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Maintenant #99 – Rhys Trimble

An interview with Rhys Trimble by SJ Fowler.

It’s long been said that those really breaking new ground in contemporary poetry are more rooted in tradition than those now considered ‘traditional.’ It’s all a matter of perspective. If tradition is following those who taught you, or published you, one generation back, then its quite possible that tradition is a shallow pool. Rather, if someone’s poetry, like that of Rhys Trimble, has its roots in a few thousand years of a heritage often defined by its poetry, its song, its language and all this founded on a fundamental sense of rebellion and resistance, then perhaps we might look to them for understanding of poetry’s past and future. A Welsh avant-garde pioneer, a peerless performer, highly adept in the classical tradition of Welsh poetry while seemlessly penning some of the most exciting, linguistically innovative works of the 21st century in Britain, Rhys Trimble is the kind of poet all of Europe and beyond should know, but who lie, erroneously, beyond the awareness of the many. Welsh poetry has long been shadowed by the morose, or those who bring in flocks of tourists, and in that shade a whole generation of brilliant avant-garde poets has sprung up, a teeming scene of innovative poetics in both Welsh and English languages, from Newport to Cardiff, from Bangor to Aberystwyth, as has been explored by the Gelynion project.. Rhys Trimble is at the forefront of this movement. In the 99th edition of the Maintenant series, we interview our first Welsh respondent, Rhys Trimble.


3:AM: Your own poetry is extremely vibrant both on the page and in performance. Do you have a marked division between the two in terms of your writing process?

Rhys Trimble: No division as such. Insofar as I don’t write things especially for performance, I just select what works come to hand and try to gauge what will go down best in an individual performance situation. Sometimes the performance might be augmented with medieval Welsh cannon, Shakespeare or whatever I know off by heart and/ or found texts or other poetry. The problem I have with the division between written and things that only happen live (like banging a stick &c) is that in the past I’ve not been not doing so much of my own work for fear of a conservative audience, and so relying on performative elements like learnt poems and theatricality instead. I am now finding like-minded folk in London and Manchester who also blur these boundaries between literary poetry and performance, and when performing for this kind of audience I use my mainly my own books as a loose score for a performance and each becomes as different as I can make it.

3:AM: Is learning poetry off by heart so you can recite from memory a self-imposed practise? Or a legacy from your education? I know it was a fundamental part of Victorian pedagogical practise, and in Russia and Eastern Europe too it’s considered a mark of poetic education, though it seems rare in contemporary UK poetry circles…

Yes it’s largely self-imposed – it’s possibly a slightly ironic admiration of ‘Victorian pedagogic practice’ as you say. More though, I see it as it as a useful device in situations where you need to fill in gaps in the performance space, interact more directly with an audience free of paper – provide different textures or while doing a performance with music for example – it’s a wise technique having a few ‘riffs’ up your sleeve in guitar improvisation. I think is certainly a part of a poetic education of many cultures including welsh and I respect that practice.

3:AM: & was there a time where you mediated your performance, and perhaps even your writing because of the conservatism you reference?

RT: It’s more a case of sampling everything without bias including techniques that may be considered part of a conservative tradition but are just ways of doing things. I don’t think there is an implicit ideology in learning poems off-by heart especially in the avant-garde context in which I use them.

3:AM: How important is performance to you, and how much has your unique style of address developed with consideration? Is it a natural mode for you, it certainly seems so striking not just because of its intensity and power, but because it seems thoroughly authentic.

RT: Important. Yes performance is quite ‘holy’ for me – a secular sacrament. It’s fairly natural and has developed from doing many performances, mixed with instinct. It was also a reaction against the problematic of overly ‘religiose’ and classroom-y /without-passion readings one finds – the kind of thing that blights some ‘straight’ poetry. The split into anti-elitist slam-style or performance poetry, and this is very staid but perhaps more content-orientated reading -I thought- needed putting back into one package which I see other linguistically innovative poets are doing also. I had a good reaction in London and the guy who does Hi Zero magazine (Joe Luna) asked if the initial medieval welsh stick bombast was a ‘spell’ -as if to ‘cleanse a space’ and struck a chord— this is how it has developed – from the realisation that performance is a different space from the page and suggests a new set of techniques to successfully realise and address that individual place– to include –dramatic and improvisational techniques which are sometimes ignored as tools for poets- though much less so in innovative circles—for me performance borders on the spiritual I suppose.

