As part of my job at Ledbury Poetry Festival (29th June – 8th July 2012), I’m responsible for blogging about some of the acts that will be performing: reviewing snippets of their work and whipping up a media storm (or, more likely, some mild interest) surrounding their Ledbury appearance.
After Tony Harrison’s reading on Jubilee weekend (coming up this Saturday), the first event of the festival proper (number 1 in our swanky new programme) is Owen Sheers, a truly 21st Century poet; by which I mean he’s not exclusively a poet at all, but has also presented television documentaries (‘A Poet’s Guide to Britain’, BBC 4), written travel journals (‘The Dust Diaries’, 2005 Welsh Book of the Year), novels (‘Resistance’, later adapted for film), plays (including ‘Fair & Tender’, a contribution to Bush Theatre’s recent ’66 Books’), radio poems (‘Pink Mist’, BBC Radio 4), as well as publishing more conventional poetry collections (his most recent being ‘Skirrid Hill’). He is also the first ever Writer in Residence to be appointed by any National Rugby Union (Wales, in this case).
To-ing and fro-ing on various trains around Birmingham and Ledbury over the last few days, I took a look at ‘Skirrid Hill’ to get to know Sheers as a writer and what we might expect from him when he kicks us off on 29th June in Ledbury’s Community Hall.
‘Skirrid’, from the Welsh Ysgyrid meaning divorce or separation, is a collection concerned with rifts and distance, gaps between expectation and actuality; in its language and images it traces a ‘vernacular of borders’ (from ‘Skirrid Fawr’, the book’s final poem). As I mentioned in my post about ‘Voices Over Water’ (https://bennorrispoet.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/voices-over-water-d-nurkse-and-the-through-narrative/), I’ve recently discovered the joy of reading a collection straight through. Though Sheers’s has a much less prominent narrative arc, it is laced with subtle internal references that reward the receptive reader. The authorial voice is never far from the surface here, and one gets a real sense of Sheers’s journey, tracing his humble Welsh agricultural roots, and his relationships with his parents, the land, and with lovers. His writing is at once effortless and painfully cathartic, and his autobiographical honesty is often genuinely breathtaking. Indeed, all of the relationships in ‘Skirrid Hill’, whether beginning or ending, are acutely aware of their own fragility, and this gives rise to some exquisite moments. Like ‘Valentine’, which presents three memories of a woman, each a single, well-wrought instant that leaves the reader, like the speaker, unsure of ‘whether to laugh or weep.’
Owen Sheers’s reading will doubtless also be a tumultuous but rewarding emotional roller-coaster, and a superb way to begin a fine 10 days of poetry at Ledbury 2012.
You can book tickets for Tony Harrison, Owen Sheers, and all the other fantastic acts at Ledbury Poetry Festival 2012 on http://www.poetry-festival.com/bookings.html or by calling 0845 458 1743. The full programme of events is here: http://poetry-festival.com/calendar.html