€10,000 question: what makes a good poem?

Moth Poetry Prize judge Daljit Nagra: ‘Poetry makes miracles in moments’

Daljit Nagra: A good poem alters its body language as it moves from one mood to another. Good poems tick because they know how to speak to us

Daljit Nagra: A good poem alters its body language as it moves from one mood to another. Good poems tick because they know how to speak to us

 

The Moth Poetry Prize (formerly the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize) offers €10,000 for a single unpublished poem, and three runner-up prizes of €1,000 – so it’s worth knowing what makes this year’s judge tick. Daljit Nagra has published three collections with Faber and teaches poetry at Brunel University London. He was the first poet to win the Forward Prize for both his debut collection of poetry and its title poem, and was BBC Radio 4’s first Poet in Residence.

The Moth Poetry Prize is open to anyone, and the poems can be on any theme and of any length
The Moth Poetry Prize is open to anyone, and the poems can be on any theme and of any length

Do you remember the first time you thought, i want to write a poem?
When I was 19 years of age, suicidal and lonely. poetry seemed to offer me a net in which my despair could be captured, held there, so I could be safe in my daily life.

How do you begin a poem?
I wait for it to arrive. It’s a ticking in my brain that will not go away. But it’s not an unpleasant ticking. I think of it as being like the gentle smell of lemons. The feeling of excitement and anticipation is like that of first love. I am full of hope that is the poem, that will excite me for the coming weeks and months. Some I write straight away, others I hold in my head and form by considering the texture of words, the pace and the story as it unfolds in my mind. The longest I kept a poem in my head was Ken, in my second book, for about 18 months.

How do you know if it is good?
If some part of me needs to keep returning to it, to add words or remove them, to rewrite from different perspectives. If the poem keeps me at play, I assume it must be fascinating me. If it fascinates me, there is a dim chance it may fascinate the reader.

What poet has had the biggest impact on your work?
Shakespeare, because of the condition of newness in which he wrote his words, the feeling that language was moulding itself anew. I think a global English is the condition under which we write now. It’s important to keep alert to the radical creation of English that is now happening, with the advent of new technologies such as the internet.

Is poetry stranger than fiction?
Poetry makes miracles in moments, for example Corpus Christi Carol (found by an apprentice grocer named Richard Hill in a manuscript written around 1504).

Is music important?
Poetry is music. It is fallacy to separate the two. Words are sound, and words in motion, in rhythm, are music. As breath is to sound, so music is to poetry.

What makes a poem tick?
That a poem can teach the reader how to read it from the outset. For example, in everyday conversation, when a person is about to say something serious or funny, they prepare us by the alteration of their body language, so a good poem alters its body language as it moves from one mood to another. Good poems tick because they know how to speak to us. Even poems that do not want to make coherent sense, if good, know how to make themselves heard.

Have you ever used a pseudonym?
Hah! You cheeky interviewer, for you know I used to call myself Khan Singh Kumar. Three names distinct to three Indian religions, I loved the fusion of a harmony between these distinct cultures. I wrote for fun and didn’t expect to be published so the pseudonym was part of the original fun that got me writing.

What are you reading right now?
I have just published my latest collection, British Museum, so I’m at that very exciting stage of new beginnings. I’m just reading around and writing poems to see what comes through. I love this stage, where I am open to all possibilities of content and form. The sky, the grass, the main road all feel uploaded with new hope for me!

Your favourite childhood book/poem/song/prayer?
Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan is a song that ages with me as I age. It takes on board new significance as the world ages in my time. I’ve been playing that song while thinking about the implosion of the Middle East and dead bodies in the Aegean. The answer is blowing in the wind …

What would you change about yourself to make your poems better?
Stop writing offensive poems in each of my collections. I love offending myself and thus I end up including the offensive poems in each of my books. The latest collection has a poem titled Get Off My Poem Whitey.
The Moth Poetry Prize is open to anyone, and the poems can be on any theme and of any length. The four shortlisted poems will appear in the spring issue of The Moth and the overall winner will be announced at a special award ceremony at Poetry Ireland in Dublin in the spring. Closing December 31st, 2017. See themothmagazine.com

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