Janice Moore Fuller   •  October 25, 2002

An Interview with Menna Elfyn

Music, Translation, and Poetry

Menna ElfynMenna Elfyn is a world-renowned Welsh poet, novelist, playwright, and librettist. She has published six acclaimed poetry collections in Wales. Her bilingual volumes include Eucalpytus: Detholiad o Gerddi/Selected Poems 1978–1994 (Gomer), Cell Angel (Bloodaxe, 1996), and her most recent book Blind Man’s Kiss (Bloodaxe, 2001).

J: As someone who has grown up bi-lingual, speaking both Welsh and English, you have strong political reasons for writing poetry in Welsh. Are there other reasons why you write poetry exclusively in Welsh?

M: When people ask me why I write in this tiny language of Welsh, I want to say that my worldview and vocabulary aren’t any smaller than anybody else’s. It could be they are enlarged because I am aware of all the different tiny villages, tiny communities all over the world. But, my reply to people who say, “Why don’t you write in English?” is that I have to be true to myself. My integrity to myself is very important. If I’m writing in English, it will not be me because the whole way I see life is through my Welsh language. So it’s not so much about choosing a language. I think a language chooses you, and I have to be true to that.

J: Welsh is often thought of as especially musical. As a poet who has had her work translated into nine languages, do you think Welsh is more musical than other languages?

M: Well, it seems arrogant to say that Welsh is more musical than any other language, but the sounds of Welsh poetry have always been very much connected to the meaning. When Welsh poetry started out, there was a sense of the word’s power being part of the aural.

J: How does the poem “Malediction” in your new book Blind Man’s Kiss relate to the idea of the sounds of Welsh?

M: It’s a strange poem, more about noise than music. The poem is all about being able to say the r consonant in Welsh, which is a very emphatic sound in Welsh. And not to be able to say it is, in fact, almost an insult to the very basics of the language. This is how I felt growing up until I conquered the inadequacies in my teens. And it changed everything, being able to say it. Wynn Thomas talks in his review of Blind Man’s Kiss about how suffering impediments and the indignity of being ineloquent gives one a special edge on wanting to express, a need to express. He believes that was probably where my writing was born. I was probably scribbling things when I couldn’t express them correctly. He’s probably right though I hate admitting it. At the age of twelve, I recognized that I didn’t have the liberation of being able to talk in the way I wanted. I was a woman, and I was Welsh. All the impediments were bound up in one person. I was a stranger in my own tongue, only passing through. I was also listening all the time to the rich, heightened language of the Bible, mainly through my father’s sermons.

J: Do you think that the poems in your latest book Blind Man’s Kiss are more musical than your earlier poems?

M: My translators are my first audience, my keepers. And they tell me that there’s more music in what I’ve written in the past few years, since Cell Angel. So I have to trust them. I can’t really judge myself. All I know is that they complain, because in a way it’s even more of a challenge then to interpret those into the English language—to make the English language musical.

J: For readers unfamiliar with the term, would you mind explaining cynghanedd, the system of strict meter employed in traditional Welsh poetry?

M: Strict meter poetry is all about learning intricate rules and regulations of what can be written and what can’t, even in subject matter, let alone forms. In Welsh cynghanedd, it involves patterns of consonants that need to chime together. One part of a line has to echo the consonants or rhyme scheme of another. This entails 24 different forms of writing.

J: To what extent have you incorporated elements of cynghanedd in your free verse poetry? Has your relationship with that tradition changed with the poems in Blind Man’s Kiss?

M: The constraints of writing in such a way were all too inhibiting to a wild, rebellious, ’60s, activist poet whose raison d’etre was all about liberation and freedom. So I found myself in conflict, writing in a language that was in awe of that tradition yet wanting to write in the conversational tone of an Auden, Yeats, Frost, or Bishop. So once again, I was going against the grain of what Welsh poetry was all about. In the last five to ten years, there has been a more radical shift toward revolutionizing these old forms and making them pertinent as they resonate in the world literature arena. Now, having written eight volumes, I’m enjoying for the first time perhaps the luxury of still writing in my own style but bringing these new forms into being as new forces in my writing—disciplining myself. The forms are all about pushing oneself to work hard. And the fear that comes from having written a lot of books and writing as a full-time occupation is of becoming complacent, reweaving old concerns. So once again I’m challenging all that, trying to make my poetry more oblique, complex. After eight volumes, it’s easy to think you know all about what a poem is.

