‘Gardens, dreamed, photographed or otherwise seem to be spaces always of fantasy and escapism’: An Interview with Grug Muse
By Jonathan Coste
Edited by Hannah Laker
‘I was walking, and I passed by this botanical garden, stumbling on this wild corner of it. In Belgrade, there are lots of overgrown, luscious green spaces; there weren’t any mowed lawns. Sometimes, you would see people come out of their houses to plant things in what seemed like random spaces, and whilst they were overgrown, you could sense they were still tended and cared for. Within the city people were totally surrounded by plants, by pockets of wild, growing spaces which I was able to explore.’
Over the past ten years, Grug Muse’s poetry, essays, and articles have typically been grounded by her rural upbringing in Caernarfon, north Wales. But her latest piece, published as the second letter of Vol.6 of The Letters Page, takes her to the city of Belgrade, wandering the seemingly endless greenery of the Botanical Garden Jevremovac.
On one of the hottest days of the year so far, my colleague Hannah and I sat down to chat with poet, editor, researcher and nature enthusiast, Grug Muse. Over an enjoyable half-hour’s conversation, we touched on sustainable travel experiences, the inspiration to be found in green spaces and the personal connection that can be cultivated through the process of letter writing.
Grug spent time in Belgrade on a writing residency with the Ulysses Shelter, a literary project connecting Wales with several other European countries. She revealed the lengths she sought to travel sustainably to reach Belgrade, travelling via train for over one hundred and ten hours, much to our own astonishment. ‘I’ve been lucky to have lots of opportunities to work internationally through residencies, but I was aware of these questions around sustainable travel, and how you keep these partnerships going in a context where you are aware of the cost of these projects, so it was a sort of personal experiment for me!’ Despite the arduous duration of the trip, Grug harboured very few complaints. ‘Parts of it were actually enjoyable. When I was travelling, there was chaos at Heathrow, and I remember feeling very smug that none of my trains were cancelled! But still, it has its challenges, understandably.’
I was keen to delve deeper into Grug’s relationship with wildlife and gardens, as in the letter she presents them as mediums of personal escapism. ‘I have always had access to a garden. Growing up in a rural area, you are used to having those spaces to yourself, you can go out and not expect to see anyone. You are not just surrounded by nature, it is a space where you get to be alone, and you get to be by yourself. In urban areas you are sharing spaces with potentially many different people and that forms a different kind of experience.’
Greenery has always been a feature of Grug’s life, and a constant source of joy. She reminisces about her days at Swansea University, where she curated a collection of houseplants, which in turn, inspired the emergence of a self-sustaining micro-allotment of sorts, with potatoes and tomatoes growing within the confines of her flat. ‘It was chaos! But I had this craving, not just for green space, but to be the one caring for the space itself. To be doing the growing was a great source of pleasure. I think it is that act of planting a seed, you don’t know what it is going to be, but you have this vision in your mind, this thing that you are aiming for, and usually your vision isn’t realised. For maybe it will not grow, as the spring or the summer will be too dry, but there is always next year. If you fail, the dream is not over, as there is always the next year, the next time. The dream is cyclical in nature; it is never realised, but it never ends either, making it a special sort of space to have.’
I was fascinated by her response and this concept of ‘the dream,’ which echoed my favourite line from the letter itself, ‘Gardens, dreamed photographed or otherwise seem to spaces always of fantasy and escapism.’ Grug had also mentioned her own garden in the letter, and I was interested to know how this was coming along. Laughing, she explained both the challenges and rewards of maintaining your own green space. ‘I’m battling with the brassicas! The slugs are destroying them unfortunately, but the sugar snap peas are doing amazing, we have been snacking on them, plucking them off the vine and breaking them open, hearing the sound, the crunch. They are bringing a little bit of joy to my life at the moment.’ We brought the conversation round to letters, and the letter composition process. ‘I’ve always loved writing letters; my father’s family come from the States and growing up, all through university I was an avid letter writer. Strangely enough, lockdown was the final blow to my letter writing habit.’ Grug explained she instead connected with her family abroad via Zoom or Skype, rendering her letters far less effective than they had previously been. However, a post-lockdown climate and a reduction in remotely connected quiz nights and bingo sessions ensured Grug’s letter writing habit was restored, much to her own delight. ‘It was really nice to be able to pick up the form again. Having that person that you are addressing, even if you don’t know them, directs and structures your thoughts in such an intimate way to communicate with someone. You can bring yourself into a letter and not feel self-conscious about it, whereas in an essay you might. Within the letter, there are no pretences that the letter it is about anything but you.’
You can read Grug Muse’s letter from the botanical gardens of Belgrade in full here.
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