Owen Sheers: The blue-eyed boy and bard

Owen Sheers writes poetry infused with the landscape of his native Wales. Lisa Gee talks to the former rugby player about farming, familiarity and form
Click to follow

"Look," says Owen Sheers, pulling up a blue sleeve. "Goosebumps. It's still doing it!" He's talking about Seamus Heaney's "Mid-Term Break", one of the first poems he read that gripped him. "Dannie Abse's 'In the Theatre,"' he adds, pulling up the other sleeve to reveal more goosebumps. "That's an amazing poem. His brother was a trainee surgeon in Cardiff in the Thirties with a consultant who was a pioneer in brain surgery. Back then, the patient was given local anaesthetic while they took the top of the head off. And the only way they could find the tumour was to probe around. It's the most haunting poem and there's this moment when the patient switches off, and this other voice comes out saying 'Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,' then he dies."

Sheers' second collection, Skirrid Hill (£7.99), is just out from Welsh independent publisher, Seren. As well as the two books of poetry, he has published The Dust Diaries - a "creative" (ie fictionalised to some degree) biography of his missionary great-uncle Arthur Cripps - and written a one-man play about the Second World War poet, Keith Douglas. Joseph Fiennes will perform it in 2006 under the auspices of the Old Vic New Voices programme. Sheers is also working on a novel, waiting to hear about a couple of commissions for radio plays and toying with an idea for a screenplay.

But for him "everything feels like it's got its root in poetry. The fascination of it hasn't changed from when I was younger. And that's the potential you have of taking a reader a long way, intellectually and emotionally, over a very short distance... If it's good, you can do something to someone, and it can stick there. And that's both weird and amazing."

Sheers himself may well be amazing, but he's definitely not weird. An open, handsome, affable man - all smiling blue eyes and the strong, healthy, well-shouldered physique of a former four-times-a-week rugby player - he exudes a confident, egocentricity-free groundedness and seems designed to elicit the kinds of adjectives beginning with "un" rarely associated with poets. He is unaffected, unpretentious and gives the impression of being largely untroubled.

We're sitting in the Wet Fish Café in West Hampstead. I'm in Sheers's usual seat - the one he always heads for on those mornings when he comes in to edit longhand, amending printouts of poems, the novel and so on. He likes being a regular. Having lived in London for almost a year this time round - there have been previous stints - he says he feels more settled in the city than ever before. But home is still Abergavenny and, more specifically, his parents' house: the 13-acre smallholding just outside Llanddewi Rydderch, where he did most of his growing up and where he'll spend Christmas.

"It's a special sense of being relaxed when you go into a pub in Abergavenny and meet someone you've not seen for a couple of years, but they knew you when you were nine, so you can bypass all the 'what are you doing now, where are you living', because everybody knows, and it's lovely." And his accent - pretty much RP English - is "slippy". When he goes back home, it "does get stronger and you get that Welsh borders bit". He also speaks Welsh with a Welsh accent.

Sheers's poems are imbued with a deep love of, and feeling for, Wales, its people and livestock. "You can't separate landscape from people. They're completely imbricated." Consequently, the hills, woods and valleys of his poems are almost invariably populated. Animals interact with humans or are acted upon, like the lambs in "Late Spring" that the boy-narrator helps his grandfather to castrate and tail-dock: all the excised bits left in the field, "a strange harvest of the seeds we'd sown". Sheers may elegise, but he doesn't romanticise: the poems are born of up-close familiarity rather than arm's-length observation. "Although my mum was a teacher, my dad a planning inspector, we always had sheep, horses, chickens, some cows briefly." Briefly? "Bill and Bob kind of disappeared. I think they were too much..."

But although many of the poems "take their intial spark" from Sheers's experiences and are often couched in the first person, they're never, he claims, a simple retelling. "A poem is not worth putting out into the world unless that personal experience is going to resonate with other people. It has to be a crafted piece of work. And, in the end, while it will still have links to me and my life, there's almost as much imagination and invention in any first-person poem as there is in a first-person novel."

