Poet to poet: Eurig Salisbury on the politics of language and his fondest dream
Welsh poet Eurig Salisbury on not fitting in, the politics of language, and his fondest dream
There’s a tradition in Wales of the bardd gwlad—loosely translated as the country poet who serves the community by composing a poem on occasions such as weddings, funerals and birthdays. “It’s an important part of Welsh poetic tradition,” Eurig Salisbury, who was in India for the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival and the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, tells me. “The idea of the poet fulfilling a social role. In the Middle Ages, there were professional poets who would go around Wales composing poetry for patrons, and a strong element of that has continued today.”
Salisbury, who was born in the Welsh capital Cardiff, moved to rural West Wales as a child. He went to university in the coastal city of Aberystwyth, where he continues to live and teach. There is no summer in Wales/ only the anticipation of summer/ and the knowledge of its passing, he writes. Any manipulations of presenting him as a poet in the canon of Welsh mysticism, he resists. “People have a definite idea of what a poet is in their minds,” he says. “But I don’t fit into that. Do you become a poet, or is it in you anyway? If you’re a farmer, for example, no one asks you, when did you realize you were a farmer?”
Wales, of course, has a precedent of poet-farmers. Dic Jones, whom Salisbury counts as a major influence, was both farmer and Archdruid of Wales, and he famously said: “Farming is my bread and butter—poetry is the jam.” In her book Wales: Epic Views Of A Small Country, Jan Morris talks about how poetry in Wales has always been practised as a profession for which one must qualify, like a doctor or lawyer. There were agreed measurements of value for a work, and poets were governed by the cynghanedd, the Twenty-Four Strict Metres of classical Welsh tradition. “For all its dreams and visions, nevertheless,” Morris writes, “the Welsh imagination is generally precise. Those enigmatic Celtic patterns were never enigmatic in a fuzzy way: On the contrary, they were taut, calculated, balanced.”
Salisbury says that the contemporary Welsh poetry scene is thriving even though no one outside Wales pays much attention to it. The idea of poetry as something that is useful, hard-working and therapeutic comes up a lot as we speak. Much of his own poetry works on the basis of commission for people who need poems for functions such as baptisms or birthdays. “On my website, I have a page where anyone can request a poem, and I’ll get back to them with a price,” he laughs. “It’s a dream of mine, if I could I would be a professional poet, but at the moment, I also have to teach.”
Salisbury teaches Welsh and Celtic studies at the University of Aberystwyth, and one of his areas of interest is Welsh myths and legends, particularly the four branches of The Mabinogion, which he describes as brilliant adventure stories from the Middle Ages. “Everyone and no one knows that (King) Arthur was Welsh,” he writes as a footnote in his collection Everywhere Where Else, co-written with Mumbai-based poet Sampurna Chattarji. The poets were paired together by the organization Literature Across Frontiers, and the poems are a kind of conversation between them and the places they explored together—Kolkata, Mumbai and Aberystwyth. How place affects poetry, but also, how some places can deny or allow entry.
“There’s an early Welsh poem in The Black Book Of Carmarthen,” Salisbury says, “which describes Arthur wanting to gain access to a court, and he’s ordered by the gatekeeper to tell him why he should be let in.... It’s there in the mythology of Wales—gaining access, how you do it.” He sees modern-day gatekeepers everywhere. At Kolkata airport recently, he was stopped by a passport official asking why he was travelling on a business visa. “I couldn’t answer him. He assumed I was a businessman. But I liked the idea of being a poet on business!” The passport official, suspicious of any poet who thought what he was doing was business hauled him to a side room for further questioning.
Salisbury writes in Welsh, which he calls a minority language in its own country. “I’d like to think a new way of looking at Wales is to think of it as the first colony of the English. They went on to form an empire and bits of that have been falling off. Scotland is going to leave quite soon, and I think Wales might be the last colony as well as the first.” The trouble with building castles/ On occupied land is that/ Sooner or later / You’ll find yourself locked out. Welshness is a preoccupation, a political position, a form of dissent against the dominance of English culture. “People ask me what language I dream in and I have no idea to be honest, but I do feel that Welsh is my first language, and so it affects me in a way that speaking English, even now, is difficult for me.”
Some of Salisbury’s poems in Everywhere Where Else were written in English as a challenge thrown down by Chattarji: an act that could be frowned upon in certain quarters of Wales—a Welsh writer taking to English. “It’s understandable because of the language politics, but it’s important not to bind together too closely those who use the language to dominate, and the language itself. It’s two separate things.” He believes all languages are inherently beautiful, and has been involved in a number of translation projects. When I ask what he thinks of R.S. Thomas’ adage—“A poem in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief,” he smiles, but his views on translation are less delicate. “Simply put, if you publish a text and put it out into the world, it has left you, to a certain degree as an author. You’ve shared it with the world, and there will be as many interpretations of that text as there are people.... I’m a firm believer in the translator’s authority as the translator.”
Perhaps the best kinds of translations, though, are reading between the lines of a conversation, the kind which Salisbury has had with Chattarji for some years, and which has been perfected in the sequence of poems titled Ymryson/ kobir lorai. The sequence takes as its starting point the Welsh bardic tradition, ymrson, of debating in verse, which is also reminiscent of the Bengali kobir lorai, a verbal battle between poets. Here is Chattarji exhorting Salisbury to take up English: There are things you do so well. / But can you / Shapeshift, morph, reinvent yourself, your soul, / And birth a whole new sound? Salisbury in riposte brings up a fabulous image of Chattarji surrounded by multiple coats and bags, “a perpetually moulting bird”. There are rants against mother tongues, magpies and borrowed light, evocations of that most famous reprobate Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote in English and paid the price, accusations of chicanery and imagined grandiosity, and refusals to travel light.
In this particular battle though, Salisbury gets the last word:
What keeps us here
is the fear of waking up
to find ourselves running, say, down that hot alley
you were pursuing, only to come home in the end
not to a door but to the edges
of an abyss.
This is the second of a three-part series in which poets speak about their art and inspirations. Read the first part here.