Friday May 17th saw the start of the Gwyl Pili Pala Festival in Swansea in aid of the West Glamorgan Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (WGCADA), combining talented acts from the music and literature scene to raise much-needed funds and put Swansea on the map for cultural events. Natalie Holborow reviews the literary side of the festival.
I first heard about the event through the popular spoken poetry night The Howl which takes place at Mozart’s in Uplands; they were asked to take part in a special open mic session across the road at St James’ Church as part of the opening night start to the festival. Not one to miss a night of poetry, I paid for my £15 weekend wristband and looked forward to getting involved. Several people had complained about that the wristbands were “too expensive”, but having attended the festival I disagree completely. If that £15 had just included The Howl which is an otherwise free event, then yes, I would have considered it a bit steep and probably wouldn’t have taken part (and I’m a pretty devoted Howl enthusiast). However, when you consider how much individual gigs will charge per event and the amount of acts going on over the weekend which were all included in the price of the weekend pass, I thought it was excellent value for money. Whilst I did miss out on a few events due to being bleary-eyed and scanning tins of Heinz for the elderly at my weekend job at Sainsbury’s on a Saturday morning, I still feel I got more than I could have asked for from the festival wristband with the added assurance that the money was going towards helping an important local charity.
To kick things off I went along to the launch of the anthology A Few Miles to Go at St James’ Church. This was an anthology of writing produced in a series of creative writing development workshops by write4word in aid of WGCADA, composed of works produced from a variety of backgrounds and emerging from personal experiences (all finished with a touch of poetic imagination). Introduced by Dominic Williams who read some of his own work included in the anthology, it was clear to see the passion and hard work that had gone into the event itself and by the write4word group. To say I was impressed with some of the readings would be putting it lightly; the work was delivered by four main writers in attendance and hearing this mixture of personal styles and experiences was both moving and raw when delivered beneath the bright stained glass of the church halls on a fresh May evening. The venue was a perfect choice in terms of sound; the acoustics made every word crisp and clear so that the problems encountered when trying to read in noisy pubs were completely avoided and everyone benefited from hearing the poems perfectly. At only £3.50 and with all proceeds going to charity, I didn’t hesitate to hand over the money to pre-order the book.
The reading was followed by the Howl session, and it began to dawn on me that for the first time in my experiences of poetry readings, I was still able to read completely sober. I met a lovely lady who was part of the Poems and Pints group in Carmarthen. Her poem felt completely relevant at the time; it was about the crippling fear of standing up and reading and suddenly I was taken back to the first open mic I ever did where by the time it got to my turn to read I could barely read my own work, let alone stand. It was refreshing to have hear some new voices in the group as well as the regulars and really added something different to the session, combined with the new venue. A lot of the readers are well-loved for their humorous approach and kept the night diverse and interesting. Admittedly I spent most of it shaking from a combination of cold and horrendous stage fright and by the end had entertained the thought of sneaking outside and mugging someone for their jacket, but as for the open mic session itself I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it gave a great taste of what Swansea poetry nights have to offer. It’s evenings such as these that make me feel lucky to live in this lovely, ugly town (even if the accent isn’t exactly the sexiest; I’m more than aware of my own when trying to pronounce ‘ear’ and ‘pure’ during readings in a way that my English uni friends won’t start grinning).
Following a much-needed post-Sainsbury’s nap on the Saturday, head still buzzing with the beep of scanned Nectar cards and customers declaring war on the self-checkouts, I strolled through the rare and bright Swansea sunshine to a buzzing Uplands for an afternoon of literature. All the way up Walter Road, people milled about between rows of bunting and bright Pili Pala signs, sprawling on the green lawns of St James’ or nudging cigarettes into their mouths outside Mozart’s. I almost felt classy were it not for the Richmond menthol dangling from my mouth as I half-jogged to catch Alan Kellermann and Tyler Keevil’s 3.30pm slot, Crossing the Borders.
Crossing the Borders consisted of a discussion between Winsconsin-born poet Alan Kellermann and Tyler Keevil from Vancouver and explored the divisions and cultural differences that arose from national division, particularly in regards to literature and problems faced as a writer in a different culture. Writer of the thoughtful and moving You, Me and the Birds, Kellermann provided readings from his collection during the discussion whilst Keevil read from his latest novel The Drive, a witty and blackly humorous novel of one man’s drive across Canada and the States and the problems encountered as a cultural outsider.
One of the main themes discussed was what it means to talk about “home” in writing. Kellermann questioned the sense of identity as a writer in his position as an American writer living in Wales and both agreed that there was a sense that one should be cautious as an outsider writing of another culture. How much ownership can be claimed if the country is not your native home? When including cultures other than his own in writing, Keevil explained how his writing became more “objective and culled”, and would never write in the first-person colloquial narrative as he does distinctively in The Drive. Kellermann on the other hand as a poet highlighted the difficulty of this “distance” when writing poetry. Without a sense of intimacy he noted that there would be “no pathos – what you’d have is just words on a page”. Having recently started writing about Wales in his poetry, he claimed that it was something that came naturally and that this ultimately was the best way to write about it as opposed to “hunting it down and doing it injustice”. Though American and Canadian writers, it was interesting to see the differences encountered not only through this but as Americans/Canadians in Wales and then deeper into that as the challenges faced as poet and novelist. In every turn of the discussion, a new “border” arose.
