Lilt and Landscape: Wales in the Imagination Again

From the class memory box. Mine is the one with the tea and the bag label: Everyday.

It is the day after. I walked the dog as the sun came up, and saw neighborhood gardens I have passed a hundred times as a way of bringing the land in. It was cool and crisp this morning, with just a hint of sun and so much green. I had expected it to be hot, miserable, reliably unpleasant. We all made it through innumerable extra security checks and endless lines, through driving rain and stifling humidity to the not-Wales part of our lives. To the day after Wales.

Two days ago, we sat in our last seminar class, around the big table with the light streaming in slightly too brightly through the window behind Pam and revealing the class memory box. Before we left, we were asked to write down what we thought it would be like here, and now it was time to gather our experiences, memories, sensory encounters, collections–and tell the story new.

And I started the prompt that day:

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Cymru Interlude #2 All the Poets Together and Coda

All the Poets Together

(What follows is an encapsulation, and sometimes a direct quote, from each of the poets and authors who have read for us over the last week and a half. In order of appearance: Menna Elfyn, Rufus Mufasa, Kathy Miles, Ifor ap Glyn, Jane Brox , Sally Shivnan, Twm Morys, Adam Hanna (trombone), Mike Parker, Dominic Williams, Pamela Petro and Paul Henry)

Mae cyfieithu ar gyfer bobl eraill; dw i’n ysgrifennu yng Gymraeg. Translation is for other people, I write in Welsh, but home is where we leave from.

Translation is a new way of listening/new voices to be talking/new stories to be proud of, jump off from-sweet-shop-mop-top-non-stop….

Translation is the language of the animals and you don’t want to know what the praying mantis is thinking.

Read my gestures: translation is my everyday, more trouble than it’s worth for someone else to do it and living in the hybridity is the new hero-tale, says the man with the big gut. 

Translation is difficult in the roar and flare of techno-urban-silos, when old lines are blurred and old forms feel foreign, but the silent monks read aloud.

Translations of the heart are imperfectly understood and leave bittersweet unanswered questions.

Translating the past involves a shift in character, leaning on a stick and explaining to the gathered listeners, then pounding the stick into the floor and exhorting all to join in. 

Translating means listening hard to a not-quite-in-common-language, breaking it down in your head and then entering the conversation via trombone.

Translation is a shift in season, in laws, in direction–walking the drover’s track, back and forth amidst the elements.

Translating feelings can be impossible in the mad/heart/pain stages…sometimes the criss-cross of black lines on white paper can turn the world right-side up again.

Translation takes you from a young dreaming girl to the top of a mountain, where you’ve always known what you meant only you never had the word.

Translation is a gaggle of old women, wandering through walls, bringing back old stories in a new place, full of vanished trees. †††


(What follows here is a form of coding, akin to social science methodology–data is preserved but so is anonymity. Of course, if you were there, you will know who you are. When I have to code at school, I use the English alphabet. Seemed like a better idea here to use the Welsh one.)

A asks about rules and systems, is methodical and waits until ready before inviting us all into imagined worlds: wants to make sure the floors are swept first.  Endlessly appreciative with guests and kind to the group.  Castles and rooks will never be the same again…or maybe they will be the same for the first time.

B is a chess tutor, which is not horrifying.  B is comfortable with religious allegory, expansive Welsh poets, wanderlust (and I’m not sure I’ve ever met a person who is comfortable with wanderlust) and a quiet smoke round the back.

C made the most of the manuscripts and jumped in with both feet in each workshop. Worked meticulously, line by line and sound by sound. Will return to a garden, when many of us will only have one in memory. Maybe ask C to guess who this one is…

D loves purple, sees things that others don’t, wrestles with riddles until the bitter end, is a champion glasses-repairer and belated sheep-parent.  Met D before I met D…that’s the beauty of D’s comics genius.

Dd calls out Marco/Polo and I accidentally defaced your property (sorry). Writes, thinks, lives with intensity, and in two languages. Perhaps Patient Zero, but Dd’s insights are more infectious.

E’s stories are immediate and visceral—a young girl wondering about the soot on her father’s face and imagining dragons, a first meal with an elder.  Congenial, honest, shows gratitude through prayer. Should stop ordering hamburgers here—or maybe the next one will be more delicious.

