Owen Sheers

January 20, 2010

Last night we got the inside track on what it was like to host the hugely popular Poet’s Guide to Britain programmes, part of last year’s BBC Poetry Season, from poet and novelist Owen Sheers.

In case you didn’t catch the programmes – and some of last night’s audience hadn’t – there were six in total, each taking an element of landscape and looking at that through the prism of just one poem. Thus, London and city life were explored via Wordsworth’s ‘ ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’; villages and towns with Lynette Roberts‘ ‘Poem from Llanybri’; islands with George Mackay Brown’s wonderful ‘Hamnavoe’ (‘My father passed with his penny letters/ Through closes opening and shutting like legends’); woods and forests using Louis MacNeice‘s ‘Woods’; coast and sea with Arnold’s haunting ‘Dover Beach‘ and mountains and moorlands with Sylvia Plath‘s ‘Wuthering Heights’.

We watched the opening sequence of the ‘Hamnavoe’ episode, then Owen spoke to our Robyn about how the series came about, how he chose those six poems, and the many more that have subsequently been collected in a companion anthology, A Poet’s Guide to Britain (Penguin) (there are still a few of these left to purchase in the library if you want to get your grubby mitts upon one). Robyn was especially interested in how his selection criteria was defined by the private lives of the poets  –  would people have tuned in in such numbers to find out more about a poet who had gone about their poetic business without drama or controversy, without having lived in interesting times? The immediate and tangible benefit of the programmes was dwelt upon – sales of George Mackay Brown books soared a whopping 800% on Amazon, and we certainly experienced a surge of interest here in the SPL – was this part of the plan or happy side-effect? She wondered if Owen felt poetry lent itself well to a visual medium. The audience wondered if the BBC will make another series.

We can tell you that the episodes are soon to be released on DVD, and the afore-mentioned book is out and available here and in bookshops near you. We’ll be featuring fragments of this event in an upcoming podcast, as well as a quick chinwag snatched by Ryan –  in ten short minutes, he somehow unearthed that Owen was one of the masterminds behind C4 The Big Breakfast‘s regular feature ‘Streaky Bacon‘ – in which, according to Wiki, “Richard Bacon would get a member of the public out of their house to ‘streak’ along their street wearing nothing but bacon-covered underwear in order to win a large supply of bacon from their local butcher.” As you do. An evening both entertaining and informative, it was particularly gratifying to see Lynette Roberts’ and George Mackay Brown books being borrowed straight away, to sell a few of Owen’s books and to have people rushing to the stacks – bringing people and poetry together: yes sir.

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