AmeriCymru: Hi Elizabeth and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your collection The Language of Bones for our readership?
Elizabeth: The Language of Bones: American Journeys Through Bardic Verse features Celtic-style poems that bear witness to the power of place and cultural memory. It is a poetic journey from Jamestown, Virginia, to Muir Woods, California, that gives voice to the unspoken, the overlooked, and the forgotten. As I walked along paths that bear the weight of so many triumphs and tragedies, I felt compelled to document those stories in a manner that reflected the timeless elements of the terrain. Traditional Welsh meters like the rhupunt, the clogyrnach, the cyhydedd hir, and the cywydd llosgyrnog provided such a structure and added a layer of musicality.
The topics addressed in the collection are as diverse as the American landscape. Readers will encounter Native American legends, historical events, and current events. Since we Virginians love our ghost stories, a few spirits even make an appearance! In summary, the book is an invitation to explore America, both past and present, from unusual perspectives. Copies are available from Kelsaybooks.com and on Amazon.
AmeriCymru: You write "bardic verse in the Celtic style" and you "find traditional Welsh meters particularly alluring." What is at the root of your fascination with these forms and how would you rate their contemporary relevance?
Elizabeth: Bardic verse is, of course, meant to be read aloud. For me, doing so is a transformative experience. There is something magical about hearing contemporary poetry written in Welsh forms that were codified in the fourteenth century. In some ways the rhythms are almost primal.
I should note that all of the poems in the collection are in English because that is my native language. Welsh bardic forms seem to have a universal dimension that transfers into English quite well. Perhaps rhyme and meter feed an instinctive hunger for predictable patterns.
Many contemporary poets have embraced free verse to the exclusion of all else, but I foresee a renewed interest in traditional forms. Western artistry has long celebrated balance and symmetry, and formal verse extends that aesthetic to linguistic expression. Musical culture offers a few examples of our innate preference for patterns. Just listen to people flounder when they attempt to sing the concluding note of a piece that does not end in its home key! Of course, rhyme is still prevalent in song lyrics.
I think that traditional poetic styles speak to the heart on levels beyond understanding. The trick is to make both the language and the message meaningful. Convoluted lines that engage in linguistic gymnastics for the sake of rhyme come across as contrived and awkward. Such contortions mar the beauty of the form and detract from the meaning. However, formal verse that rises to the challenge of accessibility is most certainly relevant, and a number of modern publications recognize that. Many of the poems in my collection previously appeared in literary journals in the United States and the United Kingdom. I hope that The Language of Bones will spark greater interest in conveying contemporary messages through traditional poetic forms.
AmeriCymru: “The intricate syllabic forms, cross-rhyming, internal echoes, and circular returns of Celtic verse forms are not within the competence of every poet, even those skilled in set forms, but Elizabeth Spragins shows us that they can be wielded with power and grace." Can you tell us how you became acquainted with these forms and how would you advise others to study them?
Elizabeth: I first heard the Welsh language when I happened upon a Celtic radio station that featured Siân James, a traditional folk singer and harpist. Her music had an ethereal quality that mesmerized me even though I had no idea what her words meant! That chance encounter sparked a fascination with all things Welsh. I muddled through some rather musty books on Welsh literature and had the good fortune to stumble across some excellent online resources. The Welsh Society of Fredericksburg opened other doors to me, and I was eventually invited to become a book reviewer for Ninnau, the North American Welsh newspaper. I focused on poetry written in English, and I found myself wondering why more contemporary writers did not explore the rich patterns of the 24 official Welsh meters. It was a challenge I could not resist! The age-old compulsion to tell our stories seems to cry out for the musicality of formal verse, and the Welsh meters have exciting variations that give me chills. Once I started dabbling in those literary jigsaw puzzles, I was well and truly hooked.
For those who would like to explore Welsh bardic meters in depth, I would suggest reading anthologies that include representative pieces from different time periods. With regard to the mechanics, a number of resources are available in print and online. Lewis Turco’s New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics offers a succinct description of every poetic form I have ever encountered. His work, which is international in scope, is an essential reference for any student of poetry or aspiring poet. For those ready to pick up a pen, my article “How to Write a Rhupunt (With Example)” may prove helpful.
How to Write a Rhupunt (with Example)
This article details the process of writing the rhupunt, one of the traditional Welsh poetic forms.
The British Isles produced countless other bardic forms that were never codified. A broad exploration was beyond the scope of my book, but those interested in Celtic literary traditions might want to delve into the work of the Irish bards in particular. I have found Gaelic patterns especially challenging to write in English, but I do include a representative form, the rannaigheacht ghairid, in The Language of Bones.
I would caution readers that the popularity of “Celtic” elements in the film and music industries has spawned a number of books that capitalize on the popularity of the term without having a direct connection. Hence, a collection of “Celtic poetry” may have nothing to do with traditional bardic verse.
AmeriCymru: Do you have a personal favorite in your new collection? Is there one poem that stands out for you and if so why?
Elizabeth: Your question made me laugh. My answer changes daily! The technical elements of some of my earlier pieces may wobble in places, but I think that all of the stories shared in The Language of Bones are vitally important. That said, the two poems that leave me in emotional knots at readings are the ones that speak most powerfully of people and events too easily forgotten. “Jane” pays homage to an unknown girl, most likely an indentured servant, who died at Jamestown during the “starving time” of 1609-1610. “At Standing Rock” addresses racial and cultural tensions that remain unresolved as Native Americans speak in defense of the lands they hold by treaty.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Elizabeth Spragins? Any new titles, promotional readings in the works?
Elizabeth: I am thrilled to announce that Shanti Arts Publishing just released my second collection of poetry. With No Bridle for the Breeze: Ungrounded Verse explores the spirit and magic of flight through feathers, paired wings, and dreams. These poems are based on the Japanese tanka form. Additional details are available on the publisher’s website: With No Bridle for the Breeze, Elizabeth Spencer Spragins.
With No Bridle for the Breeze, Elizabeth Spencer Spragins
Another collection of my bardic verse, A Walk with Shades and Shadows, is in search of a publisher. Two other volumes are underway. At the moment my writing studio has several disorganized mountains of promising material, as well as drivel.
As for readings, I am in the process of scheduling several local events and hope to finalize details shortly.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Elizabeth: Thank you for taking the time to share your day with me through this interview, and thank you for supporting the beautiful elements of Welsh culture that continue to enrich the fabric of our collective heritage. Special thanks to you, Ceri, for inviting me to share my passion for Welsh bardic verse!
Sample Poem from The Language of Bones:
At Standing Rock
The serpent comes.
Its black blood hums
As venom numbs
The lakes and land.
No treaties hold.
The white men sold
Their word for gold
Before they manned
The hungry drill
That pierced Black Hill.
Soon oil will fill
The veins law banned.
They tunneled deep—
Black bile will seep
Where old bones sleep
In sacred sand.
At death, at birth,
Red feet kiss earth.
Her life is worth
The flames we fanned
At Standing Rock.
Our bodies block
The fangs that lock
On Mother’s hand.
Our home we hold
Despite the cold.
We will not fold
On rocks that stand.
~Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North Dakota
First published in America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience. San Francisco, CA: Sixteen Rivers Press, 2018. 95. Print.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 recognized the sovereignty of the Lakota Sioux over the Great Plains “as long as the river flows and the eagle flies.” The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 prohibited white settlement in the Black Hills for all time, but the subsequent discovery of gold generated an influx of miners who violated the treaty with impunity.
The Lakota protested construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the grounds that the project would contaminate their sole source of drinking water and disrupt their sacred lands. The completed pipeline passes under the Missouri River less than one mile upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation.