Flowing metres

Judy Meewezen

The River Dee is making its debut in the UK Year of Literature. In a project organised by the Welsh Arts Council and Clwyd Library and Information Service, the poet and painter John Lyons has been working as writer in residence at three high schools along the river.

Encouraging pupils to focus on aspects of the river, from herons and wild garlic to effluence and ancient ruins, Lyons nurtured young poets among even the most urban members of Year 9 and 10.

When I watched him at a session at Connah's Quay High School near the Dee estuary, he was returning edited versions of pupils' work, inviting each to record a near-final draft on tape, when, he explained, it would soon become clear whether more cuts were needed.

The work was as variable as the river itself, but Lyons declared himself delighted at the general quality.

Though enthusiastically welcomed in North Wales, the appointment of Lyons as writer in residence was controversial. He is based in Manchester and though he was well established in England and the author of several respected volumes of poetry, Lyons does not speak Welsh and admitted that, until he came to the Dee, scarcely knew a sycamore from a rowan. A few minutes into our walk along the river bank at Llangollen, it became clear that all that had changed, as Lyons identified bird song and plants with gusto.

His interest in Wales emerged some years ago while he was running workshops for the Tate Gallery Liverpool on the German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys was fascinated by the Celts and through his own study of pieces shown at the Tate, Lyons began to see connections with the mythology of the West Indies, which had been a persistent preoccupation since his childhood in Trinidad.

Meanwhile, together with the portraitist Peter Edwards, who holds a parallel position as painter in residence, Lyons and his pupils have been preparing a display of work and a reading for the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen this week. Later this term, five pupils from each high school will be selected to spend a week's intensive course at Ty Nyedd, the writers' centre near Criccieth.

In the meantime, pupils have been going by boat up the river, visiting by foot many of its less accesible sites and some of the factories that depend on the Dee. Instead of another pile of course work essays, the result will be a published anthology of poems by pupils and will show a fresh and, Lyons hopes, intuitive response to the river.

Behind the Carnival by John Lyons is published by SmithDoorstop Books.

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