On the 1st of July in the Baptist Hall in Ledbury, Rhys Trimble and I will enact a ritual ‘air burial’ for poetry. We will take treasured poetic texts, cut them up in a frenzy, then feed them to passing aerial scavengers (that is, crows in human form). Originally inspired by Tibetan, Zoroastrian and other practices of burying the dead in the open air, we were interested in making a literary ritual without appropriating those particular cultural practices, instead making something that enacts a process of destruction and rebirth in the context of contemporary Welsh and English poetic culture. What is particularly interesting for us about the air burial is the way the lifeless corpse is offered to the ecosystem in an outdoor process of recycling. The dead are honoured via a generous giving of life to other creatures in the open. In the context of poetry and culture in Wales and England there is so much we might need mourn, dispose of and then recycle.
Rituals often mark important changes such as birth, death and rebirth and so this performance aims to ritually enact a process of extreme transformation for poets and poetry. Taking the therapeutic aspect of funeral rites and transposing the body-disposal aspects of an air burial onto literary texts we aim to symbolically, physically and aurally cut-up then mix the poetry with other texts, four ‘holy texts’ brought for the occasion. Symbolically the performance is a dismemberment of the body of the text (like the sparagmos, the ancient Greek Dionysian frenzy that kills Orpheus) leading to a poiesis – a making anew.
In the air burial we seek to dislodge the chosen texts from their usual ‘chains of signification’, their normal fixtures and meanings in language and culture, detoxifying them and renewing them in the process. The resulting performance varies depending on the texts brought to be buried by participants and which sections of four ‘holy’ texts we read out, ex tempore. Each of us is bringing something that we feel is dead or dying and needs to be mourned, refigured and given away.
Participants have usually brought their own pieces of creative writing, texts they feel need to be radically altered, but they can just as well bring another poem or book that has some troubling resonance with them. They may feel that the text is lifeless or contains something that needs to be disposed of ritually. We ourselves have destroyed and reconfigured texts that contained some emotional intensity, such as poems we felt were ‘stuck’ in older damaging thought-patterns or memories or contained associations with things we felt we needed to mourn. We tried various different ways of enacting the ritual and people have reacted differently. One participant took lines from occasional notes she’d made on her phone. Once these were fragmented and mixed into the ‘holy books’ in Welsh and English a strange amalgamation of daily life and poetic-philosophical language was created. Other participants have felt trepidation followed by feelings of elation having buried the first draft of their tentatively written stories.
We first performed this ritual in Bangor at the Poetry in Expanded Translation gathering in April 2018. We were accompanied by a crwth, a medieval Welsh string instrument. After a procession, the air burial took place in Y Caban outside Pontio Arts Centre – a strange fibreglass dwelling which was supposed to have been inspired by the traditional quarryman’s gathering place. This site was significant, a troubling and contested piece of public art recalling a symbol of Welsh-language culture. Cynhebrwng Aer is a bilingual performance enacted in two of the languages of Britain. A tension stirs beneath the surface of the performance that is the erosion of the Welsh language under the dominance of English. What will happen when we take this action to England, to a Baptist church hall in Ledbury?
Rituals often make a cathartic sacrifice to represent violence without acting out that violence in the full. But here, instead of a corpse, we are burying a text. And the text is buried in the open air, in a cacophony of language. A real change to the material of the ‘corpus’ is being acted out. What does it mean to consider the poem as a body? How far are poems part of our bodies? Will the birds be satisfied with our offerings?
The performative aspects of Cynhebrwng Aer draw from Rhys’s bilingual practice which has incorporated a ritualistic element along with Nia’s research and practical interest in ritual viewed from the perspective of performance art and poetry. We utilise humour, improvisation and audience participation in order to create an event which we hope is unique in the literary world.
Cynhebrwng Aer will take place at the Baptist Hall at Ledbury Poetry Festival on July 1st, 7.30pm. If you’d like a poem to be buried please contact the festival box office to let us know. Tickets available here: https://www.poetry-festival.co.uk/events/2018-23/
The event will follow an event at 3pm on ritual curated by Poetry Wales with readings from Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Nisha Ramayya and Rhys Trimble. Their work is featured in an issue dedicated to the theme of ritual.
Nia Davies is a poet and editor. She was born in Sheffield and studied English at the University of Sussex. Then Spree (Salt, 2012) is her first pamphlet of poems. In Spring 2014 she took over the editorship of the international quarterly Poetry Wales. She also co-edits Poems in Which (winner of best magazine in the 2014 Saboteur awards) and works with the international literary projects Literature Across Frontiers and Wales Literature Exchange. Her poetry has been widely published and translated.
Rhys Trimble was born in Zambia in 1977. He is a bilingual poet, text artist, performer, drummer, editor, critic, collaborator, shaman, staff-wielder and shoutyman based in Wales. The author of more than a dozen books, including his latest, Swansea Automatic, he is interested in avant-garde poetry and Welsh metrics. He edits ctrl+alt-del e-zine. He has performed in countries around the world and his work has been translated into Slovak, Polish, Latvian and Turkish.