Cracking through the hard earth – a creative writing day with Fiona Owen

It was a good way to begin the new year – a creative writing day. I suppose it was a bit like renewing a commitment. But the day became much more than that as I rediscovered old friendships and worked with a really interesting group of people. 

 I wrote a new poem, after Waldo Williams’ Eirlysiau translated by Tony Conran; then a ranty piece that examines the gap between  what we say and what we really mean or think, and finally I settled into the feelings of a poem -Just Thinking, by William Stafford, and it was the final line, ‘This is what the whole thing is about [.]’ that chimed and resonated with me.

It had not occurred to me that it was the feast of the epiphany until it was brought up in discussion. Certainly I’ve been writing and planning more and benefited from the words of  (mostly) American writers thoughtfully chosen by Fiona in the handouts. 

Part of my preparation has been reading about Senni in the parish of Defynog, working out how this strand fits into the family narrative -real and imagined – and learning about Chapels such as Brychgoed and accessing the parochial registers online. I’m indebted to other researchers who have documented the religious revival of 1808, to historians such as D Craionog Lewis, because far from being a rural backwater, Senni was a lively place, peopled with colourful characters. Moreover they had a strong faith, their independence shown in their non conformist choices.So for the past two weeks I have partially inhabited their world: working out how the move from Defynog to Swansea occurred, learning that my great grandfather was a boarder in Llansamlet with relations who were Defynnog-born ( it was a lucky guess and I was relieved to confirm it in the 1911 census). There were a few occasions when John and Elizabeth, and John’s  parents ,William and Margaret,  took on a life of their own  and were tangible. I dreamt of them, and of clear streams and woods , of their farmhouse surrounded by beech trees and oak trees. The sound of the river is real and I wonder if it is more of a memory…. 

So with all this in mind I wrote the following: this is what the whole thing is about: Buckets of memories -my memories, their memories, family memories and shared memories down the generations, making myths of of our family. 

One such myth was landownership. My family were tenant farmers- indistinguishable from the labourers who lved and boarded with them. Labourers, servants, farmers’ wives, shunted from land by the military and the absentee landlords whom historians still tell us were not all that absentee after all. Indeed my ancestors were agricultural workers barred from progress because language was a barrier. 

Monoglot, then, becomes a dirty word for historians, making my ancestors land dumb. But the thing is  this. Ancestors lived and died in a rural parish ; and were buried in the black earth with the musical name of Defynog. The other thing is this: Each time I take a detour it’s just like coming home to my ancestors, to the green hills  and to the farms and to the cool flowing river Usk,  and home to the musical names of the Senni, Usk Glyntawe -to the Fellte, Llynfell. Here is my map the compass points of a mystical home , yet one that was never ever mine. 

Crai,  Abercrave! Craig y Nos, Cwmgwrdi -The source of the Tawe, the course of the Usk . Then there is the navigational canal with 16 miles which were all it took to change life from rural Welsh to  industrial English, from clean to polluted, from farming to Copperopolis, from shoeing to smelting  -exchanging in poverty for poverty and lodging with relatives depleting the parish of 4000 migrants leaving holes in the community. This is what it’s about the place where my ancestors were born

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