Monday, 27 April 2015

Flash Interview #10—Asa Boxer

Asa Boxer is the co-founder of The Montreal International Poetry Prize. This year's $20,000 award is being decided by Eavan Boland. Deadline for entries is May 15.

Carmine Starnino: The Montreal International Poetry Prize continues to be the only award of its kind—delivering a huge sum for a single poem. What's the thinking there? Why the focus on the poem?

Asa Boxer: We wanted to signal to audiences that the poem is a work of art, at least as valuable as other, perhaps more visible art forms. Folks are willing, for example, to pay to see theatre, dance and film. I'm not sure a poem has equal purchase on wallets. Meanwhile the visual arts are currently in the midst of a parody of value, where a painting that fetches a mere six figures is a sign the creator has achieved only moderate success. So the idea, in part, was to announce loud and clear to a culture obsessed with measures that poetry had measurable value.

Back in 2010, when the idea of the Montreal Prize was conceived, there were few prizes offering big purses to poets. Mostly it was collections of poems that had a chance of landing a significant prize amount. The poetry competitions that awarded the largest amounts for single poems were old in 2010, and the sums they offered had lost their glimmer. We hoped to nudge those up by example. In many cases, literary journals were offering thousands to the winner of a short story competition, while insulting poets with a paltry sum, as though poems were what you wrote during a commute or during a lunch break. The message was, don't bother with this minor art form, nobody really wants it. We wanted to change that. So we designed a prize that would award tens of thousands for a single poem, no longer than forty lines.

CS: The prize's internationalism has ramped up considerably since its inception, with your current editorial board featuring poets from Trinidad, Nigeria and India. Why make the enterprise so diverse?

AB: I'd say we always had a strong international editorial board. What's changed is how far we can reach into poetry circles that were remote in 2010. By asking for recommendations from our African, Caribbean, Indian and Australian sources, we can now get to emerging poets and poets who were not in the major anthologies but clearly should have been. Then we can invite them to join our editorial board for a season or encourage them to participate as contenders in the competition.
The desire for this sort of diversity is rooted in curiosity and a desire to expand our notions of what poetry can be. Just as Ezra Pound looked to foreign poetries (like Japanese) to learn other approaches and techniques in the medium, the Montreal Prize hopes to keep apace of how folks are writing in different countries and to be a vehicle of cross pollination.

CS: What are some trends you've seen in submissions over the last few years? Is English-language poetry in good health?

AB: Happily, I haven't seen trends in the sense of fashions. In other words, our anthologies haven't represented a dominant style or subject. There has been diversity on that front. I'm not in a position to say whether English-language poetry is in good health. It has become an industry, though, which is antithetical to its spirit: there are mechanisms that keep the presses running whether the material is worth printing or not. I suspect also that globalization along with the Creative Writing Program have contributed to what looks like an unnerving uniformity of expression. I have definitely seen less culturally inflected diversity than initially hoped for. For example, I suppose Caribbean folk couldn't keep writing in pidgin, but it's as though the sound of their work (on the page at least) has lost that Caribbean lilt and swagger. Things are in flux right now, I can say that much. The UK, for instance, once a leader in the poetry world, is now on a par with everyone else. The best African poetry seems the most urgent and most distinct. I think poets ought to be turning their attention there right now.

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