The War Poet of Our Generation

Owen Sheers is a renowned playwright and author from Wales whose critically acclaimed play Pink Mist is currently on tour around the UK until the 1st April. First created for BBC Radio 4, the play is about three soldiers juggling life at war and their relationships with the women in their lives. Quench were able to talk to Owen and get an insight into his inspirations, the intricacies of Pink Mist and what it feels like to be called the ‘war poet of this generation’.

So you were born in Fiji and raised in Wales. Do you think your cultural upbringing had a significant impact on you and your literature?
I suppose physical and cultural landscapes can’t fail to influence us, especially on the level of language. I don’t think Fiji influenced me that much – I left when I was two – but Wales certainly has been a part of my literary heritage. It was in Wales that I read my first books and poems and went to my first theatre production. But I don’t like to think that nationality has to define the body of an author’s work. I’m certainly Welsh, but I prefer to say that I am a writer from Wales, rather than a Welsh writer. We write to cross borders and grow beyond ideas of nationality.

Who or what would you say are your main influences when writing?
I think it depends completely on what form I’m writing. When I wrote my last novel I was reading a lot of fiction from American writers at the time so I tended to get a lot of inspiration from them. However, when I’m creating poetry I find that British and Irish poets inspire me most. Having said that, I always find R.S. Thomas to be inspiring. To be honest, it’s a shifting pattern as to who and what inspires me; I write across different styles and forms so it is difficult to pin down one particular person.

Your play Pink Mist, was inspired by 30 interviews with returned servicemen. What was that experience like?
Well it was a great honour and privilege to be able to have the chance to listen to their memories and share them. When I interviewed them first, they were part of a previous project on stage which was helping them to recover from their psychological or physical woundings. Sharing their stories was part of a way for them to recover from the trauma. I also felt very privileged because it was my job to be a conduit for their voices. It was my job to create a vessel or their experiences and stories. Interviewing them was like being given gift, after gift, after gift. There was so much to say that I was unable to touch upon because their stories were so rich and detailed. The original stage project had to directly echo their stories as it was the soldiers that would be performing on stage, taking part in their own stories. However, with Pink Mist I was able to focus on other details of a soldier’s life such as the women in their lives.

‘What’s on Stage’ stated that Pink Mist is one of the most important plays of the year. Why do you think so many critics agree?
I was really thrilled when they said it. I suppose that with war also comes a tendency to anonymise people. We hear stories of soldiers returning from war or soldiers dying and they just become a number or another statistic. I hope what makes Pink Mist powerful is that it gives a voice and personality back to soldiers. Theatre has the capability to take us right back to the core of humanity. Theatre is able to humanise the otherwise publicly anonymous.  

Pink Mist was first written for the radio, and this is also where I think it is special. With so much emphasis on the voices, you are able to get closer to the people in the play. It was originally thought that this would distance audiences from the characters but this was certainly not the case. When it was adapted for the stage, the directors did a great job. They managed to create a physical language that was inherited from the form of verse that I had used. Everything that happens on the stage seemed to have naturally grown from the language. Pink Mist is still a play about relationships and young masculinity but I hope I have gone some way to broaden the sphere of the discussion of war. The play addresses the truth of war; that the casualties of conflict are not in any way confined just to civilians and soldiers who are in the arenas of violence.

You were named the ‘War poet of this generation’ by the Independent. How did you feel when you hear this?
I felt that this title was very generous. I suppose, in America there have been veteran poets and authors who have commented upon the post 9/11 conflicts. I could be wrong but I don’t think that happens very often in Britain. We haven’t had soldier poets really exploring current or recent conflict in Britain.

Thank you so much for your time Owen, is there anything else you are burning to tell us here at Quench?
I know it sounds like a really heavy and serious subject but there is some humour in the play and it’s light-hearted at times. It is visually beautiful and has a great soundtrack, informed by Bristol dubstep and trip hop. It definitely isn’t an unremitting two hours of darkness.

Originally published in Quench Magazine, Issue 161, pp. 10-11.

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