Norma Prendiville: What is your reaction to winning the award? How do you feel?
Peter Sirr: I was sitting hunched over the computer trying to write something when the email came in from Joan MacKernan telling me that I had won the Michael Hartnett Award. Must be a mistake, I thought, they've sent it to the wrong person. Then I read the email again and yes, the book mentioned was The Thing Is, and I began to think that maybe I had in fact won the award. It was all the more of a shock as I didn't actually know the book was in for it. I went out into the kitchen and announced to my wife, daughter and dog: 'I seem to have won an award.' When I explained what it was my wife, a poet herself, whooped with delight while my daughter wondered what all the fuss was about. 'Not poetry again,' she muttered. The peculiar thing was that I was still so suspicious and disbelieving that I waited for a few hours before replying, leaving enough time for the apologetic email to come through explaining that I had been sent the wrong email by mistake. Once it sank in, I felt very pleased and happy that the judges had singled out my book. Unlike other kinds of writing, poetry can have a very delayed reaction. A book comes out and it might take months before a review appears. You begin to wonder whether anyone has read it, whether poetry counts for much. But books of poems live their own lives, they make their own slow, hesitant way into the world. When something like this comes along it's an enormously confirming, encouraging thing. It means the book has got through to people, that it hasn't sunk without trace.
Norma Prendiville: How important are poetry awards for poets?
Peter Sirr: No poet should write in the anticipation of glory, prizes or awards. The real reward is always the work itself. Many very fine poets operate below the radar of public attention or reward, and there are always going to be more good poets than prizes to bestow on them. But awards are very useful in keeping poetry in the public eye, and in bringing work to the attention of readers. I think an award based on a book, as opposed to the single poem, is particularly useful and encouraging as it rewards a body of work that might have been years in the making. Poets are slow workers generally; it can take years of painstaking work to assemble a collection.
Norma Prendiville: In what way is the Michael Hartnett Award special/important for you?
Peter Sirr: It's very important to me because Michael Hartnett is a poet whose work I value highly and to receive an award created in his memory is a pretty singular honour. When I was a student in Trinity College I invited Michael to come and read at Éigse na Tríonóide, and I'll never forget the impression he made, the energy, the fierce determination, the absolute confidence in himself as a poet and in the importance of poetry. He was the first real poet I had ever met and I followed his poetry and translations closely in the years that followed, and met him again many times. For me he was a model of a certain unyielding dedication. Apart from the connection with Michael, the award is important as an encouragement, a way to justify all those hours spent staring into space. . .
Norma Prendiville: How is poetry doing at the moment?
Peter Sirr: Poetry is like a persistent current bubbling away under the noise and busyness of everyday life. By all sensible criteria it should have disappeared long ago. It's not much in demand, but then it never has been. Yet it doesn't go away, and poets continue to be born and to insist on writing poems. Poetry is, or should be, demanding. It asks a fierce attentiveness of us, it can only be taken in slowly, whereas everything around us insists on haste. It remains as necessary as ever, maybe even more so as the tide of literate culture as we know it begins to ebb and our lives fill with speedy, attention-seeking devices. Poetry is a way of making sense of the world and our place in it, an attempt to escape into the real, maybe. I don't expect its status or prestige to change much in the future, but there will always be a troop of quarrelsome, argumentative, ecstatic, sceptical and inspired poets pacing the margins, somehow finding an audience.
Norma Prendiville is an Éigse Michael Hartnett committee member.
3rd January - The opening speeches from the 2011 and 2012 festivals are now available as audio files here
2nd January - The Hartnett Memorial lectures from the 2011 and 2012 festivals are now available as audio files here
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