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Interview with Robert Minhinnick

ROBERT MINHINNICK IN CONVERSATION
with Sam Adams

Robert Minhinnick was born, in 1952, and brought up in the village of Pen-y-fai, near Bridgend,
south Wales. He was first published in the 'New Poets' special number of Poetry Wales in
1972 and has since established himself at the forefront of the younger generation of Anglo-Welsh
writers.

The most recent of his six books of poetry, Hey Fatman, was published by Seren in 1994.
He has also produced two volumes of essays, Watching the Fire Eater, Arts Council of
Wales Book of the Year in 1993, and Badlands (1996):

SAM ADAMS: Although you are clearly Welsh by birth,
upbringing and allegiance, in a country where the list of
writers is packed with Davieses, Joneses and Thomases, your
name is unusual. Is Minhinnick Cornish? More importantly,
are you interested in origins?


ROBERT MINHINNICK: Yes, it's a Cornish name and I am
interested in origins in a big way. I traced the name to the
village of Menheniot, which is about ten miles west of
Plymouth. My father's father came over at the beginning of
this century, following the mining industry. I'm clear that I
am Welsh, having been born in Wales, as were my parents
and three of my grandparents. I can't claim Cornish stock
other than in a much attenuated, sentimental way.

Badlands, the book of essays which came about in 1996, has
a dedication 'in memory of Albert Minhinnick' your father
who used to take you to Ninian Park to watch soccer when
a frail, teenage John Toshack played for Cardiff City. We
can come back to sport and its place in Welsh culture, which
is one of the themes in
Badlands, but to dwell with your background
for a moment, it seems to me that you have drawn
upon family, your parents and your grandparents' histories
more than most contemporary Anglo-Welsh poets. There are
many examples and they occur in all your books, but especially

Native Ground, Life Sentences and The Looters.
Is the exploration or reinvention of childhood particularly
important to you?


Yes, it is. Perhaps it derives from the simple fact that I live
not far from the place where I was brought up, so that I'm
close to my childhood in terms of distance if not time. And
I'm also close to an extended family. We all live quite near
one another and I see their lives around me constantly. I'm a
fairly rooted individual and in the circumstances of my
upbringing and continuing to live close to my origins, it
seems to me inevitable that the stories that my family have
shared with me and those in which I have shared with them
are going to find a place in my writing.

One feature of the family stories which is common in your
work but very uncommon elsewhere in Anglo-Welsh poetry is
description of 'the great house', the mansion, the estate. It
turns up in your last book of poems,
Hey Fatman, in a sixpoem
sequence, the title of which, 'from a History of
Dunraven' suggests that there are many more such poems.
How does this theme fit into your own or your family's story?


In Hey Fatman there are two great houses. There is the one
you have identified in that sequence, Dunraven Castle, but
other poems are about a house quite close to the village
where I was born, called Cwrt (Court) Colman, which I have
written about for many years. It was a manor house but
today it is a hotel, rather a sad and run-down hotel, and the
grounds are no longer well-kept, but a lot of people in the
village worked in the grounds or in the house itself, as
gardeners, chauffeurs, nurserymen, domestics of one kind
and another. There was a long history of people doffing their
caps to the landowner, to the local gentry, but that was part
of life in the community. I agree that was not common in
south Wales where there were not many houses of this kind.
My grandfather worked as a gardener on the estate and my
mother and her sister were also employed there. I was
brought up in a house on the edge of the estate and for a long
time when I was a boy it was great fun to trespass on the
grounds. I have always written about what I know and part
of what I know is the estate.

The common background of most Anglo-Welsh poets, up to
the 1960s anyway, was a close-knit, industrial community,
often enough in the Valleys. That doesn't mean that they
were cut off from the countryside, quite the reverse you
would never think, for instance, that Leslie Norris was
brought up in Merthyr. But again, your poetry seems to me
more rural, more pastoral than most. This must be in large
part for reasons you have already spoken about, but I readily
confess you have a more extensive, and more precise knowledge
of plants and trees than I possess or am ever likely to. Is
this cultivated, or is it mostly assimilated from background
influences?


