Phil Knight opens the evening at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea with a poem by Terry Hetherington, or “Cheval”, a writer who died more than a decade ago, but whose legacy through the work of his family and a committed group of friends and colleagues has been to lend his name to a remarkable new writing award which has achieved a far reaching success in promoting the work of young Welsh writers, offering many their first opportunity to publish their work. Past winners include a significant group of young(ish) Welsh writers such Rhian Elizabeth, Natalie Ann Holborow, Tyler Keevil, Eluned Gramich, Jemma King and Jonathan Edwards. Several of these writers have gone onto be short-listed or win other awards. So Cheval has a habit of picking winners, and the resultant annual anthology of successful entrants is the book young writers most want to be in. Jonathan Edwards, is perhaps the most high profile of the group after winning the Costa Poetry Award for his first collection My Family and Other Superheroes. He is now an editor for the award and contributes the foreword to the new anthology.
The challenge with a live literature event combined with a prize giving is to get as many of the new voices on the stage as possible. And there’s a crowd of them. This event is full from the start with over a hundred in the audience. The Cheval awards night has always been popular, and they also attract a fair few of the past winners who have just come along to support it. It’s definitely a celebration. The readings are short, a bit random; this is an anthology of diverse voices, poetry, prose and some work that could possibly be either is read enthusiastically to the galleries. The acoustics at the DT centre have always been a bit challenging. The lighting is what you’d normally get for a wedding. But the writers are well-received. Rhian Elizabeth, now writing poetry, reveals a talent for comic timing. A couple of the extracts are over-read; there’s a running theme according to one of the editors, of mental health and another of pregnancy and the possibility of conception. One of the readers is pregnant and another sends her best wishes from mid-Wales where she is about to give birth. Another writer is in Greece and gets a friend to read his poem. Not quite down the line from L.A. but certainly rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a slight edge of the anarchic to the proceedings, the range is challenging, historical fiction to sci-fi but Phil Knight and Amanda Davies do an admirable job keeping the event moving forward with entertaining short introductions of the writers. By half-time we’ve had thirteen readers with “The Walk to Work” by Rhys Owain Williams an intriguing highlight Then there’s a raffle.
At the start of the second half the overall winner of this years competition, Christopher Hyatt, gets a chance to read. He is nervous but affable and reads an extract from his story “The Unreasonable Ambition of Steelman, Raymond”. It is an entertaining parable of a frustrated worker on retirement gambling his money and time on setting up a classical orchestra in a community centre with people who can’t really play. It has engaging energy and although the writer has certainly set himself a task of imagining the ambitions of a sixty five year old steel worker with a life long obsession with classical music there is enough style in the writing to pull it off.
Then the readings continue. There is a convention that people only read an extract, there’s no time to stay on the stage too long. One of the problems of open mic poetry nights is the one reader who decides to read their latest novel – all of it. Only one writer reads their whole story and most are limited to one or two poems.
Many do read too fast though, with little pause between the words which then begin to blur breathlessly into each other. Many of the writers seem to have studied for masters or doctorates in creative writing. Given that much of the opportunity for new writers, especially poets, to get their work heard is through spoken word events it would seem a good idea that some of the techniques of public performance should to be on the syllabus.
The evening does begin to break down in the second half, the audience thins as people head for the hills and last trains to Cardiff. It is getting late. This is a shame as some of the best work is read out here. The subjects are diverse, interesting, involving, the extracts entice to read more. In the end there’s a final short speech from Phil Knight and heartfelt applause for Aida Birch, Terry Hetherington’s partner who has been part of the award from the start. And then its over. Until next year.
Cheval 10 edited by Jonathan Edwards, Glyn Edwards and Rose Widlake is published by the Terry Hetherington Award in association with Parthian books.
The writers in the anthology are Mari Ellis Dunning, Christina Thatcher, Rhian Elizabeth, Rebecca Lawn, Emily Green, Kimberly Houlihan, Rylan Clark, Kathy Chamberlain, Connor Derbyshire, Rhys Owen Williams, Daniel Williams, Rhea Seren Phillips, Christopher Hyatt, Thomas Tyrell, Katya Johnson, Philip Jones, Mefia Louise, Lucy Menon, Gareth Smith, Martina Biavati, Nathan Munday, Rhodri Diaz, Jonathan Macho, Cynan Llwyd, Durre Shahwar.