A letter from Gillian Clarke to Cabinet Secretary Ken Skates AM
The following letter was sent by former National Poet of Wales (2008-2016), Gillian Clarke, to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, Ken Skates AM, in response to the Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales:
2nd July 2017
Dear Ken Skates,
Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales chaired by Professor Medwin Hughes
As one who set up Tŷ Newydd (www.tynewydd.wales), the Welsh Writing Centre, with the help of three friends, 27 years ago, and as its President, I write to say that I am shocked to read the report’s shallow, inaccurate account of our activities and achievements. I am more proud of Tŷ Newydd and its record running writing courses for schools and adults than of anything else I have achieved for writers in Wales. Members of the panel did not visit Tŷ Newydd, or talk to the staff working there, or contact me, its inaugurator and President, or speak to me as National Poet of Wales for the previous eight years.
What is Tŷ Newydd?
Tŷ Newydd is our Welsh version of the Arvon Foundation in England, established by Ted Hughes, and of Moniak Mhor in Scotland. The Arvon Foundation runs three such houses in England. Before setting up our Welsh Writers Centre, I had tutored 50 courses for the Arvon Foundation. Ted Hughes wrote to the Welsh Arts Council in support of my bid for a centre in Wales, and his wife, Carol Hughes, came in person to speak to them. My husband and I found a suitable house available to rent, and, through writers’ donations, I raised £25,000. The Welsh Arts Council matched it. We worked with two others to restore, clean, decorate and furnish the building. Laura Ashley donated bed linen. Other companies gave furniture. Tŷ Newydd held its first poetry course in April 1990.
Tŷ Newydd’s purpose is to encourage reading, writing and to raise the standards of both, through working with creative writers.
Courses in poetry, prose, fiction, drama, film, and other specialist areas run throughout the year. I tutor two Poetry Masterclasses, one with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy (who tutors nowhere else but Moniak Mhor), and one with another poet-tutor. The report’s panel members visited no course, spoke to no tutor, and no participant.
In April 2011, under the instruction of Arts Council of Wales Chairman Dai Smith, Tŷ Newydd united with Academi to form Literature Wales. It was difficult for Director Sally Baker to work under the new regime, so she retired. Tragic events hit the staff. One retired, one died, the newly appointed head fell seriously ill, and after a period with no-one actively in charge, he was forced to retire. We lost customers. After much repair work we now have an excellent team, and are fast recovering lost ground.
FACTS THE PANEL DID NOT CONSIDER OR GOT WRONG:
1. Tŷ Newydd courses do have a strong record of helping writers to develop writing careers and to get published. Below is a sample list of published poets/writers whom I first met as unpublished unknowns, either in my work as Poet-in-School, funded by first Academi and then Literature Wales, or at Tŷ Newydd: Alice Oswald, Horatio Clare, Adam Horovitz, Will Owen Roberts, Bethan Gwanas, Paul Henry, Owen Sheers, Samantha Wynne Rhydderch, Liz Lefroy, Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books), and Lizzie Fincham (Cinnamon Press).
2. Tŷ Newydd’s equally important purpose is to get people reading, and to widen and deepen their reading. We need readers as well as writers. It is not the function of Literature Wales to make everyone a published author, but to spread literature and literacy to all.
3. Those who come to Tŷ Newydd from other parts of Wales, other parts of Britain, Ireland, Europe and the USA, experience Wales and hear Welsh spoken. Many become admirers and supporters of our language and our literatures. The diplomatic power of Tŷ Newydd is incalculable.
4. The report is incorrect in several details: there is no Writers House like Tŷ Newydd in Ireland, which is why so many Irish people come to Tŷ Newydd. A recent Irish star is Jane Clarke, who attended several Masterclasses, and whose collection, ‘The River,’ she worked on at Tŷ Newydd. Published by Bloodaxe, it won several literary prizes.
5. One of Tŷ Newydd’s most ardent supporters, who co-tutors a Masterclass with me every year, is Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate.
6. There are open courses for all to apply for (as there should be) but for the two annual Masterclasses we select the most promising applicants. Thus the demeaning remark in the report about ‘retired hobbyists’ is insulting and false. In fact, as well as masterclassers, Tŷ Newydd welcomes the young, the elderly, the disabled, the lonely, those suffering from dementia and those who help them. Language for such people, and those who work with them, has an enabling, curative power. The tutors*, all published writers, are appropriately chosen for each group of participants.
*It should be noted that the tutor’s fee gives a writer, often on a very low income, a useful small return for their creative work.
While explaining Tŷ Newydd’s purpose and achievements, I must praise Literature Wales’s work promoting Writers-on-Tour. My own encounter with many of the writers listed above was first made in their primary or secondary school. Evidence from teachers could be gathered to support the success of poet visits. Why were they not asked? On a visit to read to patients in a Mental Hospital in Abergavenny, I witnessed an old man, an elected mute who had not spoken a word for ten years, stand and recite Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. My poem ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’ tells this story.
National Poet of Wales
This is my other area of experience, and I wish to add detail to the bare mention made by the report: the National Poet of Wales has a powerful ambassadorial role. Wales used to be invisible in the British literary scene. In my eight years tenure I was invited to represent Wales at festivals in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, the USA, Dhaka and Mexico. During the centenary years of Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, and others, organised by Literature Wales, I re-read every word of the writer celebrated. My own writing was re-envigorated by the experience, and I was commissioned to write poems, perform many readings, write stories, articles and to give lectures in London, Sheffield, Hay-on-Wye, Dublin, St Andrews, Edinburgh, to name but a few. I judged a young Muslim poetry competition. I met the Irish President in Swansea, (Dylan Thomas year) and was invited to the Yeats 150 year centenary in Sligo, where I read in pubs, a graveyard, and on a boat to Inisfree with the Irish Ambassador to London. These encounters made friendships across borders and cultures, and the doors are open now for our current National Poet, Ifor ap Glyn, to continue Literature Wales’ good work.
I would gladly meet you if it would be useful.
(President of Tŷ Newydd. National Poet of Wales 2008-2016)