Gwyneth Lewis


Gwyneth Lewis (1959) is a British poet and non-fiction writer. She has published six books of poetry in English and in Welsh, which is her mother tongue. In 2005 and 2006 she was the first Welsh National Poet. Her first English collection, Parables and Faxes (1995), won the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward, as was her second collection, Zero Gravity. Her Welsh work, Y Llofrudd Iaith, won the Welsh Arts Council Book of the Year Prize and Keeping Mum was shortlisted for the same prize in 2004. She also writes opera libretti and literary non-fiction, including Sunbathing in the Rain: a Cheerful Book about Depression and Two in a Boat: a Marital Voyage, about a sailing trip with her husband from Cardiff to North Africa. Gwyneth Lewis was a guest of Passa Porta in 2007 for the ‘Bards in Brussels' project, a translation workshop and poetry evening with three Welsh and three Flemish poets, organised by Het Beschrijf and Welsh Literature Abroad. On that occasion, Gwyneth Lewis translated poems by the young Flemish poet Eva Cox, and vice versa. Some of Lewis' poetry has been translated into Dutch.


Authors' text

Villa Hellebosch

The first thing that strikes me is the smell of the house. It's a scent that takes at least two generations of good living to create: wood furniture, polish, the smoke from many log fires, thousands of meals cooked and eaten in convivial company.

My room, at the back of the house, has wooden shutters. Wanting to make the most of the facilities, I close them tight and bolt them, thinking that this is what every good Belgian does before going to sleep. I find that the cave-like dark delivers me to twelve hours of teenage-rich sleep, full of dreams.

ln fact, the whole experience of coming to Villa Hellebosch is, for me, that of entering the dream territory from which I'm writing a long poem, part of which I've come here to finish. Walking around the grounds on the first day, I note that there are too many bees to be accidental and that those I see have the drive of tradesmen in white vans, going from one appointment to the next. A couple of days later, I find the hives. One of the books I've brought here to read is Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee. Not only do I
have time to do the preparatory reading for the climax of my epic poem but villa Hellebosch itself is obliging me with a show-and-tell run through several of the major strands of imagery in the poem.

W'e're having April weather in March, hail showers alternating with skies which are almost violet. The tenth book of my poem will be set in an orchard. My study looks out over pear trees whose buds swell every day in the cold. I visit one particular tree each day and keep notes about the blossom as they come out. The colder it is, the more the blossom swells. Any day now the first tree at the edge of the path, the one which is inexplicably ahead of all the others, will be flowering. I watch, fascinated, as a man prunes the fruit trees. Snow swirls around him as he works. This is the first residency in a writers' retreat I have ever undertaken. I've been frightened in the past by the notion that nowhere could possibly be more comfortable than home. It's taken me years there to set up a study and a way of living which allows me to write. And yet, I immediately recognise this place as profoundly helpful to the creative process. It's
not just a question of the routine or the absence of distractions. It's a quality of the dream space into which residents at villa Hellebosch are invited to stay.

I've been suffering from a spectacular run of migraines in the last few years. On the morning Alexandra wants to photograph me, I'm unwell but say, why don't you take the photograph of me anyway, resting and reading in bed? As we talk, she tells me that she's working on a photographic project about hospitals. The people in her photographs, like the cleaner she describes in detail, is one of the characters in my poem. There's an exhibition in a hospital in Ghent which I must visit. This place is feeding me in all the
ways which are important to writers. I have a fellow nun living with me, Ukrainian novelist Oksana Zabuzhko. She puts in longer hours than I do but I get up earlier. I'm trying not to be competitive about this, but I worry when she threatens to get up early too. It hasn't happened yet. Given that we're
on a kind of silent retreat filled with words, that we're together but apart, her company has been key to me in this process. If you've ever done meditation in any concerted way, you'll know that doing a seemingly solitary activity in the company of others who are accomplished at the discipline can be an enormous help. Like geese flying in each other's slipstreams, the burden of going a long way, alone, can be shared.

It's rare for me to meet a writer who is as obsessed about her work as I am. In fact, it comes as a considerable to relief to find that Oksana has thought through these issues, has fought hard against demons and is ready to be direct in sharing her experience. This increases my confidence as I'm tackling the most ambitious piece of writing l've ever attempted. It helps with those internal voices which mock your endeavours before you've started and which are one of a writer's most serious enemies.

The other is plummeting morale. The migraines continue to be a trial but Alexandra's mother, who teaches massage, kindly offers to treat me. I'm expecting vigorous muscular manipulation but receive, instead, my first (and, the following morning, my second) lymphatic massage. The movements made to persuade the lymph through muscles and tissues are tiny circular strokes. Here's another coincidence. I'm writing about lymphatic cancer and here, in Villa Hellebosch, even being ill has delivered me safely into the
metaphorical world of my poem and I now know a little more about how I'm going to handle its dénouement. I understand physically that the way lymph moves through the body is very different from the circulation of the blood. It's the way that dreams seep into our conscious lives and how the spring sap is rising, drawn by the tiny but mighty capillary action in the beech trees behind the house.

On Easter Sunday night, it snows heavily. Oksana is obliged because she's writing about exactly the kind of walk which we take in the woods together. The following morning I'm out in the orchard as the snowfall melts. Church bells peal in the distance.

This is a new degree of concentration for me. Not only am I writing my poem, I'm living in it.

Gwyneth Lewis
March 2008


Villa Hellebosch
3.03.08 > 31.03.08

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