The Promised Land bar on Windsor Place played host to the lyrical talents of Welsh writer, Owen Sheers on Monday night, where he gave readings from a selection of his works.
The poet, playwright, novelist and screenwriter has become the figure-head of twenty-first century Welsh literature with his novel Resistance, a reimagining of a Valleys town invaded by the German army during the Second World War which was adapted for the big screen in 2011, and poetry collection, Skirrid Hill, making waves in the British literary scene.
These works have established Sheers as an exciting edition to the great tradition of Welsh poets including Dylan Thomas, R. S. Thomas and Dannie Abse. Born in Suva, Fiji in 1974 and raised in Abergavenny, Sheers writing has been heavily influenced by his rural surroundings during his childhood.
His poetry looks back to the Romantic poets, particularly the Lake poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. He read English at New College, Oxford and later enrolled on the famous MA in Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia, which has produced modern literary greats such as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.
His first published work was the poetry collection The Blue Book, published by the Bridgend-based publishers, Seren. Sheers has also written non-fiction works, the most high profile being The Dust Diaries, a travel-memoir set in Zimbabwe in which he re-traced the steps of his great great uncle, the missionary and Anglican priest, Arthur Shearley Cripps. This won the Wales Book of the Year in 2005.
The turning point in Sheers career came in 2007 when Resistance was published and when Michael Sheen’s production of The Passion in 2011, for which he wrote the script, took place.
The scale and ambition of the project brought him to the attention of the wider media and public. Set in Sheen’s hometown of Port Talbot, the 72-hour long play took in the whole town as its stage and Port Talbot residents who came out as spectators were un-knowingly drawn in as the supporting cast.
The plot closely resembles the story of the Gospels but Sheers also drew from the stories of Port Talbot and the play became an adaptation of the town.
Sheen played a character called “the teacher’ who has been missing for 40 days and 40 nights. He returns to Port Talbot after a corporation buys the town in order to turf out residents so they can knock down houses to make way for a passover for the M4.
The teacher becomes a vessel for the town and seeks to resist the corporation’s plans. He is captured, tried and crucified on a roundabout in the middle of Port Talbot.
At the Promised Land on Monday night, Sheers read two extracts from The Gospel of Us, a novelisation of The Passion, which tells the story through a first person narrative from a young boy living in Port Talbot who takes up the story when the teacher re-appears.
Sheers said: “The first port of call for the story was the Gospels and studying them as literary texts, it was quite an experience to view Jesus as this angry individual. “However, the town itself and the idea of a community play was a huge influence upon me. I wanted to adapt the community play to fit the scale of Port Talbot.”
Describing the affect of seeing his words played out on the streets of Port Talbot, Sheers said: “People were sat in the pub reading a scene from the play which they had just been in, which was satisfying as a writer. “On the first day people were awe struck by Michael Sheen but by the last day they were calling him “the teacher”, Port Talbot really ran with the idea.”
This April sees the one-year anniversary of The Passion, with plans to hold a three-day series of events in Port Talbot culminating with the premiere of the film version.
Sheers also read a number of poems at the Promised Land, including a poem from Skirrid Hill called “Marking Time”, which he described as a “love poem of sorts.”
He then went on to read three unpublished poems. The first, called “The Carriage Horses” was an attempt to write a poem about New York, after Sheers was based in Manhattan for a few years.
He said: “You have to wait for the sense of a place to distill inside you and only then can you reach beneath the surface and write about it.” The final readings were of elegies to Sheer’s great aunt and Dr Robert Woof, the former director of the Wordsworth Trust. These were titled “Harvest” and “The Light Fell”. In the question and answer session after his readings, Sheers was asked what form of writing he would not be able to give up.
He said: “My first love as a reader and writer is poetry. I believe it is the most difficult form and if you get to the end of your life and have written one or two true poems, that is a pretty good hit rate. “It makes demands of us between the solar plexus and between the eyes."
"The best poems express something specific but we also feel as if there is something else we have learnt which you can’t put your finger on.”
Owen Sheers’s The Gospel of Us will be released on 2 April 2012, published by Seren Books.