‘Poems are made things, not language as raw expression’

A short interview with the €10,000 Moth Poetry Prize judge Jacob Polley

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The Moth Poetry Prize, run by the Moth magazine in rural Ireland, remains the largest prize in the world for a single unpublished poem (€10,000), with three generous prizes of €1,000 for each of the other shortlisted poets. Anyone can enter the prize, regardless of their publishing history, and the prize is judged anonymously, making it an even playing field.

Previous winners include Lee Sharkey (editor of the esteemed Beloit Poetry Journal in the US), Natalya Anderson (former winner of the Bridport Prize) and Abigail Parry (who went on to be shortlisted for the Forward Prize Best First Collection).

Each year the Moth asks a single poet to judge the prize, and this year it’s the Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley. Polley won an Eric Gregory Award in 2004, and at the age of 29 he was chosen as one of the 20 Next Generation poets, alongside Patience Agbabi and Alice Oswald. He was twice nominated for the TS Eliot Prize before winning it for his fourth collection, Jackself, described by the judges as “a firework of a book; inventive, exciting and outstanding in its imaginative range and depth of feeling”. His previous collection, The Havocs, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and his first novel, Talk of the Town, won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. Jacob has held residencies in Queensland, at the Wordsworth Trust and at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and he was Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge for two years. He teaches at the University of Newcastle.

When did you start writing poetry?
In my teens. I drew and painted and thought that was what I wanted to do, but I suddenly started to experiment with words and lines on the page. I think I intuited that I could evoke and represent things in language, or try to, in a way that meant I could find material anywhere. I hadn’t felt this with paint and pencil, which obviously meant that paint and pencil weren’t my tools.

Can you express things in poetry that you cannot in prose?
Poetry and prose are different. Poems are often necessarily fleet, compressed, gappy. I’m not even sure, actually, that “expressing” something is what poetry and imaginative prose do. Poems are made things, not language as raw expression, and they’re perhaps made for a reader to find his or her own expression of feeling with and through.

Why do we turn to poetry when we’re hurt?
Because, I think, a poem as a made thing invites a reader to find him- or herself in its words, in its precision and lines and gaps, and in finding him- or herself a reader finds that the poem gives shape and form and order – or just truth – to the confusion of pain, love, grief, etc. The poem has the best words in the best order to say it, and this gives the comfort of having our deep down selves recognised.

What should a poem do?
Goodness, if I started dictating what a poem should do I’d hope to be given a good talking to in a quiet room by someone who knew better.

Do you have a favourite poem or poet?
Too many. And my tastes and needs as a reader change. The first poems I found – TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens – still hold the thrill for me of that first encounter.

What are you reading at the moment?
Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Anne Carson’s Plainwater and American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes …

When do you write?
Whenever I can.

The Moth Poetry Prize closes on December 31st, 2018. See themothmagazine.com for details.

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