Carl Griffin: Why was the story of Pink Mist, your new book about young soldiers, written as a poem and not a novel or short story?
Owen Sheers: Pink Mist was originally commissioned by BBC Radio 4 as a five-part drama to be broadcast across a week in March 2012. To a certain extent it was this episodic format and the prospect of writing for a medium in which the spoken voice has greater weight, which led me to tell the stories of Arthur, Hads and Taff through poetry. But there were other reasons too, which grew more from the nature of the material I’d gathered in my interviews with wounded soldiers.
CG: Your play The Two Worlds of Charlie F. is based upon the experiences of injured service personnel (who make up the majority of the cast). Why did you feel there was more to tell?
OS: I’d already dealt with the issues of psychologically and physically wounded soldiers in The Two Worlds of Charlie F. In the wake of that production, however, I still felt I had many untold stories to tell, especially from the women in these young men’s lives – the mothers, wives and girlfriends. And I also still had things I wanted to say. It was very important in Charlie F. to create a play which responded to what the soldiers in the cast thought, felt and experienced. In Pink Mist, however, I had greater freedom to explore the subjects in my own way and to move into fictional territory to get closer, in that paradoxical way of literature, to the truths I wanted expressed.
I also wanted to write into a British tradition of conflict poetry – from Y Gododdin, through Wilfred Owen and, perhaps most significantly, David Jones.
CG: Hasn’t War poetry been ‘done to death’?
OS: We have a history on these islands of remembering and trying to understand the consequences of war in verse, and I suppose I wanted Pink Mist to continue that in some way.
On a more personal level I also felt Pink Mist was an opportunity to move fully into a style of writing I’ve been approaching for many years now through other projects across poetry, fiction and theatre. A form of story-telling that was lyrical and musical and yet also documentary and narrative too; a kind of dramatic reportage in verse. It’s a style with which I’d like to continue experimenting, because it feels very natural to me but also because, in the wake of projects like Pink Mist, Charlie F., The Passion and Calon, I’ve become interested in the concept of the writer as a conduit for other voices beyond their own; in using poetry and theatre to bridge the distances that appear to be ever widening in our society.
CG: Considering The Heath, and now Pink Mist, what do you think the long poem gives the reader that the one-page poem doesn’t? Aren’t you worried readers will get bored, and what about the widely held point of view, though maybe not held by your influences, that poetry should be a snapshot?
OS: If a reader gets bored then that is the fault of the writer, not the form. As to the ‘widely held’ idea, I’d be interested to know just how widely held it is. The only ‘shoulds’ in poetry are that it shouldn’t be prose, and it should be good.
The long poem offers the opportunity to create a more sustained lyric voice and to immerse a reader deeper into the world of a character or place. Think of Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’ or Adam Foulds’s ‘The Broken Word’. These are pieces which maintain the penetrative power, economy and elliptic narratives of poetry, but which also adopt elements of the lasting resonance of the novel. I love lyric poetry but the way ideas are inlaid across a work are very different in a longer poem. And as for snapshots – a long poem can still be full of them, it’s just that they’ll have the opportunity to speak to each other and to be invested with a slowly gathered meaning rather than an essence or metaphoric suggestion left hanging in the air.
CG: Considering your poetry influences, and poets you have written essays about (Keith Douglas, Dylan Thomas et cetera), is it fair to say you find contemporary poets less inspiring, despite the past few years alone producing some incredible poems?
OS: No, I think that would be reductive and inaccurate. The essays you mention were commissions, written for certain events or around certain publications and broadcasts. Writers are readers, and as such are fueled by other writers. I actually believe we’re living in a particularly rich poetic environment at the moment in the UK, and I base that statement not just on the poetry I hear and read here, but also in comparison to having lived in New York for two years, and having encountered other poetic cultures through festivals and translation projects. To a certain extent my BBC 4 series A Poet’s Guide to Britain, although chiefly about poetry and landscape, was also a way to get a number of my favourite contemporary poets on screen, reading their poems and talking about poetry. These included, among others, Don Patterson, Jo Shapcott, Clare Pollard, Simon Armitage, Paul Farley. Among the younger poets coming through now I also see much work I admire.
That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t experience frustrations with some of the contemporary poetry being written and published. But I think that’s the case in every age. Lynette Roberts, writing in the ’40s, once complained that she could have swapped all the names around in most poetry magazines and no one would have noticed, and I sometimes feel the same. You can encounter a certain homogeneity of tone, voice and, to an even larger degree, subject matter. Sometimes I feel the poetry being noticed and acknowledged is too safe or has a surprising lack of musicality. But on the whole we’re very lucky. There’s a significant amount of excellent poetry being written in the UK every year, attuned in the best of ways to the voices of the past and the voices of now. We also have a good and developing readership which is just as, if not more, important. Anyone who’s attended a Poetry Live event when thousands of school students spend a day listening to poets can’t help but have hope in the future of poetry in the UK.
CG: You spent a year as Writer in Residence for the Welsh Rugby Union, resulting in Calon. The Rugby World Cup weeks aside, the streets of Wales are more often filled with youngsters kicking a football around, not a rugby ball, and on the weekends more adults spend their time and money on football than they do rugby.
OS: Statistically football is the national sport of Wales. Emotionally, though, and for all the reasons I explore in Calon, it is rugby.
CG: Tell us about some of the charities/projects you are involved with. Looks like Nick Drake beat you to a book inspired by Cape Farewell.
OS: I’ve never been on a Cape Farewell voyage, so I’m not sure what you mean about Nick’s book. I am on the board of Cape Farewell though, and thought his work was excellent and that it was slightly ridiculous it wasn’t on the short list for the Ted Hughes Award.
My involvement with charities often grows from a piece of writing. Following The Dust Diaries, for example, I’ve been involved with a couple of Zimbabwean orphanages. In a similar way donations from my royalties for the script of Charlie F. go to a school in Kabul, while for Calon they go to the WRU charity for injured players and for Pink Mist they’ll go to Combat Stress. Due to the nature of contemporary publishing the actual figures may be insubstantial, but when a work has been informed by access to certain issues, or by certain interviews, it’s important to me that this is acknowledged in some way when a book is published as a result. Sadly the publishers themselves don’t always feel the same way, so despite them taking 90% of each book sold it’s left to the author to make sure this happens…
I’ve just discovered I live close to the headquarters of the British Stammering Association and having had a pretty bad stammer throughout my teenage years I’m also hoping to do some work for them in the future.
CG: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
OS: I try to live by my writing, as opposed to having a permanent teaching position or other job, so yes, there is always something new. I’ve just finished a screenplay and am currently adapting something else for BBC Wales. I’ve also recently returned to a novel that was started a while ago but kept being put to one side for more time-specific projects. Looking ahead I’ll be working on a project about student sex-workers in which I hope to return to the style of Pink Mist but this time for TV, and I’ll also start researching a WWI play for National Theatre of Wales.
CG: Any plans for a new collection of poems?
OS: I very much hope there’ll be a new collection of poetry at some point. But I’ve learnt that with all these other projects on the desk I can’t promise poems. I can hope for them, and be grateful for them when they arrive, but I can’t schedule them. But I began with poems and I hope I’ll end with poems, so I hope they’ll be robust enough to withstand a few years of being fitted in between other forms and media. Whether I’m right or not we’ll have to see. I hope I am.
Owen Sheers’ new book Pink Mist, a mash-up of poetry and drama, out this month, is reviewed elsewhere in this edition.