3:AM: The current community of Welsh poets seems, on the outside, to have an inclusive, open and dynamic feel to it at times, the work of Zoe Skoulding springing to mind. How do you perceive it?

RT: Zoe was and is a mentor of mine. She has a very open and European stance on things- reaching out beyond the domestic which has been a great example for me. However she is by no means representative, a lot of the literary establishment seem quite conservative to me at the moment. There are some interesting ‘heads’ out there: Steven Hitchins, Chris Paul, Nathan Jones and Lyndon Davies and so on. I feel that most welsh poets of interest are lone wolves who perhaps due to low numbers fail to cohere into a movement as happens in London for example which is why I’m reaching out. Having said that I feel that Welsh voices now seem more confident in finding different new poetries and not feel it necessary to stick to traditional styles and modes and poetics.

3:AM: How much has the activities at Bangor, and the North Wales International Poetry Festival had an impact on the possibilities for contemporary Welsh poetry to be more innovative? The line-ups are a remarkable example of the best of European poetry, so many Maintenant interview respondents in there too!

RT: The mainstream has a gift for ignoring things so I don’t think it would have a direct or obvious influence immediately – local attendances where patchy at the last one. Having said that with any great festival those that participated will have gone away more resolute, having forged a number of personal connections and networking possibilities to explore and this will no doubt produce good work and exciting new influence throughout the welsh scene – I certainly hope to get involved with that scene as a result of seeing amazing people like Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, Bartlomiej Majzel and many others performing here.

3:AM: Is Peter Finch an important figure in later 20th century Welsh poetry too? He seems to have been, at times, a beacon on the scene.

RT: For me definitely. I found some copies of his 70s mag Second Aeon back home in Swansea which got me started on the trail of the experimental, and only now am I comprehending some of the innovations in his own work as an early example of conceptual poetry and whose performance technique is very highly developed. I see him as a lone wolf, again – an iconoclast who went to London did his thing then brought it home – his work with Academy (Now “Literature Wales”) was also valuable as was his tenure running a bookshop in Cardiff the influential Oriel Bookshop.

3:AM: How does the tradition of mixed languages influence your own use of Welsh and English? I’m thinking of the work of Caroline Bergvall and Pierre Joris.

RT: More recently certainly. Initially I tried it as a compromise between using just English or just Welsh and using the ‘other’ in text seem to crop up in Pound and William-Carlos-Williams and so on. It was a kind of joke replacing the Greek or Latin of Pound or David Jones with Welsh seemed to be a play on elitist practices in poetry. When I found Joris’ and Bergvall’s usage that provided me with a sound theoretical framework for developing these ideas and also made me realise that I didn’t want to be tied particularly to one cultural tradition as such but to drift (nomadically) between the two – a more European model for language relations and one which suggests ways forward for contemporary welsh writers I hope.

3:AM:How important is song to your work? The musicality of your performance often blurs the line between the two immense traditions of folk and poetry, a boundary which I think is very exciting to consider.

RT: It’s such a Welshman’s cliché but perhaps musicality, if not song, makes its way into my work and performance. In written work it’s the alliterative and sound aspects which are borrowed from song. Of course Welsh language poetry is a song / poem hybrid which uses cynghanedd (the welsh system of alliteration and internal rhyme) which amounts to a systematization of poetry that brings it in line with our rules for western music but working on verbal sounds instead of tonal sounds. Any exposure to it results in it creeping into your work it’s everywhere here- place names and phraseology! Certainly the welsh tradition of poetry has an effect of what you feel you are allowed to do -sanctioned to do, and you have to look beyond the English tradition at poets like Anthony Joseph and Lemn Sissay to see a parallel tradition of song and poetry blurring together in a naturalistic way. In my own performance I’m doing the cover-versions of Welsh medieval poetry pen pastwn (with stick) whereas my own written work is more in the linguistically innovative idiom – I’ve yet to fuse the two things successfully but will try to mix the two traditions more elegantly in the future. Using the stick led me into taking an interest in more formal percussion such as kit-drumming so musicality and song feeds the poetry and vice-versa.

