By Shannon Wilson
“If nobody read anything, I would still write. It’s like breathing for me. It’s something I have to do to stay alive. I know it sounds funny, but it’s true. It’s the way I engage with the world. It’s a part of me and it took a long time to develop the confidence to ‘I’m a poet’.” – Harry Owen.
Harry Owen was moved after attending Dr William Fowlds’ talk about endangered rhinos. Going into the talk, Owen was aware that what he saw and heard might be upsetting. What he didn’t know was how much it would affect him.
In March 2012, three rhinos – a female and two males – had their horns brutally hacked off by poachers and were left to die. The two males died and the female, named Thandi, survived after several operations over the last two years. She has even had a calf. Owen listened helplessly. Afterwards, he spoke to Fowlds and asked him what he could do for Thandi and other rhinos. Fowlds said the best thing he can do is spread the word.
And so Owen did. He appealed to the world of poets. The response was overwhelming. Owen received about 700 poems written about rhinos worldwide. He conducted the selection and editing processes with some help from another Grahamstonian poet.
The book, For Rhino in A Shrinking World – An International Anthology, was first published in February 2013. Owen does not consider himself an activist, although he accepts that, “If activism means doing something, then I suppose am, but it wasn’t my intention to be an activist. I do care. This is worth keeping. This is worth fighting for.”
Owen grew up in Kirby, a place Owen describes as being, “a rough area” in England, with his Christian father Harold, mother Billie, brothers Dave and John, and his sister Jan. His first poem was published in the local newspaper when he was ten. The poem was called The Forest Fire.
It would be some time before Owen’s next poem was published. As he reached adulthood, Owen studied to become a teacher. While education may not have been his true calling, a teacher named Collin Mcghee served as a great inspiration to Owen.
“He was very different and he was rather posh in the way that he spoke. You could tell he was passionate. He taught English and he used to sometimes read rude things. I can just remember laughing and I couldn’t stop laughing, and I thought ‘If I ever become a teacher I want to be like him’. He loves what he is doing, he was very strict but he was an influence.”
Owen taught English and has both fond and uncomfortable memories of the experience. He is still in touch with one or two of his students and now considers them to be his friends.
In 2006 Owen’s marriage was coming to a close, as was his teaching career. “Happy to be on my own again, I was concentrating on my writing,” says Owen. Around the same time, his father moved from Owen’s childhood home to Liverpool, where his sister lived. Owen took on the task of sorting through “53 years worth of junk”..
“I found a shoebox with some photographs. There was a picture. I recognized it immediately because I had taken it,” says Owen.
The photograph was of three women sitting on a bench situated on a cliff in Wales.
“The one in the middle was my first girlfriend. We had a relationship. It was a platonic relationship in 1967 and this was taken on a school trip. I had not seen her in 40 years and that evening I wrote a poem called Forty Years On and it was addressed to her.”
The following March, Owen went to an Internet café, had a coffee and took to sorting through his junk folder. Two emails were obviously spam, but the third one was from Africa. “I was about to delete that too, but it was from my webpage so I looked at it,” he says.
It said: “You’ll need a good memory for this, all the way back to 1967,” and it was signed Chris Williams. “I didn’t know any Chris Williams,” Owens says. “Then the date hit me. It was Christine Williams, my first girlfriend. I emailed her back.”
Williams said that she was a professor at Rhodes University and living in Grahamstown. “I had never heard of Rhodes University or Grahamstown,” Owen explains.
Owen and Williams met up in Wales for a weekend. Owen smiled, “It worked and it was brilliant”
“Then in July I made my first visit to South Africa. The following January I moved here permanently. We got married in the April.”
Prior to all of this, Owen had friends who were worried about the series of coincidences and wondered how Williams had come across the poem. The explanation was simple: a student whom she had been interviewing enjoyed reading and listening to poetry on the Internet. The poetry he chose to show her was the work of Harry Owen. She recognized the name, which led to her later email being sent to Owen.
“And that’s why I’m here, because that series of the most ridiculous coincidences came about,” Owen says. “Had I not been here, I would never have gone to William Fowlds presentation, so in a sense everything is connected. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
(On the topic of what might be lined up for Owen next, he says,) “Years ago, I lived in California. I used to read the Los Angeles Times everyday. There was a columnist called Jack Smith who wrote several times a week. He chatted to his readers and they wrote to him and it was a very popular column. He used to talk about his life and his worries. He later died and some friends of mine sent me a book of his columns. One of the things he was regularly asked was, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’ He used to say, “I want to go on living and see what happens next. That’s what I would like to do.”
“If you mean how long have I been a poet, I would say all my life.” – Harry Owen