Writing & Place – Celebrating the end of the PhD at Aberystwyth Poetry Festival

Aberystwyth - view from the castle ruinsAs an undergraduate creative writing student studying at Aberystwyth University, I struggled with the ‘writing place’ assignment. I didn’t feel any strong sense of connection with any particular location. Yet so many writers talk about the importance of place in their work. Many Welsh-born writers, in particular, celebrate their connection to the country of their birth. I have always been jealous of those writers who identify strongly with a particular place.

Now, twenty-one years after I began that first creative writing degree, I have my own published poetry collection, and a PhD – two achievements that my teenage self could never have imagined! I was invited to perform at the Aberystwyth Poetry Festival in May, which coincided perfectly with the submission of the final hard copies of my thesis, and the end of my final term of teaching as a PhD student.

Rachel Carney performing at the Aberystwyth Poetry Festival - photo taken by Katrina NaomiBut it wasn’t until I began to think carefully about the theme of this year’s festival (Wild Nature) and to decide which poems I should read, that I realised how much it meant to be returning to the place where it all began.

As an undergraduate student, all those years ago (having grown up in landlocked Sheffield) I fell in love with the sea. I spent many hours reading and revising on the beach, and wrote many many poems. And the sea has stayed with me ever since. It has become my go-to metaphor. It has flowed from poem to poem to poem, to emerge all these years later in my debut poetry collection: Octopus Mind.

It turns out, then, that ‘place’ has played a key role in my development as a writer. It wasn’t until I found myself in Aberystwyth, celebrating the published book and the PhD, that I realised just how many of my poems stem from that first encounter with the sea.

So I decided to begin my reading at the festival with a poem that reflects on my very first visit to Aberystwyth, on a University open day, when the fog was so thick that we couldn’t even see the sea:

Slowing Down

It was a bright day of winding roads,
.          red kites on wings above us, as we

wove our way across mid-Wales
.          to Aberystwyth and the sea –

rolling there, a secret world behind
.          thick fog, while ghosts of seagulls

eyed us warily – two English intruders
.          in this Welsh seaside town.

And yet it felt like home. That decision,
         made in the space between waves

and town (a trick of time
         a slowing down) that led me here,

sitting in a sunlit room, writing
        in silence, with strangers,

looking back
.          to how it all began.

And I finished the event by reading a poem about my final day as an undergraduate student in Aberystwyth, in June 2006. I remember that day so clearly. I never imagined I’d be stood in front of an audience, reading this poem out loud in that very place, eighteen years later. Here it is:

The Last Day

So, here we are again,
high up, sitting on a slab
of weathered rock

at the top of Constitution Hill,
staring out to sea as if we’ve
never seen the sea before.

Gulls glide overhead,
relishing the updraft,
as we stretch out,

lean back on bare grass,
and wonder if we might
one day come back,

perhaps with kids,
and husbands too. Perhaps
not. It is the last day,

and we won’t move until
the last rays fade like warm
breath into blue,

leaving a fresh breeze
fingering our skin, as
memories pull us

down to town, and live on
like holidays, like phantom fun,
like strawberry ice-cream.

It was a fabulous festival – incredibly friendly, and I loved attending the other events and soaking up the poetry atmosphere, especially the headline event with Matthew Francis and Karen McCarthy Woolf, which took place at the National Library of Wales in front of a gorgeous Aberystwyth sunset.

The Bookshop by the Sea - AberystwythAberywysth Poetry Festival is organised by The Bookshop By The Sea.

‘Slowing Down’ was originally published in The Cardiff Review in 2019. ‘The Last Day’, was originally published in the Abergavenny Small Press Literary Journal in 2020. Neither of these poems appear in my collection Octopus Mind, but it is full of other good poems!

You can see more photos on my Instagram account.

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