Confronting Our Place Within Places

Dyfan Lewis in conversation with Iestyn Tyne about his third collection of poetry, Stafelloedd Amhenodol, and his life as poet, translator and editor. 

Image of Iestyn Tyne. Tyne is a white man with dark hair and glasses. He is wearing a rose red coloured shirt and is pictured with head and shoulders visible. There is a wall behind him and a climbing plant full of green foliage and pale purple flowers.

In 1956, Waldo Williams asked, in ‘Pa Beth yw Dyn?’ (‘What is Man?’), 

Beth yw byw? Cael neuadd fawr  
Rhwng cyfyng furiau  

What is living? The broad hall found 
between narrow walls. 
(trans. Rowan Williams)

The confined space of Waldo’s ‘neuadd’ seems to ripple from his iconic poem and throughout Iestyn Tyne’s Stafelloedd Amhenodol (loosely translated as Unspecified Rooms). Iestyn aims to confront our place as humanity within spaces and the collection is born largely from a time of global confinement. His square-room like series of sonnets imprints this idea of the living space into the reader’s mind. But how did this young writer whose formative years were spent in the open spaces of rural North West Wales, become the writer and editor that he is today? MODRON invited Dyfan Lewis to discuss his work.  


DYFAN: Reading Stafelloedd Amhenodol , it strikes me that your poems often seem to come from different experiences. Maybe some of those experiences are outside your own. I wonder, how do you reconcile that with your poetic voice, and do you write for yourself? 

IESTYN: I think that by now, I always write, not about myself but from my perspective. That’s the most genuine way I can write. And I do use the human body a lot. In the context of this book, that’s the first room we enter, exist within. And just like any room, it has its complexities. It’s a room where some people feel they belong, and others have a more challenging relationship. The basic advice always given to writers is to write what we know and so if we can express something through a pain or love or longing that is human, then that’s what I know as well as my reader. That’s where I start from. 

DYFAN: Picking up on that point about the body, then. Something that’s very noticeable about your work is how foundational the body is to our realities. You use all sorts of body parts in your metaphors, especially in ‘cywilydd’ (‘shame’) where you lead by asking 

‘Pe baet ti’n agor dy groen. Rywle’n y canol
 A datod botymau dy gefn fesul un, a gwneud hynny fel y mynnet…’

('If you were to open your skin somewhere near the middle
and undo the buttons of your spine one by one, and to do so
as you wished …']

And then onward through the collection you have ‘monomerau eu hesgyrn’, ‘ei hasgwrn’ again. ‘Gwaed, calon, bysedd’, all these limbs and appendages that we have. Could you speak more about that decision to root things in the physical? 

IESTYN:  Writing from the body grounds me when I’m trying to make sense of subjects that are almost too vast to comprehend, let alone condense into poems of fourteen lines. So instead of writing, for example, about mineral exploitation, I’ve written a poem about digging into the human body, turning it inside out until there’s just this empty hole. Climate change and destruction intersects with so many things, and it all comes back to affect that very basic level of human survival, the body. That’s why starting with the body when trying to write about it makes sense to me.

‘Cywilydd’ (‘Shame’) was the first sequence I wrote. It was written out of frustration with, I think, apathy and helplessness – my own and others’ – and what we seemed to be doing to our home. It was written at a time when governments and local governments everywhere were really getting into this idea of declaring the climate emergency, but it was before XR became headline news. It felt like a lot of people were waking up to say – shit, this is serious. They’re much angrier than the other poems. 

The rest of the book was written during lockdown so there’s a shift. I wanted to think about rooms and how we move through them, how we interact with other beings within those spaces. I think that’s it. If I had to say it in a sentence, I’d say this book was born out of a period of time when we all had to confront our place within places. 

DYFAN: You spoke of the spaces we inhabit, but especially in the section ‘Nodiadau mewn Gerddi’ (‘Notes in Gardens’), we’re in a different space, reflecting on the decisions taken there, the time that goes into maintaining a garden. My feeling, while reading that, is that there’s a commentary on the sustainability of gardening as an activity. Not only in a climate context but in cultural terms, how we canonise stuff, what we dedicate time and life to. Is that a fair point?