The accompanying readings were delivered beautifully in Kellermann’s case, the “cement-shouldered” streets of Swansea in Letter From A Son In Swansea created easily in the mind’s eye and ended with the lingering wistfulness of “Makes me wish I might truly/send—not sand, but sounds of sea”. Grappling with the issue of needing to engage in order to achieve pathos in poetry, I was pleased to hear him read Self-Portrait With Muse, dedicated to acclaimed local poet and my wonderful creative writing tutor Nigel Jenkins. The poem rose to the challenge of the Welsh form of englyn and cynghanedd, Kellermann unafraid as a poet to take on a difficult structure rooted in another culture. He pointed out that in poetry, form transcends culture—to say he couldn’t write a Welsh form as an American “would be like the Italians saying only Italians could write a sonnet.” Keevil’s reading, delivered in his distinctive accent, really brought the words to life and his bright and confident expression in the dialogue made the comedic impact incredibly affective and not a single person in the audience didn’t laugh and give an appreciative round of applause at the end of his reading from The Drive. His controlled and pared prose made the detail of a character’s “crazy bubble-eyes” come alive and drove the plot (no awful pun intended) along at a good pace. His strong narrative voice made for compulsive reading and even if the plot itself in a setting of drugs and customs offices would seem unfamiliar to most, he manages to bring the reader directly into the story with ease and an achieved sense of familiarity.
The familiar dimly-lit setting of Mozarts made for an intimate setting, perfectly accompanying the inclusive nature of the discussion where Keevil would often throw out questions to the audience and invite them to question him back. I think this sort of audience engagement is something that can be all too easily overlooked during such an event, so this was greatly appreciated by those in attendance and added an interesting dimension to the discussion with opinions hailing from not just Swansea natives but also people from other parts of the UK and another from North America herself. It was fantastic to see such a friendly and open discussion which brought such a diversity of nationalities together and made for interesting listening (I left the talking to people who knew exactly what they wanted to say and weren’t going to risk coming out with something that made them look as though they had the IQ of a ham sandwich). Despite Crossing the Borders being about differences, the event itself did what the Gwyl Pili Pala Festival was all about: bringing everybody together to celebrate culture and diversity in the name of a good cause.
I arrived at the Garage straight after for my final literary event of the festival, Bad Girls Grown Up. This was a feature by one of my all-time favourite Welsh writers, the Dylan Thomas Prize-winning Rachel Trezise and the author Rebecca Ray whose work has been shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Commonwealth Prize 2005. I first passed them standing outside smoking cigarettes with other festival-goers and chatting about the events; the festival really brought people together through a love of music and literature, something which I feel is so important and added a real sense of community to the Swansea locality.
Reading from their latest and upcoming releases, both Trezise and Ray took the main stage. I thought perhaps the setting would have been better at Mozarts; I couldn’t help feeling a certain distance due to the seats at the bar being quite far back and on another level to the main stage which took away the degree of inclusiveness achieved with Crossing The Borders. Reading an excerpt from her upcoming novel The Ape and the Golden Ring, Ray transported us to South Africa for the setting of her novel with her beautifully-constructed prose and deft handling of sense evocation which were it not for the whispered Welsh accents across the bar could have taken me through the haze of my glass of wine to somewhere exotic. In contrast, Trezise’s short story collection Cosmic Latte included tales rooted in Wales in her distinctive tradition, though reached out to include stories set in America, Europe and Ireland. Reading her story Blue Ruin Café, Trezise smiled and asked us to imagine a Northern Ireland accent before delivering the story in her strong Welsh tongue. With both writers reaching out to other cultures, I couldn’t help but contemplate the previous discussion between Keevil and Kellermann and wonder what the discussion would have been like had Ray and Trezise been part of it.
Ray continued by reading from her recent Parthian release The Answer and Other Love Stories, treating us to dark and tender storytelling centred around those who “live as neighbours, pass each other in the street and work side by side”. Whilst those of us who came intending to see the literary events enjoyed hearing the work, it was approaching evening by this point and the doors spat out slightly drunken music enthusiasts who had come in looking for bands at the popular music venue, looked on baffled at the two women on the stage with their books, pulled a face and rowdily made their way out. Again, I feel this could have been avoided if Ray and Trezise had perhaps been given a place at The Chattery, Mozart’s or St James’—and perhaps a slot earlier in the afternoon.
This did not deter Trezise. Aware that The Garage was renowned for its reputation as a popular place for gigs, she acknowledged this before reading from her book Dial ‘M’ for Merthyr, which recounted her experience touring with a Merthyr band with brilliant wit and cheeky Welsh humour, especially when delivering the dialogue. The quotes could easily have come from the mouths of my friends in local bands on a night out, and this sense of familiarity and her natural verbal expression when reading her own words raised plenty of laughs from the audience. I began to notice that less and less of the music fans were walking back out; a large group of leather-jacketed boys who had originally looked on, baffled, now hovered in the doorway grinning over the pints, listening intently at Trezise’s impressions of Welsh blokes describing a band rather professionally as sounding “like someone killin’ someone with a spoon…’ow do you kill someone with a spoon?”
I left the literary events of Gwyl Pili Pala Festival with a great sense of having got the most out of my money and the knowledge that a lot of money had been raised for a deserving cause. To see so many familiar faces, new friends and total strangers all mingling outside a busy Uplands really brought the city together and I for one truly hope to see a return of the festival next year. I moved on to the music events of Sin City with a sense of anticipation and not wanting the weekend to end; and that, after having to get up at 4am for a morning shift in a supermarket, can be classed in anyone’s books as a complete success.
By Natalie Holborow