F likes to put sharp turns in stories and poems, has a genuine love of learning and can withstand earthquakes. Chasing sheep and adventure, F is an excellent advertisement for the program, but is no copy, a true original.

Ff creates whole worlds in a moment’s penmanship, and opens the door to conversation in the everyday, ordinary world. Unafraid to speak out against random stabbings, reminds me of a witty and urbane character from old black and white movies (maybe trying to hide a leopard?), would love to read Ff’s work with my kids.

G rocks—or slates, I suppose, and now has the prize book to prove it.  A flexible writer, willing to shift and discover something new. Avid reader, active listener, returning to the drawing board to tell new stories. No small potatoes, but big visions.

NG acts like it is a struggle to live in the space between glasses and no glasses, but in reality sees everything. Perches, listening.  Enacts longing as a pedagogical imperative. Incredibly generous, an honor to work with NG.

H has a mind full of texts, old and new, that mix around and collide with the intuitive and powerful stories that are already there.  Gets frustrated with the detangling process but doesn’t give up, so the struggle becomes beautiful and useful.  Extremely excited about sheep and popsicles.

I speaks when it counts, possesses a marvelous sense of humor, a willingness to question when something seems wrong, and a need for a mug that says Wales on it, damn it.

L is keeping everyone alive.  Has the best tattoo, really evokes a sense of place in a variety of pieces, gives great parenting advice and, like me, is still doing the day job in the evenings, even in Wales.

Ll are gloriously mismatched and desperately brave. Sometimes a walking convenience store. Yearning to be at home inside the self is a hireath worth fighting for. Thank you.

M has had a dangerous adventure looking for fairies, tumbling and stung, but tenacious. With a past at the North Pole and a future in the leafy canopy, it is no surprise that M will see the journey through.

N zooms in, rides to the rescue, is very good at counting. Sartorial splendor, not of the sock variety. Is connected, connects us all, and revels in interactions between drawing and speaking, between hurt and help.

O captures details, does meticulous research, appreciates nuance. She finds the murmur in silence, the sadness in waves and a hidden structure to help all of us articulate the world around us. Raise a glass to the tutor who also makes a beautiful pie.

P has measures of solo and measures of rest. Knew where the ice cream was the whole time. Explored and found hidden treasures but also found a place among the group. Already got credit in the other piece, but that’s what happens when you have a lot of gigs.

PH is the kind of person stories fall from trees for. An explorer who is always pushing forward, PH is nonetheless a calming presence, even when taking the piss out of all and sundry. Tremendous source of inspiration, thank you for making it all possible.

R watches, records, gathers and engineers stories even while whirling in an inward turmoil. A kind and grounded presence, R builds in ways to include others, even in dream landscapes. A bench is named after R, so there is a physical place for R in Wales.

RH, S, T, Th, U represent the rest of the Welsh people who lifted and led us on the way, who were much more than tour guides, tutors (special shout-outs to Sam, Susan and Paul), van drivers, a hostess, a chef, checkout clerks at grocery stores, hospitality workers, laundresses, bartenders, shopkeepers, the chaplain, the librarian…and the sheep, Floss, horses, mountains, waves, castles, rolling hills, rain, sun, gardens–from the depths of the earth to the depths of our hearts. Diolch!

If hiraeth is a long field

For Ryan and Zoe, when you are older.  But not a gift, you already know it, really.

 For today, I bought you something from the gift shop (there are 2 of them, and a picture is at the end of the post, to make all of us feel a bit happier…)

We’re writing about the Welsh concept of hiraeth—an idea just on the cusp of the prayer that Arthur will come again.  Hiraeth is described to us as alternately:

a longing for an imagined absence

the presence of absence

already living in the future of loss

a future expectation that exists in the past. 

It has to do with time, missed connections and awareness of a heritage and landscape that survive in spite of centuries and centuries of oppression.  Wales was a colony since the beginning, whose name means: foreigner, other, not us.  The land still rings with old memories.

We are also told that this feeling can be on a person, like an illness can be on a person in Welsh. The Welsh language doesn’t do quite the same thing with possession–not “my book,” but “the book that is with me.” Hireath is not yours, but it can be on you.

