Peter Sirr, whose poetry collection The Rooms is shortlisted for The Pigott Poetry Prize in association with Listowel Writers’ Week lives in Dublin where he works as a freelance writer and translator. His awards include the O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry and the Michael Hartnett Award. He has also written a children’s book, Black Wreath. A member of Aosdána, he is married to the poet Enda Wyley, who will be reading at the In Memory of Michael Hartnett event on Sunday 31st May. Peter talks to us here about the role of the poet in the 21st Century and why he thinks poetry, as a form, has survived.
Q. How important are poetry awards for poets?
A. The main reward of poetry is the pleasure of doing it – the poem is its own reward. Everything else comes after that. Whether a poet has an audience or wins prizes is beyond his or her control and shouldn’t preoccupy them too much. But any recognition is welcome.
Q. What do you think the role of the poet is in the 21st Century?
A. I think it’s exactly as it is in any century: to write poems as best as he or she can. To be honest, to try to make an interesting noise, ‘make it new’. To reflect the complexity of human experience. To be memorable. All the usual impossible things…
Q. How well is poetry doing at the moment in Ireland?
A. There are lots of poets, and very few readers. But this is always the case. There are, though, many excellent poets working in Ireland. And their presence encourages others. It’s also true to say that there are many different kinds of poetry being written – there’s no one thing you call ‘poetry’ and expect a consensus to be wrapped around it. Traditional, experimental, public, private, lyrical, satirical – it’s all there, bubbling and brewing away in the vat. Put ten Irish poets in a room and ask them what poetry is, and there’ll be a row, which is as it should be.
Q. Why do you think poetry has survived?
A. Poetry is a marginal activity – has always been and will always be. It’s difficult; it requires, patience, concentration. And yet it can do things that prose can’t, that narrative doesn’t supply. Miroslav Holub said that poetry was ‘an energy storing and energy releasing device’, and I’ve always liked that idea, of poetry as a slow-burning, enduring force. It’s powerful, it can operate on us in ways we don’t necessarily understand and that we keep discovering we need. And so, despite all the counter attractions, it persists, peripheral but somehow inextinguishable.
Q. Outside of Ireland, who are the poets that are breaking ground?
A. There are too many to name. Ireland isn’t the centre of poetry, much as it might like to think so. I admire a great deal of poetry from the UK, America as well as poetry in other languages. I’m not sure about ‘breaking ground’. Often the poets I’m most drawn to are long dead – Dante, Montale, Brecht, Catullus … I look to the past more than to whatever people think is ground-breaking now. I think it’s hard for us to read our own contemporaries properly, or to recognise what’s valuable in the present.
Q. What do you think is the most important technique in the writing of poetry?
Q. What advice would you give to a poet just starting out?
A. Don’t do it. Or, failing that, do it and be damned. Read your head off. Would you trust a director who never watched films, a composer who didn’t listen to music, an artist who never looked at work by anyone else? Yet so many poets seem to believe in their own self-sufficiency. It makes for boring work. It’s good to get out of your head and enrich your sense of what’s possible by paying attention to the great work that has been done.
Q. Who were your literary influences growing up?
A. Everyone and anyone. Robert Lowell, Paul Celan, Elizabeth Bishop, Derek Mahon, Ted Hughes, John Berryman, Heaney, Joyce, Pessoa, Yeats, Beckett, Banville, Cavafy, Tom Murphy – a giant bucket of poets, playwrights, novelists …
Q.Do you have an all time favourite poem or poet?
A. Again, too many to list or name. See above.
Q. Have you been to Listowel Writers’ Week before?
A. I’ve actually never been there, so I only know it by reputation. When I was starting out I won poetry prize at Writer’s Week, back in the mists of time, in 1983, for a poem that ended up in my first collection, so that’s one reason I had an affection for it even if I never managed to get to it! I did manage to get to Listowel outside of Writers’ Week and managed to drink a pint in John B’s pub …