How did you end up at Swansea University?
I had applied to do law in Birmingham but then saw the course in Swansea which included a year in America plus I loved the sea. Went to the open day and just fell in love with the place. I don’t think I would have made a good lawyer!
"It was a defining moment in my life as a writer."
What are your favourite memories from your time at Swansea?
Oh, my I could write pages…. Playing football on Wednesday afternoons up Fairwood. Representing the University in football and getting to the final in Exeter. My first year in Lewis Jones and the breakfasts in Main Hall.
Going to the library on a Friday evening to read the Beat poets looking out to Swansea Bay with the distant shipping lights twinkling in the darkness. First year lectures in Greek Politics and thinking I have no idea what he is talking about, but I like the sky. Tutorials with Jon Roper, Mike Simpson, Phil Melling and Hilary Stanworth. I felt very present and erudite handing in my essays, and they treated you like an adult. Many bands came to play in those days, so I saw Marillion, Lindisfarne and Billy Bragg. Falling in love with the posh girls from Cambridge in my classes. I remember the first time a visiting American lecturer read from the Beats – I was transfixed, and saw how writing could be vital, real, and sexy. It was a defining moment in my life as a writer. I asked to borrow the book on Jack Kerouac. He gave it to me saying, “I want it back next week” I devoured it!!
My room in Lewis Jones.
First time away from home. It was my castle and I loved being sat in there listening to music and writing essays drinking tea. Meeting some great friends like Alun Dodd who wore pink LaCoste T shirts and dyed his hair and who was also full on radical left wing!
You graduated in 1987 with a BSc in Sociology and American Studies. What did you do next?
I struggled to settle back into life in the Valleys. It all seemed rugby, drinking and fighting- all things I despised and was not very good at. So I went to work in Herne Bay as a Community Service Volunteer and saved up some money and went back to America in 1989 to write the great Welsh novel and travel around like Jack Kerouac! It didn’t quite work out but again it was a pivotal moment in my writerly journey. I worked about 15 jobs. I left or got sacked by all, got married, then injured my back and had a spine operation which cost $9000 and my wife had an affair and left me as I was recovering!!- great material for poetry
Then I returned in 1992 to Wales with a newfound love for the place. Maybe I had suffered from ‘Hiraeth’.
Your poem “Guerilla Tapestry” was performed at the opening of the Welsh Assembly ‘Voices of a Nation’ concert in 2004. How did that come about?
I think it was in 2000 and my play Everything Must Go had been quite successful and had toured around the UK. Michael Bogdanov (sadly no longer with us) had seen it and read some of my work and chose that piece to be read out at the concert by Matthew Rhys, Rakie Ayola, Andrew Howard and Ioan Gruffydd who were young and not that famous then. I will always remember Huw Edwards introducing it “and now for the voice of post-industrial Wales…..” and seeing the idiotic royals utterly switch off!!
You’ve done a lot of work to encourage writers, including at weeklong masterclass at the Hay Festival and setting up a young writer’s group at the Blackwood Miners Institute? Is it important to nurture talent and develop the next generation of writers?
Most definitely. That was way back in 1995 I think and since then I have endeavoured to share words and motivate younger people into sharing their stories and expressing themselves. I believe the arts are an imperative part of our human development and can offer us so much in terms of building self-confidence, escalating our self-esteem, giving us an identity, fortifying our psychological armour and giving us essential social skills alongside the pure joy and fulfilment of creating stories, poems, plays and songs. I have also tried to take words to Nursing Homes, Mental Health Units, Refugee centres, Domestic Violence refuges and the wider community. These have been some of my most humanising times of my life. Arthur Miller said, ‘I write my plays to make people feel less alone” and I truly believe to this day that is what art does. In creating and consuming it.
As James Baldwin said-
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
"I am drawn to bearing witness to the people, lives, places and issues that I feel strongly about and need to write about."
Lots of your work has a theme of politics and religion, often highlighting inequality and suffering. Where does your inspiration come from?
