‘A Broken Mirror Reflects Light Differently’ / An Interview with Robert Minhinnick

John Lavin

Robert Minhinnick (b. 1952) has been called ‘the leading Welsh poet of his generation’ by The Sunday Times. He has twice won the Wales Book of the Year for his collections of essays, Watching the Fire Eater and To Babel and Back. He edited the magazine, Poetry Wales from 1997 until 2008 and founded both Friends of the Earth Cymru and Sustainable Wales. He has won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem twice, for ‘Twenty Five Laments for Iraq’ and ‘The Fox in the National Museum of Wales’.

While Minhinnick’s latest collection Diary of the Last Man (shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot prize) is rooted in the dunescapes of the author’s home town of Porthcawl, it is also a work that is intrinsically internationalist in outlook. The long title poem is a wry, standing-ovation-worthy requiem for humanity, predominantly set on the Welsh coast but it could be argued that Minhinnick reserves his most powerful poetry for when he casts his eyes abroad.

The searing ‘Amiriya Suite’ revisits ‘a bunker in Baghdad destroyed by the USAAF on February 13, 1991’, in which ‘over 400 civilians were killed’. The reader is introduced to a female survivor that acts as a tour guide to the ‘charnel corridors’: ‘one body with four hundred souls.’ The collection draws to a close with ‘Aversions’, a series of translations / interpretations of Welsh, Arabic and Turkish poems, all of which conjoin with the rivers of desolation that sit at the heart of Minhinnick’s poetic vision. 

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John Lavin: Could you tell us something about your early life and your beginnings as a writer? Was there a moment when you knew that writing was what you wanted to do? Or was it something that you came to more gradually, overtime?

Robert Minhinnick: My parents both wrote, also my twin sister. My father wrote short stories and some were published in journals such as Herald of Wales. I wrote three novels, if I remember, around 1970. Really young! Then a ‘verse drama’, ‘The Night Before Winter’, 1972, recently rediscovered. Writing was…natural.

JL: And to follow on from that, can you remember a first significant breakthrough? A piece of work that made you think that writing was something you could make a career out of?

RM: About 1976 I was approached by Cary Archard to submit a manuscript of poems for the ‘Triskel’ series he was editing, on evidence of poems I was publishing around that time. I recall walking through Bridgend in the snow, having come from Penyfai. Then Cary invited me to attend a ‘poetry reading’ in, I think, what was Barry College of Education. The manuscript should have contained a suite of poems,‘ScrapIron Sculpture’, based on my experience of working for Bird Brothers, in Cardiff. That scrapyard and its people were a formative experience. I’m still using it as a source for writing.

JL: Do you have many memories of your first collection, A Thread in the Maze, and its reception? Do you see similarities between the writer you were then and the writer you have become?

RM: The collection appeared six months before I was married in late 1977, and I was already being introduced as ‘a poet’, publishing in magazines. But I’ve only ever thought of myself as a ‘writer’. The book contained poems about the scrapyard and the world around Penyfai. Evocations of what was a rural world and a ‘manorial’-type estate, Cwrt Colman, and the people who worked there. I still write in similar ways, homing in on tiny particularities, but the focus can also be broader, created by travel and politics.

JL: ‘Amirya Suite’ in your new collection Diary of the Last Man sees you return to the subject of Iraq, a country that you have said ‘changed your life’ when you first visited it. Amirya was an air-raid shelter that the Americans destroyed during the first Gulf War, killing over four hundred innocent civilians. You introduce us to Umm Ghada, ‘who goads God with her grief and the ghosts she carries’, by living on the site and acting as a guide to visitors. It’s an extremely moving poem, dealing with subject matter too painful to contemplate. It’s also rare for British writers to write about events in the Middle East like this. Could you perhaps tell us something of how and why you came to write the poem, and perhaps also a little about your relationship with Iraq?

RM: Since 1980 I’ve been a part of the environmental movement. I became aware of the issue of pollution caused by ‘depleted uranium’ around 1995, via the HTV programme Grassroots for which Margaret Minhinnick was presenter and researcher. Margaret and I worked on scripts from Saskatoon library, where I was a writer-in-residence. Eventually ‘depleted uranium’ used in armaments meant Margaret, myself and our daughter, Lucy, interviewing UK soldiers in Barry and Birmingham, then travelling around the USA, making a film.

We consulted government officials, pressure groups, and native people from the Navajo, Hopi and other indigenous nations.

The next stage of the film was myself entering Iraq with Beatrice Boctor, a funder of the project. We smuggled a Sony digital camera and lots of medicines into Iraq on a bus across the Badiet Esh Sham desert. Terrifying place. One of the places we visited was Amiriya and the poem relates what had happened there. There’s also a film excerpt called ‘Black Hands’ linked to remixed classical Iraqi music. It’s part of my essay collection, To Babel and Back (Seren). Probably I’ll never go back…

Robert Minhinnick reading at The Lonely Crowd’s Swansea event last November. Photo © Jo Mazelis.

