To celebrate the return of the Manchester Writing Competition, Georgia Green speaks to 2020 Manchester Poetry Prize winner James Pollock.
James Pollock is the author of Durable Goods (Véhicule Press/Signal Editions), which won the Edna Meudt Poetry Book Award and made The Miramichi Reader‘s list of the best poetry books of 2022. A poet, critic and academic based in Wisconsin, USA, Pollock’s first collection Sailing to Babylon (Able Muse Press, 2012), was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award in Poetry, and winner of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association.
In 2020, Pollock won the Manchester Writing Competition, the UK’s biggest prize for unpublished literary work. He was chosen as the Manchester Poetry Prize winner by a judging panel chaired by the Forward Prize-winning poet Malika Booker, 2014 Manchester Poetry Prize winner Marshi, and poet and founder of The Poetry School, Mimi Khalvati.
We caught up with Pollock ahead of this year’s Manchester Writing Competition to find out his advice for writers considering entering the International competition and what inspires his own work.
You are one of two Canadian poets to become finalists for Manchester’s Writing Competition. Do you have any advice to motivate more Canadians to get involved?
One of the things I love about the Manchester Poetry Prize is that it’s open to poets writing in English from anywhere in the world. With a few exceptions – the Griffin Poetry Prize, for example, or the Montreal International Poetry Prize – these competitions tend to be restrictive with regard to who can apply, usually based on the nationality of the poet, or the country of residence. That just reinforces the segregation of English-language poetry into national enclaves, which is not good for the art. I suspect many Canadian writers just assume they aren’t eligible for British writing competitions. What would I suggest? Maybe change the name to the Manchester International Writing Competition.
A recurring theme in your poetry is to write about tangible objects. Does this still feel like a form of self-expression, as many claim writing poetry to be?
That’s an interesting question. In Durable Goods, my most recent book, all the poems are about tools, or appliances, or machines, but as subjects rather than objects. In other words, these poems imagine their way into the things as persons, rather than treating them merely as symbols or “objective correlatives” of my own feelings. So, instead of self-expression, the poems do what Keats describes in one of his letters as the work of the “chameleon poet.” According to this way of thinking, as Keats puts it, “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually. . . filling some other Body.” As you suggest, this is an unusual, even radical, way to write poetry in our time, when the dominant mode by far is what Keats called the “egotistical sublime,” in which the expression of the poet’s identity or persona is of the essence. That said, there is a modern and international tradition of “thing poems” by poets like Rilke, Neruda, Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence, Francis Ponge, and Eric Ormsby, though the vast majority of such poems are about animals and plants and works of art, rather than machines. Some of these poets, like Moore and Ormsby, clearly see themselves in many of the things they write about, but for me, the way of the chameleon poet is much more like animism or magic than autobiography.
When personifying objects in your poetry, do you go into each poem with each object having a person in your head before you start? Do you know how you want each item to be presented?
For some of the poems in Durable Goods, especially the ones I wrote first, I would look at or listen to the object intently until it became a subject or a person in my imagination—until I could imagine what it was feeling, so to speak. Then I would describe or narrate what I imagined. The more of these poems I wrote, however, the more I found myself starting with bits of language associated with each thing, especially the precise words for its parts, and idioms associated with its way of being in the world, both of which I gleaned through research. In these later poems the personality of the thing would emerge from the language itself as I hammered and polished.
Do you decide on the ambiguity of the poem before you start or is it decided through the process of writing?
I’d say there are two main kinds of ambiguity in these poems: the sometimes-ambivalent personalities or feelings of the things themselves as persons, and the punning language. The ambivalent personalities or feelings often arose out of the imagining I often did, as I say, before I started writing. As for the puns: they were often inherent in the idioms I chose to express each thing’s way of being in the world, which was why I chose those idioms. In the latter case, once I had the bits of language, it would then be like doing bricolage, or like solving a puzzle; I’d sew away at them until I had a finished poem. By finished, I mean a poem in which there were no seams showing. In other words, I wouldn’t be satisfied until, among other things, the poem sounded entirely natural.
As a poetry critic, is it hard to comment truthfully on poetry that is personal to a poet and very self-expressive?
I’m a creative writing professor, too, and in that context, I get lots of practice responding to young writers’ work in a way that is both tactful and honest. The key is to focus on matters of technique, on poetics, and to be precise. The situation is somewhat different when I’m writing criticism of published works—that is, reviews or review-essays—because then the work is being offered to a reading public, and it’s not in development anymore. My job as critic is still to respond to the work with honesty, but it’s no longer to help the poet improve the poem or develop their repertoire of technique. Rather, my duty is to the art and my readers. I’m obligated to say honestly what my response is to the work and make a persuasive case for my opinion based on careful consideration of the poems themselves. And, whenever possible, I include complete poems in my reviews so my readers can judge for themselves whether they agree with me or not. Keep in mind that evaluating is just part of what I do; I also help the reader understand what the poems are doing, and, often, read them in the context of the poet’s development over the course of several books. But whether as a teacher or a critic – or as an editor, for that matter – I don’t presume to pass judgement on the poet as a human being. Occasionally, I’ve registered my revulsion at something on ethical grounds – egregious misogyny, for example, or in one case some poems calling for the annihilation of humanity – but even then, it’s about the actual language in the poem, not anything having to do with the identity of the poet. In any case, honesty is essential, otherwise I will certainly end up lying to my readers and the poet – and even myself – and thereby doing damage to the art. When you have a culture of dishonest reviewing, it leads to aesthetic and even ethical corruption, which is devastating to the art of poetry. I always try to keep that in mind, and that makes it easy to tell the truth as I see it.
The 2023 Manchester Writing Competition is open to entries until 5 pm on September 1, 2023. Entries cost £18 per submission for either the poetry or fiction prize.