Merlin Gable meets Owen Sheers to discuss the poet’s televisual engagement with social issues
This article originally appeared in the welsh agenda: issue 61
A tangle of pink foil balloons drifts across the skyline, passing rather than rising, released by a child who is probably now rather distressed. ‘Oh isn’t that beautiful… it’s like a really cheesy thing from the end of a film but the fact that they’re all moving around each other is kind of special.’ It’s the kind of moment one hopes for when interviewing someone like Owen Sheers: to test the strange ordinariness of the encounter, hoping that the veneer of normality might give way to a flash of the poetic.
For this process is at the heart of Sheers’s latest works, two ‘film poems’ that, in the vein of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood, are a collage of voices, a chorus of community acted out on prime-time TV by the likes of Michael Sheen (The Queen), Eve Myles (Un Bore Mercher) and later published as long poems by Faber. These works, The Green Hollow and To Provide All People, were premiered in October 2016 and June 2018 respectively as hour-long films produced by BBC Wales and Vox Pictures. They are obviously unusual, and this isn’t even to mention their subject matter: The Green Hollow was commissioned and released for the fiftieth anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, an event burned onto the Welsh social consciousness; To Provide All People is a poem commemorating the National Health Service’s seventieth anniversary earlier this year with a narrative weaving its founding story with the voices of patients, family members and practitioners.
Sheers is now a household name in Wales and beyond, a writer and public man of words whose eclectic back catalogue spans lyric poetry, novels, community art projects and drama. Even for such a varied career these film poems represent an interesting new direction. They are interesting for the lines they blur: popular television and poetry, documentary interview and the often neglected long poem form. They are insistently multi-modal – neither the film nor print versions can claim the status of urtext – and are the result of an unusual process of research and interviews that saw Sheers talking to survivors of the Aberfan disaster, on the one hand, and frontline NHS practitioners on the other.
‘I should say at the outset that I still find elements of this form mysterious. I’m still exploring it and finding out what it can and can’t do,’ Sheers explains to me as we look onto the lake in Roath Park on a sunny afternoon. ‘I suppose if we go right back the form began for me when I wrote Pink Mist’ (Sheers’s 2013 verse drama about the post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan). ‘I did this set of interviews with recently wounded service personnel for a project called The Two Worlds of Charlie F, which was a recovery project first and foremost and a piece of theatre second. And because of that, although I was going to create a play, the people in the cast had really experienced these situations and were playing characters, but the characters were incredibly close to them. That had a very unique power and as a piece of live theatre it did something that I think almost nothing else could because there was no wriggle room for the audience.’ Sheers later revisited these interviews when writing Pink Mist: ‘I suppose [it] was my first experiment in negotiating between the worlds of documentary and the literary… In writing in that more lyrical way, it’s very strange, it enables a sort of essential truth of those combined voices – because each character is normally a composite character – and it enables them to exist in a very authentic way.’
The cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha wrote that ‘remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of… the present.’ In the same way, Sheers’s film poems are a powerful act of making something new out of a tapestry of past events – history, testimony, our collective cultural imagination. The defining feature of the Aberfan disaster is that it was the tragedy of a whole community – a shared and yet extremely private trauma. When Sheers was approached by the BBC, he was drawn immediately to this form: ‘a series of dramatic monologues seems very well suited to the choral experience and to retrospective trauma and to bringing that into the immediate moment. Immediately I was thinking in terms of voice. What I first saw was a shape: one voice growing to a crescendo of 144 and tapering down to one voice again in 2016.’
I asked Sheers how he felt about inhabiting the voices of other people in this way. ‘How did I deal with the literary-ness? With great trepidation. More so for some reason with Aberfan. It felt like a very fragile story, a grief that was very much still being lived in the community and in individuals. To be honest, my biggest fear was falling into a trap of emotional exploitation. When you are going to write lyrically like that it’s easy to press the buttons. And I guess what you’re trying to do to avoid that is create composite characters.’
Sheers described how Pip Broughton, who worked closely with him as the producer of the television productions, ‘found a visual equivalent for this distancing because when we’re going to go into really difficult territory she pulls back the camera and goes ‘look here’s the cameras, here’s the lights’, which is actually what poetry is doing. What it’s always doing is saying: look, this is being shaped, this is artifice, you are being manipulated.’ For Sheers this is the extraordinary potential of poetry as testament to collective experience: ‘In documentary or in prose it would have felt like too much, but there’s something about poetry as an act of tribute and as an artificial form of speech that enables you to do it.’ Of course, the poet can also create something new, ‘that’s why we have artists’, Sheers tells me, ‘to turn up and invent and make shape, otherwise we would all just be documentary-makers’.