Assimilated I think. Pen-y-fai, where I was brought up and
lived until I was in my early twenties, was a village, a distinct
community with a distinct shape, not part of a larger conurbation
as are villages in the Valleys. It has changed now, but
then it had fields all around it and woods and the estate, a
big estate, properly laid out and tended. It had trees and
other flora specially planted that had been imported from
various parts of the world, like tulip trees and araucaria and
douglas pine, that stood out as unusual, for south Wales. It
is also true that I have learned a good deal about plants by
going out and quite deliberately observing what's on the
ground at my feet and then studying a basic teach-yourself
British flora and trying to put a name to what I have just
seen. The same goes for birds' eggs or fungi or anything I
discovered in the fields around Pen-y-fai.

Another feature of your writing is a fascination for the
macabre. Death, often violent death, by execution, murder,
or in the boxing ring, is the theme of many poems, and you
seem to find melodrama hard to resist. There's the poem
'Harriet' in
Hey Fatman, for instance, in which a bit of fun
with a DIY ouija board produces a moment of horror. Do you
recognise this as part of your make up?


Yes, I do. There are, I should think, three or four poems in
Hey Fatman that deal with what might be called the
macabre. The events in 'Harriet' actually occurred in just
the way the poem describes in a creative writing class that
after an hour or so degenerated into a joke with an ouija
board. They don't all end like that! Anyway, on this odd
occasion there was a person in the group who was extremely
upset by the answers that the board appeared to spell out. I
knew when that happened that I was probably going to write
about it. But that was a real incident and I don't think I added
to the melodrama. There are other poems, like 'The
Caretaker's Story' in the same book, that were told to me.
When I first heard them I recognised in them the potential
for being transformed into dramatic, or melodramatic if you
prefer, narrative poems. Perhaps another writer would have
cast them as short stories rather than poems.

Are there any literary influences any predilection for the
gothick novel for example which might have stimulated this
interest?


No, no literary influences that I can call to mind. I seem to
have been born with an interest in macabre tales. It's
common enough among teenagers, juveniles, and it seems to
have persisted with me into adulthood.

To return to soccer, rugby and those other sports you write
about (more in your prose it has to be said than in your
poetry) you are clearly less interested in the games than in
the mores associated with them and the social milieu which
has produced the blazered officials and the crop-haired
'blockheads' who play and watch. This is a bit surprising for
a former pupil of Bridgend Grammar School, which
produced the redoubtable J.P.R. Williams among many
others. Your view of Wales, at least in these contexts, and
perhaps more widely, ranges from cynically amused tolerance
to something not far from disgust and despair or am I
wrong?


I did play rugby, for my house and once for the school, but I
wasn't a particularly good player, being stuck out on the
wing most of the time, freezing, while the ball stayed at the
feet of the forwards. I played because it was a sporting
school; we had a lot of people connected with the mythology
of the Welsh team and you had to play. Disgust and despair
are too strong, but I really dislike the sporting culture of
Wales or at least that part of it where I was brought up. It
drains the energy out of the country, and for what? We give
far too much attention to sporting prowess; we turn people
who really have very little to offer to society into heroes.
Because of our strange and even sick need for heroes of any
kind, we put people where they don't belong. There's the
case of Johnny Owen, the Merthyr boxer who was killed in
the ring in Los Angeles about fourteen years ago. He should
never have been there but was impelled by our need for
success, our need for people to look up to in the strange
culture we have in Wales. The only way Johnny Owen could
get out of the situation into which we had pushed him was
by dying. We don't speak about him any more, because he
was a failure. He died in the ring and he's rather an embarrassment.
The poem 'The Death of Johnny Owen' was
written to bring him back into focus as a symbol and a
warning.

In an interview published in Poetry Wales in 1989, you
described yourself as politically active, though (it seems to
me) cynical about the workings of politics, and politicians.
You said then that the government and the multi-nationals
treat Wales like a Third-World state. Has your view
changed in the last eight years?