3:AM:In your experience, as an active and unusually agile Welsh poet, has the movement to restore the Welsh language seen a marked increase in Welsh language poetry?

RT: Yes I think bilingualism promotes an agility which can be applied to other techniques in poetry such as making hybridised texts which are macaronic in more than one sense. I think agility implies an instinctiveness also which I would also self-apply instead of a cerebral poet which some innovative contemporaries are to my admiration. As far as Welsh language poetry it seems to be doing well and there is a lot of interest in cynghanedd. It’s an unbroken tradition of writing in the stict metres of cynghanedd that goes back to the first competitions (eisteddfod) beginning in the middle ages. I find that side of things quite conservative and daunting (but also very interesting)- there are texts on aesthetics and so on going right back to the middle ages – so if you’re going to try you better know what you’re doing. This unfortunately creates quite a split in Welsh language culture that learners or people who would like to write casually feel excluded from this ‘high art’ so we’re not seeing an increase as such. I’m trying to bridge this gap in a way though I’m not part of the Welsh language poetry scene really yet (except in the small anarchist zine scene) but I will continue to try and get in!

3:AM: Is there a radicality of tradition in Welsh language poetry? Has that tradition housed stylistically inventive and rebellious writers easily, or often, historically speaking, in your view?

RT: I’ve been looking for them and there aren’t that many. Because welsh poetry is so demanding technically and basically puts sound on a par with meaning – you end up with poetry which is half-way towards being a sound poem anyway reducing the need to rebel in a formally technical way – there’s so much scope as it is. There is a fair amount of radicality in the ideological sense with communard writers such as T.E. Nicholas having been popular. Alec Newman pointed out that the welsh took to symbolism early on and there are examples such as Euros Bowen and others who wrote in the 60’s they were throwing words around the page and using a very intricate metaphorical language along with traditional elements. Since then though it’s gone back to a more traditional style in the Welsh mainstream. The main group of rebels we have recently that eschew the formal meters and write free stuff like punk-poetry – are often musicians like David R. Edwards of Datblygu fame ( The Welsh ‘Fall’) or Steve Eaves which is what my welsh poetry is coming out like at the moment.

3:AM: What is the relationship of Welsh poetry to the English language in your opinion?

RT: My view is that it mirrors the language status of the Welsh people writing it, which has its various demographics. Welsh speakers are committing a political act just speaking welsh so they are partisan and therefore keep everything in the Welsh language though they are all bilingual, its this occlusion that keeps Welsh culture separate from English culture and they think stronger I guess – though this leads to an ever decreasing inner-sanctum of speakers. English speaking Welsh people will either forge a welsh identity in English -creating the Anglo-Welsh scene as was with mags like Poetry Wales being the prime exemplar of this. Those that speak English and can’t be bothered with the political aspect of being Welsh will try and absorb themselves into English culture and not self-identify as Welsh perhaps. I myself do none of the above and try to fight on all sides at once, I use Welsh or English in a fairly non-partisan way to explore language. So to answer your question it’s complicated!


SJ Fowler is a poet, artist, curator and vanguardist. He has published seven collections of poetry, the latest being {Enthusiasm} from Test Centre, and been commissioned for original works of poetry, sonic art, visual art, installation and performance by Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the London Sinfonietta, Electronic Voice Phenomena and the Liverpool Biennale. He is the poetry editor of 3:AM magazine, founder of the Maintenant series and curator of the Enemies project.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 27th, 2015.