Giants in battle, a woman conjured from flowers, and a baby snatched by a hideous claw… Matthew Francis’ poetic retelling of the Mabinogi, the Welsh national epic, has wowed readers and recently been shortlisted for the 2017 Ted Hughes Award. Casia Wiliam, Welsh Children’s Laureate and judge of Young Poets Network’s End Hunger UK challenge, asks Matthew about his recent venture into British tales of the past.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions Matthew. I have thoroughly enjoyed The Mabinogi. I worried it would be like wading through treacle (like it was when I first studied the original Mabinogi texts in school in archaic Welsh!), but it was more like swimming through chocolate – just delicious.
I’m fascinated by the fact that you worked in the IT industry for over 10 years before you enrolled to study for a PhD in English. During those ten years, was the writer in you itching to get out? Have you always written? What made you finally decide to leave IT and fully enter the world of words?
For my first two years in IT, I was a programmer, and really bad at it. (One of my programming errors caused every person in Hampshire who had an overdue book to have their name changed on the County Library database to Kirsten Jane Hales.) Then I switched to writing manuals, where my writing skills compensated to a great extent for my lack of technical understanding. I always wanted to write creatively, though, and was an active member of a poetry workshop at that time; I also wrote and published my first novel towards the end of my IT career. I finally left, and registered for a PhD in English, because the work was beginning to dry up – as a matter of fact I got out just in time, because the rise of the Internet has really put an end to manual-writing as a profession, now that all the necessary information is available online for free.
The Mabinogi is your sixth book of poetry. You have also published a collection of short stories and two novels. For you, how do these writing practices differ, and do you have a favourite? If you had to choose to write only poetry or only prose for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
I think of myself as a poet first and a fiction-writer second, though I love both kinds of writing. I write fiction fast, not really thinking about the details, and then go back and rewrite many times, whereas with poetry I sit for hours staring into space until a line comes to me, then weigh it and change it till it feels right before moving on to the next. Fiction is a frantic process, poetry a meditative one. But the fact that I’m a fiction writer has an effect on my poetry and vice versa. I tend to write long narrative fiction-like poems, while my fiction has a kind of self-conscious playfulness that seems to derive from writing poetry. If I had to choose one form, it would certainly be poetry.
Your collection is based on the first four branches of the ancient tales of the Mabinogi, which first appeared in text in the Welsh language in the 1300s. These magical stories have captured the imagination of readers and writers time and time again, so it’s not surprising that they have been retold and rewritten many times in many forms. What made you want to revisit these spellbinding stories?
Adapting the Mabinogi was originally a suggestion from my editor, Matthew Hollis of Faber and Faber. I was stuck for ideas and had asked his advice. I had read the stories when I first came to live in Wales in 1999, and now went back and reread them. I could see at once that they were a good fit for my work, since I love fantastic material and the kind of exuberant imaginative details they contain. Doing them in poetic form was an unusual approach, but I now realized that they would work well that way: poetry is a less literal kind of language than prose. As I say in the introduction to The Mabinogi, poets spend their lives transforming things into other things.
Having been brought up in rural north Wales, a first language Welsh speaker, I feel like I’ve always known these stories; they’ve always been there. Simple childhood versions, posters, references in song lyrics, and later studied at school and college. People knew that Blodeuwedd was made of flowers, knew where Annwn was. But for those unfamiliar with The Mabinogi, how can you prepare them for the dazzling journey that awaits them within these pages?
I’ve provided brief marginal notes to help readers find their way around the world of the tales. I also think that readers are more familiar with both magical themes and the medieval background than they might have been a few years ago because of the influence of fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. But perhaps my experience of writing manuals and of university teaching helps, too – I’ve spent quite a lot of my life explaining complicated ideas, so this is another challenge of that kind.
I imagine that writing The Mabinogi must have been an immersive experience. Whilst you were knee-deep in myths and magic, did they follow you into your dreams? Did the characters and creatures become real to you? And once you’d written the last word, once you were finished, did you miss them?
I certainly felt I got to know the characters, and was moved, for example, when Pryderi and his mother Rhiannon were reunited at the end of the First Branch, or when Branwen died at the end of the Second. But I’ve never actually dreamed about them. I don’t think I really miss the characters I’ve written about, because I can always go back and find them again in what I’ve written.
The original stories of the Mabinogi are winding and often labyrinthine. Was it a daunting task to try and distill them into a series of succinct, succulent poems? How did you go about it?
Yes, this was the greatest problem. I had to make quite a few changes, including cutting scenes that are powerful in themselves in the interests of economy. One episode I cut was the Assembly of the Noble Head, where the seven loyal companions who are taking the head of their king, Bran the Blessed, to London to be buried are enchanted on the way and spend eighty years feasting, forgetting where they were supposed to doing. It’s a memorable incident, but there just wasn’t room for it. I tried to clarify the overall structure, for example, by moving the death of Pryderi, the most important character in the whole cycle, to the end of the Fourth Branch, to emphasise its significance.
Do you ever have writer’s block? And if you do, how do you get past it?
I get writer’s block a lot, but I’ve come to realise that it’s part of the creative cycle and shouldn’t be seen negatively. It’s just the imagination taking a rest and can be the precursor to a new phase of creativity. So my most important advice is not to worry about it. Give yourself permission to write, which means setting aside some time when you don’t have to think about other duties and responsibilities. Get rid of distractions – I write on a computer that doesn’t have access to the internet. Get plenty of sleep, not just for the rest but also because the imagination is at its most flexible immediately before going to sleep and after waking up: for that reason, I have a bed in the room where I write, and I never feel guilty about taking a nap in the daytime. Going for a walk is good, too.
You’ve twice been shortlisted for the Forward Prize; in 2004 you were chosen as one of the Next Generation poets; and your latest poetry book, The Mabinogi, has secured you a place on this year’s shortlist for the Ted Hughes Award. What do you make of prizes, awards and accolades? Is winning important to you? Or is it rather irrelevant?
The great thing about awards is that they gain more attention for the book. The Mabinogi has been out for nine months now, but the Ted Hughes Award shortlisting has meant a new wave of publicity for it that will draw in readers who weren’t aware of it when it came out. While it would be lovely to win the Award itself, for me it’s the shortlisting that really matters.
What advice would you give to budding poets who can only dream of being shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award?
I think the Ted Hughes Award is about taking risks, doing things that are a bit different from the standard poetry collection: drama, new media, translation, performance poetry, and so on. So use your imagination and think of new ways in which poetry can make an impact. There has probably never been a more exciting time to be a writer, with so many new possibilities opening up. Poets, who try to use language with maximum economy and power, are ideally situated to take advantage of these possibilities.
Matthew Francis is the author of five Faber collections, most recently his poetic adaptation of the medieval Welsh epic The Mabinogi. In 2004 he was chosen as one of the Next Generation Poets. He has edited W. S. Graham’s New Collected Poems, and published a collection of short stories and two novels, the second of which, The Book of the Needle (Cinnamon Press), came out in 2014. He is Professor in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.
Casia Wiliam is the Welsh Children’s Laureate 2017–19. Originally from Nefyn on the Llŷn Peninsula, Casia now lives in Cardiff with her family. She has published numerous books for children, and has adapted two of Michael Morpurgo’s stories into Welsh. She is also a member of Y Ffoaduriaid, a team of poets on the popular radio series Talwrn y Beirdd. When she’s not writing or delivering workshops, she is the Media and Communications Officer at Oxfam Cymru.