More than a mirror held by both sides

Photo: Andrew Crowley

Michael Symmons Roberts, together with Sarah Maguire and Edmund de Waal, will judge the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry 2011. He speaks to Mike Sims about his experiences, and about the exciting range of collaborative work between poets and other artists that the award seeks to highlight.

How do you feel, as a judge, about the Ted Hughes Award? Is it a welcome opportunity to commend work that falls outside the remit of other poetry awards?
I think it fills an interesting gap and an important one as well. While there are a number of awards for collections of poems and individual poems, poets have always worked in collaborative relationships, with composers, with visual artists, and the idea of public poetry is certainly not a new one – it goes back a long way. A lot of the opportunities for poetry to become public involve collaboration with producers, broadcasters, composers, visual artists and I have found – as did Ted Hughes, which is why the award is named after him – that those are some of the richest and most rewarding parts of my work as a poet. And Hughes, of course, did some extraordinary work in the theatre, and with broadcasters and musicians.

Are you thinking of anything in particular when you say "it goes back a long way"?
Well, you could argue that the that the modern idea of poetry being about the intimate relationship between private reader and page – something that goes on in the head – is really Romantic or post-Romantic. The broad tradition, not just in the English language but in most literary cultures, is that the poet has a public role and speaks on behalf of and into a community, not just out of the individual sensibility. In Wales, for example, there is still the notion of a bard, who functions within a particular village and writes poems to honour funerals, weddings and rites of passage within that village. It is part of the public duty of that poet. So as to the idea that that’s a new thing or an adjunct to the real business of writing intimate poetry, historically at least, it’s been the other way around.

Of previous THA winners, Kaite O'Reilly's translation of Aeschylus' The Persians was a piece for the theatre and Alice Oswald's Weeds and Wild Flowers was a collaboration with printmaker Jessica Greenman. Are there other areas where poets are collaborating that particularly interest or excite you? You've mentioned your own experiences.
I suppose the longest collaborative relationships I’ve been involved with have been with composers and one in particular, James MacMillan, which goes back to the early ’90s, with operas, choral works, song cycles and so on. I’ve also worked with visual artists. It interests me that some collaborations are well established, that when a poet and composer come together everyone is clear about what happens. It’s not quite so clear with the visual arts and I’ll be interested to see how people have tackled that in this year’s entries. The issue always is how you get beyond the perception that one art form is illustrating the other. Either the poems are in the gallery stuck up almost as explanations of the paintings, or the drawings or paintings are published in a book and look like illustrations of the poem. The idea that two come together and make something greater than the sum of the parts is always there when musicians work with poets. No one’s quite cracked it yet – in my view – in the visual field. So that’s one of the things I’m intrigued about this year.

We ran an article in Poetry News about the work animators have done with poems.

Animation and film offer some very interesting possibilities, though in my time as a documentary film-maker at the BBC I had colleagues who worked with poems and again, it proved hard not to replicate or somehow illustrate the imagery in the poetry. I’m literally about a week into the possibility of a new collaboration with a fashion designer, who approached me to say she’d like to work with me. We’ve had one meeting and one conversation. A possibility might be that we focus on particular moments, when a man or woman sees a man or woman and that spark happens – Dante-Beatrice moments. She might design what might be being worn at that moment and that might then culminate in a performance of some sort. I’m still wrestling with it…

So, do you get to a lot of fashion shows?

New world to me! The designer came to a reading I was giving in Edinburgh and said she wanted to collaborate. I looked into her work and I liked it very much. We’ll see what happens. I’m always looking for new ways to try to cut these collaborative projects.  article continues...

For full details of the 2011 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry click here.