The 2020 Wales Readathon, the Dewithon, started yesterday. Paula, at Bookjotter, invites us to join in a month of reading all things Welsh. It’s a good prompt to explore new authors, it’s also a chance to remind myself of the Welsh writing I already own.
Last year, I discussed a short story anthology. This year I offer you a 1997 poetry collection: Gronw’s Stone, Voices from the Mabinogion, by Ann Gray and Edmund Cusick.
I’ve two lines of thought on this, and so begin with the subject matter. Gronw’s Stone is one of the eleven tales of The Mabinogion, a collection of early Welsh mythology first written down in a fourteenth century manuscript known as the Red Book of Hergest.
The stories belong to the oral tradition, meaning they are far more ancient than that. They’d been passed along previous generations of wandering bards.
Until Hergest fixed them on the page, the tales would have been revised and adapted by each teller, to suit each audience. The key events were unchangeable, but interpretation and emphasis belonged with the bard.
My second thought is about the poems, which are not individually attributed to either author.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? It made me wonder how the writing process worked.
I didn’t find out until 2008, when a collection of Edmund’s poems was published posthumously. In, Between Fields and Stars, Ann Gray provided an introduction to the Gronw’s Stone section. There she described the genesis of their Gronw book, and the working process she and Edmund evolved.
I first met Edmund 13 years ago, on a story telling course at Ty Newydd, the National Writer’s Centre in North Wales, during which we visited historic sites and learned the stories of The Mabinogion…
Next Spring we met again at Avebury and told stories amongst the stones. Edmund confessed that he had written a poem for Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. As he read it, it became clear that Edmund’s Pwyll was an honourable man, above reproach…
I was upset. I pointed out to him that Pwyll was not totally wonderful… As we argued this back and forth, I started to write [the Queen of Annwn’s] reply. I wrote into the night, reading aloud to Edmund at every pause for breath. Edmund later changed the tone of his poem to include Pwyll’s gentle regret. This is how it started: Gronw’s Stone.
Collaborative writing projects intrigue me. They seem to hover on the edges of our ideals. Tradition presents us with the poet and the novelist scribbling in solitude. Only if we look closer do we discover the degree to which many great writers discussed their work, in general and specific terms, with their peers.
Move across the writing categories to tv and film, and the advantages of collaboration are obvious. Many loved and admired shows and films have come from writing-teams. Reports say that when these work well, they are exhilarating experiences, in the manner that Ann Gray describes:
We lived in the stories, in each other’s work. Edmund wrote poems in the male voices and I in the female voices. We edited and revised together. When we were asked, but you don’t say who wrote which poems in the book, we honestly replied that it had not occurred to us to do so.
It seems to me that collaborating on a writing project requires not just a shared vision, there must be confidence, both in yourself, and in the partnering writer. Ann Gray says, I would know a poem of Edmund’s anywhere, even if it were found in an attic years from now. He would have said the same of mine.
I’m not sure I would know Edmund’s poems so well, despite having several of his other collections, and while reading this it wasn’t a question I thought to ask. Surely, that says something about the quality of these poems. Maybe they mirror the tradition of the story taking prominence over the bards, who may have had local and temporal significance, but held it only for the space of the telling.
While neither Cusick nor Gray is Welsh, both have taught in Wales.
Edmund was lecturer in English Literature at the University of Wales, before he moved to Liverpool John Moore’s University, to build-up and lead the Imaginative Writing programme. His joy in all things Celtic drew him back to Wales, on trips (especially some memorable course-field-trips), then, on his marriage, to make his home.
Ann Gray lives and works in Cornwall. She has several collections of poetry, the most recent is, I Wish I had More Mothers. She is co-founder and director of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, and has taught at Ty Newydd -The National Writers centre for Wales, and on several Arvon courses.