By Anita Sethi
Poetical Reflections: An Audience with Owen Sheers
The wonderful thing about the London Literature Festival is that fragments of poetry, or ideas that have been triggered, linger long after the festival is over. Here’s my first reflection on a variety of such moments:
Poetry was a strong presence at the festival, with powerful readings including the “Poetry and Place” event with Owen Sheers, Nick Laird, Kate Clanchy and Toby Martinez de Las Rivas. I caught up for a chat with Owen Sheers after his event where he discussed his versatility in working in multiple forms – poetry, prose, plays, journalism, television, and the film adaptation of his critically acclaimed book “Resistance” is forthcoming this autumn.
“a citizen of the world”
His own work aptly reflects the journey of his life, ranging far and wide throughout the world, filled with imagery of maps and bordercrossings. Born in Fiji in 1974, he left when he was 2 years old, grew up in Wales, and has travelled widely. Although he aspires to be “a citizen of the world”, he describes his “deep connection” with Wales, expressed in his recent play The Passion.
We discussed how “the moment” is relevant across these different genres. “I was drawn by poets like RS Thomas who has an incredible gift for striking metaphors but is also very drawn to narrative poetry that tells a story”. Sheers’ own poems likewise compellingly capture the moments of life yet also the broader narrative of life, with a forward and backward movement and even characterization.
He reads an incredibly haunting new poem inspired by a funeral which uses the subtle changes in nature to reflect profounder insights into the human condition. Speaking about how moments of life spark literature he says: “As a writer you’re attuned to those quite lucky intersections, those fortunate coincidences and then it’s a question of what you do with them. It is about a moment and it’s also opening up to an awareness of literary heritage and showing how landscape can find the words we don’t”.
”hurt into writing”
Some of the poems he reads out have powerful imagery of both physical and psychological pain and I wonder which medium best deals with that: There’s a famous quote, “hurt into writing”, describes Sheers, “you’re not always hurt into writing but quite often it’s a space where you do work our your troubles; sometimes you say things in poetry you wouldn’t even do in prose; it’s intimate yet also performative. I do think of the page being a stage and the poem an actor so the first person is and is not the poet; it gives you a license and also a shelter…You’re controlling the pain rather than it controlling you”, explains Sheers. “I’m about to do a project with Theatre Royal Haymarket working with people from Afghanistan; all who have been wounded either mentally or physically. I’m interested in what I’ll find in the language of that world”.
Sheers describes the interesting ways his own body of work reflects that phrase, “hurt into writing”: “In a very general way with The Dust Diaries when I travelled in the country it felt like the script of it for the next ten years had already been written; that the international community had already decided its attitude. There was a huge feeling of impotence and frustration and I did want to join the dots”, he says. On a personal level, he is moved into writing poems when people die: “It’s not with a view to publication and many never see the light of day. In the face of death you feel there’s nothing you can do but I feel that something I can do is in some way speak to the person. It’s a fascinating territory to explore”.
“the most extraordinary invention of civilization”
His poems are, though, ultimately filled with joy, creating a rich tapestry of both the pains and pleasures, the light and dark of life: “I don’t know any piece of writing that isn’t a celebration in some way. On a very basic level it’s a celebration of the fact that the alphabet is one if not the most extraordinary inventions of civilization”.
At the London Literature Festival
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