Inspiration comes from many sources from my own life of course and I think of myself as a ‘method writer’ in that lived experience is distilled into many of the works I create from poetry to plays. I see politics in education, in borders, in the Monarchy, in housing policy, in shopping, in where people congregate and in opportunities. Coming from the Welsh Valleys I have an acute sense of injustice, of struggle, of striving for fairness, of rage and of appreciating the beauty around us. I was born in Tredegar, home of Aneurin Bevan and birthplace of The National Health Service. I was brought up on the history of The Chartists, Rebecca Riots, Merthyr Rising and The Miner’s Strike which all infiltrated into my mind and pen. I have just finished writing an album with James Dean Bradfield based around the life and legacy of Victor Jara which has so much resonance to today’s world even though he was killed 47 years ago. I am drawn to bearing witness to the people, lives, places and issues that I feel strongly about and need to write about.
I loved the poetry of Idris Davies too –
'High summer on the slag heaps
And on polluted streams,
And old men in the morning
Telling the town their dreams.'
I also read ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou and the following verse hit me like a rocket….
‘You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.’
You only have to see the world and especially the UK at the moment to see the vast fault line between the haves and the have nots, the them and the us which has been illuminated by the Coronavirus pandemic. It is vital we ask the why and the how on such observations.
I never take on a commission that I do not believe in.
As to religion I just feel it is a method of control and false hope and again imbued with a deep sense of inequality and prejudice for example the way most religions treat women and the LGBTQ community. I feel nothing should be untouchable or ring fenced to halt any questions or critique and one must be brave and ask those questions if we are to live in a free and responsible society.
“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Christopher Hitchens.
Your brother Nicholas is in the band the Manic Street Preachers. They pinched the name of your play, “Everything Must Go” for their bestselling album of the same name. Have you collaborated on many projects together? (I also noticed a line in Guerilla Tapestry “Soul against the Gold” did they pinch that for their single “Gold against the Soul”?)
Yes, a few pieces though I have worked with James on more. He has created soundtracks for many of my plays and as I mentioned we have made the Victor Jara album. But Nick and I have been very supportive of each other’s work and Nick wrote the beautiful song for my play Before I Leave in 2016.
As to the line in my poem…no, they were first there I liked the idea of reversing it hence soul against the gold.
Your work spans spoken word, poetry, music, and film. Which of your projects are you most proud of and why?
My first play ‘Everything Must Go’ was a wonderful moment where the Sherman Theatre was sold out for three weeks and people who had never been to the theatre were moved by the play. That was due to the stoic vision of director Phil Clark. Then ‘Before I Leave’ which was inspired by the Cwm Taf choir in Merthyr and the performance where the real choir came to the play was really heart thudding and breath-taking.
A book I wished I did not have to write ‘My Bright Shadow’, which deals with the loss of my dear Mother in 2018.
On a smaller scale, just when you say what you set out to say in a poem. Poems that managed to articulate the rage against the Tory Government’s Bedroom Tax policy or bearing witness to leaving a domestically violent, coercively controlling relationship or the utter loss and grief of losing both my parents within 14 months of each other are fulfilling as a writer. To me it matters not reviews or what other writers say it is about the people who are touched and moved by the work.
Some of your work has attracted criticism in the past. With hindsight, would you do the same again?
Most definitely. It is all part of the journey of a creative person. You must speak of what you care about. Don’t do it for fame, money or attention - do it to stay alive.
"I would wholeheartedly recommend Swansea to those embarking upon their own youthful path of education."
You mention that Swansea was a pivotal part of your life. What advice would you give to someone thinking about Swansea for their University experience?
Swansea was such a special time. A time to ask questions, to think about one’s inner core and the society we live within. It was a soul nurturing experience from the practical skills and independence one began to develop, budgeting and finding ways to stretch a small amount of money to the more abstract notions of citizenship and creative growth one was allowed to build and that came from the intelligent, patient and kind tutors who offered us stuttering students an accessible academic path full of knowledge and experience that led to me finding my strong creative voice . I would wholeheartedly recommend Swansea to those embarking upon their own youthful path of education. Books, sea, football, debate, space, ideas, and aspiration. Education should be about telling young people how not what to think.
Unbeknown to me at the time when I spent my first year at Swansea University in Neuadd Lewis Jones, named after the writer who was a full time agitator for the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, led many hunger marches, wrote two epic novels about the condition of the working class and then tragically died in 1939 of a heart attack, after addressing over 30 meetings in one day asking for aid for Republican Spain. I can only dream, but I pick up my pen and write…….