Tell us about yourself and your work to date as an author?
I’ve had a long career as a film maker in Wales, mainly in documentary. As a screen writer, I had a feature film script nominated for a BAFTA Wales Award and the film itself was an entrant to the Foreign-language Oscars. It was set in Wales and Northern Ireland and was in Welsh, Irish and English. In 2017, with the support of a SIAP Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, I made a decisive turn towards writing full time. That resulted in my short story collection, A City Burning (Seren Books 2020) which was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The 26 stories are set in Northern Ireland, Wales and Italy and you’ll find Italian, Welsh and Ulster-Scots there.
When did you first get into writing and who have been your inspirations?
I’ve always written. I had a poem published when I was 7 and I had a very encouraging grammar school which expected us to read and then, crucially, write. (There was a strong emphasis on performing drama too.) We were taken to hear local poets read, including Seamus Heaney, and nourished on the most up to date local work. This is around 1970. So Northern Irish writers have been a strong influence.
Can you tell us about your new collection ‘Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere’?
It was prompted by Arts Council of N. Ireland funding, in a way. As a response to covid, an unexpected funding opportunity arose, and I immediately wanted to write a collection on the theme of sanctuary. It’s such a multi-faceted theme. Not only had we all experienced the desire for safety from infection, but we were aware of challenges to the ecological, the spiritual, the relational. Fake news, political polarisation, conflict and injustice, plus a feeling of globalisation pushing redress beyond our reach – was anything sacred? Were there inviolable values? I wanted to embody in the work itself the hosting aspect of sanctuary, so I sought other writers, in Northern Ireland and Wales, with experience of aspects of sanctuary, to write a poem each with me. The rest of the poems in the book are by me.
Phil Cope is a photographer and writer from Wales who is an expert on holy places in the British Isles. Mahyar is an Iranian now living in Wales. From Northern Ireland we have Viviana Fiorentino, an economic migrant from Italy who is a social activist with migrants and prisoners of conscience and a board member of Irish PEN. Csilla Toldy is a Hungarian film maker and writer who fled communist Hungary. Glen Wilson (a winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing) acted as mentor for my work and contributes a poem on migration.
The interaction with each poet in the creation of a new poem has been a very positive experience. It’s a privilege to be allowed into the ‘inner sanctum’, if you like, of the poet’s creative process. To have the temerity to suggest things requires a steady nerve from me and a generous attitude from the poets. Furthermore, not only has it led me to reading their other work but to engaging with the history and politics of the countries they are from. They bring to the book a breadth of experience beyond my own and the book is richer for it. Their perspectives on the experience are outlined in the book.
I’m particularly pleased that the collection includes my poem in Ulster-Scots about the evacuations last summer from Kabu. It won first prize for poetry in the Linen Hall inaugural Ulster-Scots Writing Competition this year. I’d like to see work in Ulster-Scots appear more frequently alongside English, Irish and other languages.
How has living in both Wales and Northern Ireland influenced your work?
I learned Welsh as soon as I went to Wales because I knew from Northern Ireland that words and the nuances of words matter a great deal. My engagement with Welsh culture has been hugely enriching. Going to and fro between the two places has given me an affectionately critical perspective on both.
When will the collection launch and where can it be purchased?
The Northern Irish launch will at the Belfast Book Festival on Saturday, 18th June 4pm.
The Welsh launch is online on 26th May.
You received a SIAP (Support for the Individual Artist Programme) award from the Arts Council last year. How beneficial has this award been to you - what did this money enable you to do?
The award enabled me to pay five poets to work with me on Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere so the award has been essential to the book.
What’s next? Are you working on any new projects?
- My solo debut poetry collection, Shoot is in the pipeline.
- I am editing a poetry/prose non-fiction book, Placed about growing up in east Belfast.
- I’m on the second draft of a novel about language (English/Irish/Ulster-Scots) and land in Northern Ireland.
- I’m extending my writing in Ulster-Scots.
- I am chairing a Welsh-language session at the Cardiff Poetry Festival on 31st July on the theme of Sanctuary.
- We hope to partner with Wales PEN Cymru and Irish PEN on an event about prisoners of conscience.
- I seem to be writing a sequence of poems about the war in Ukraine!
Sanctuary: There Must be Somewhere can be ordered from Seren Books https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/sanctuary and available to buy at No Alibis bookshop.