Welsh poet Elan Grug Muse visited Ulysses' Shelter Sandorf's literary residency on the island of Mljet this March, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this interview, she talks about her work, her poetry, and the uncertain residence she found herself in.
1. Grug, you are a poet, performer, editor, Ph.D. student, traveler... Is there any area of activity you prefer, or is it all equally important to you? Tell us a little more about your field of work.
So I started out writing poetry, and I think I will always return to poetry in the end! But I have a short attention span, so I like having lots of different things to turn to. At the moment, I am working on a book of travel writing, a series of essays, poems, as well as finishing my PhD, editing ‘Y Stamp’ magazine, a poetry anthology, an essay anthology, as well as teaching workshops. I need the variety, it’s like having a healthy diet: each different element gives a different kind of nutrient. Editing and teaching give me community and give me the opportunity to learn from other writers around me. Moving between forms help me when I get in a rut, whether that is because of boredom, or mental block.
2. You are one of the founders of Y Stamp, a Welsh literary magazine, so what is the situation in your hometown, and Wales in general, how keen are people on reading, especially literature? Do they prefer printed books or e-books? What is your experience with this literary magazine, is it focused primarily on online readership?
We started Y Stamp in 2017 because although there were other Welsh-language literature magazines, there was nowhere we felt comfortable to send our work to, or was publishing what we wanted to read, so we came to it both as writers and as readers. Secondly, publishing in Wales is very dependent on grant money, and when the grants run out, the publications collapse, and this was something that we wanted to challenge, we didn’t want to be dependent on a grant. This meant that we had to be creative in how we publish, but also has become a reason that many people support us and read the magazine.
We publish weekly online and print a hard copy magazine three times a year. We volunteer our time as editors and pay for publishing and the website through sales and some advertising. The print magazine is very popular, as people still like to hold an object in their hands. But others prefer to read online, and we do publish a digital copy also, which makes it more accessible for a wider audience, such as diasporic Welsh speakers, which is one of our goals. For us, having both digital and printed material has worked well, as most readers today move between both, and we can use the benefits of both mediums (the immediacy of online content, plus the opportunities for hybrid work, film, etc, vs the excitement around receiving a print copy, its space for more long-form content) to complement each other, and develop the readership.
3. What is the literary scene in Wales like, do young authors of the 90s generation get enough (literary) space in public? Is it easy to publish a poetry book, for example? What’s the general interest in that, from publishers and readers?
There is a strong tradition of nurturing young writers in Wales, especially in terms of poetry, and organisations like Literature Wales do great work supporting young authors. Of course, nurturing can become stifling, can become a way of entrenching conservative values; it protects the status quo, with older generations trying to mould the younger generation in their own image, an image which in Wales is often male and alcohol-dependent. It’s important that our generation can create its own spaces, bypass the gate-keepers, and publish on our own terms. Again, this is part of the reason we started Y Stamp, and we have developed a publishing arm where we publish work by lots of the 90s generation poets, as well as poets from other generations who like the way we operate. The public I think are not as interested in ideological infighting between literary factions- they are interested in the work, and if you publish new, interesting, well-designed books, they will respond.
4. What’s the situation with the representation of women in the literary scene in Wales?
Mixed! In prose, well represented, with lots of prominent female novelists and short story writers. In poetry, not as well. This again I think goes back to the point of poetry having a strong tradition of older poets nurturing young poets- usually male poets nurturing other male poets, putting up invisible barriers for female poets. And now, so many of them consider themselves to be ‘liberal’, they are blind to the structures that privilege them.
In schools, female poets make up one out of the 9 poets studied for GSCE’s (14-16-year-olds) and two of the fifteen poets studied for A Levels (16-18-year-olds); the main poetry magazine has (until the issue was raised very recently) less than 20% of its contributions by female writers; the main poetry anthologies have more poems about women than by women. Since 1997, only one woman has won the main under 25 youth prize for poetry. There are very few role models, and their work is much less accessible than their male counterparts.
Things are slowly changing, although calling these attitudes will still get you blacklisted, which is tough in a small community, but also typical of small literatures, where the literary canon is seen as integral to the survival of the culture. Any attempts to challenge the canon are seen as a threat to the culture, rather than what they are in reality; an attempt to protect the culture by making it open and accessible to all, rather than a small group of gate-keepers.
5. How was the case with your books? And do you write in Welsh or English? How does that function in Wales, taking into account the fact that the majority of the Welsh population is bilingual?
I write primarily in Welsh. Around 20% of the population of Wales speaks Welsh, so maybe 600-700,000 people? A best-selling poetry book in Welsh can sell up to 1,000 copies, most poetry books will get a print run of around 500 copies, but this is partly because of how publishing in Wales is subsidised, not because they will all sell.
For the Welsh-speaking population, identity and culture are closely tied to language, and so literature is important as an expression of that linguistic identity, in a way maybe visual art, etc is not usually? To choose this language with so few speakers as the medium for your art is a meaningful choice, when you also speak one of the languages with the most speakers internationally. English is always there in the background, you’re always getting asked to justify why you choose to write in Welsh, asked ‘why write for an audience that’s capped at a few thousand, when you could be writing for an audience capped at millions’? Or the irritating ‘that’s nice, now can you translate it to English?’ as if there is no point for something to exist in Welsh unless there is also an English version. For some writers, doing anything in English is still taboo, or a betrayal, so it can be fraught.
