NWR Issue 57

Shapes of Wales

As New Welsh Review was about to go to press, the National Eisteddfod was still in full swing. Sitting over proofs of this, my first issue, I couldn't help pondering the apparent fragility of the Welsh literary scene in English, compared with her seemingly far stronger Welsh-language sister. Isn't it ironic, I thought, that the prose-writers and poets who write in Welsh - a language which is still seriously embattled, after all - seem to be freer to experiment with different contemporary forms than Welsh writers who write in English? Two of this year's Eisteddfod winners did just that: Welsh-language poets are still arguing about the merits of the experimental poem by Aled Jones Williams which won him the Crown, while Hywel Teifi Edwards, one of the judges of the Prose Medal, declared himself delighted that the winning entry, by Angharad Price, had dared to engage with such a traditionally literal genre, autobiography, in such a fresh, contemporary and fictive way. Common to the work of both writers is a successful appropriation of essentially non-indigenous genres or literary techniques into a contemporary Welsh tradition.

Compare this with the scene in English. Some time ago, I heard Jeremy Hooker give a lecture on current developments in Welsh poetry in English, in which he emphasised that it is becoming difficult to pinpoint technical or linguistic elements of the work that define it as specifically Welsh. As traditionally Anglo-Welsh stylistic tendencies die out, younger writers, he said, seem to be more likely to ventriloquize a metropolitan voice, or simply to write in blissful ignorance of the cultural context in which they are producing their work. The imprint of that culture becomes increasingly faint, it seems, until we are left with a barely discernible trace of Anglo-Wales and the founding fathers of an Anglo-Welsh tradition.

Similarly, in his Gwyn Jones lecture, which was delivered at the Bay Lit Festival this spring and which I have great pleasure in publishing in this issue, Tony Conran suggests that Wales's English-language poets are becoming almost entirely apolitical, and that it is the country's visual artists, not her poets, who are continuing to make strong statements about the nature of Wales and Welshness. He's right, of course, about the strength of the 'custodial aesthetics' practised by such prominent figures such as Iwan Bala. And Conran, like Jeremy Hooker, is also right about the changing nature of Welsh writing in English.

And yet, I suspect that the tides of change might not be all bad. For, where others see a dilution of Welsh identity, I see opportunity. Devolution, and the consequent metropolitization of Wales's capital, are nurturing a far more cosmopolitan attitude to Welsh citizenship. What I intend to bring to New Welsh Review is an editorial influence which will reflect this new Welsh cosmopolitanism. This will involve an engagement with work in many different forms and genres - and that includes the popular (and populist) genres which have been pretty much snubbed by the literary press in Wales until now. It will also mean focussing on the creativity and craftsmanship that lie at the heart of any literary or critical endeavour. You can expect to find work-in-progress in the magazine on a regular basis, such as the extract from Niall Griffiths's 'Stump' published exclusively in this issue. New Welsh Review will also look outwards as well as inwards; for example, this issue features a piece on London-based Welsh writer Sarah Waters' success with what must be among the first lesbian novels to have succeeded in appealing to a mainstream audience on a large scale. As for the theatre section of the magazine, it will be published from now on in association with the award-winning Theatre in Wales website. In collaboration with New Welsh Review's new theatre and performance consultant, Heike Roms, I will be commissioning a range of exciting material for the supplement, which will include interviews, profiles and performance diaries.

In her poem, 'Shapes of Wales', Menna Elfyn compares Wales to an oddly-shaped pig whose rump seems bent upon pulling away from her own trotters. Elfyn's mischievous choice of comparison may cause more than one reader to snort, but underneath the easy humour lies a serious reflection on what she calls the 'comically scattered' nature of this small country. Following devolution, the shape of Wales is changing once again. A new aesthetics of place - or rather, places - is emerging, especially in the work of the younger Valleys writers and Cardiff novelists (such as John Williams, the new Chair of New Welsh Review's editorial board). As I take over the editorship of the magazine I am, of course, inspired by and indebted to the editors who went before me, especially Robin Reeves. But, like them, I am committed to reflecting the literary world of my own time and place, and from my window on Wales and the world beyond I can hear a raucous harmony of new voices. New Welsh Review will provide a forum and critical focus for those voices, thereby taking the magazine in a fresh direction, and providing an outlet for the best critical and creative writing around.

Formerly Associate Editor of Planet: The Welsh Internationalist and Commissioning Editor for Gomer Press, Francesca Rhydderch took up the editorship of New Welsh Review at the beginning of June.


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