‘It’s a strange grafting of voice,’ Sheers admits. ‘All of these pieces, they begin very much as the interviewees’ voices in my words and they increasingly become my words in their voices… Because that’s the other thing that this form allows you to do: because you are allowed to use metaphor and imagery, the most simple speech and idea can be heightened.’ Take, for example, the way Sheers highlights the dispute over whether the children sang ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ or ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’ on the morning of the Aberfan disaster. ‘I really, really wanted that in there because it’s a way of acknowledging [that] all of this is filtered through subjective memory.’ This for Sheers is at the heart of the form’s potential. He is animated at this point: ‘You accumulate and accumulate and accumulate and then it’s suddenly like you’ve got this weight of voice to draw upon which enables you to imagine an event. [It might be] something that I’m imposing but it’s okay because this is declaring itself to such an extent, like this is shaped guys!. That’s what I mean by a lyrical licence – it does what it should do as a piece of literary work, as a poem.’
The poems are subtitled ‘a poem in the voice of’ Aberfan and the NHS – voice, singular, highlighting Sheers as this conduit for experience, and creator of the poetic. ‘An extraordinary occupation of the writer,’ Sheers muses. ‘But the singular feels okay to me there,’ I offer. ‘It feels okay to me too,’ Sheers replies, ‘because it’s a knitting together of those two parts of the form. It’s not in the voice of Owen Sheers, it’s not in the voices of the NHS [or Aberfan] because that to me would just be something more like absolute verbatim oral history. But as a choral experience, if you read this or watch this, what resonance you’re left with is, I hope, the voice of the NHS.’
To Provide All People is perhaps an even more impressive poetic feat than The Green Hollow for grappling with an idea instead of an event. I asked Sheers how he made narrative out of an institution like the NHS. ‘Well, as you can see, there’s a double narrative. There is the narrative of the birth of the Act, which is a big risk because it’s a lot of exposition, and I’m aware with To Provide All People more so than in any other book I allow there to be a quite full-on political exposition. But it’s heartfelt; I felt there was an opportunity to see if the form can sustain it. I wanted there to be this deeper idea that goes beyond the seventy years [of the NHS].’ But there’s also something personal in the piece. ‘You’ll have probably gathered that the narrative about the premature birth is our narrative. We’d just had this very intimate experience with the NHS and suddenly I realised this was about an idea. Pink Mist, The Green Hollow – both events. They had a very simple before, during and after structure… But that’s partly why the personal narrative came in. I was trying not to write about our experience of having a premature birth but it was like a vacuum, it kept drawing me in, drawing me in, and I worried that this isn’t the place to tell my story – how this form works is being a conduit for the voices of others. But I was becoming more and more interested in how the NHS exists in this double scale: on the one hand this massive social idea, a deep sense of cultural identity. But in terms of our experience with it, it’s our bodies and the people whom we love – you couldn’t get more personal, couldn’t get more intimate, and I thought actually it’s right to have a very personal story.’
In the two works Sheers grapples with two great myths of modern Welsh history: the Aberfan disaster, which, with the flooding of Capel Celyn, is one of the defining moments of Welsh post-war history, and the NHS – our welfare state arguably much more integral to the Welsh structure of feeling than the English. That isn’t to say that Sheers sees himself writing in any quintessentially Welsh mode here, he insists: ‘I’m aware of a tension in myself that is that you don’t want to be the writer who only writes on Welsh themes; I’m not interested in that. We live in a globalised international world and I suppose my aspirations with the form are to scale it up now to an international subject.’ Sheers identifies climate change here. ‘Pip and I are excited about how mainstream we can make this as a form. Can you edge it towards a three-part drama?’
Owen Sheers’s continued experimentation with form is one of the more invigorating examples of Welsh public broadcasting, and indeed Welsh poetry, currently on offer. There is a feeling of the great informative programming of the 1970s and 1980s in Sheers’ works: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Dai Smiths Wales? Wales! or Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City. It’s exciting for Wales, Sheers thinks, that there is once again an openness to such experimentation. ‘In a way we’re able to do that because we’re a small country. I think there are so many places where we can be inventive… because of our size. And I think we’ve got to make more of a virtue of that. We need to become an incubator country, we need to be doing ideas first.’ For Sheers poetry has a central place in this. ‘Before I did Pink Mist, [people] were anxious about the form; now all they want me to write is another verse drama … this [form] makes something more accessible not less. Previous generations have known this. Why have we entered a period where we’re scared of poetics?’
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.