For me, there are many questions about the power dynamics between the two languages but having the ability to write multiple languages can also be exciting and liberating. You think differently in both languages, and moving between them can free you up, if you’ve come to a block, or need to rethink something. So yes, I write a little in English, although only short pieces up to now.
6. You are currently working on a Ph.D. on Welsh travel writing and it's connected to your personal trip across America, where you have travelled by bicycle. Can you tell us more about your unique travel experience? Did you write about your trip? Is there a book about it?
Sure! Back in 2016, I spent the summer biking solo across the US. It took 76 days, and I estimate that it was around 4,030 miles (around 6,500km). I started on Cape Cod, on the east coast, and finished on Rockaway beach, in Oregon, on the West coast. I had just graduated university and wasn’t sure what to do except that I wanted an adventure.
I’m currently working on a book about the trip, thanks to an author’s scholarship from Literature Wales, so hopefully I will have a draft of that done by the summer- we’ll see!
In terms of my research, I was interested in travel writing, but also in the ethical questions about how we write about the ‘other’, especially in a postcolonial, neo-imperial world, where the presence of the traveller is never neutral, and the practice of travel writing is so very deeply rooted in colonial forms. So that in a way is what led ultimately to me doing a PhD on the subject. That, too, I will hopefully finish by this summer!
7. What is your experience with literary residencies? Your stay at the Ulysses' Shelter residency on Mljet was definitely not an ordinary experience, and by that, we have in mind the COVID-19 situation. Some literary events you were supposed to participate in were cancelled, you had to leave the residency earlier because of the current situation, luckily you had escaped the strong earthquake in Zagreb (which was on the first planned date of your flight from Zagreb to London), a lot of things going on right now, locally and globally…
Mljet was my first literary residency, so who knows what it would feel like to be on a residency without a looming global crisis overhead. It was a great shame to have to leave early, and without doing the events. However, the time I did have there was very fruitful, and I was able to do a lot of the reading and writing that I had planned to do.
8. Could you tell us your perception of everything that is going on, reflect on the (near) future of authors, artists… What do you see as the main obstacles and do you see a space for some new shift, progress that the authors could use or think of?
This is a big question. At the moment, COVID-19 is a big challenge: the publishing presses have ceased operations; all live events are cancelled; so are all the literary festivals. Its forcing everything on to the web, which has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, everything is now accessible to a much bigger group of people, since there are fewer barriers like travel and space. On the other hand, it’s much lonelier, and it’s creating new barriers, such as who has a good internet connection, who has a quiet space in their home, who has a safe home even.
I hope we can take what we learn from the COVID era into the (hopefully) post-COVID era, where we will be able to be together in the same room again. We will be able to use the internet better, to accompany our work in the flesh.
Another big challenge for us is Brexit. Welsh-speaking communities have always identified more strongly with a European identity rather than British, and in Wales, it was the Welsh-speaking regions that voted to stay in the EU. The ability, culturally, to go beyond the English-speaking world is so important. Doing residencies in the EU is the only time that for me as a Welsh language writer, Welsh has been treated equally to other languages. In the UK, Welsh is always treated as something inconvenient, or a quirk, there is a reluctance to provide adequate translation, and the British literary establishment pretends Welsh literature doesn’t exist. But when you leave that anglophone sphere, and work with writers who all work in different languages, Welsh is just another language, equal to Dutch or Latvian or Croatian, with English used as a bridge language, like Latin used to be, I guess. That’s so important for the psyche of Welsh writers, and so I hope we can find a way to continue to be part of a European culture network, in spite of Brexit.
9. How did you deal with the 14-day self-isolation period after your return to Wales? Was it a creative time for your writing?
Its been a couple of weeks of self-isolation here now, and I am in my parent’s house with my sister and parents. Not being able to go out and be around people has been tough, as has losing any sort of routine or external structure. Having work to focus on has been helpful for me. Also, having a garden, apple trees in blossom, planting potatoes.
Grug Muse (1993) is a poet, editor, performer and researcher from the Nantlle Valley in North Wales, who studied Politics at the University of Nottingham and in the Czech Republic. She is one of the editors and founders of Y Stamp literary magazine, and is the author of Ar Ddisberod, her first volume of poetry published in 2017 and a poetry pamphlet Llanw + Gorwel (2019). Her work is published in both Welsh and English language publications such as O’r Pedwar Gwynt, Poetry Wales, Panorama: the journal of intelligent travel, and in anthologies such as When they start to love you as a machine you should run (New River Press, 2019), Cheval 11 (Parthian, 2018) and Cyfrol Gŵyl y Ferch (Gŵyl y Ferch, 2019), and she works across many art forms – prose, poetry and performance to name a few. She was a Hay writer at work 2018-19 and is currently working on a PhD on Welsh travel writing written about Latin America, funded by the AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Celtic Studies. During her residential stay, she will be working on a series of literary essays and vignettes meditating on the nature of observing and the observed and photography; this will be a change from the writer’s usual style, which is usually with shorter forms; place is a key aspect of the project, and the residency would develop this content, as well as being an opportunity for her to complete a draft of the work. Her first residency was on the island of Mljet (Croatia) in March 2020.