Wales

Aberystwyth University poets in Forward Prize shortlist

Aberystwyth Image copyright Geograph / Dave Croker
Image caption Maria Apichella's work was inspired by her 10 years living in Aberystwyth

"A romantic love, a love of place."

That is how Maria Apichella describes Psalmody - her poetry collection about a religious woman and an atheist who fall in love near Aberystwyth.

Having jointly won the Melita Hume Prize in 2015, her work was published and has now been shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prizes for Poetry in September.

"It's a love story between two people who are very different and disagree on everything," she told BBC Wales.

"It's written from the woman's perspective, who is unnamed. She's very religious and passionate, she believes in the supernatural and the unseen.

"She's loved by David, an atheist, a man of the earth - a soldier, who is Welsh and from near Aberystwyth, that's where they meet."

Maria, having found inspiration for her poetry during her 10 years studying at Aberystwyth University, said she wanted her writing to be about the seaside town.

She wrote Psalmody while living in student halls, studying part-time for her PhD - which was not funded - and having to work various jobs.

"Every aspect of life feeds into writing, from teaching to cleaning toilets, to working in a call centre by night to sitting in the Welsh National Library reading Dylan Thomas in rainy afternoons," she said.

"I wanted it to be a love story about Wales as well, the Wales I knew, the love of God, romantic love and love of place."

Image copyright Maria Apicella
Image caption Maria will find out whether she has won the Forward Prize in September

But Maria said she did not set out to write this particular tale and instead found her poems shaped themselves into a story as she drew on her surroundings.

"I did lots of walking around, daily, and it was just normal things and being in that environment," she said.

"You hear different voices, get different impressions. I feel your antennae is up all the time when you're working like that.

"If I was just in my room, that wouldn't happen."

Maria did not know her work had been entered for the Forward Prize until two months before the nominations were announced and then had to keep it quiet until the shortlist was made public.

The ceremony takes place on 21 September.

"It's crazy, I'm surprised this has happened. It's not the kind of thing you imagine will ever happen - I mean, you fantasise about it.

"They [the organisers] haven't told me a huge amount, I'm not quite sure what to expect but it sounds like an Oscars-type ceremony where you find out there and then and everyone's facial expressions are scrutinised. It's quite exciting."

Looking 4,000 miles west, Richard Georges' Forward Prize entry focuses on the "submerged narratives" of the British Virgin Islands.

Richard, an Aberystwyth University alumni himself, said the focus of his work was the sea's ability "to be at once a vault of forgotten histories, an eternal graveyard, while still being an almost mythic font of restorative power".

Image copyright Dame Peters
Image caption Richard Georges is another Aberystwyth University graduate shortlisted in the same category

He added that his inspiration for Make Us All Islands, which is shortlisted in the same category as Maria's work, had been "to write into the landscape of the British Virgin Islands which remains largely underwritten".

Richard said that, despite being a British citizen, he had not lived in the UK until he moved to Aberystwyth to begin his MA in creative writing in 2005.

"The culture and smallness of the place, its relative isolation, the seaside environs, the melodic Welsh accent - it was as close to being in a Caribbean environment I could have asked for," he said.

"I might have to single out the poet Matthew Francis as having the biggest impact on me while there.

"In the years in and since leaving Aber, he has been the most gracious with his time, and the aesthetic and voice I have been working on these past years was born in a very rough state in his workshops."

Maria and Richard will not find out whether either of them has won The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection for another three months.

Richard said he had been unaware that his editor had entered his work for the prize and was "surprised" when he heard he was shortlisted.

"Ultimately, it is an incredible honour, and I see it as a sort of an encouragement to keep on with the work I feel called to do," he said.

Maria said the fact two Aberystwyth alumni had been shortlisted alongside just three others was a credit to the university and its creative writing department.

The Forward Prizes describes itself as "the most coveted awards for poetry published in Britain and Ireland".

This year's judging panel will be chaired by journalist Andrew Marr and takes place at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre.

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