Category Archives: Blog

Literature Wales blog – Sanctuary

Open Gate photo © Phil Cope.
A collaborative approach to creating a poetry collection on this theme with poets from Wales and N. Ireland

I am delighted that my debut collection of short stories A City Burning (Seren Books, 2020) has been longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The collection was developed with the support of a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary.

The long-listed collections for the Edge Hill Short Story prize

I am currently writing my second collection of poetry while my first is under consideration for publication. Its theme is Sanctuary. In times of peril we crave a place where we feel secure enough to let down our guard and open up to being restored so that we can start afresh. But a sanctuary that we’re not free to leave at will is a prison.

The pandemic has given all of us experiences of sanctuary and of ways in which we are, or are not, sanctuaries for each other. We are also touched by the great movements of migration as people flee danger, hoping to find somewhere safe to make a home.

Our planet itself has never looked more like a threatened sanctuary. And the ‘sanctuary’ of the human person is pressurized between a legitimate wish to be inviolable and a longing to be open and connected.

How could I make this collection exemplify the aspects of hosting and sharing which sanctuary, for me, has always had? An authored collection is usually the work of a single poet but could I open this one up? I decided to look for two poets in Wales and two in Northern Ireland to work collaboratively with me and contribute a poem each.

I came to live in Wales from Northern Ireland forty years ago when I married a Welshman. That was only a matter of crossing the Irish Sea but I still felt very out of place for a long time. How challenging it must be to be forced to leave one’s home. If I were in that position, I’d hope that the local poets would welcome me. So, maybe I could offer the welcome I’d hope to receive, even to a tiny degree.

I could look for a poet in each place who has had experience of being a refugee and another pair with expertise in other aspects of ‘sanctuary’.

The Swansea poet and publisher, Matthew M.C. Smith put me in touch with Swansea Asylum Seekers Support. Since 2003, this group’s Hafan imprint has published impressive work by asylum-seekers and former refugees. Through them I was introduced to an Iranian poet. His pseudonym is ‘Moon’.

Photo: Stephen Clarkson

The other poet from Wales is Phil Cope, a writer and photographer who’s an expert on holy wells and sacred places across Britain and Ireland. We met years ago on the housing estate near the ancient shrine of Penrhys in the Rhondda. His latest book The Golden Valley: A Visual Biography of the Garw is just out.

In Northern Ireland I found Italian economic migrant, Viviana Fiorentino, a novelist, poet and cultural activist. Some of her work brings incomers and locals together around common experiences of displacement. (The Troubles ensured that many people know what it’s like to be forcibly moved.)

I have been searching in Northern Ireland for a female poet who has been a refugee. It doesn’t surprise me that it has been hard to find this person. The experience of seeking asylum, of having been a refugee, can demand much energy and there may be anxiety that going ‘on the record’ will lead to problems with the authorities. People may prefer to put the experience behind them.

I am delighted that Csilla Toldy is joining us. She is a Hungarian now living in Northern Ireland. She escaped Communist Hungary in 1981, looking for freedom in the West. She is a European who has experienced being a refugee within Europe. As a film maker and writer she has explored themes of arrival and departure, severance and belonging. Now she’s going deeper via this project.

Three poets have completed their work with me. The collaboration has been close and harmonious, though different in each case. With Moon I had an experience of absorption. His gently expressed comments were unusually penetrating and they have emerged in some poems by me – an osmotic kind of collaboration. His own poem, ‘YOU’, is in rhyming couplets, a substantial technical achievement. It is a tumbling progress through the chaotic stages of his break with his native land and the disorientation of arriving in Wales, knowing no one. It crescendos to a moving epiphany about what sanctuary is.

Phil Cope’s poem, ‘Another Lake Another Land’ is expansive. It takes us to many sanctuaries, from the Garw Valley to the Bosphorus, Iran, India and back to the Valley as a site of the transcendent.

Viviana’s poem is technically experimental, especially in its use of punctuation, and beautifully concentrated. It has an ecological theme.

It’s a pleasure to have the Northern Irish poet, Glen Wilson  as mentor for my own work. In 2020 he mentored my first collection.

I received a Support for the Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland towards the costs of this undertaking. The book will be finished by the end of the year.

I hope an eventual book will link Wales and Northern Ireland and other parts of the world through experiences of sanctuary: what it is; where it is; who it is.

