues that are difficult. Children see
terrible images daily and they need to understand what it is that engages
young people in battles.”
started writing Rana Rebel (ISBN:
1843231735) “after visiting Sri Lanka, but I've
taken an active interest in child soldiers. It could be set in Nepal, in
Africa, in the Philippines, in Palestine, but it's set in nowhere, more a
kind of parable of this luscious place that could be paradise. And the
soldier is a girl. That in itself will raise questions I hope.”
Reading for a degree in English in the 1970s I became increasingly aware of the divide between the mainly male ‘canon’ promoted as worthy of attention on the course and my own personal interest in ‘invisible’ women’s writing. These works became a lingua franca of our shared young female life and circulated freely amongst friends. My first role model was Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest with her search for a woman’s way of being. Since then scores of others have validated our lives, given voice to our special subjectivities. Not object of another’s gaze, we are subject of our own stories. No subject is too mundane, too secret or too taboo. We write and read our bodies, sexuality, loves, children, politics, fear, anger, chores, hopes, desires, even our slippers, frocks and knickers! No god is too sacred. What pleasure, what solace, what ruptures, what calls (to arms?) these writings bring. Best of all they are shared, bringing us together, taking us out to others, as I hope the Forum will do.
Dr. Mary Darmanin
Menna Elfyn, a leading Welsh writer of novels and poetry who has recently been made Poet Laureate for children’s literature, will be in Malta to lead a number of creative writing workshops at St. James Cavalier and to present her latest work. She is being brought to Malta by the Mediterranean cultural organization Inizjamed in collaboration with the The British Council. She was interviewed by young Maltese writers Clare Azzopardi (right) and Karen Vella.
1. In your work you strive to promote the Welsh
language and its intrinsic link with identity.
It's true that I somehow promote the language in my writing but that's only because it IS my identity and the starting point of every writer is - who they are, where they live, what is important to them. It follows, that the language I speak and wish to write in, has an ambivalence to the outer world, having once been banned.
I can recall in school, people laughing at me and saying that I was speaking a 'dead language'. I agonised over this.After all my family were all alive and speaking the language as were my friends and community. Yet, officially, until we actively campaigned to change all that, insisting on Welsh being allowed to be official, the language was seen as a 'curse'. It also became my personal 'curse', My private language. If I couldn't speak it without it being deemed as less urgent than English then, I would write it, in diaries, in stories, in poems. Nothing gives a writer more energy than to be on the 'outside'. In fact the writer is always in exile.
The minority language is now accepted as official: schools, all government bodies, television, they all are part of a new confidence in the language. But the sad fact remains, only 20% of the people still speak it... and the new in-migration of English people to the west is a huge social problem for the language.
call yourself a "Christian anarchist". Why do you choose to wear these
I hate labels but it all started jokingly. I suppose I am really a post-Christian. My father was a preacher/minister and so I grew up with theology, loving Christ but hating the Yahweh of the Old Testament and so forth. Also, I feel a great disdain towards institutions (they have upheld a very male view of God). So I guess, I have a God-problem. I’m fascinated by religions, however, and regret the distance (wars) between them. At times I feel a Buddhist; when people attack Muslim faith, I feel I'd like to be a Muslim, and so it continues. That's where the anarchism is within me. It's a constant search, I guess, for the spiritual in life and that crucial question - how can we be merciful in this world?
Perhaps I should instead call myself an athiest Christian. That will really confuse people.
your latest collection of poems Blind Man's Kiss we encounter the
more mundane, yet intimate details of a woman's life. For example, you
talk about female underwear, and with humour delve into all the
social/sexual implications this carries for women. Why have you chosen
There are a lot of whimsical poems in Blind Man's Kiss. It is, in many ways, a happier book than Cell Angel [that was written while also writing a book on Violence for Save the Children Fund - and the poems there are rather sad].
This shows my true side, I hope. The quirkiness, the whimsical approach to life, the fun, the joy, along with some sombre moments. In Welsh, writing about 'sex' is almost a taboo subject and so I wanted to open it up by writing about it even if it made my usual admirers a bit fearful of where I was going and started all kinds of rumours about my personal life!
many of your works you combine traditional metrical forms and free verse
in a curious and interesting way.
I would need an hour or two to explain the strict metre, especially in Welsh.
We have unique forms here in Wales, and they stem from the 6th century. So it's very old and intricate. Basically, the words in a line have to be chimed, and echoed, with similar consonants all through the line, and sometimes, even with rhymes.
It is a form that takes years to master, and to learn it you need a master who knows all the minute rules and regulations. My father was able to write in this way, and I also played with writing these forms, when I was a teenager. (I still do - I'll write a short stanza in this form, sometimes daily, like playing the scales if you play the piano.] It keeps me in trim, But when I was trying to write, as a woman, I felt I had enough restrictions, and captivities without putting myself into this form of poetry.
