More than a mirror held by both sides ctd

Judge Michael Symmons Roberts interviewed by Mike Sims about the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry 2011


And public art projects? The Society is hoping to get some projects of this kind underway in the new year...
Yes, there's been an explosion of that, hasn't there? At its best I think it’s very good, but again, it can run into the problem of the one illustrating the other. Sometimes the simpler the visual presentation of a poem, the better. I’ve always loved Ian Hamilton Finlay’s inscriptions in the garden at Little Sparta, the simplicity – and for him it was a classical simplicity, wasn’t it – of the lettering in stone, set into the landscape. It gets more complicated when you talk about a sculptor because the sculptor has a vision. How does that work with the vision of the poet and how is the one imprinted on the other? It’s all interesting territory and, as I say, public poetry has been around at least as long as public art has. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work, and I’m interested by the fact that so much creativity and funding is going into that at the moment.

Are you naturally collaborative in a way that some poets are not?
Most poets I know are open to it. With me, it’s often happened by a series of accidents – the (now long) working relationship with James MacMillan, for example, began when we were both on a BBC Radio 4 series in the early 1990s. My experience is that most poets like those accidents when they come up, and seize the moment. I think there may be limits – I have never collaborated on a poem, working within the fabric with another poet.

Have your collaborations meant you produced a different kind of poetry?
It’s hard sometimes to stand back enough to see how a collaboration has influenced your own work. Certainly the work I write for James MacMillan is particular and for him. The first couple of things I wrote for him I published in my second collection, Raising Sparks (Cape), but since then I’ve not done that because they don’t sit well with the other poems – there’s a different quality to the pieces. Auden, who is a hero of mine as a poet and librettist, said, “a good libretto is a private letter to a composer”. I think that’s true in that the more you get to know a composer the more you tailor that letter to him. James likes a particularly dense, rich, compacted poetic line, which is the opposite of what most composers want. Most poets who have worked with composers say that the composer asked them to thin out the line so that the music could flourish. From the outset, James wanted it the other way round. I think my poetry can be dense and lyrical anyway but he wanted that ‘plus, plus’. So, yes, it feels like a different part of my work now.

Does that beg a question of the award - that sometimes these fusions are not one thing or another?
As a judge, I think you are looking for works in which the collaboration has been more than just a mirror being held up by both sides, for something which feels that there is a new creative output that you hadn’t imagined, that seems different from and in some sense greater than the words or music or artwork alone. The chemistry has to work. That’s what Auden is saying: the greatest poems don’t always make the greatest libretti, the greatest poem has to inspire something in the composer. article continues...


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