Information on the poets involved can be found here

Angela Graham is a film maker and writer from Belfast who has lived in Wales for decades.  @angelagraham8


Garw Valley Cairn, Wales © Phil Cope
St Mullin’s Well, Ireland © Phil Cope

On The Wall: Place and Displacement 1st draft

“Get it up on the wall,” Des Jones says of plaster. “You can do what you like with it later.” He’s married to my husband’s cousin, Susan and he’s handled a quare few walls in his time. So I’ve got my book on Place and Displacement ‘”up on the wall’ this afternoon, tens of thousands of words, and I’ll put the finishing touches to it when I’ve had a metaphorical cup of tea. (The illustration is the cross-section of the house from the speculator’s submission to Belfast City Council. It’s the dream of the house before it became a reality, one of thousands of parlour houses built for the expanding city.)

I’ve had to go and have a bit of a lie-down too because the work has covered several years of research and preparation and centuries of event and my head is full of architectural and historical details. I received a Support for the Individual Artist Award (SIAP) from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2019 towards research for this book.

This piece of work started as ‘a bit of context’ for a set of poems I’ve written about the house of my childhood and my experiences of growing up in east Belfast in the Sixties and Seventies. It gave me the opportunity to focus the search for my paternal grandfather which I’ve been carrying out, off and on, since the Eighties when I made a TV documentary which touched on some of the material. My grandfather was almost never spoken of in my childhood and it has taken much careful research, over many years, to tease out his story. I kept everything I came across and, over time, connections have matured, as I have, and I feel I am more able, at this stage, to see the broader picture.

It also became a forensic investigation of, not only the house, but the area, the field in which it was built and the people who put up the money for it, designed it, built it and first lived in it. It’s an account of belonging, and not being allowed to belong. Continue reading On The Wall: Place and Displacement 1st draft

Irish Times review of A City Burning

Irish Times Review

Books in brief:  Angela Graham’s evocative short stories

Sat, Jul 10, 2021, 00:00

A City Burning
Angela Graham
Seren, £9.99
Angela Graham’s debut collection of short stories has been longlisted for the 2021 Edge Hill Short Story prize, and it’s not hard to see why. The film-maker and screenwriter’s move into fiction brings with it an eye for perspective, for the power of the vignette to momentarily depict a whole life. There is a craft in the economy of Graham’s prose, as evocative as it is sparse, and the theme of change resonates throughout the collection, as well as the inherently human fear of it. We are not always prepared for the moment when our lives change for ever, and Graham seeks to capture that sense of knowing and not knowing here, inviting us into an intimacy with her characters that is never forced, and always elegiac. BECKY LONG

Edge Hill Short Story Prize longlist for A City Burning

I’m thrilled that my debut short story collection A City Burning has been longlisted for the prestigious Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2021. Now in its 15th year, the Prize  is the only national literary award to recognise excellence in a published, single-authored short story collection.

It’s great to be among this list of writers:

  • Alice Ash Paradise Block (Profile/Serpent’s Tail)
  • Annabel Banks Exercises in Control (Influx)
  • Kevin Barry That Old Country Music (Canongate)
  • Adrian Duncan Midfield Dynamo (Lilliput Press)
  • Angela Graham A City Burning (Seren)
  • Rosanna Hildyard Slaughter (Broken Sleep Books)
  • Rosemary Jenkinson Lifestyle Choice 10MG (Doire Press)
  • A L Kennedy We are Attempting to Survive our Time (Jonathan Cape)
  • Louise Kennedy The End of the World is a Cul-de-Sac (Bloomsbury)
  • Jo Lloyd The Earth, that Great Exchequer, Ready Lies (Swift Press)
  • Graham Mort Like Fado (Salt)
  • John O’Donnell Almost the Same Blue and other stories (Doire Press)
  • Alexandros Plasatis Made by Sea and Wood in Darkness (Spuyten Duyvil)
  • Fernando Sdrigotti Jolts (Influx)
  • Hannah Vincent She-Clown (Myriad Editions)

Previous winners include Colm Tóibín, Tessa Hadley and Daisy Johnson.

The shortlist will be announced in September.

Showcase of Irish Authors – Seren Books

I’m looking forward to taking part in this event, 7pm Tuesday 29th June with three great writers from north and south of the island. Seren Books, the leading literary publishing house in Wales,  has many Irish writers on its list and is kicking off its  40th anniversary celebrations with an Irish focus.

