Jan 16, 2012

An Interview With Nancy Wright - American Welsh Poet

AmeriCymru spoke to Nancy Wright, American-Welsh poet and WNAA Board of Trustees member about her poetry and her involvement with the North American Welsh Choir .Nancy was the winner of first place prize in the 2011 West Coast Eisteddfod Poetry Competition. To read her winning entry go here:- Remembering Fengdu Go here to enter this years West Coast Eisteddfod Online Poetry Competition

AmeriCymru: What first inspired you to write poetry?

Nancy: I have been creating poetry for as long as I can remember.  I specify "creating," because I was rhyming in my mind before I was writing, at least cursive writing!  In fact, all of my childhood poems featured conventional rhyme, in either an aabb or abba pattern.  As I entered my teens, I began writing more free verse, and occasional blank verse, and that practice remained for quite some time.  It was both frustrating and interesting to me that any time I wrote rhymed poetry during those teen and early college years--even on a serious theme--it sounded comical.  As a result, I limited my writing of rhymed poetry to limericks, parodies, and those fun tribute "roasts" for people celebrating special occasions, and focused on free or blank verse for what I considered more serious subjects.

In recent years I have returned to rhymed poetry, but this time experimenting with different forms and styles, such as the mirrored refrain, in which the last two lines of each stanza are reversed, the etheree, which proceeds line by line from one to ten syllables, and shape poetry, in which the poem actually takes the shape of its subject.  In fact, there is a subtle element of shape poetry in "Remembering Fengdu" which I leave to each reader to identify!

Regarding politics and poetry:

Of course, as we know, many, many poems have political themes, and we also know how powerful such poetry can be, indeed powerful enough that in some societies poets are imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for expressing themselves in verse on highly charged or controversial subjects.  At a more fundamental level, however, the word "politics" is derived from the Greek words "polis" and "polites," meaning respectively, a city-state and citizens of that city-state.  Thus the facts that politics has to do with any matters involving citizens, and that poetry is a uniquely human activity means that poetry and politics inevitably will cross paths.

With respect to my own experience teaching political science, definitely themes emerge; in fact, "Remembering Fengdu" is a prime example.  Poetry can symbolically express power, conflict, struggle, reconciliation, and harmony, all of which embody some element of politics. Politiics is often associated with contestation or discord, but in fact political participation can also contribute to security and serenity.

AmeriCymru: Your Remembering Fengdu was a very worthy winner of this years West Coast Eisteddfod Online Poetry Competition. Care to tell us a little more about the poem?

Nancy: In 2001 my mother and I together visited China, which for a number of years we had talked about doing. It was a marvelous experience for both of us to share.  Part of the China travel consisted of a three-day cruise down the Yangtze River, including the most scenic part of the Three Gorges, the narrowest portion of which we would access via larger cruise boats.  The boat held several hundred people, but of course, it was smaller than an ocean-going vessel.  Many of the travelers were members of large tour groups; only a few of us, including my mother and me, were characterized as "independent travelers."  Perhaps it was that categorization of independence that enhanced my truly feeling like a participant observer during those three days.  The messages about the Three Gorges Dam were rather mixed.  On the one hand, it was presented as a grandiose engineering achievement that would prevent future severe flooding and provide much-needed electricity.  Concerns about relocation were met with assurance that those being relocated would move to modern accommodations far superior to what they then inhabited.  At the same time, our cabin television monitors included news segments and commentary from the United States about the extremely controversial nature of Three Gorges Dam, especially the relocation and ecological aspects.  We were told that the ancient ghost city of Fengdu would be submerged once Three Gorges Dam was completed.  The second day of the cruise we disembarked at Fengdu and took a cable car to the top of the mountain, where  Chinese would pan for gold.  As we were suspended in the cable car, I looked down and saw a farmer hoeing, and immediately the image of his hoeing weeds for the last time came to mind.  Similarly, returning to the televised programs on Three Gorges Dam, there was one news segment that featured an elderly man painting a picture of his home, which was soon to be flooded.  He intended to take the picture with him to remind him of his home and the self-sustaining village where his ancestors had lived for more than 500 years. 

While I believe all of the other cruise passengers sensed the loss that Three Gorges Dam would cause, I felt that they also saw the dam as a sign of progress, albeit with the inevitable associated costs.  One likened the commentary about the dam to that of Egypt's  Aswan Dam decades before, commenting that prior to construction that project had been just as controversial, but that in time it was accepted and even welcomed as a sign of progress.  Furthermore, there was something in the tone of conversation among many of the passengers that sounded to me superficial.  There were times when, while standing on the deck gazing at cliffs that I knew soon would be underwater, I fervently wished for absolute silence.  However, the chatter of the other travelers surrounded me----chatter about souvenirs, chatter about other places they had traveled, chatter about each other..

Also, the guide gave a running narrative that unfortunately was a bit hard to discern among the extraneous noises and a murky amplification system.   All of the verbiage at times hummed through the boat in a way that almost seemed to mock what was about to happen, hence my reference in the poem to "gripping walls of tourists' wagging tongues and roving eyeballs." 