Literally, HIR means long and AETH means field.  The long field.  We were asked today to write about our own experiences of hiraeth.  So I did.

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Cymru Collage: Heroes

I was told on the first night here that the door in the wall (above) was a portal that could transport people through time…warned, I should say, as I tried to use it to get around the table to the spaghetti on the other side. I have since gone through numerous times and I am still here.


It’s amazing how many cultures are dying out. Many have been dying out for centuries. Ethnographers (culture collectors) race against this dubious clock to gather stories, folkways, recipes, sheet music and artifacts. They create visual reminders, with sketches or photographs, of hidden and forgotten tribes. I think many seek a cultural purity that has never existed anywhere, a sense of in-group and out-group that has so many impossible layers and shifts it would be like trying to capture the after-effects of an earthquake while the tremors still shook.

Ifor ap Glyn hints at this in his poem The Underground Map. Here’s the hint, although you should really check out the whole poem:

Here as a child/I learnt the creation myth,/The folk wisdom of the suburbs;

Whence came the mushrooming/Of crescents, avenues, and views;/Whence came

the great swallowing of land…/And here as a child/I learnt the rituals of the tribe

By watching the elders/on the platforms of the Met./As they narrow-folded their broadsheets

And hunted their seats…

And here as a child/I also have leave to wander/Blue as Piccadilly/And grey as Jubilee

So I could weave my own hero-tales.

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Cymru Collage: Villains

Photos and video displayed today are from: the National Wool Museum, Teifi Farmhouse Cheese, Harlech Castle and Ty Newydd.

Today we were at Harlech Castle. A storyteller performed there, switching cadences from English to Welsh, encouraging her audience to echo the sounds punctuating the narrative and bringing history ringing to life across the courtyard. So I thought I would follow her example today, synthesizing some of what I remember and what I am learning. I tell the tale of two villains.

The first villain seems to me almost Count Olafian in nature… his name was James Macpherson.

Does this not look like a Klaus container? (Special thanks to Sophie for that specific idea, once I went on the whole “not it’s not something from the wool museum after all” sort of tangent.)

He wanted to be rich, he spun wild stories and he moved from place to place, taking on different jobs, different roles to stay on top. He had secret knowledge of several subjects, just enough to make him dangerous, and some very powerful friends who were willing to back him up even when they worried about his methods. He ended up in his own castle, despite hundreds, maybe thousands of people calling him out as a trickster, fraud and liar. He liked the attention.

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Cymru Our Gardens

Today’s itinerary: New Quay–Dylan Thomas walking tour, writing workshop, beach, Llanerchaeron Gardens, writing workshop, reading with poet Kathy Miles

(This is one of the pieces I wrote today. Zoe and Ryan, it’s about Mimi, and a little bit about the two of you. I went to the beach and ate ice cream today, so I owe you one.)

I took the photos at Llanerchaeron Gardens in Wales this afternoon. It wasn’t raining.

There was very little there when we first came.  The dog had to be put on a chain—no boundaries.  An aggressively crotchety old Italian woman next door who raised holy hell when a ball went into her yard.  There was grass—a place to play baseball and croquet, plenty of room to snake the hose up the side of the house so Edmund and I could spray it into Josh’s window.  That was excellent, and it happened before we needed the hose for anything else. 

My mother must garden.  Must have her fingers in the dirt, must see results.  We were poor to start with, living on the side of a mountain, Appalachia, huge garden.  The turtle ate eat the strawberries, the deer ate—well, everything. 

In the city, the need for beauty, sustenance and tranquility was no different.  To say I have never mastered tranquility would make her laugh, as it understates the case on such a massive level.

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Cymru Illuminating Manuscripts

Today’s itinerary: morning workshop, talk on illuminated manuscripts at the Roderic Boewn Library by Ruth Gooding, hike to Iron Age fort, reading by Menna Elfyn

Incredible collection here, and you get to turn the pages…very exciting. (The chick on the side in the red dress is probably one of the family who owned this book–like how she just gets to hang with the Virgin Mary now because her family commissioned the book? And how Jesus has a parrot?)

