I picked up the phone the other day, to put in a request for an interview with one of Wales’ most celebrated poets, Gerallt Lloyd Owen. His publisher picked up the phone, answered in Welsh and I proceeded to put my request to him.
Gerallt Lloyd Owen is one of the grand-old gentlemen of Welsh-language poetry, having won every major poetry prize in Wales before going on to host one of the most popular shows on Welsh-language radio: a weekly talent contest of sorts that pits budding bards against one another to find the next big thing in Welsh poetry.
“Well,” Lloyd Owen’s publisher said, “The only contact I have for him is his home address in north Wales.” Is there a phone number or an email address, I asked? “No,” he said, in his cheery north Walean accent, “You’ll have to send him a letter.”
The death of letter writing has been lamented far and wide over the past few years but the reality hadn’t really landed on my doorstep, so to speak, until now. I’ll admit I don’t write letters very often but as I put the phone down it dawned on me that some of the most memorable exchanges I’ve ever had have been through putting pen to paper.
When I lived in New York I was working on an article on the urban-fiction scene: a branch of literature that’s focused on a fantasised version of the African-American experience. One day an urban-fiction author I’d become friends with passed me a letter. Scrawled along the thin, cheap paper was some of the most elaborate handwriting – and some of the most flamboyant prose – I’d ever read. It was a fan asking her for a signed copy of one of her novels – and its author was an African-American inmate at a Texas prison.
Reading, he said in his letter, was a source of freedom. We continued to write to each other for a while and the anticipation of his next letter was something my email folders, or my text-message inbox, just couldn’t replicate.
Virginia Woolf called letter writing “the humane art, which owes its origins to the love of friends”. Well, the love of friends today is as likely to be expressed in a chirpy sentence in an email or a smiley face on a mobile phone as it is through a thoughtfully crafted letter.
So I’ve picked up my pen once again, pottered down to the mailbox and sent my request on its way. If you’re listening to or reading this, Mr Lloyd Owen, let me just say – in Welsh – “Mae’r llythyr ar ei ffordd” – and you’ll know to listen out for the clatter of your mailbox any day now.
Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24.