The process of composition usually starts while Sheers is out walking. "I get the rhythm and tone of the poem in my head." Then he writes it up in longhand, before typing it into his computer as soon as possible, "because If I leave it too long, I won't be able to read it. I'm so scared it's going to go!" After this, the editing begins. "You can start to see the shape of the poem when it's printed out. You can see the mistakes. I always edit with the printed text and a pen."

Asked how he feels his poetry has developed between the publication of his first collection, The Blue Book, and Skirrid Hill, he squirms; although, being far too secure in his own skin to feel really put on the spot, he's not very good at it and only manages a slightly uncomfortable shift in his chair and a broad grin.

"That's an awful question to ask a writer," he laughs. "The poems in Skirrid Hill feel slightly tauter to me. And better worked. Not worked out: hopefully they haven't had their life flayed out of them. How do you think I've developed?' he asks. I say I think his ear is more refined. He agrees. 'There was a lot more reading out loud. And I was stretching for - and I'm not saying I ever got it - that kind of conversational lyricism which Edward Thomas does so well and which relies on internal rhyme and slant rhymes."

It's not only a particular tone that Sheers strives for in his poetry and - although he's sure that "you can't beat a damn good metaphor" - a beautiful image alone is never enough for him.

"There has to be more than that, otherwise you end up with something like one of those Spaghetti Western sets, from face on they look real, and then you go round the side... There has to be some kind of an idea imparted, or an emotion, or some sort of shading of the human condition, hopefully giving some sort of physical presence..." He breaks off, laughing. "That's very grandiose. I sound like a wanker, don't I?"

He doesn't. He just sounds like he means it. Apparently he doesn't talk about poetry that much. "Most of my mates aren't that interested. I talk about it with my girlfriend - she really impressed me when I quoted a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins and she quoted the entire sonnet back at me. And there is a group of poets who, when I'm with them, I get the same sense of relaxation as going to the pub in Abergavenny. They're a bunch I did a tour with - 'First Lines' -in 2001: Matthew Hollis, Anthony Dunn, Clare Pollard, Polly Clark. I love talking about poetry with that lot!"

Sheers seems at ease with both how far he's come in his work and how far he still has to go. Writing The Dust Diaries heightened his awareness of how much he'd learnt about writing poetry: "All these shortcuts you do in writing and editing a poem, which come more and more naturally, I wasn't doing with prose. It was taking me longer to see the mistakes."

He's also conscious of the need to hone his technique further. Although he's more at home among poems that find their own, inherent form rather than have something tight imposed upon them - "I'm quite an instinctive writer, I do a lot of it on the ear" - Skirrid Hill is home to one, slightly loose, sonnet ("Marking Time") and a set of traditional haikus ("Calendar"), and Sheers says that he wants to write more formal poems. "I do write them, but they're not often good enough to get into the collection. Every writer should master form, and I haven't yet. It's one of those challenges, isn't it?"

Other challenges loom. The time he spent in Zimbabwe inspired him to apply for a place on an MA in international relations and development at Bologna. Then Faber contracted him to write a novel, and he reluctantly pulled out of the course. "But I do want to do something else as well. I think it's crucial to have an interface where you meet life not through writing. It's healthier."

Biography: Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers was born in Fiji in 1974. Between the ages of three and nine he lived in London and then near Abergavenny. He went to King Henry VIII comprehensive, Abergavenny; New College, Oxford (where he captained the university's modern pentathlon team); and UEA, where he completed the Creative Writing MA. Skirrid Hill is his second collection of poetry: his first, The Blue Book, was published, also by Seren, in 2000. The Dust Diaries, an account of his great-uncle's life as a missionary in Rhodesia, was published by Faber in 2004. Sheers was one of the Poetry Book Society's 20 Next Generation Poets. Unicorns, his one-man play based on the life and work of the Second World War poet Keith Douglas, will be produced by Old Vic, New Voices in 2006. He shares a flat in north-west London with two friends and is writing his first novel.