What draws a person back to Wales? This is a question I often ask myself as I sit with my Welsh class, on Tuesday evenings, or when I talk with other far flung language learners on the Saysomethinginwelsh forum. What are we doing here, though many of us were born far from Wales? What is it about the western-most corner of the British mainland that calls to us? How has this connection shaped us? In what ways do we express that sense of dual identity?
This week, I put these questions to the American born writer David Lloyd. David and his wife, artist Kim Waale, are soon to do a residency at Stwidio Maelor, which is owned by my friend Veronica Calarco, and as I hope to spend time at the stiwdio next year, I have a growing interest in all things Maelor.
Writer, poet, literary critic, academic, David Lloyd is the director of Creative Writing at Le Moyne College. His poetry has been widely published in the U.S. and in Welsh publications such as Poetry Wales, Planet, New Welsh Review, Lampeter Review and through the Welsh presses Parthia and Gwasg Carreg Gwlach. His recent novel, Over the Line, was published by Syracuse University Press.
Born in America to Welsh speaking parents, David studied at Aberystwyth University in the early 1970’s, and returned to the university on a Watson Fellowship, later in the same decade. In 2001 he spent five months at Bangor University, on a Fullbright Fellowship. As an American citizen and a person with an obvious connection to Wales, I asked David about the influence of his Welsh heritage:
“Welshness is deeply embedded in my identity. It’s in the way I interact with the world and how I understand who I am. My interest in being a writer derived in part from hearing my father’s sermons each Sunday, which were beautifully constructed and delivered with passion. Perhaps my sister Margaret, also a poet, was similarly influenced. At some point in the 1950s my father stopped giving weekly sermons in Welsh and English, to only giving them in English – a result of the declining number of Welsh speakers. But throughout his life he was regularly called on to give Welsh-language talks or sermons. My brother Richard is a musician and composer, and his musical sense must derive to a great extent from the Welsh music we heard and sang during our childhood. I know I absorbed the rhythms of the Welsh language and of English as spoken by a north Walian (my father, from Corris) and a south Walian (my mother, from Pontrhydyfen).”
As the child of Welsh speaking parents it may surprise you to learn that David was not raised speaking the language, a situation he ascribes to a general feeling during the 1950’s that children of immigrants should Americanize.
“Even with this change in the primary language of our home, we all could speak some Welsh. Prayers before Sunday dinner were in Welsh; certain family routines were announced only in Welsh: bore da, mae’n bwyd yn barod, nos da, cysgwch yn dda. My brother closest in age to me were always cariad to our mother. On family vacations we sang Welsh-language hymns and folksongs in the car to pass the time. I remember an elderly parishioner, Mae Ellis, who insisted we exchange a bit of Welsh every Sunday, even if only Sut wyt ti? Di iawn, diolch yn fawr. Then she wiped any smudge off my face with a damp handkerchief pulled from her sleeve.”
David’s father died young, in his fifties but, in her later years, his mother came to regret not having raised her children as Welsh speakers. An omission David and his sister Margaret sought to rectify in the year 2000, returning to Aberystwyth for Cwrs Haf, an annual, month long intensive language school, which is, incidentally, the same course (different year) on which I met Veronica. David had this to say about the Summer School experience.
“It was fantastic, really – at the end we could carry on conversations in Welsh quite well – and on returning to the States for the first time I could speak with some fluency with my mother. She lived until 97 – the last native Welsh speaker in central New York.”
As a British born Australian of Welsh descent, I am always intrigued by other people’s experience of dual identity. I asked David what it means to be both Welsh and American.
“The immigrant experience – including the experience of children of immigrants – necessarily involves a degree of loss: of family, of community, of culture, of language. But it does bring compensations. I consider myself lucky to have two cultural streams flowing into my life. I love listening to live blues at the Dinosaur bar in Syracuse as much as I love hearing poets read at the Imperial Hotel in Merthyr Tyfil. (Mike Jenkins runs a reading series there.) I love camping in the Adirondack national park not far from where I live in New York State, but one of the great pleasures of my life is taking long walks in Wales with my family, searching out burial chambers, standing stones, and stone circles. I’m fascinated by American popular culture, but can’t read enough about Llywelyn ap Gruffydd or Owain Glyn Dŵr. The modern poets who mean the most to me are American William Carlos Williams, Irishman Seamus Heaney, and Welshman R. S. Thomas. A description of my second book of poetry, The Gospel According to Frank (New American Press), might best display this cultural mash-up: the poems merge the public persona of Frank Sinatra with heroic figures drawn from Wales (The Mabinogi), Ireland (the Tain Bo Cuainge), and the Old and New Testaments.
“My most recent Welsh-related writing project is a series of stories set in the Welsh immigrant community in which I grew up, during the 1960s. The book, titled The Moving of the Water, is almost finished, and I’ve been publishing the stories. You can find two in on-line journals: “Home” in the Spring 2014 issue of the Welsh journal Lampeter Review and “The Key” in the 2013 issue of the US journal Stone Canoe.“
In November of this year, David will be staying at Stwdio Maelor, in Corris, which happens to be his father’s home village. I asked what he hoped to achieve during his residency.
“My aim is to explore the part of Wales that my father knew well as a child – and then see what ways that experience feeds into my creative work. I’m back to writing poetry after having just published a novel, Over the Line, so I’m planning on drafting new poems at Stiwdio Maelor.”
No doubt, David will meet up with old friends and commune with those no longer present. Let’s also hope he also finds opportunities to speak the hen iaith too.
Photo: David Lloyd (center) with Welsh poets Nigel Jenkins (far left), Menna Elfyn (seated), Iwan Llwyd (far right).
Stiwdio Maelor in Corris has been set up to provide studios for local artists and to provide a retreat for artists from the UK and other parts of the world to take time out of their normal lives and visit a stunning area in North Wales. There are five studios available for rent to local artists and astudio/bedroom space available for visiting artists. The fees have been kept as low as possible so that all artists can take advantage of this project.