On Writing ‘Madness’ and ‘The Sea Laughed and the Stomach Blushed’ / Rhea Seren Phillips

I wrote ‘Madness’ to express the strangeness of the mind. This madness does not depict a Miss Havisham nor a Hannibal the Cannibal form of insanity but a madness that makes a normal person a stranger to themselves. It is a strangeness that resides within our daily lives. The poem has been written in a villanelle form and it is this circular momentum that climaxes with a statement of intent that emphasises the desperation of the narrative. The poem is connected with nautical imagery, especially that of a seagull, a bird which is present throughout the history of Welsh literature. In poetry a seagull takes on the responsibility of leading the lost home and leading the undesirable lost. The poem is not concerned with writing about a stunning coastline but rather about being snagged, removed from the known and thrown into the strange and dangerous without control over one’s own mind and actions.

‘The Sea Laughed and the Stomach Blushed’ details the unruly and shadowed landscape of Wales in the winter while the reference to plastic places it firmly in a modern timeframe. It explores how we can be strangers to our cultural identity and language that have been with us since birth, living within a community while also bordering it. The poem doesn’t want to create an idyllist view of Wales and the reference to plastic is meant to draw the reader’s eye to some of the issues that the Welsh coastline is currently facing such as the increase of plastic in our oceans and overfishing.

The narrative of ‘The Sea Laughed and the Stomach Blushed’ is not a bias against Wales or England. The voice is that of an Anglo-Welsh individual who keenly feels the language at the tip of their tongue but is also a stranger to it. The poem is about a detachment with a Welsh cultural identity and the corrosive dialogue that surrounds it. It is of no surprise that this poem was originally part of the creative response of my PhD study but because it isn’t written in Welsh poetic form or metre (although it is influenced by it) I decided that it would be better suited being placed elsewhere.

My voice is not an easy one to distinguish and my work will never be described as nice without a “but…” at the end; my style of poetry is violent, chaotic and uses fact to create a fantastical world that borders our reality. My poetry is unconventional yet it is strongly informed by tradition. It seamlessly blends the old with the new and uses dense language underpinned by references to Welsh and global mythology. It is grandiloquence taken to the extreme but there is always a thread of sanity running through my work that grounds the poem against its own complexity. My poetry seeks to take the reader on a journey but it is not always an enjoyable or straightforward one.

There are two men that cannot be ignored when you read my poetry. My English Literature lecturer, Jon Evans, who was the first person I met who had so much passion and energy for his subject that it was infectious. I owe a lot to him for giving me the opportunity to continue onto higher education while still treating me as an independent and intelligent student. When I started the MA at Swansea University in 2013, I met Professor John Goodby who is responsible for informing my poetic style to the point where ‘Madness’ and ‘The Sea Laughed and the Stomach Blushed’ became possible. Jon gave me confidence in my creative abilities while John focused my creativity into something worth pursuing (it is strange that the two men I have come to greatly admire have basically the same name).

In Professor John Goodby’s MA seminar, I was fortunate to be in a classroom of two, me and Natalie Ann Holborow (And Suddenly You Find Yourself, Parthian). It was being amongst a remarkable poet such as Natalie that I found myself trying to see if I was able to find my own expression of that poetic turn of phrase that made her writing so striking. She is one of the few poets I know who can make a common fish sound like a mythical creature. She was my inspiration for what poetry could be and I made my best attempt to rise to the challenge of portraying it. Before this module my poetry was fairly unremarkable. I wrote epithalamium (wedding and occasion) poetry with the odd heartbreak hotel thrown in for good measure. It was during this module that I discovered my voice which can be seen in the two poems. I also developed a love for form which was introduced to me by Professor John Goodby, followed by Welsh poetic forms and metre which I came to know through Mererid Hopwood’s book Singing in Chains. There is something beautiful about creating a poem from a restriction and adding your voice to a poetic tradition that has exists for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

I write to be part of an innovative conversation within Wales that inspired my writing throughout my time as an MA and PhD student. I have been described as a strange and “interesting” poet and it has taken me a long time to discover where I fit, if I fitted in at all, in the world of poetry. I am now comfortable with the continued progression of my poetic style (I am still a student, after all) but I understand how far from the expected my work can be. As my poetry is not far from my own perspective and view of the world then perhaps I shouldn’t be all that surprised that it is slightly disturbed and more than a little bit of a social outcast.

Rhea Seren Phillips is a PhD student at Swansea University. She is studying how Welsh poetic forms and metre could be used to reconsider, engage and accurately represent the changing cultural identity of modern Wales. Rhea has been published in Cheval 10, Cultured Vultures and The Conversation. She runs Grandiloquent Wretches, a Patreon page that combines poetry, art and audio. 

© Rhea Seren Philips, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.