Seren Publisher, Mick Felton says,

The line up for this event is a clear reason why we like to publish authors from Ireland.

Continue reading Showcase of Irish Authors – Seren Books

Seren Poetry Festival – Wild Swimming

I’m delighted to be contributing alongside some great poets and swimming enthusiasts, Polly Atkin, Katrina Naomi and Elizabeth-Jane Burnett in this session celebrating swimming and writing. I don’t think both can be done at once but I’m open to persuasion!

I enjoy writing about the sea and especially about being in it. It is an intensely physical experience and I often think of it in terms of an encounter with power.

2021: Event 13

Swimming at Dunluce at sunset

Here’s the opening of a poem I wrote about looking back on memorable moments in a year as it ends: (pubished in The Bangor Literary Journal)

Estuary swimming at Newport, Pembrokeshire


for Gill and Alan


I would like my grave to be

marked not by a stone but glass:

a sturdy panel, windowing my life

in a mosaic of seeing / seeing-through.


Here, in a piece of most particular − almost royal – blue,

won’t you remember

how, from a height,

we watched the unhurried, strategizing sea

re-take the estuary plain,

spreading in ever-widening fans

a rippled, supple mirror for the cloudless sky

and how we plunged

to stride out to its quick

where water, headlands, seal-black cliffs

and sunlight sang on one note?

We knew our luck, that day….

Swimming near Ballintoy

Llandeilo Lit Fest: Writing Wales – incomer & native

Have you ever read a book about a place you know well and thought No, that’s not it at all!

What are the challenges to an incomer writing well about a place they weren’t born and raised in? Is  the perspective of a native inherently more valid? Do the relative merits complement each other or clash?


Sun 25th April 4pm English
Debut Authors: Writing Wales | Sponsored by Mari Thomas Jewellery

Join debut authors, Welsh woman, Angela Johnson and Belfast-born Angela Graham, as they discuss their experiences of putting Wales on the page in their new books, Arianwen, a warm and witty novel set in West Wales, and A City Burning, a confident collection of stories set in Wales, Ireland and Italy.

Arianwen has been described as ‘brilliantly evocative’ with ‘lilting Welsh rhythms and poetic imagery’; A City Burning was named ‘ a book of the year’ by Nation Cymru in 2020, and described as ‘wonderful’ by the Irish Examiner.

I’d like to think ahead to my session alongside Angela Johnson, author of Arianwen.

I was born and raised in Belfast. I’ve had to ‘learn’ Wales. I’ve written stories about Welsh people and places (some partly in Welsh) in my collection, A City Burning. Does my perception differ from that of a native? Yes, I believe it does. Do I get Wales and the Welsh ‘right’? Right by whose criteria? Continue reading Llandeilo Lit Fest: Writing Wales – incomer & native


26 stories set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, from the end of World War 2 to the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘The film-maker and screenwriter’s move into fiction brings with it an eye for perspective, for the power of the vignette to momentarily depict a whole life. There is a craft in the economy of Graham’s prose, as evocative as it is sparse, and the theme of change resonates throughout the collection, as well as the inherently human fear of it. We are not always prepared for the moment when our lives change for ever, and Graham seeks to capture that sense of knowing and not knowing here, inviting us into an intimacy with her characters that is never forced, and always elegiac.’ Becky Long The Irish Times

‘The stories entice and intrigue… highly recommended Graham Reid

‘What fires the attention is Graham’s mastery of language and her ear for local speech of both the poetic and prosaic kind. Her experimentation with Ulster Scots in particular points to a new talent in Irish writing…’ Dr Frank Ferguson Northern Slant

‘This is an exemplary collection illustrating the creative possibilities of the short fiction form.’ Jane Fraser The Lonely Crowd

‘Short, sharp and sometimes shocking, these wonderful stories truly pack a punch.’         Sue Leonard The Irish Examiner

‘Angela Graham’s collection of short stories A City Burning … has a voice that feels completely new and fresh. With stories set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy it’s a broad ranging collection but what I particularly loved about it… was its nuanced and beautifully observed view of the human condition. Graham’s language has a searing quality yet also a humour about it that is genuinely hard to forget long after reading. Very highly recommended – I can’t wait to see what she does next.’ Kate Hamer, The Lonely Crowd

