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An Interview with Sophie McKeand: Flying Words to Pages

Feb 2017

An Interview with Sophie McKeand: Flying Words to Pages

Sophie McKeand is an award-winning , self-employed poet from north Wales, with poetry published in various magazines. She has performed at Green Man, Wilderness, Uncivilisation, Dinefwr and Focus Wales festivals as well as on the Caught by the River stage at the Good Life. Blogger at Huffington Post and new contributor at Wales Arts Review as well as being creative associate at Get the Chance. McKeand currently focuses on bringing poetry to various community groups across wales through working with organisations such as Literature Wales, National Theater Wales, arts Council Wales, Age Cymru and Barnardos.

  •  Your poem ‘Cymru’, is it from ‘Cymru am Byth’ which means ‘long live Wales’?

Cymru is a Welsh term. I wrote it as a commission for the Wales Millennium Centre. It was a commissioned piece of work for a particular event and it was about Wales coming together as a nation, because the term means ‘brother’ in Welsh.

  • Would you call the poem nationalistic or patriotic? Do you think the concept of nationalism or nation-state in poetry in today’s concept somewhat of a slippery slope?

    Nationalism is a tricky subject. Because it can cause divisions, and it can cause racism. You say this is our country and you can’t come in, and I hate that. ‘Plaid Cymru’ is the national party of Wales. They have an idea of a civic nationalism or cultural nationalism which I like, which is “this is Wales and we respect the roots, the culture, the tradition and language of Wales. And it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, if you come to wales you live here, you are a part of welsh culture and history and future”. Like we should open our arms and let everybody in. My neighbors are Polish on one side, and I have people down the street from all across the world, and I love that. I love multiculturalism, I love hearing different languages, I love talking to different people, trying to learn different bits of languages and I think that makes Wales a more interesting place to live. But that doesn’t mean we have to forget Welsh language or culture, because it’s a beautiful language. Why should we forget it? What is your first language?

  • My first language is English but my mother tongue is Bengali.

Right. Why should you forget Bengali just because you speak in English? In fact science has proven that if you speak more languages, you’re more intelligent, you can employ more empathy, I mean why can’t you have both? Have Welsh and English, and Polish and Portuguese; you know Portuguese people live in my area, and its brilliant, but that doesn’t need you need to forget being Welsh. It’s just redefining what ‘Welsh’ is. Does that make sense?

  • Do you feel it is important to stick true to your roots?

Yeah, but still opening your arms to everybody, being more welcome to everybody, but you know don’t lose the language, and the stories and the history.

  • The theme of ‘hiraeth’ is a recurring theme in your poetry. Now there is no English translation for the word. So is this a strictly Welsh sentiment or do you think your expression as a poet in this is universal?

You know I think we all feel it, but I think the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’ just captured it, which is perhaps not something that happened in other languages, and it is sentimental, maybe like a longing for the homeland, and maybe for a past that almost doesn’t even exist. I feel hiraeth here today, I miss the Welsh mountains, the rain, the cold, my partner, my dog. There’s that but then it can be again hiraeth as in with nationalism. It can be a beautiful thing, where you have this longing to go back home, see the mountains, the valleys but it’s not good when it becomes overly sentimental like the Wales of the past, which exists in some people’s minds.

  • Of course this word has no translation in English. And Lin Anderson talked about a certain Scottish term for an emotion regarding the rain which again has no English translation. So how would you get these sentiments across to the readers from across the world, as English alternatives might not capture the emotion properly?

And also, why do you need an English translation? English is a rich and beautiful language but it’s not the only language. It can’t encapsulate everything. It doesn’t have to. So learn other languages’ words.

  • You have actively taken part in poetry festivals before like Wenlock, Wilderness, Green Man and Dinefwr. So when it comes to Literature Festivals, do you think that poetry is sidelined? Because the focus is primarily on the novels?

Yes you’re totally right. Usually there’s like a poets corner somewhere, we get a corner. Some literature like the Wenlock Poetry Festival is great, but I guess it depends. Like I haven’t seen a lot of poetry here, I’ll be honest, and I was a bit surprised by that because I’d heard that Bengal was a nation of poets. And I’ve been reading Rabindranath Tagore, who I love – good that I discovered him – but I was expecting more poetry, but that will evolve hopefully. But certainly in the UK there is much more diverse and richer poetry same way you have novels here. So yes this is something that Kolkata Literature Festival could take care of next year. Definitely more poets and more poetry.

  • Rabindranath Tagore or Kavi Nazrul are Bengal’s poets of the past. But today of course to draw in the crowds we need more novelists in such festivals. Poets are only more talked about in academic and literary circles. So is this a dying art?

A famous novelist would always be much more famous than a famous poet. It’s not dying out but is rather like a subculture, in Britain and Wales. But it’s still difficult to translate that to wider communities and I think putting it on a festival helps as more people see it. People when they are young tend to dislike poetry and so I like to go in and work with youth groups. The children there be like “oh I hated poetry but now I really like it!” so we need more poets going and working with people who are young, so they have an appreciation of contemporary poetry and exposure from a young age. I think that would help a lot. So it’s not dying out but it definitely still needs a lot of help.

  • I was listening to your speech about your childhood days, and how the education system treats poems in a boring and dull manner. Now how would you change that, given that there aren’t a lot of performing poets like you to come in?

So I think that the schools should have a budget to have not just poets but also visiting writers, artists, theater practitioners. Because if you have a teacher who is teaching poetry but their life does not deal with poetry versus a poet whose life IS poetry, the change in enthusiasm and understanding is visible; it’s really important to have that diversity. So the first thing I’d do is give schools a big art budget for such spending. I think it’s never going to happen but if I ruled the world (laughs) then that’s what I’d do. Focus needs to be on contemporary poets. Because when I was 14 and in school and I was reading Shelley and Byron and Keats, I was like “what is this?! It’s not related to me. It’s not relevant to my life.” So let’s start with contemporary poetry and then start to learn the traditional, and the historic and academic classifications.

  • When we talk about poetry we usually classify them as romantics or war poets and such, but you have written about everything from Welsh nationalism to Dandelions. So what do you draw inspiration from? Anything in specific or just about everything?

It’s just about anything! I’m getting more political these days because I’m more socialist that way and I’m quite worried about Wales and UK and we’re swinging to the very very conservative right and I don’t like that all. So I feel that now is the time for poets to rise up and start speaking out on matters of concern and I’m doing more of that. So I get inspiration from the political landscape, very very inspired by the natural landscape, the hills, the valleys, the rain, the rain, the rain! (laughs).  Once you’ve tapped into your imagination you r creativity, everything around could be a poem.  My biggest issue right now is that I know what I want to write about but I just can’t find the time to do it.

  • Do you think such Literary Festivals help bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between nations? Especially your thoughts on the Kolkata Literature Festival?

Yes I think we need more things like this. I’m delighted that there are some poets from Bengal at the moment in wales, so it’s a double exchange, and yes especially now when politics is dividing us all, you know, like Trump building a wall or kicking out Muslims. I mean what is he doing? What an idiot! More than ever, art needs to bring us together to bridge that gap, to create links, knit communities together and help us see other communities, and people as people and not as ‘other’.

  • Especially in the case of Brexit in your homeland and the migrant ‘problem’?

Why do people even say migrant ‘problem’. The problem is created by our right wing press turning people against people saying that “we don’t really want you here”. Why not? If somebody is in trouble why can’t we just open our arms and let them into our country. We need to give them a home.

  • Do we see a poem coming up about this anytime soon?

Yes probably. Probably! (laughs)

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