- Date: 20 February 2013
- Artform: Literature
- Area: North
For Owen Lowery, taking the personal and making it universal means drawing the reader into the detail of his hospital ward where nurses wash patients and swish bed curtains. More than this, for example through the drugs he was given in the period after a judo accident, the writer is able to access an hallucinatory world which he recreates as art, giving the reader privileged and unique insights.
Owen's story is a remarkable one. A talented judo competitor, he had won the National Youth Championship, the British Under-21 championship and the Men's British Closed title by the age of eighteen. Then his judo career came to an abrupt close.
As he describes it himself: 'My judo career ended on 13 September 1987, when I suffered a spinal injury while competing in a charity judo tournament. As a result of the injury I was paralysed from the shoulders down and was left unable to breathe for long periods without a ventilator.'
Owen felt that poetry could play a part in helping him to deal with the situation 'as well as providing a means of escaping it for a time, or for the timelessness of a poem'. Studying using specially adapted computer equipment, he achieved a First Class Honours degree in Humanities from the Open University. This was followed by an MA in Military Studies (Owen is currently researching the work of the English poet Keith Douglas, who was killed in World War II) and then an MA in Creative Writing, the latter at Bolton University under the tutorship of poet Jon Glover. Encouraged by Professor Glover, who saw both talent and determination, Owen started to publish his poems in magazines, and, after gaining a distinction and a Governors' Prize for his MA he began work on a PhD.
Michael Schmidt of poetry publisher Carcanet describes Owen Lowery as 'an extraordinary poet and a remarkable individual'.
Owen Lowery's feature for PN Review, a two-monthly publication from Carcanet which showcases new writing and commentary, centred on the work of internationally-renowned artist Paula Rego. Her paintings and print-making are displayed around the world, and were exhibited during 2012 at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, which is part of the Arts Council's funded Cumbria Museums Consortium. Owen hopes to develop this connection with the painter by publishing the poems and essays he has produced in response to her work.
One of the defining characteristics of his debut poetry collection is its bold literary sweep, where Arabic and Japanese poetic traditions are combined with personal responses to prose writing, such as Primo Levi's moving study about the nature of humanity after his holocaust experiences.
Owen says: 'In Otherwise Unchanged, my poetry addresses some of my hospital experiences, but equally important to the collection are poems inspired by writers from Primo Levi and Edward Thomas to Sappho and Philip Larkin; Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers Football Clubs; historical events, love, family, and natural phenomena. It is this flexibility that I hope will allow my work to move between personal and public arenas, both in this country and perhaps even in others.'
Owen's poetry is already attracting critical attention and praise, as the following credits show:
'I read some of the poems, thought "this is the real thing", and only then grasped his story.' Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor, The Independent
'In a long life as editor, publisher, critic and poet, I have never come across - until Owen Lowery showed up - a prolific poet in whose work the quantity/quality ratio is so favourably aligned. ... Otherwise Unchanged is a very distinguished and exceptional first book. This work is made by a tough-minded and tenderhearted artist, a man as determined and in his own way almost as brilliant as Stephen Hawking.' Anthony Rudolf, FRSL, FEA, Chevalier de l'ordre des arts et des lettres
In addition to writing, Owen has a growing interest in presenting his work at events. He did a public reading from his debut collection at Waterstone's in Manchester on National Poetry Day in 2012, to coincide with Manchester Literature Festival. He aims to bring his work and unique experiences to a more varied audience and to encourage other disabled artists.
Alison Boyle, Arts Council England's Literature Relationship Manager in the North West said: 'Great art doesn't come easily and striving for quality is, as far as I'm aware, a universal requirement. At the same time, the journey to creating art is particular to the individual. Owen Lowery's story, encompassing judo, poetry and Paula Rego, is one of transcending a physical disability on top of the standard challenges faced by people who are passionate about making great art.
'The Arts Council is enabling individual voices to be heard through its regular funding of world-class poetry publishers like Carcanet. Through the Arts Council's Grants for the arts scheme, we recognise some artists face disabling access barriers, so the grants scheme supports the financial cost of a possible note taker or personal assistant to enable great art to happen. We want to see artists, including poets, lead the way and be role models for diversity in creative practice.'