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Literary feast for ambitious pupils

Welsh poet and author Owen Sheers describes his visit to the literary Hay Festival under the Beacons project banner as the "Road to Damascus" experience of his teenage years.

Developed to increase access to literature for students in rural Wales and The Marches, the Beacons project gives 10 sixth-formers the opportunity to attend the talks and workshops of their choice.

Sheers took part in 1993, the project's inaugural year, while he was an A-level student at King Henry VIII comprehensive school in Abergavenny.

Fellow poet, Robert Minhinnick, provided the defining moment while reading from his collection, Hey Fatman.

"Rob was describing a bar in Brazil and the gangsters, prostitutes and tourists hanging out there. It opened my eyes to the notion of poetry as reportage," explains Sheers.

This week he was back at the Hay festival to talk about his own work, The Dust Diaries, a blend of biography and fiction, in which he follows his missionary ancestor through colonial Rhodesia.

"I think I got more out of the Hay Festival, and meeting people like RS Thomas, Ted Hughes and Elizabeth Chatwin, than I did from my university studies," he said. "I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing now without the project.

"I'm delighted to be able to return the favour for current students by running a workshop."

Sheers' poetry workshop was top of Matthew Jones's hit list. Matthew, 17, a student at Bewdley high school in Worcestershire, has compiled his own anthology, inspired by images of war.

"I'm a fan of Owen's work. This will be a great opportunity to learn from him," he said.

Tayaba Nicholson, a pupil at Builth Wells high school, in Powys, is contemplating a career in journalism. Her sights were set on the session featuring Rageh Omaar, the BBC correspondent.

"I have strong feelings against the Iraq war and I'm hoping his talk will give me a better insight into the events that happened behind the scenes," she said.

"I want to know more than the media has told me so far and I definitely want to know more than the Government has offered. Meeting someone like Rageh will give me a clearer idea of what to expect from a journalistic career."

She added: "For me it's a fantastic chance to listen to people who have done so much with their lives."

The Hay festival runs until Sunday

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