Rhian Edwards, “Clueless Dogs” (Cardiff Launch, Gwdihw, 20/05/2012)

21 May

Amy Wack of Seren Books described the day she received the manuscript for this book as a “red letter day”. Unsurprising really as Rhian Edwards’ poetry is perfect for Seren, with a more traditional “page poet” feel to it, while at the same time Rhian is winning accolades as a “performance poet”; merging the two styles, it would seem, is a guarantee of success.

Rhian’s style of performance is certainly dramatic, each poem quite apparently well practised, and Rhian also sings a couple of “poetic songs”. Her Welsh accent sounds stronger while she is performing; perhaps this is the influence of her family, many of whom made the trip from Bridgend for this launch.

Having since read and enjoyed the book, ‘Clueless Dogs’, I do wonder however if on this occasion, I might have preferred to see Rhian reading more from the book, rather than feeling the need to put on more of a show and read mostly the “party trick” poems. The two poems that won her the John Tripp award, ‘Tiptoe’ and ‘Girl Meats Boy’, which she read tonight, almost in acknowledgement that these are separate entities to the book in its entirety, are isolated at the back of the book.

The very first thing I read was the blurb, and a quote by the Welsh poet laureate, Gillian Clarke which begins, “She captures and subverts cliché for poetry’s purpose” which strikes me as a slightly strange quote to use as an advertisement for the book. It’d be like if Simon Cowell said of an X Factor contender “really struggles to hold down a tune”, and yet said contender than went on to use this in her publicity, simply because it was Simon Cowell who had said it. Aren’t clichés what poets generally try to avoid?

What’s odd though is I don’t think Rhian does use clichés much, even in a subverted way, and it strikes me that Gillian Clarke herself might be looking over her shoulder at this promising new poet and felt the need to use very much a backhanded sounding compliment. Of course, there are occasional uses of plainer language – perhaps similar to the style of Gillian Clarke herself – but mostly, Rhian’s poetry is very much of the cryptic crossword mould, and there’s a need to study and re-read certain extracts a few times to try to get a full grasp of the meaning, or at other times, simply because the use of language is very creative and commanding, such as in the poem ‘Ripe’.

The slightly obscure nature of most of the poems means that when more explicit or obvious references are made – Petra getting her “felatio wings” or of her mucky young self getting into her brother’s empty bed naked – these seem to stand out all the more. There is a fair smattering of sex throughout the book, which is all well and good, but on the whole I’m not sure if poets do sex all that well: leave it to the experts in erotic fiction, I would say.

There are also quite a large number of references to death, or the “dark side” which Rhian refers to in one poem. In the first poem, ‘Parents’ Evening’, which draws you into the book well, a girl “insists upon death as the conclusion to all her stories”. In the aforementioned ‘Girl Meats Boy’, in which she “makes a meal of her lover”, though light hearted for the most part, is also quite chilling in places, and I would be cautious, particularly around the kitchen, if I was her fiancé, Blake, who joined her on stage for one of her poem/song pieces.

‘Bridgend’, which covers the story of the multiple suicides from a few years back seems slightly lacking in compassion with a fairly matter-of-fact tone. Coming from Bridgend, Rhian might argue she can talk more easily of the events as if she was connected in a sense, and I guess she’s intentionally trying to avoid cloying sentiment.

Despite some of my own minor misgivings, it was an entertaining night, and having music first – the Porthcawl Ukulele Band, of which Rhian is a part, but which she did not join in with on this occasion– was a welcome change. So often, the music is seen as the main event, and the poetry is a secondary consideration. But when a rising star such as Rhian Edwards is the headlining act, it’s no wonder that she alone is able to draw a crowd, and of the book, “Clueless Dogs”, I would say: full marks.