J: You’ve been drawn toward music in a different way recently through your work as a librettist. Could you describe the kinds of projects you’ve undertaken?

M: I’ve written three libretti for US commissions and in England for Opera Lab, which is where I started. I’m now working on my second libretto with the same Welsh composer. We’re working on an oratorio, even as yet without a sponsor.

J: Does it change the process of writing when you know that your words are going to be set to music?

M: Oh, yes. That, of course, shapes your thinking. That predetermines the kind of text you can write. It has to be simple; it has to be singable, which means when I’m writing for libretti I will go around the house trying to sing with the words, trying to make my own tunes to see if they can be sung.

J: You know that there may be more open vowels?

M: Open vowels, yes. Also, the pacing, the timing itself is important. So that there is some kind of arc. It just arrives somewhere. Some kind of dramatic tension.

J: As far as your own musical background, you studied the harp when you were younger, didn’t you?

M: I didn’t train—train is a very large word—I dabbled with playing the harp.

J: But you did perform publicly on the harp in a band?

M: Yes. But I think we were a terrible band, though we did make a record. It was the ’60s, and it was the era of if you could strum a guitar or flash about with a harp, you felt powerful and famous. But it was a sham.

J: Do you think your work as a musician has made it easier for you to write libretti and to bring music into your poetry?

M: Well, it’s possible. It does train you into knowing what discord is all about as well as harmony. But I wouldn’t say I’m a very musical person. My music is with my words. Setting out with performing as a harpist in a band, playing a guitar, and playing very badly, and playing the piano—it was all part of the searching for a form that I could be happy in. And more and more my instrument is my voice, which is why I’m driven to doing poetry readings. I’m sometimes called a “performance poet” but I hate that word “performing” because all I do is try and give words a life, a chance. The only way words can really have a chance (because nobody believes in them) is to set out to share them with someone. So I perform more out of necessity rather than need, although there is a sense of satisfaction after one has done a reading and things have gone well, or having shared directly with an audience, especially, having started out as a private poet—as a poet who believed in solitude and wanted to live the life of a solitary person—a Thoreau or a Merton—but never achieved it. Instead spending most of the time as a wanderer needing to communicate with other souls who feel the same strangeness with the world.

J: How did your translators go about solving the problem of replicating in English the musicality of the poems in Blind Man’s Kiss?

M: They tried to echo some of the Welsh which is all bound up with rhymes. I can just give you a couple of lines that illustrate this, from the poem “February 15th”: “na’r basg a’I dasg / o gyrraedd gwasg…” Three rhymes in two lines. It’s so difficult then for my translators. This is what I’m afraid of, pushing my translators to the limits of what they can do. And that’s exciting for me though not so exciting for them. But I think all poets in the end would like to write poems that can’t be translated. You know, I don’t set out to write a poem that is so easily written and understood that it can be easily translated into every language in the world. That would be too easy.

J: In getting at the musicality, do the translators sometimes have to resort to other sound techniques instead of rhyme? People are always saying there are not enough rhymeable words in English.

M: Yes, I think they use all kinds of tricks and sometimes they won’t correspond with the rhyme but they will have echoes, repetitive words.

J: With all the difficulties inherent in trying to balance music and allegiance to meaning, can a translation ever really be a satisfactory rendering of a poem? I notice you begin your poem “Handkerchief Kiss” in Blind Man’s Kiss with an epigraph from R.S. Thomas: “A poem in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief.” And yet the poem, especially the ending, seems to offer a more optimistic view of the possibilities for meaningful translation.

