Welsh writer Owen Sheers joined us for a live web chat on World Book Day, 2 March 2006.
Last updated: 19 March 2009
Question from Jake: What inspired you to become a poet?
Owen Sheers: I wasn't really aware of making a conscious choice. It was something that came about quite gradually. There were two things really. One was some very good teachers when I was younger. They used to encourage us to write poems about experiences. That meant it felt like an accessible medium to me.
The second thing is the potential that less is more - that you can take someone a great emotional and intellectual distance over a fairly short time. I also read lots of poems that had a great effect, but there was one memorable time when I was about 10, 11. I wrote a poem about autumn, which made my teacher cry! I was fascinated by the emotional effect you could have with just a few words on the page.
Gareth: what's your favourite book or poem of all time?
That's a really hard question. I think my favourites change all the time. There were some early great poems by Heaney and Abse. Mid Term Break by Seamus Heaney has a very powerful last line that resonates. When I was younger I read a poem by Dannie Abse called In The Theatre, about brain surgery. And one called Ephemera by Yeats. My favourites change all the time, but those are some that resonate.
Mandy: what is World Book Day all about? And why are you in NY?
From my understanding it's a chance to focus for one day on the reading and writing of books, and what literature can do. It can change our lives, make us thing, argue - not just about selling books!
I'm in New York for a Wales Week with nine other writers. We're telling New Yorkers about it. Many of them haven't heard of it! There are also Welsh chefs, designers, artists. Yesterday we were at a Welsh cocktail reception in the United Nations. They even had the Empire State Building lit up in the Welsh colours, which made people wonder what the connection with Italy was!
Jane France: Have you ever considered writing for children or young people?
Funnily, I have, but only very recently. I suspect I won't until I have kids of my own. I'd like to write poetry, the sort of stuff I loved reading when I was younger. Poetry for kids is really hard to do well, I think. They can spot when there's any rubbish being said to them.
Viv: How much research did you do for The Dust Diaries?
I did quite a lot of research, but in quite a haphazard way. The research came in two parts - the first with primary material, from books, letters about Zimbabwe 100 years ago.
The secondary research was when I actually went there. The invaluable thing was meeting people who had memories of the time, and knew the people. A lot of those stories appeared fantastical, about Arthur being able to control the bees and the rain. That's more valuable than letters and books, because his personality really started to come alive with me.
Andrew: What kind of future do you see for poetry in Wales, and in the arts in general?
It's been an interesting time, with upheaval over how the arts are organised. Everyone wants to see government assistance, but nobody wants proscriptive involvement. I think you need a healthy distance. That's been a hot topic of conversation here in NY.
I think we're very lucky to have some geniunely fantastic magazines - Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review and Planet. It would be nice to see a few younger blokes coming up. I'm 31, and people still see me as a young writer! What Wales is developing is an honest and robust critical faculty. Criticism is good.
Anna Lewis: Your poetry seems to show a lot of influence from Welsh landscape and culture - do you take any inspiration from Fiji?
That's a good question. I did in the Blue Book - there are a few inspired by Fiji and the tropical landscape. But I thought there'd be more. You need the landscape etched into your bones to an extent, to spend a lot of time there. I will go back to Fiji, but probably to write prose. Poetry requires a more instinctive relationship than prose does.
Carol: Do you prefer to write poetry or prose?
It's not really about preference. To me they come from two different sides of the mind. The subject matter usually defines the medium. The feeling you get when a poem has gone right, when you've pinned down the nebulous ideas in a concrete form, is special.
With prose you can treat it more as a day-to-day job. There's a slow arrival at that feeling of completion. It's a calmer satisfaction, like climbing a big hill. I think I've got lots more to learn in prose, which is always good. I feel like a poet writing in other mediums - poetry always comes first.
Jane France: What are you working on at the moment?
I'm meant to be finishing a novel - though I'm in NYC right now! It's set in the Black Mountains in 1944. I'm hoping to finish it in mid-April. I'm in the last third of that - it's exciting and quite scary!
After that I'm writing the foreword of the Library of Wales edition of Alan Lewis' Under The Green Tree. Then it'll be a couple of radio plays - all in theory! The radio plays will be with Radio Wales - nice to be working with them again. The novel has a working title of Resistance. Publication depends when I finish it, but it's scheduled for 2007.
Zordak100: What was your first piece of published work?
In a book, it was in a children's imprint called Pont Books. The editor there published six poems in a volume called Are You Talking To Me - a collection for teenagers. My work was next door to some great Welsh poets like Christine Evans. I found it the other day and was cringing under the table! I'm still grateful for the chance.
Andy: describe a typical writing session - do you jot down ideas if you're out in the pub and think of something special or do you keep work seperate and try and isolate yourself when writing?
Although I'd love to have a regular routine, it rarely happens. But the pattern that works for me involves a certain amount of free thinking - when I'm driving, running. I've finally learnt that if you get up in the morning and start writing straight away, my brain's fresh and active.
I start by editing what I wrote yesterday. It gets me back into the work, and I tend to carry on writing longhand. That might happen in a cafe, then I'll come home and type up the edits and longhand. By that point I'm in the flow and I carry on writing. It's a dialogue between the two. By the end I have a manuscript half in type and half in longhand. By the afternoon I tend to be doing research, bits and pieces of journalism.
ColX: Do you go back to Abergavenny very often?
Yeah, I do. My parents still live just outside. Because I'm living in London at the moment, it keeps me sane to come back once a month or two. I love coming back to walk in the hills.
Lee: What role does Wales play as your muse?
I think one of the great things about writing is that it transcends national borders, ideas of nationhood. You can't get away with the fact that the place you were from influences you. In my most recent novel, the Welsh landscape is the most important muse. The Valleys influence the actions and mindset of those characters. It's an important muse, but I wouldn't ever want it to be the only one.
Roger Davies: What are you proudest of? And are there things you still hope to do?
There are lots. I want to still try and write that perfect poem. I want to have a go at writing screenplays. I want to climb the Himalayas and ride horses across Iran!
I'm most proud of The Dust Diaries. It was the first time I'd written something at that length. It's part fiction and part factual. At the time I was skint and thought maybe I should get a proper job. I was also mindful of the memory of Arthur, and wanting to keep it alive.
BBC host: Here's Owen with a final word.
I'd like to thank everyone for the very good questions. They left me thinking - I'm not sure I had all the answers. Have a great World Book Day and read something you've never read before!