‘Angela Graham’s debut collection A City Burning announced a confident, stylish new voice in short fiction.’ Jon Gower Nation Cymru

‘a fine writer… Some of these stories are short, jewel-like and almost Mansfield-esque in the way their protagonists achieve their epiphanies, reflecting Graham’s poetic training but also perhaps, in their reliance on visual imagery her career as a film-maker.’ Aidan Byrne Planet

‘the most striking element of Graham’s collection is the clarity of voice. Though each of the twenty-six stories employs a decidedly different perspective … Graham’s authorial command remains honest, insightful and impressive. The quasi-cinematic focus given to each story … gives the collection intriguing multiplicity and serves as a testament to Graham’s talent for interpersonal perception. The focus on linguistic exchange in A City Burning is also notable; English, Welsh, Ulster Scots, and Italian all converge to create a narrative that is both highly contextual and elegantly told. ‘ Gemma Pearson, Wales Arts Review

‘These stories show us what the genre does best: the ‘snapshot’ of a moment which reveals a life or a culture in a moment of transition or realisation, what James Joyce called an ‘epiphany’.’ Prof Diana Wallace University of South Wales

‘honest, searing, insightful and very, very good’ Inez Lynn New City

A Book of the Year 2020 for Nation Cymru and for The Lonely Crowd 

A Writer’s Bursary from Literature Wales supported the development of this book.

Available here @SerenBooks £9.99 paperback £7.99 e-book

New Impetus in Ulster Scots Writing

Ding Doon Tha Mairch Dykes – a quotation from a collection of poems by Stephen Dornan heads up this article by me in The Irish Times of 3rd March 2021 here

In 2017 I received a SIAP Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland towards research for a novel set in NI. One of the most striking currents in the air was the turbulence around issues to do with language, with Ulster Scots and Irish. The Stormont Assembly collapsed partly because of apparently irreconcilable pressures around the way people speak; how they write; their cultural ‘reading’ of the land itself.

Language and land – two permanent pieces of the NI puzzle. Language embedded in land, in heart, in psyche.

I noticed also some important shifts in population presence within Northern Ireland; the move from city to country; the changing ownership of land and property; demographics impacting on communities.

From these arose a contemporary story, but it could only be told, I felt, through English,  through Ulster Scots, through Irish.

I didn’t find it hard to access materials in Irish or to access advice but when it came to Ulster Scots, although I had that in my inner ear from my father’s side of the family (as I had Irish from my mother’s), it was a much tougher enterprise to gauge its contemporary use, to inflect this according to age, area and class. Some of the reasons for this are mentioned in my article.

I am enormously grateful to each person who has helped me along the way, in both Irish and Ulster Scots.

I am absolutely delighted that, in these few years, there has been an opening up in the Ulster Scots field, a writerly energy that wants to be expressed across forms and registers. Again, the article touches on this but there would be much more to say and report.

I would like to see, in Irish publishing, particularly among journals and magazines, a greater readiness to consider publishing – alongside English – Irish and Ulster Scots too. The Bangor Literary Journal published a pair of sonnets I wrote in Ulster Scots and English. The sky didn’t fall in.

I wrote a story partly in Ulster Scots for my collection A City Burning. The publisher, Wales-based Seren Books, was interested in the calibre of the work, its intelligibility, its coherence and the Ulster Scots earned its place on those terms.

There are challenges to trying to get Ulster Scots (a) written and (b) published outside specialist publications. Where is the material? Who is to judge its competence? Can Ulster Scots recover itself enough to flourish today?

These are questions appliable, in varying degrees, to any minority language or dialect.

Certainly, no one gains from setting one form of expression against another; or from over-zealous gate-keeping about standards (though these must exist or expression gets catastrophically unmoored from its roots); or – most insidious of all – who is to be allowed to write in Ulster Scots.

That last was the pressure that threatened most powerfully to hold me back. But I have finished the first draft and it has been a wonderful experience to live with the characters, and particularly the Ulster Scots speakers, seeing the world through those eyes, speaking with that tongue.

But perhaps the time has arrived when a new set of questions can be asked: Why not in Ulster Scots? Why not me? Why not now?

The Header illustration is a page from the passport of Éire / Ireland: Ulster Scots words, by James Orr