No, our situation is still much the same. We have a cheapwage,
low-skill economy, an employment mono-culture. I
think there is evidence that Wales is becoming more culturally
confident, more pluralistic also. The trouble is that its
people have tended to depend upon a few empty cultural
icons, but these are beginning to be seen for what they are
hollow and meaningless. We have to be confident in our
modern plurality of cultures that is not English, not British.
As long as we can feel at ease with each other for Wales
itself is a mosaic, hotly, even bitterly, tribal it doesn't
matter what the rest of the world thinks. I don't believe the
rest of the world is bothered about us; the English are not
bothered about us, why should anyone else be interested?
What we lack is a middle class, a class of entrepreneurs who
are based locally to do things that are rooted in Wales. Our
employment is created from outside and we still have this
great expectancy that people are going to come along from
America or Korea or England and give us jobs. We will not
get off our own backsides and create jobs for ourselves,
because we are culturally passive. There are good reasons for
that passivity in the history of our exploitation by outsiders
but I think now it's inexcusable. I was politically active until
'94. I was part of the green movement: I worked for Friends
of the Earth I helped to create Friends of the Earth Cymru
and I was employed by it for four or five years. And I am still
active in the green movement, although it is exhausted and
in need of new ideas, new blood and new energy. It has to
link more effectively than it has done with people who are
interested in social and cultural issues. It's too discrete and
over-specialised at the moment. I think it's likely that I shall
continue to write articles on environmental issues from time
to time, like those I did for Planet and the Western Mail, but
they will be linked with social and cultural issues, not as
purely environmental. I regret the way that those earlier
articles were blinkered, because there's going to be no
simple green answer to our problems, which can only be
tackled by a coalition of interests. People in green groups are
not going to save the planet, that's for certain.

Do you have an orthodox Christian faith or a system of
personal belief that guides your thinking, and your action?
Are your environmentalist convictions purely humanist?
I put the question because you clearly have a profound
sense of unease about society, and a clear moral and ethical
standpoint: you are anti-pornography, for instance, and
anti-exploitation, no matter who the exploiter. Do you
see yourself as having a moral duty in your writing? If
so, it doesn't show through, to my perception, except in
occasional poems, like the title poem and 'Ants' in
The
Looters.

No, I don't have a religious faith in the usual way. I don't
think I have any form of faith at the moment. I'm fortyfour
years old and without religion. That doesn't mean that
I don't believe in a life after death. I don't think a great deal
about it, and I rather regret that. I am interested in the environment
and I've looked at it closely and learned to love it
and to fear it, to be disgusted by it and to be inspired by it.
It's an intellectual and an emotional interest. What we are
doing with it is a vast tragedy. Man's pursuit of a life of ease,
because that's what it's all about, is at a terrible cost, most of
which we don't even realise. Our preoccupation with
making things easier for ourselves doesn't even allow us to
be conscious of the cost. To respond to your other question,
I don't think the poet has a moral role though a moral
message might be perceived by the reader. Of course I have
a moral standpoint on many aspects of life, but I wouldn't
wish it to intrude too obviously in my poems, because I
simply don't see myself as some kind of moral arbiter.

In a piece I've written about you recently, I suggested that
you could readily turn your hand to the novel and I know
that you have written novels, though a long time ago. I like
your prose; I find it stimulating and entertaining. 'The Zone'
in
Badlands would take some beating as a piece of surrealistic
writing. The whole book is packed with stunning images a
characteristic of your poetry. Is it tempting to write more
prose and less poetry? Does prose come more easily?