Another aspect of the chronology of Three Gorges Dam was the designation of Beijing as the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics.  In June 2003, nine years after construction on the dam had begun, and two years after my mother and I visited China and took that cruise, the government authorized the first filling of the reservoir.  This was the first phase in a process that was to be completed in time for the 2008 Olympics, with the idea that Three Gorges Dam would enable China to meet the extra demands for electricity that the Olympics would require.  The dam also became a national monument of modern technology.  China's anticipation of the 2008 Olympics had become especially real to me several days before the Yangtze River cruise even began.  While in Guilin, which was the first place in China that we visited, we were strolling through an outdoor market. I saw and bought a T-shirt with the iconic Olympic rings and "Beijing 2008" silk-screened on the front, and this was July 2001.

"Remembering Fengdu" is a composite of all those images.  Moreover, it is not only about China's quest for and manifestation of power through construction of Three Gorges Dam, but that quest and manifestation of all nations---and in fact all humans----for power at one time or another.  China's assertion of itself as a major power in the world reflects not only China's ambition but also the world in which China displays that ambition, which in fact is a world in which the powerful gain respect, or at least deference.

Another interesting aspect of "Remembering Fengdu" is that originally I wrote it simply as several stanzas of free verse.  Julian Goodwin, a Brooklyn-based composer, set that version to music, and the way he captured the text with various harmonies and recurring themes gave that original version a new dimension, which in turn inspired me to revise the poem to evoke a sharper visual message.  While I think the original lent itself much better to a composition, I believe the revised is a more effective poem when read or recited.

Where could one find more of my work?

I have not published poetry much at all.  In October 2008 I did win a Spanish poetry competition in Patagonia, Argentina, while on tour with the North American Welsh Choir, and the poem was published in the Chubut regional press the following day.  There is also a youtube from the Chubut Eisteddfod in which the adjudicator reads the poem, which was titled "Conocer Patagonia."  A hymn text which I wrote, titled "Hymn to Song" was set to music by composer David Evan Thomas, and I understand it is in some hymnals, though I do not know which ones.

AmeriCymru: You also sing in the North American Welsh Choir. Care to tell us a little more about your involvement with them?

Nancy: I discovered the North American Welsh Choir while cycling down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan one Saturday afternoon!  I had been teaching on Saturday mornings at City College's main campus in northern Manhattan.  Typically I would cycle there and then return home by way of Central Park and Fifth Avenue.  The really ineresting thing----and I consider this miraculous serendipity--was that normally I would have turned east onto 20th Street at its intersection with Fifth Avenue.  That day, however, I continued southbound on Fifth Avenue to 12th Street, which is the location of the church where the North American Welsh Choir was scheduled to perform that night.  It was April 2000.  The sign outside the church featured the choir's famous motto, "The choir that spans a continent."  It seemed like a very unique event, so I attended and loved it!  Afterwards, I learned of the gymanfa ganu which was to take place the next afternoon and I attended that as well.  I was able to obtain an e-mail the linked me to the interest form, and the rest evolved.  I shall always cherish my decade with the choir.  In addition to meeting wonderful people all over the United States and Canada, my membership in the choir also led me to learn about the North American Festival of Wales and its Eisteddfod, in which I have greatly enjoyed participating over the years.  Still another interesting spinoff episode . . . and this one interfaces with my academic life . . . . .in the spring of 2005 I taught introductory public administration to undergraduates at Long Island University-Brooklyn.  I wanted to include a unique comparative element in the course, and decided to arrange an intensive weekend to Kansas City.  Much of the inspiration for this came from hearing NAWC member Ann McFerrin describe her work as an archivist with the Kansas City Department of Parks and Boulevards, as well as hearing chorister and WNAA Board member Judith Braugham discuss her work in housing and real estate.  Another friend and former colleague of mine from my years with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development had relocated to Kansas City and I was able to reconnect with him during a choir regional concert there.  He also is involved in real estate as well as community development and social justice in Kansas City.  All three individuals were first-rate resource people and my students enjoyed the weekend immensely.  Their perceptions of the southern Midwest were totally changed as a result of the trip. 

AmeriCymru: Will you be at Scranton this year?

Nancy: Absolutely!

AmeriCymru: What's next for Nancy E. Wright?

Nancy: I leave Monday, January 16 for six months in Kolkata, India, where I have been awarded a Fulbright Teaching Grant to teach international relations at the University of Calcutta.

I am extremely honored and excited by this opportunity and look forward to learning more from my students than I am sure I shall impart while there. 

On a somewhat more long-term basis, I also have a book project in process. It is a collection of poems and short stories with environmental themes.  A number of the chapters have grown out of NAFOW Eisteddfod entries!

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

Nancy: The eisteddfod is a marvellous Welsh tradition that I would love to see emerge in other cultures.  I know every culture has its competitions and contests, but something about the eisteddfod is unique.  Perhaps it is the combination of diverse categories of competition, accessibility to all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels, thorough and constructive adjudications, and wholly supportive and encouraging audiences that always inspires me.

I urge everyone with an interest in music, writing, recitation, or any other category offered to enter an eisteddfod, just for the experience if nothing else.  Also, I want to express my gratitude for AmeriCymru.  Just as the North American Welsh Choir's virtual nature enabled choristers to meet people throughout North America, AmeriCymru enables members to meet and correspond with an enormous spectrum of people who embrace Welsh culture in ways that would not have been possible a few decades ago.  In a time when we are all justifiably concerned about problems with Internet use, it is gratifying to see such a wholesome and unifying use of the technology.  I look forward to continuing to communicate while in India and of course, upon my return!

Interview by Ceri Shaw Home Email

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