On Thursday, Sept. 8, students and faculty gathered in the Cheever Seminar Room to experience Zoë Skoulding’s poetry. Skoulding is a Welsh poet and translator who focuses on ecology and sound — specifically, how meaning and sound change across languages.
Listening to Skoulding read from her latest book, A Marginal Sea, I felt closer to Gambier — that is, the Gambier landscape — than I ever have in my first few weeks here. Though her poems described the Adda River in Bangor, Wales, where she is a professor of creative writing and poetry, I imagined the Kokosing.
Her poetry is rich with metaphors and personifications through which she gives nature a new sense of consciousness. Her poems contain lines like “the water speaks” and “the grass busy and afoot.” Even the phrase “apparition of ponies” made me imagine driving to Mount Vernon and seeing a carriage pass. Skoulding was able to highlight the presence of nature everywhere around us, in a way that made nature feel close, personal and accessible. What lingers is not necessarily the precise language she used, but the atmosphere she was able to bring to the room.
Skoulding was also, at times, quite humorous. One poem of hers was inspired by a particular meeting she had at Bangor University. She repeated the words “we are” and “where” over and over again. The sentences were grammatically correct, and made sense standing alone. Yet as they jumbled together, all my ears could discern were single syllables. During another of her poems, she took a brief pause to ask us whether magpies were common in the United States and whether we were aware of the superstition surrounding them — magpies often travel alone, so when one sees a lone magpie, it is customary to greet them and ask them about their family to avoid bad luck.
After the reading, there was time set aside for people to ask questions. One member of the audience asked Skoulding about her work in translation. They asked whether she viewed this work as an entirely new piece, or merely as a translated iteration of the same. Skoulding responded by comparing the work of translation to a conversation. The original determines the rhythm of the conversation and the degree of formality, whereas the translation is a response in the same vein, but exists as more than just as reproduction.
Another audience member asked who the speaker in her poems is: Skoulding herself, someone else or something in between? She urged the audience to imagine the voices of famous songs or texts we’ve read. She imagined that a song might really resonate and that the listener would become the speaker. To Skoulding, writing poetry is not simply coming up with an idea and formulating it into words; it is far more than that. She might find inspiration in something, but the final idea forms in the process of writing the poem. The idea is encapsulated in and inseparable from the poem. Therefore, the speaker cannot so clearly be discerned.
This sentiment feels true when listening to her poetry. Skoulding creates an atmosphere which connects to our experience of nature, something that is so universally resonant. Leaving Cheever Room that day, I walked out into the afternoon sun with a new awareness of the beauty that is around me. I felt I too could hear nature come and be alive in some new way.