Prose isn't easier, though it flows better when it's going well.
When I was writing Badlands I knew what I was aiming to do
and completing the project took two years. The book was
intended to consist of three essays, but in the end there were
eleven. I had the energy to keep it going and Badlands is as
intense as a poem at times. Although reviewers have
described it as a travel book, it isn't that at all. It's a book
about Wales viewed from other, strange parts of the world,
like Saskatchewan, New York, San Francisco and Albania
and parts of England. It's a book about people and predicaments.
It became very intense, I think, because I wrote a lot
of it in the winter in Saskatoon, and that was all I had to do
there. It was ferociously cold and I didn't go out. I was stuck
with this manuscript that was developing slowly towards an
end that I couldn't always envisage. It's intense because I
had time to work on it. It took a lot out of me I think. I
started writing prose because Planet asked me to do a regular
column. I could choose my theme, and it seemed to me that
you could combine the private and the political or social. In
Badlands the same approach developed into longer pieces,
some of which are of high intensity while others are rather
slacker in their tension. You mention 'The Zone': that was
written out of a strange, paranoiac mood that I thought
matched the frozen April landscape in a town called La
Ronge, a predominantly Cree-speaking settlement, a bit
intimidating, in the middle of Saskatchewan, a long, long
way from anywhere. I was in a motel, nearing the end of my
duties there and I was exhausted and longing to get home. I
recognise a paranoiac streak in my writing (there's probably
a paranoiac streak in most writers) and I allowed it to come
through in just a few pages. Prose is still to me an unexplored
ocean into which I've just put my toe. It's true I did
write novels, three in fact before I was twenty-one; they're
all in a wardrobe in my parents' house. I've no need or wish
to look at them again. I've got ideas for novels now, but
because I lack energy that's where they'll stay in the realm
of ideas. I found prose a lot of work and I've gone back to
poetry with some relief.

Did you keep a notebook or journal to refer to when you came to
writing about the experiences you describe?


I kept an Albania notebook for the two trips I made to that
country, and a California notebook, but they only have
jottings, just phrases and images, brief impressionistic
things, skeletal, even spectral sketches. A few words often
made up a whole page of the finished text; a telling detail is
expanded.

Do you see a relationship between your prose writing, at least
as it has developed in
Badlands, and your poetry?

Yes. The poetry that I'm writing at the moment is very
dense with imagery. Imagery is generally very important to
me because I want to show the invisible threads that link
things. I think in images and I like to write in images. That's
what writing is all about the transforming image that
provides even commonplace things with another dimension.

You decided early in your teens that you were a writer, a poet
first and foremost. The variety of jobs you have had, as clerk,
postman, scrapyard worker, bears comparison with those lists
one sees in the thumbnail sketches of American writers on the
back covers of their first books. I'm not suggesting that was
planned, but in terms of imagery, and themes and a view of
the rougher end of a working class society, they have fed into
your work. There are few who would see swarf in the ice
spray thrown up by skaters, for example.


Actually, I started to write songs. In the sixties everybody
was trying to write songs. I had a guitar but I failed to master
any chords. My twin sister was writing before I started and I
wanted to be like her. The words of songs were very important
to me when I was fourteen or fifteen and I composed a
whole bookful of song lyrics with the tunes in my head.
Writing poems seems to have developed naturally from that
experience. A great many of the words and images that I
have used in poems come not from research or reading but
from experience; the word 'swarf' you mentioned I would
not have known if I hadn't worked in a scrapyard. I've
assimilated into my own vocabulary many words associated
with the jobs I've had. I'm not normally a desk-based writer;
I like getting out and about, meeting people, going to places
that may be disreputable and are, anyway, unchronicled.
There are plenty of places like that in Wales and a lot more
in Albania if you want to interest yourself in them.
Obviously there is the time when you have to sit down and
write, when you may use a word like 'swarf', but only if it
works as art.

But your writing shows that you have a wide range of interests
and specialist knowledge which must derive from careful
study in fields like archaeology, astronomy, history,
geology.


Life experience comes first, but some research may follow.
For choice I read novels and biography. Not a great deal of
poetry. I normally read poems to kick-start my own poetry if
I haven't written any for a while. I'm also a bit of an intellectual
magpie picking up information from a range of interests like chess,
astronomy certainly, books about fossils, wild
flowers, rare wines, olive oil. I'm a dabbler. It's part of this
post-modern culture, broad and shallow, and my reading is
the same.

You have referred in the past to the influence on your work
it must have been some time after the song writing phase of
certain Anglo-Welsh poets, and of the Romantics. I find the
latter particularly interesting, and the fact that Coleridge is
clearly a favourite. Can you trace any specific influences, or
has their impact been more general?


What struck me about Coleridge is his wonderful ability to
write arresting and memorable images. That short piece
called 'Finding a Voice', among the 'Cautionary Tales' in
Badlands, which tells how I bought an old copy of
Coleridge's Collected Poems for twenty-five pence (in
Aberystwyth actually, as a twenty year old student about to
abandon college) and found in it the irreducible luminosity
of 'Frost at Midnight' is all true. Coleridge's power, in part
at least, derives from his ability to coin images, the marvellous
physicality of the language.

