Ness Owen (Mamiaith, Shortest Day, Longest Night, Dusk, An Outbreak of Peace, Noon, Time and Tide) interviewed by fellow poet Joy Howard, (Foraging, Dusk,Time and Tide)
Joy: As someone who has never been rooted in any particular location, I am especially interested in how the opposite of that – in your case Wales and Ynys Môn – makes your poetry particular and different. What would you like to say about that?
Ness: I never really thought consciously about how much I write about place until more of my work was published and people started commenting. I’ve always felt deeply rooted to Ynys Môn and to Cymru- to the landscape, history, language and stories. I grew up living with one set of grandparents in the North but also frequently visiting my other grandparents in Swansea in the South. They were all great storytellers and they (together with my primary school and Sunday school teachers) instilled me with a great sense of my roots and of stories bursting to be told.
School holidays were often spent making the long, (up to 7-hour journey because of travel sickness) across the length of the country. I was fascinated by the changing landscapes and the place names, often knowing their order off by heart. On these journeys, I learnt so much of a history that wasn’t taught in schools from the meaning of names, folklore to story behind graffiti on walls.
As you can imagine, living on a small wind-blown island, the sea can’t help but show up in my writing too. I’ve never lived more than a couple of minutes from the shore. I was brought up in a village with the Irish Sea in front of me and the Inland Sea behind me and I now live on my husband’s family farm where the spring tides come into the fields not far from the house.
Also, growing up in a bilingual community has had a great influence on my writing and I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages in general. In school, I also studied German, French and Latin. One of my neighbours was German so we often played German games in her garden and at Christmas we sang ‘Silent Night’ in Welsh, English and German. I love the different sounds of languages and the weaving between more than one language.
Joy: I am a lifelong fan of R S Thomas – has he been an influence in your writing? Anyone else in particular?
Ness: I’m a great fan too and his poetry collections are always at hand to return to. Although I was aware of him for his activism when I was growing up, I was very much a later comer to his poetry. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realised that he was brought up a few miles from me and I’d attended the same secondary school as him. Even though I studied literature up to a degree, we didn’t study any Welsh writers writing in English, so I do feel cheated that he wasn’t celebrated at that time. Thankfully that has changed.
I read a lot of poetry, so I probably have been influenced by many and I enjoy a great variety of styles. Names that spring to mind today would be Mary Oliver, Menna Elfyn, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison but that list leaves many others out!
Joy: Do you feel that gender/sexuality/age also have a bearing on what you write?
Ness: I sure they must. I was very aware when I began studying literature that we weren’t studying many women writers or poets. In the first few years of secondary school, we were given a poetry anthology to read called ‘Reach Out’ (which I confess, I still have). It has 100 poems in it, and at the time I counted that there were only 3 poems by women. This stayed with me, so I suppose I always felt a sense of how easy it is not to be heard.
Joy: And following on from that, do you also write ‘outside your skin’ so to speak?
Ness: I hope that some of my work gives voices to others too. I attended a workshop many years ago where we asked to rewrite a piece that we had written from other person’s point of view, either from another gender, age group, opposing side etc. I use this exercise on my work sometimes to try and see if another angle adds a new dimension and, in an effort to make sure I’m not being too blinkered.
Joy: I see that you have also written a number of plays – which is your preferred medium?
Ness: I enjoy writing both and often a play will start as or turn into poem or a vice versa. As I get older, I seem to be writing more poetry, but I do have ideas on the back burner that will hopefully turn into plays.
I like the anonymity of writing plays in the sense that you can hand it over and can sit with the audience (even if you heart is racing). On the other hand, poetry is something that I can work on while I’m doing other things whereas plays tie me to the desk.
Joy: How was it working with a translator?
Ness: I was lucky to have met Sian Northey in a playwriting workshop the year before my collection was published and she encouraged me to write more in Welsh. Afterwards, I also attended a workshop of Sian’s and learnt so much about sitting with the meaning of the poem before starting to translate.
When Cherry asked if I would translate a few of the poems into Welsh I asked Sian if she would proof-read and make any suggestions and thankfully, she agreed. From my side it was a free and easy conversation and we emailed back and forth. She was very gracious at pointing out any grammatical errors or ‘camdrieglo’ (incorrect mutations) and it was a joy to see the finished poems.
Joy: I’m devastated that all Grey Hen Press readings have been cancelled for the foreseeable. Do you enjoy performing your work?
Ness: It must be such a difficult time as readings are such a lifeline and disappointing that events are being understandably cancelled.
Although I still get nervous, I do enjoy performing. I think it’s a catalyst to improve your craft and to find out when things don’t work. I also love meeting and listening to other writers. I enjoy going to open mics and I’m a member of a few local groups that organise events. I’ve got so much out of these chances to perform.
Joy: What projects are you currently working on?
Ness: As part of the multi creative exhibition ‘Unus Multorom’ in Plas Bodfa on Ynys Môn, I’ve been working on a set of micro poems in Welsh and English about 3 female saints Gwenfaen, Ffraid and Dwynwen who were all ‘brought by the sea’. It’s been fascinating to research them and, to realise how much their stories hold true to what we need more of today: kindness, a soothing of the mind and unconditional love. I’ve been working in collaboration with the artist Rita Ann Jones who has produced an amazing sculpture out of recycled plastic which is based on the chains and ropes holding ships in the quay. The poems will be displayed within the sculpture together with salvaged pieces found on the beaches where the saints were said to had arrived at. Due to the lockdown, the exhibition has had to change medium to digital and it will eventually all be found at https://www.plasbodfa.com/unus-multorum-2020 .
I hope to put together a pamphlet of micro poems, a form I’ve been enjoying working with after the call outs from the Black Bough community on Twitter.
I’m also very excited to be reading for a journal later this year.
Joy: Please add anything you want to say that I have left out – and I must order a copy of Mamiaith from Cherry forthwith!
Ness: Thank you for selecting such thought provoking questions.
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