Odette Debono always thought she wasn’t good enough to go to university - but she’s just got a first-class honours degree in English and Creative Writing.
And that’s not all. The 51-year-old mum-of-one from Newport - who has graduated from the English and Creative Writing degree - has also scooped the Tony Curtis Poetry Prize, which is presented to the USW student with the best compilation of work in their final year, for her collection called ‘Newport Girl’.
To add to her accolades, she’s also having one of her award-winning pieces published in The London Magazine, England’s oldest literary periodical, which has been published since 1732 and is renowned in the British literary landscape.
Odette’s recognition is something she would only have dreamed of just five years ago, when she was, in her own words, ‘stuck in a rut’.
“My life really wasn’t going anywhere,” she explained. “I left school with no qualifications - no one was going to employ me, and I really thought I had nothing to offer.”
However, Odette’s friend Sarah Wreathal knew that she had more in her, especially since she’d been able to pass an English GCSE in her mid-30s.
“Ever since I was young I had never been encouraged to achieve anything or even take an interest in academic studies, so was unaware of my abilities,” Odette said. “But Sarah knew that there was plenty of ability inside me, I just had to believe in myself more.”
After undertaking a university taster course, Odette then completed a foundation degree at USW - covering a wide range of subjects including English, religion, culture, and media studies - before being accepted onto the writing degree.
“I’d always liked writing, so it seemed like the natural choice,” she said. “Over the three-year writing degree, I wrote in lots of different genres including memoir, short stories, poetry and travel pieces, one of which, Mad Monkeys and River Rats, which focuses on the time I spent in Thailand, turned into a very enjoyable two-year project.
“The poetry collection ‘Newport Girl’, which won the Tony Curtis Prize, is made up 21 poems about my childhood growing up in Newport and Merthyr Tydfil. They are very personal pieces, and chronicle my life through my eyes.”
“I want to go on to do a Masters, which may just get me a doctorate,” she said. “I think Doctor Debono has quite a nice ring to it!”
Whatever she decides to do next, Odette is looking forward, and not back to the years where she doubted her ability.
“I absolutely loved what I was doing. I wanted to improve my own writing,” she said.
“But it wasn’t about proving something to anyone else, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And I think I’ve done that.”
Old ladies sit sewing
On steps washed clean
Or chairs old and rickety
Bits of bright cloth slip through
In a blur
Someone’s painted the curbs
While I was sleeping
They narrow into the distance
The sun angles down onto
Flat-capped men on ladders
Tying fluttery bunting to one roof
Bits of old dresses and quilts, floral mostly
Flap and snap in a low breeze
On this day of days
That children don’t know about
But a party’s a party
Down the narrow streets
Of dockland homes
1977. I am eleven
When trestle tables
Join together to form
A street-length banquet
There’s pop – orange and white
In paper cups that
Dissolve around the rim
Under eager, moist lips
Parents stand like school teachers
At points along the way
Refereeing between the shoulders
Of excited children
With fistfuls of crisps
And chocolate smiles.
2017. Someone forgot to wash
The curbs while I was away
Narrow into the distance
When the wind blows through my hair,
Lifting it high and whippy to the sky,
Are you there? Are you there?
When it kisses the heads
Of early bluebells and late snowdrops
Then curves to the treetops and
Whispers to those who can hear,
Are you near?
Do you whoop down the chimney
To leave sooty signs on the floor?
Did you want more?
Are you in the eyes of your children?
Peeking, now and then,
At a world without you? Or…
You could just be hiding,
At the corner of my eye?
In the faces of strangers?
In the folds of curtains?
Did you go to Heaven?
With Jesus to comfort you in your loss
And warm blood.
Or – I can’t bear it – are you
In the deep earth, trapped
With a bony past
That lies uneasily beneath
Your life in a jar?
Did you fly into my heart?
(I remember a thud).