So my poetry is free verse but laced with
the strict metre, like an underlay, so it's not noticed. There is
something very showy about those who write in strict metre in Welsh and
they hold long competitions drawing huge crowds. The battle is called
'cockpit'. Need I say more!
have edited two anthologies of poetry by women. What is your
Once again, when I started writing in Welsh, there were no women poets as such I could look up to. There was one poet, a farmer, but it was a very lonely existence. My second collection won a big prize, Waiting Rooms, poems written after losing a baby. The response was mixed. Some thought them crude and I guess it was because men had never had to read
about the life of a woman before.
My first anthology was a drawing together of some twenty poets in order to try and make a new tradition. But if I'm honest, the poems weren't very startling - they were very conservative as if the women wanted to
try and behave within this very old
tradition of poetry. When a new feminist Welsh press asked me to do a
second anthology, years later I was adamant that I would ask for daring
work, for no holds barred in the writing. And it worked. Many of the poets
were young, and have since published their own collections which is
exactly what I wanted to happen.
will be leading a series of four creative writing workshops in
Malta. How do you go about
your writing? Are you disciplined? What do you need around you; what do
I’m looking forward to the workshops even if I tend to do things there that I cannot do myself! It seems to work for others.
I take a long time to write anything, I'll write endless notes, grab epigraphs and read a lot... but being satisfied with a poem is another thing. I am very disciplined. I write in the mornings. I try and write till noon and if I have to do so, I'll allow myself more time in the afternoon. Letters, students, my column to the newspaper, endless things to do with writing but not 'real' writing.
It's all 'creative' in the end. I write long hand. I still don't trust computers. I like playing with ink, with nice paper, etc. etc.. And I like paints. Sometimes, I'll paint to get a charge and then return to writing. I'm no painter though. Pity!
have recently been made Poet Laureate for children’s literature in
Wales. What does this mean
This came as a complete shock to be made Poet Laureate, as it's an honorary position and most people don't really think of me as a children's writer. In fact, I'm not really, although I love writing [and have done books for children] for the 12-14 age group. It's the perfect age to address, challenging and difficult. It also reminds me of the joys of being a mother, my children's love of life and I get strength from that.
I guess it will mean less travel, (or so I read in a newspaper!), for one year anyway. I'll try and stay close to homeground though they understand my commitments in the US. I will edit a book for children before the end of the year and I've just written my first commissioned poem for a poster that will go into all schools in Wales. Then there's a television programme to present.
The work could be very exhausting, but very rewarding I hope.
8. Any future projects you'd like to tell us about?
I have a new novel coming out in October called Rana Rebel. It's about a child soldier who becomes a suicide bomber eventually.
With all that's happening in the world I do hope it doesn't get banned before it's read. I do think however that literature is the perfect arena to discuss issues that are difficult. Children see terrible images daily and they need to understand what it is that engages young people in battles. I started writing it after visiting Sri Lanka, but I've taken an active interest in child soldiers. It could be set in Nepal, in Africa, in the Philippines, in Palestine, ... but it's set in nowhere, more a kind of parable of this luscious place that could be paradise.
And the soldier is a girl. That in itself will raise questions I hope.
I've also been commissioned to write a 50-minute libretto for a composer I've worked with before and a television company will televise it. It's set in Brazil which means, I will probably need to visit there before the end of next spring. That’s going to be difficult with so many other commitments.
Then I also want to bring out a Welsh poetry book, my admirers deserve one since I haven't brought out a Welsh only book for more than ten years. That is why they are a little impatient with me, and rightly so.
It isn’t fair to them, that my work sells more copies overseas than in Wales. That's the good or bad side of the globalised poet. But my half a million Welsh speakers mean everything to me. They are in fact my muse. They are also my family. Though it gets a little crowded at times, and I'm scolded more often than praised for forgetting them. Which is why it is good to end this conversation with them in mind.
Published in The Sunday Times (14 July 2002)
to National Language - Or Lashes
Elfyn added that in
female poets had to fight against many prejudices. “When I write am I a
Welsh woman, or just a woman?” She explains that writers write to be read
as people not as labourers, blacks or Hindi. She quotes archbishop Desmond
Tutu, “We are people, through other people.”
does not apologise for her style. “When a new feminist Welsh press asked
me to do a second anthology, I was adamant that I would ask for daring
work, for no-holds-barred in the writing.”
Interviewed by Gillian Bartolo
(The Malta Independent on Sunday, 28 July, 2002)
Jack and Jill went on a course
It was learning through
Quite a list when one considers we are talking
about the two morning sessions, open to men and women, only for a
total of six hours.
We were allowed two to ten minutes to work on various stimulating exercises. We could write either in English or Maltese. Menna watched our facial expressions and reactions when a piece of work was being read in Maltese. She asked the reader and those around the correct questions to elicit their reactions. She must be a wizard I thought.
Any unfinished work or anything we were not happy
with, we redid at home. Next day we reread our work and received
assessments and encouragement from our peers and mostly of course,
from our tutor, herself. It was a beautiful experience and for most
of us a turning point.