Today started with a Welsh history lesson, which was useful for someone studying Celtic traditions (both “real” and folkloresque) of the eighteenth century. In 1750, there were definitely more people speaking Welsh in Wales than there were speaking Gaelic in the Scottish Highlands (the same is true today). Tons of Welsh folks were bilingual, although Bethan Mair Jenkins puts it beautifully: Welsh was the language of the hearth and English was the language of learning.

The two men I really came over here for (there’s a promising beginning to a sentence) stand at the crossroads between insider and outsider, between homegrown and cosmopolitan, between bard and scholar. Most academics would tell you they were unsure of which way to turn–they were conflicted, trying to live in two worlds–evoking the Celtic hearth and determined to compete on an English/British academic footing. James Macpherson and Iolo Morganwg, in Scotland and Wales respectively, both stand accused of promoting and inventing Celtic history. They both mimicked popular (new) styles of writing, both insisted on the importance of old stories, both had run ins with the famously irascible Samuel Johnson (who often becomes a stand-in for England herself in these narratives of conflict) and both had to handle with issues of translation and the written versus oral tradition.

The fire at Notre Dame came up tonight at dinner–it has already featured once in this blog, connecting history, music, empathy and the imagined past. This song is a good fit because it asks us to look for manipulation in cultural institutions and it encourages individual exploration. Has anyone noticed that once I started writing the blog with my kids in mind, the musical selections have changed dramatically?

Today’s post is called Illuminating Manuscripts for a number of reasons. The first is that we saw eight illuminated manuscripts today, from all over Europe and over a range of time, and, if I may be very technical, they were all hella old.

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Cymru Interlude #1

The view out my window tonight at Prifysgol Cymru Y Drindod Dewi Sant (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David)

As an interdisciplinary student, I have to switch gears all the time, so I am still listening to the strains of Ensemble Galilei, but now in a different time zone. I’ve been accepted to a creative writing workshop for the next two weeks at the Dylan Thomas International Summer School–studying the importance of landscape/place. I’m also researching some eighteenth century ballad collectors in Scotland and Wales. Each day for the next 12 days, I will post something having to do with either the writing or the research process. Today was mostly a flight sandwiched between 2 older Midwestern friends who obsessed over the SkyMall catalog and whether or not to order canned gin and tonic, followed by long van drive from London. If I were to tell you about landscape/place today, I would have to come to you live from a mini Marks & Spencer at a rest stop.

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Part VI: War

“and when you get to see one of those shy smiles from a twenty year-old, well, you just might start believing in god.” (Rule 3, surrick)

In loving memory of Bob Bassett

The show is for NPR listeners and FOX NEWS viewers. These phantom limb songs, these moments from the mourner’s table, the bleeding veteran on the street in Washington, DC, perhaps most especially the story of Wasim. In a show where most veterans are nameless or at most nicknamed so that everyone can feel “I know that guy,” here is a name. He has an accent and a name. He also–

“holds degrees in math and physics

Speaks four languages

His father is a professor

All of his brothers and sisters have been to university.

He came to this country

And worked in a clothing store in New York City

Until he joined the army in 1998.


Most academic theory about culture and language is going to insist on a center and an outside–the dominant group and the oppressed groups. Strata, privileges, hegemony–this notion that those on top will do anything to stay there, politics. Language is all about politics, translanguaging perhaps even more so.

How can this group insist that putting all of these voicings together, that elevating the tone and using the vernacular, calling on old melodies and using them in new ways–can speak to people of different political persuasions? Why give Wasim a name?

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Part V: Translanguaging–the playlist

–Rule 3, Surrick…there are a lot of rules in the book, in the show…

First Movement:

So now it’s time to strap in for a little theory, and what better way to kick that off than with a truly intricate and bombastic piece of music–the finale from the Turangalila Symphonie by Messiaen. It features an instrument called the ondes martenot, which is like a theramin on steroids.

Lost yet? The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra did it this year, definitely a “clearing the hurdles” sort of affair. You may find that a little of it goes a VERY long way (unless you are my husband, in which case, you’ll just stop here and listen to it over and over again).

If you are not my husband and need some other (read more accessible) musical inspiration to get you through some theories of language, culture and folklore, might I suggest a song that runs in the opposite direction–Alice Merton’s No Roots.

If you want to know more about how this song came to prominence, check out this Rolling Stone article:

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