M: In the poem, I am trying to challenge the assumption that all you can do is get that close—a kiss through a handkerchief. Even that recognition brings you closer to what it is to be human, which is what we’re after in poems. And even that is far better than not attempting at all to connect. I also had the idea that the veil, for a woman, was a garment that refused her admissions into the world of human feeling and sexuality. There’s a multi-layered metaphor in a veil for a woman. The poem ends with the “veiled kiss,” the idea that promiscuity in language is not a bad thing when you consider it’s the only spiritual freedom we have left.

J: I’d like you to talk about the two collaborative processes—poet with translator and librettist with composer. How are the two processes different?

M: Well, it’s the same kind of process, I think, whereby words take on new meaning through the enrichment of the musical element, and it does make you have to think in a different way. And what is more difficult about working with a composer rather than working with another poet is that your methodology, your starting point are very different. And the music of the composer is speaking of things that are structured early, exact, whereas as a poet you are exploring structure all the time so that is the kind of contradiction that sometimes exists between composers and librettists and that’s how sometimes that kind of friction of creative energies can be successful or unsuccessful. I think with a composer that understands you it can be a very enriching process.

J: Would you say the process with a translator would be more one-sided and less recursive than with the composer-librettist collaboration where there’d be more going back and forth? You give the completed poem to the translator, and your work is more or less done, isn’t it?

M: Yes, with all my translators, their work begins when, hopefully, the poem is at the end of its life. That’s when they start out. That doesn’t mean to say that when I get the translations I don’t think, “Oh, I want that changed” or “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” But it wasn’t in the original, and I wonder then if I could stretch that further. So sometimes I’m thinking I can do more of that, and even though I think the poem is finished and they have the finished version, that extra draft sometimes is needed. I’m lucky I have translators who are patient with that process and are willing to say, “Oh, I understand that. I’ll go back again and readjust.” Working on a long piece with a composer does mean that one is working at the same time almost so that can be both exciting and it can also be frustrating because there will be times when one wants more time to concentrate on the words and there will be times when the composer wants more time and you’re racing to go because you can see it’s building. So, with all collaboration there’s a need for a great deal of trust between artists and I’ve been lucky. I’ve been lucky with all my translators because there’s been that element of trust. And that’s why I also allow them to take the risks with the translations. One of my translators thinks that I allow them too much risk-taking, that I give them too free a road. As an academic, one of my translators, Joseph Clancy, feels he wants to be closer to the original. But another translator and poet, Elin ap Hywel, will almost reinvent my poem in English and make it readable.

J: Still, the translators are more independent, aren’t they? The poem and its translation are never being performed simultaneously, so they could still have somewhat independent lives, whereas with a librettist and score they have to come together like a marriage.

M: Yes, they do meet. This is why is it is very difficult to find a librettist and composer that are collaborators based on a partnership. That’s why it is difficult to have the meeting of minds and to know where the libretto is going, although you have some sense of idea.

J: In collaborating with a composer, which normally comes first—your written text or the score?

M: Well, the other libretti I’ve written have all been created as the inspiration to the composer. I can think of one libretto that I worked on recently whereby I spent a whole day working out what our aim was, what it was about. Feeling the piece, almost. Though perhaps some would disagree, I believe that the librettist is the hunter. He or she is the one out there searching the territory, and the composer gets a scent to follow. And that’s the libretto that was performed last year by the Welsh-American Choir in New York City. I had an idea. I knew basically what they needed as a choir. I knew that they wanted something that is whimsical and yet meaningful. And all I did was reweave different proverbs and make them something new for the 21st century. Some very old proverbs.

J: Now that you’ve been working on libretti in a concentrated way, do you think it has caused you to write your poetry differently or do you see that as a separate art?

M: No. I think of it as a separate art. But, of course, all of these overlap. For years when I started out writing poetry, people were saying, “Oh, they’re really short stories in poem form, coming from a country that didn’t write narrative poems.” So that was confusing for people who thought genres should be this, should be that. So there’s nothing new about that. There is a great deal of overlap. And I think all these genres that we dabble in equip us with more understanding of different kinds of writing.