Cardiff has never been handed the title European Capital of Culture but it hardly needs it. Take the city’s most striking landmark. Cardiff Bay might not be to everyone’s taste yet the poetry on the Wales Millennium Centre can’t fail to impress. And the words say so much about our vibrant home. Firstly, they are bilingual. There are more languages than that fighting for attention on the streets of Cardiff of course, but these two languages, Welsh and English, are at the heart of the nation itself. It suggests a cultural richness, a people existing in two languages simultaneously; it suggests a richness of expression, a richness of creativity. The fact that the words are windows suggests that we see creative expression as a way not only of looking out at the world and making sense of it, but also as a way of looking in at ourselves, making sense of who we are. It’s no wonder they light up the area at night.
The English words, ‘In These Stones Horizons Sing’ reveal more about Cardiff’s creative energy. Gwyneth Lewis, the poet who wrote the words in both languages, says that she wanted to capture how, “The sea has, traditionally, been for Cardiff the means by which the Welsh export their best to the world and the route by which the world comes to Cardiff.” What takes place within the centre, but also in the city itself, is reaching beyond the horizon while also bringing the international to our nation, to our city. Despite what some would have you believe, the Welsh are not an introverted people. Gwyneth Lewis is right. Take a look at the Bay’s history, the old Cardiff Docks and Butetown. It is a history full of international voices, singing.
These diverse singing voices are welcome here: there has always been space in Cardiff for others. The other is not a threat but a way of complementing and deepening the richness that already exists. ‘De Gabay’, The National Theatre of Wales’s recent production, explored Cardiff’s Somalian community. The interactive performance considered the geographical area as well as the cultural life of the people. Again, poetry was central through the work of writers such as Hassan Pinero and Ahmed Yusuf and the performance meditated on the connection between a tradition handed down by ancestors and planted in the rich soil of our city.
The National Theatre of Wales also played a central role in expressing Neon Neon’s latest album, ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’. Just a short walk from the Bay a secret location waited for those lucky enough to have picked up tickets for Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip’s latest collaboration. Exploring the life and work of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher and left-wing political activist, the night became one which fused the music with drama, politics and literature as we swapped books with strangers at the end of the night.
This cultural fusion between forms of expression is seen all over the city. Places such as Chapter Arts Centre and the Sherman Theatre are a hub of such activity where literature and music are often intertwined. At Chapter you can listen to the best poetry from local publisher Seren Books or read your own work in the following open mic session on the first Thursday of every month. Sherman Cymru’s ‘Llwyth’ based on an international rugby day in Cardiff, by local playwright Dafydd James, travelled as far afield as Thailand.
A night out in Cardiff was also the subject of Lloyd Robson’s prose poem ‘Cardiff Cut’. The suburbs seem pristine but Llwyd Owen’s work suggests a darker current running underneath the surface. Want a creative taste of the city? Get ‘Real Cardiff’, a better buy than any travel guide, by Peter Finch. Finch is also a performance poet and again this fusion of rhythm, poetry, drama is seen in a group of younger poets excelling in the art form. One such name is Rhian Edwards. Her collection ‘Clueless Dogs’ won this year’s Welsh Book of the Year Award last week. Here’s a taste:
Arguably the city’s most famous poet, Dannie Abse, explores his relationship with the place in ‘Return to Cardiff’. In that wonderful poem he mentions the ‘smell of ripe, damp earth when the sun comes out, /a mixture of pungencies, half exquisite and half plain.’ He’s talking of his own roots which grew here and suggests that others’ roots will continue to grow in this rich, fertile ground. Some of his experiences were ‘half plain’, perhaps like the city at first glance – its McShops like any other British high street, its chain clubs and bars, overflowing on Friday and Saturday nights. Yet, that earth also created, and still creates, something exquisite, culturally diverse, rich in its expression and voice. A voice that is always singing.