IESTYN: Gardens are fascinating places: human life, according to the Bible, starts in a garden, in a place of beauty. But just like in Eden, while there are so many appealing and wonderful things in a garden, there are also things that are not meant to be eaten. A garden can be over cropped, over harvested. It can be exploited. The garden, by being gardened too much, can become a barren, fruitless place. So, it’s such an interesting place to play within as a metaphor. And also, the land itself. I think about the land we plant our gardens on; whose is it historically? Where did our right to colonise it with our own crops come from? 

Gardens are liminal spaces where people go to think, to meet on neutral ground; and so in the ‘Nodiadau mewn Gerddi’ section, I’ve used gardens as places of re-evaluation. In the third poem of that sequence, I write about Goronwy Owen, the 18th Century poet who emigrated from his native Anglesey to Virginia. He’s probably one of the most famous ‘Cymry oddi cartre’, writing effusively of his longing for home. But he was actively engaged in the slave trade – owned a tobacco and cotton plantation and left slaves in his will. I’ve also used that sequence of poems to look at Gwerful Mechain (fl. 1460-1502), who was for so long shamefully ignored by academics, her work often attributed to male contemporaries. 

But yes, whether I’m writing about climate change or long-dead poets, sustainability is about a balance of giving and taking away, taking what works while also reimagining, and that’s what makes a successful garden as well. 

DYFAN: I’d like to ask you about the form of the poem next. Flicking through, you realise that they’ve all got the same shape. Little boxes. And that’s because they’re sonnets. This is a metre that’s spoken to you and I’d like to know about the allure.

IESTYN: Sonnets are what got me writing poetry in the first place. In school, prose was my thing and I had little interest in writing poetry. I learned about the sonnet in a very formulaic way through the Shakespearean sonnet – the rhyming pattern and the pentameter and the volta. That taught me some discipline and made me better at writing in all forms. So it’s a form that’s special to me because it’s how I started out. 

My reading of poetry was at one time quite limited to poets from Wales. I studied a degree in Welsh and that’s what you do when study a degree in Welsh! But being able to read poetry for leisure is a wonderful thing, and a friend lent me a copy of American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes, which is a collection of American or Jazz Sonnets written in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election. They’re looser and more playful than standard sonnets; they don’t have the same regular rhythm and they don’t have a rhyming pattern. Terrance Hayes had taken that idea from another writer, Wanda Coleman, who is from an earlier generation of Black north American poets and she’s credited with this idea of the American sonnet. Then there are other poets like Ada Limón, Danez Smith, Diane Seuss … there are so many people experimenting with this form in America at the moment and I thought, in Welsh, actually the sonnet isn’t a form that carries that much baggage. It’s always been quite experimental because it hasn’t been around that long. So, the earliest sonnets in Welsh are from the mid nineteenth century, which in the long and winding story of Welsh language poetry is a heartbeat, isn’t it? On the other hand, you have the mesurau caeth, the cynghanedd, where there’s quite a weight of tradition if you want to go about stretching it and making something new of it. There’s something freer really in the sonnet, a license to be playful – people have chosen it as a form to be playful with in the past. It’s been chosen for ground-breaking stuff, like ‘Atgof’ by Prosser Rhys. That’s a sequence of sonnets – and a historic poem. You think of T. H Parry Williams’ sonnets and then R. Williams Parry who in his own way made the sonnet looser, more malleable. All these poets were of interest to me, and figures I looked up to. 

Also, fourteen lines seemed like a rounded and perfect figure. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that perfect things come in sevens. And it’s funny, I’ve written so many sonnets by now that it’s become almost inbuilt. When I write a poem, it ends up being fourteen lines without me trying. So, I think I’ve found this sort of perfect space that I can fit a poetic idea into even when I try to break out of it and write something different!

DYFAN: We should also speak about the cover. It’s a collaboration with Steffan Dafydd of Penglog and it’s …sort of…nodweddiadol …of his work…

IESTYN: Characteristic.

DYFAN; Yes, characteristic of his work. Do you want to speak about this?

IESTYN: Yes. I’ve worked with Steffan on several covers now. I love his work. I saw a version of this on Twitter long before I’d finished writing the book. It struck me as something that worked with the ideas I was working on at that time. It had these spaces in black and white, almost like rooms, and there were these spaces between the spaces. It didn’t strike me at the time, but a friend showed me that it also looks like there’s a person being embraced by two other people. 

DYFAN: It’s sort of like a floor plan. 

IESTYN: Or a garden view from above with plots and borders and paths. So, it took me in lots of directions that the book was going in. I’m really pleased with it. 

DYFAN: Let’s stick with publishing. Your first collection was Addunedau, also published by Cyhoeddiadau’r Stamp. I’d like to get an insight into what the publishing path looks like, from Addunedau to today? How has being the co-founder and co-editor of Cyhoeddiadau’r Stamp influenced your engagement with Welsh culture?

IESTYN The first version of Addunedau came out in early 2017 and I re-published it in 2018. That first collection represents a time when I was submitting a lot of work to competitions, trying to improve, getting feedback. I chose a selection of work from that time to put in a book. In the summer of 2015, I was invited to be writer in residence for Y Neuadd at the National Eisteddfod in Meifod. Y Neuadd was a creative space online where lots of us who were young writers in our late teens and early twenties at that time published our work. That was the first time I had a job of work as a writer. The poems in Addunedau were written from then until the end of 2016. The fascination with the sonnet was there then. I then republished in 2018 to coincide with launching Ar Adain because I thought then that I didn’t know what I was doing the first-time round. Now I look back at those books and it seems I didn’t know what I was doing then either! So, it’s been about learning and learning. But I look at Stafelloedd Amhenodol and I think, this is a book I really wanted to write. 

DYFAN: We should also make it explicit that Cyhoeddiadau’r Stamp is an independent publisher. You’re doing this without any sort of public funding. How important is that to you? 

IESTYN: Honestly, there are times when I lie awake at night and think we should apply for a big fat grant. I can’t lie about that. Sometimes it’s difficult. We’re doing something that people tell us shouldn’t be possible, or they ask, ‘why are you putting yourself through that difficulty?’. I’ve had the accusation recently that we lack ambition because we don’t want to turn it into something much bigger. To which my answer is: it’s pretty ambitions to do something like this without funding. I think it’s really important. Right from the start, we wanted to prove that this was possible. DIY publication. It’s collaborative. It depends a lot on good will, but that’s always on mutual terms, on the same level and never exploitative. We’ve built it – Grug Muse, Llŷr Titus, Miriam Elin Jones and I, and more recently Esyllt Angharad Lewis – so that everything funds itself and ticks over. I’m hoping that it’s given people opportunities that would have been very different within a funded press. Not necessarily better but different. 

DYFAN: it’s certainly true that Cyhoeddiadau Stamp has been a vital part of the Welsh language cultural landscape over the last six years. 

IESTYN: It’s incredible to think that it’s been that long, that we started as a magazine and that it’s turned into something quite different now. Hopefully, we’ll carry on for many more years. There’s accountability. We’ve published people’s work and we have a duty to that work but other than that, you know, we can keep it flexible. From year to year, we decide how much we can take on. We published two collections this year, it was four last year, it was less the year before and before that, eight or nine.

We’ve always had a core of support because it’s so collaborative there are people who will always have our back. I think we’ve also done a great deal to earn our place as a force people take seriously in Welsh publishing, even though our way of doing things is very different – we’ve won the poetry category in the Wales Book of the Year awards for two of the past three years, with Hwn ydy’r llais, tybad? by Caryl Bryn in 2020, and Grug Muse’s merch y llyn in 2022. 

DYFAN: You’ve also recently co-edited Welsh (Plural) (repeater, 2022) with Grug Muse, Darren Chetty and Hanan Issa – and that was in English!