 

JL: When I interviewed you for Wales Arts Review’s A Fiction Map of Wales series in 2014, I remember you saying that ‘you were obsessed with what sand conceals and reveals’, something that is born out both by Diary of the Last Man and by your poem ‘Old Boots’ in Issue 9 of The Lonely Crowd, in which the protagonist ‘watches a pyramid / of sand build suddenly’. Could you tell us about this preoccupation and why it has become such a significant subject in yourwork?

RM: I’ve lived in Porthcawl since 1977. The town lies between two of the biggest dune systems in Wales, and I often climb the highest dune in Wales, Cog y Brain. If anyone explores the area they find sand unavoidable. I love sand because of the history it conceals and then, overnight, can reveal. Climate change is helping here, as the dunes are disturbed. ‘In the dune nothing stays a secret long’ is a line I constantly reuse. As to the boots, they showed all the evidence of my explorations of the area. They told an actual story. The boots were a document. Sand is both sullen and mercurial and I like its instability…

JL: Revisiting our interview from 2014 made me think of your contribution to Fiction Map, ‘Long Haul Road’, which you revealed was part of a series of apocalyptic prose writings entitled ‘Mouth to Mouth’, set by the rivers of Ogmore and Cynffig in South Wales. Did the work for those prose pieces feed into or inspire the poem, ‘Mouth to Mouth: A Recitation Between Two Rivers’, in Diary of the Last Man; and indeed the title poem itself, which feels as though it is set in a similar scenario to ‘Long Haul Road’?

RM: Every piece of writing feeds into something else. The two poems here [in Issue 9] were written on the same day, which is most unusual for me. But nothing comes from nowhere. All writers are walking around with a headful of tunes. Sometimes you find the energy to write them down. I’ve been thinking about my ‘boots’ and that overgrown back lane for years. I owned a pair of Dakota boots in Saskatchewan and have written about those.

Because I think it an extraordinary place, the three miles between the mouths of the Cynffig and Ogwr are often where I locate my writing. And when you’ve been to Saddam Hussein’s Babylon or the old totalitarian squares of Tirana, you don’t need to invent new worlds because it’s already impossible to do those factual places justice…

I think it’s almost inevitable for me, as I’ve been part of the environmental movement for years, to be fascinated by ‘apocalypse’. Not the world ‘ending’ but significant change. In a way apocalypse is natural. In a way apocalypse is good. After all, we continue to live with nuclear energy and weapons… And there’s cultural apocalypse. A gradual atomization. I like John Barnie’s recent lines ‘some say they loved each other / but they loved the Earth too late’, which is a sweet epitaph. But I wouldn’t have written it. Too pessimistic for me.

JL: It seems to me that a lot of your work is interconnected – certainly the poems in Diary of the Last Man – and I wondered if you could tell us a bit about your working methods? Do you write every day? Do your different projects come out of writing which is ongoing, or do they begin more from moments of individual inspiration and a conscious desire to take a new direction? Going back again to our previous interview, you spoke about editing a long poem that you were working on and said that ‘It’s like putting a film or a novel together. The editing is everything.’ It reminds me of William Trevor’s approach to short story writing, which he likened to sculpture. Trevor would often take away much more than half of the work that he had originally drafted when completing a story – and yet he felt that the original, dramatically longer draft was essential to the truth of the finished, shortened version. Is this something you find yourself? And when you edit work, do you find that superfluous material finds a new purpose elsewhere in other works?

RM: Yes, I edit and rewrite but rarely throw anything away, believing it can become something else. Words should be recycled. Sculpture? For me it’s music, a headful of tunes, as I’ve said. But maybe I don’t have enough notes. Or film perhaps?Writing for me is fluid and organic. I write in my head every day but I’m sure all writers do the same. I’m also fascinated by digital editing and the possibilities it creates. And the remix possibilities of music are endless.

JL: There are some very beautiful translations of poems by Fatima Naoot, Karen Owen & Nese Yasin towards the end of Diary of the Last Man. Could you tell us a little about these writers and what drew you to translating them?

RM: I try to be honest to the writer’s original intentions, but my versions of Fatima and Nese were written in translation hothouses on the isle of Jura and in Israel, courtesy of Literature Across Frontiers. I was signed up to translate even though I didn’t know Arabic or Turkish. Karen is different as I have some, but not enough, Welsh. My versions of her work are part of a contract signed years ago, though some of it has not yet appeared. I particularly like Nese Yasin’s poems as she clearly described them and I worked from her verbal descriptions. No text. No crib. Diary of the Last Man is a mosaic of little songs. And of course poetry can be used in stories. I like disguising poems.

JL: When approaching a project like this, do you set out to simply translate the poems as accurately as possible, or do you seek to imbue them with a sense of your own poetic vision and aesthetic?

RM: Making a good poem in English is always my intention. However, my translation is not slavishly rendering into another language, it’s trying to make a valid piece of art. Too much translation is bureaucratic copying. I treat the poems like mirrors. Smash the originals and try to put them back together. Of course I can’t. A broken mirror reflects light differently. That’s why I find translation exciting.

This is is a shortened version of the interview with Robert Minhinnick that appears in Issue 9 of The Lonely Crowd, alongside two new poems from the poet: ‘Old Boots’, and ‘Ragwort’. Don’t miss Robert reading at our event in London next Thursday.

Main Photo © Eamon Bourke, 2018.