In writing about you, I have ventured to describe you as a
latter-day Romantic. I think of poems like 'Gale Warning'
in Life Sentences, in which your mood is matched by the
weather and, more generally, the personal, reflective 'I'
which dominates so much of your writing. This is distinctive
when your contemporaries in Wales favour the adoption of
personae.


That was the understanding of the standpoint of the artist
that I grew up with. Because I have occasionally worked in
that way myself, I know that adopting a persona gives
writers a certain freedom and allows them to take their art
into places where, otherwise, it couldn't go. But I'm quite
happy with your description of me as a 'latter day Romantic'
I take it as a compliment. The writers I read as I was
growing up tended to rely on the first person perspective in
exploring life. It was them, yet it wasn't them but it wasn't
a persona and that's the sort of stance I have. I tell you
what I don't like in my contemporaries: I don't like the
prescriptive writing which tells people what Wales or
Welshness is. (I'd feel the same if it were Canadians writing
about Canada or English writers writing about England.)
I'm interested in a universe which is teeming and is indefinable,
and trying to reflect on our part in it. It may be an
old-fashioned view, but that is the writer's role I think and
what, so far as I'm able, I keep doing.

You have also said that in your poetry you try to create
texture, drama and colour. Drama will derive from the
narrative element in the main a feature that we have
spoken of earlier. Colour is given by the quality of imagery
and your poetry has been distinguished from the start by the
originality and profusion of its imagery. Would you agree
that texture is mostly about the patterning of sounds? As such,
it is alleged to be a characteristic of Anglo-Welsh poets generally.
Do you work on poems to gain effects of this kind?


I see texture differently. It's not sound patterning pure and
simple, though it may partake of that. I see it as the badge of
individuality; it's about the distinctive flavour of word use,
the writer's unique imprint of word choice, order and
emphasis. I fully understand what prompts your narrower
definition, because there are many examples: Dylan Thomas
most obviously, Roland Mathias, Vernon Watkins, and so
on. Texturing of that kind is less common currently than it
has been in the past. Perhaps that's why the work of a lot of
poets seems almost inter-changeable. I am quite conservative,
I think, in favouring stanzaic forms, inherited patterns
that I grew familiar with from my early reading. I don't feel
free verse offers me opportunities beyond those inherent in
such forms, which can accommodate experiment as radical
as any writer could wish. Much free verse exposes writers as
lacking discipline, individuality and, frankly, talent.

You found your mature manner early, that individual
imprint you were talking about, but clearly your writing has
also developed. It seems to me that there was a major change
with
The Looters, especially in sequences like 'The
Hothouse' and 'Fairground Music' where the writing is less
accessible than usual and relies to on the use of symbols to a
greater extent than previously or since.


'The Hothouse' was a very difficult poem to write, but I had
to write it. It's about madness bizarre, unexplainable
behaviour from a person very close to me. It was an attempt
to explain the inexplicable, to understand what's not
comprehensible. This madness was like an anarchy and
writing about it was like arranging order for anarchy. So the
whole poem is very compressed and image-laden, and some
of the images may appear obtuse, unclear, obfuscatory.
There's also imagery that comes in, as it were at a tangent,
about the rain forest not in places like Brazil or Thailand,
but in Wales. The hothouse is an actual place, part of the
gardens at Dyffryn House in the Vale of Glamorgan. All the
scenes in 'The Hothouse', bar one, take place in this Welsh
rainforest. The odd one takes place in the Bronx Zoo, which
has a clock, running backwards, that shows the acreage of
the global rainforest that is being destroyed every minute a
startling image. I am pleased with the poem because I think
it's the best I could have done at the time with a subject I
could not explain fully to myself. Perhaps that is why
readers have found it difficult. 'Fairground Music' is more
straightforward: twelve incidents at the fair. I write about
the fairground a lot; it's a potent image in Porthcawl, where
I live. The town derives its raison d'etre and much of its
income from it. The fair operates almost non-stop for five
months of the year, and it's quite a surreal place. The poem
was an attempt to show the strangeness of the fair. I'm not
sure whether it worked or not. I did not intend it to stand for
or symbolise something else, though you can read what you
like into it. I love the fairground for its excitement, but it's a
scary place, packed with characters. If you want to watch
people, go to the fair. That's where the real Welsh working
class is to be found, having a day out on beer, amphetamines
and doughnuts. Absolutely terrifying.

