So, a few nights ago I donned a frock and went along to the award dinner for the announcement of the third Dylan Thomas Prize, the international award recognises young literary talent and is awarded to a writer under the age of 30. The award ceremony took place in the newly-renovated Patti Pavilion in Swansea. There was a champagne reception followed by dinner seated around tables of ten or twelve. The hoi polloi were out in their dickie bows and their floor-sweeping evening dresses – the crowd included funders, judges (Peter Florence, Cerys Matthews), former winner Rachel Trezise (in a stunningly sleek new dress) and five of the six shortlisted writers (Caroline Bird, Emily Mackie, Elyse Fenton, Eleanor Catton, and Karan Mahajan). Nadifa Mohamed had skipped the party to attend the announcement of the Guardian First Book Award for which she was also shortlisted, but unfortunately for her, for whichshe also did not win.
Earlier in the week I interviewed Elyse by the fire at Dylan Thomas’ former abode, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. Jetlagged and giggly, the elfin tomboy had arrived the morning before and done a red eye. A new mother, she had also discovered that her baby didn’t sleep on planes.
A resident of Philadelphia,Elyse received her M.F.A. from the University of Oregon. This may be her first collection, yet this young poet is no stranger to accolades – Clamor (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010) had already been selected by D.A. Powell as winner of the 2009 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize and she was also the Winner of the 2008 Pablo Neruda Award from Nimrod International Literary Journal. Her poetry and nonfiction have also appeared in such journals as Bat City Review, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The New York Times.
Sony Reader winner Stefan Mohamed with judge Cerys Matthews
I asked her how she started writing such personal poetry: ‘The collection began about halfway through my first year of the MFA, but it took me about six months to get into that work. When I started my MFA my husband deployed to Iraq within a couple of months, so pretty much my whole grad school time we were apart, and distant because when he was back in the stated he was based in Texas. I resisted writing about our lives, I wasn’t used to writing out of that kind of immediate experience, and so it took me about six months of perhaps writing indirectly and subconsciously about it, but really trying not to write about it, the subject matter felt untouchable. I don’t know exactly which poem it started with but I remember beginning to find a way in through thinking about the language we used when we talked on the phone or IM, newscaster language, the language we used to mask what the war was about. So that became a meditation, the language was my window in, to begin writing but it still wasn’t for another couple of months that I could actually begin write in the first person and enter that.’
Apart from organic farms – she likes to keep her ‘hands dirty’ – I asked Elyse what she was working on now: ‘I’ve had a baby, so that kind of governs a lot of my time and thinking. I’ve also started writing an interim project to get me away from the subject matter of Clamor. I’ve worked on a collaboration with a friend of mine, we’re writing sonnets in the voices of trees. I wanted something formal, I wanted something with rules, and that was just enough to get me off of, or out of the space of Clamor. I don’t know if this is going to be part of the same manuscript or not but I also have a collection that begins with the voices and sonnets of trees, sonnets and nonnets, and another series, perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s based on having a child. I guess in a similar way that I approached Clamor, I’ve started with the language of labour, and labour as in any kind of labour, so hopefully that’ll be less autobiographical, less confessional.’
How does her husband feel about featuring so heavily in the collection? ‘He has a hard time but he knows that it’s not all fact – no poetry is – but he finds it difficult because he doesn’t want to be associated with the soldier for good reason. He appreciates the work though, I think, and he appreciates that my experience translates into something so fertile. It is my experience, it is certainly not his, and it is only my experience in the language.’