IESTYN: Yes, I’ve dipped the tips of my toes in that vast lake! It’s scary, you know. I think sometimes, possibly because of its many faults, we don’t appreciate how lucky we are to have this quiet and enclosed space for publishing in Welsh. In co-editing Welsh (Plural) and now translating poetry, I have to work much, much harder to fight my pre-conceived ideas of what ‘good writing’ is in English. I end up writing something and then I think, no – you’ve written it like that because you think that’s good writing, not because you know what and how you want to write. I don’t know why but it might be that I just have more faith in my voice in Welsh. I don’t have the same grasp on my ideas in English. The ideas are there, but not quite as tightly held. 

DYFAN: Well, this is interesting, because I wanted to talk about your relationship with the English language because, you know, we should address the elephant in the room. We’re speaking English together and that in itself is quite a performative act. It’s probably the longest conversation in English we’ve ever had. No, the only conversation in English we’ve ever had, and hopefully it’s the last! I’d really like to delve into your relationship with the English language especially because you come from a non-Welsh speaking background after all, yet you find that you’re more confident in your Cymraeg voice. 

IESTYN: I’ve always said that I don’t have a first language. But I think perhaps I do – it’s just that it keeps switching between the two. I was brought up in a non-Welsh speaking household. Very recently I’ve made a conscious decision to speak to my sister in Welsh. It’s a knotty thing to untangle – it’s like forcing something that’s rusted away. But I was brought up speaking English at home. My parents met at the Welsh Agricultural College in Aberystwyth, and they went to farm on Ynys Enlli for four years. And my Dad did the Wlpan intensive Welsh course before they went; I think it might actually have been one of the job requirements. Ynys Enlli today is a place you’d hear a lot of Welsh but back in 1995, not so much. Dad had gained a level of fluency and it dwindled away without the ability to practice it. We ended up back on the mainland in late 1998. I went to a Welsh medium school, of course, and we were in an agricultural community. So, you know: the market, speaking to all the farmers, picking up words I’d never have heard at school! 

Working on Welsh (Plural) is a return to something, because I hadn’t worked a lot in English since going off to Aberystwyth University. I was supposed to study Estate Management at Harper Adams but four weeks before I was due to start, I had a complete change of heart. And here I am. I went to the Hay Festival recently and that was my first experience of a non-Welsh speaking literary festival. 

DYFAN: That place messed with my head when I went. All the signs and signifiers around you scream Eisteddfod, the damp from the tent, the smell of the grass and everything. And it’s so not that! It’s interesting. 

IESTYN: It’s when I got on stage there that I froze, and sort of realised all of this. I’d been so immersed in the Welsh language for so long, and I’d taken my ability to express myself and talk about my work with eloquence for granted, almost. I ended up on stage and had a panic attack. So, embarrassing, obviously, but also really interesting. I always thought my two languages were level. But it’s much more of a washing back and forth, depending on my circumstances. And now I’m going on to publish Stafelloedd Amhenodol in English and my mother’s going to read my poems for the first time! 

Until now, I’ve had this degree of separation and a safe space to write without thinking about that. It’s going to be a step towards vulnerability with the people closest to me. It’s kind of like saying ‘I have all these thoughts that I might not have spoken much about and they’re a bit weird. This is me.’ 

The English translation of Stafelloedd Amhenodol will be published by Broken Sleep Books in October 2023.

Iestyn Tyne was brought up in Boduan, Pen Llŷn, and now lives in Caernarfon with his family. He is co-founder and co-editor of Cyhoeddiadau’r Stamp, an independent publishing house platforming new voices in Welsh-language writing. He is co-editor, with Darren Chetty, Grug Muse and Hanan Issa of Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales (Repeater Books, 2022), and his most recent collection of poetry, Stafelloedd Amhenodol, was shortlisted in the Wales Book of the Year 2022 poetry category.

Dyfan Lewis is a writer and publisher from Craig-cefn-parc. He has published two poetry pamphlets – Golau (2018) and Mawr (2019) as well as a collection of travel essays Amser Mynd (2020). All were published through Gwasg Pelydr, an independent press set up by himself. He curates the experimental cultural labyrinth, and along with Steffan Dafydd is the creator of Creiriau Sain, a live event that blends improvised music and words. At the Eisteddfod AmGen in 2021 he won the crown for his collection of poems Ar Wahân.