The title poem of Hey Fatman I think quite outstanding. It
seems again a new departure in your writing, where I believe
I see an element of Americanisation. It is more of a piece with
your recent prose writing in
Badlands than with your
previous poetry. Do you see it as a change in the direction of
your development as a poet, or is it just an offshoot, a sport?


When I wrote 'Hey Fatman' I thought it was out of the usual
run of things for me. I wrote it quite quickly and I was
surprised at its appearance, the way it turned out. All I did
really was what I always do, which is to write about what is
going on around me. But it worried me a little; I could see it
was a new departure. There might be more poems like that,
but poets don't develop in straight lines; there is bound to be
regression to other concerns. And there'll be portrait poems
about characters, about frozen Saskatchewan and the dune
lands around Porthcawl, and urban and rural life. They
come as they come, and you do the best you can with them.
Yes, regression and digression, and advances and retreats. I
think the 'Hey Fatman' voice and style comes across in a
longer work, 'Roadkill Blues', which is published this year.
Really it's a diary-like piece, but rhyming, written over nine
months in Canada. I just jumped into the ocean of North
American vocabulary everything from rock groups to
ornithology to alien abduction. 'Hey Fatman' takes place in
a bar in Rio. Outside it's 100 degrees C. 'Roadkill Blues' is
set in a deserted restaurant in Saskatoon and outside it's 30
below. When I left Saskatchewan in '95, I swore I'd come
back to North America every year to give my poetry a transfusion
of language. I managed that in '96, but this year it's
difficult. It's not North American poetry I look for but the
words themselves, and how they're used. It's a great
refreshing draught.

It's still rare for a writer in Wales to try to make a living out
of writing. We have the example of John Tripp not too
reassuring before us. What is it like for you being 'freelance'?


I think the number is going to increase, because there are no
jobs for a start. I'm very lucky in that I met Margaret, almost
exactly twenty years ago, and she was already in the house
where we live now and had a very good fixed mortgage deal
with the local council. So we have been able to do the things
that were important to us, such as working for Friends of the
Earth, voluntary work, as well as travelling a bit and writing,
because we didn't have the kind of enormous financial
burden that most of our friends have. Of course we won't
have a good pension. There are many writers in Wales who
are looking down the barrel of poverty when they get older.
That's the downside of being able to do what you want to do
when you're in your thirties and forties. Wales hasn't been
able to support freelance writers in the past. I would hope
that is changing, that there is expanded scope in S4C for
example, films and so on. Above all I hope for a more confident and
a more understanding culture that will recognise
there are writers who will do something worthwhile for
society if they are allowed to. At the moment the culture is
still suspicious and rather philistine and most people think
of writing as a hobby. And it's not. It's a life commitment or
it's nothing.

In March 1997 you were appointed editor of Poetry Wales.
How do you see your role, and how do you envisage the
magazine developing?


The first issue for which I shall be responsible is Autumn
1997. As well as in Wales, we shall be launching that issue in
November in London, to try to tap into the poetry reading
market there. It goes without saying that London has a far
bigger potential readership than Wales. We are also thinking
of launches in other poetry hot-spots in the British Isles. We
intend to take the magazine to the readers because they are
not coming to the magazine. The readership for poetry is
fragmented, and it's spoilt for choice at the moment. There
are a lot of magazines and a lot of publishers keen to publish
poetry, here and abroad, in places like Canada, the United
States and Australia, all of whom are targeting a small and
volatile market. Poetry Wales has to do two things. It's got to
expose to the world a confident Welsh poetry scene, and to
attract and publish good poets from England, from America
and the West Indies and anywhere English is spoken. It is
after all one of the senior literary magazines in the British
Isles and I want it to be one of the best.
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