“The poem becomes master of the poet”: An interview with Jo Shapcott

Alice Mottram 12 February 2015

"Beginner poets are all too often told they must ‘find their voice’", sighs Jo Shapcott. "It's a false quest." A peculiar perspective, perhaps, considering poetic voice is often the hallmark to individual style, increasingly so as the poet becomes more distinguished.

Jo Shapcott received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2011 and has won The National Poetry Competition twice. Her award-winning collections include Electroplating the Baby (1988) which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and My Life Asleep (1998) winning a Forward Prize. Attracting such an array of awards, it is difficult to imagine how her success can stem from anything other than a stable sense of artistic self, such as style or voice. 

However, she stares with surprise at one of her poems, a beautiful patchwork of lines plucked from a phrase book: "I have no idea who wrote that,” she admits. “It might have been me." It began as a love poem, she explains, but then she cut out notes from a newspaper about war technology and they “came together unexpectedly.” Whilst it is pleasing that poetry can be found practically anywhere, what is most striking is how far a poetic footprint can flee as the artistic self evolves.

“Yeats, he began his literary career as a romantic poet but gradually absorbed Modernism,” she points out. “I admire that in a career, being able to change voice. Novelists have more freedom in this respect – I'd like us to have that freedom too." Whilst I began this interview believing poetic personality to be the beating heart of artistic brilliance, it becomes a burden as she shudders at the thought. "To be stuck with one voice is a frightening idea," she adds, suggesting that the ability to sing new melodies is the space where true brilliance lies. 

This search for shifting ground as opposed to stability extends to her approach as judge. “You shouldn't bend your poem out of shape for the judges,” she insists. “You imagine they want to discover themselves through choosing poems, but this is nothing further from the truth in my experience. You want a poem that will knock your socks off.” I ask whether poetry is a process of exploration more for the reader than the poet.

“Seamus Heaney talks well about this,” she smiles. “He says the first reader is yourself, but after a while, a second reader is needed, transforming poetry into a conversation rather than an internal monologue.” If poetry is a collective space for shared human thought and feeling, then of course it would be absurd for all her poems to speak with the same tongue. This very point of poetry would crumble. 

Whilst this point is never driven by the desire for artistic success, there is comfort concerning its chances, it seems, in being able to change voice and style. The world of poetry is a painfully difficult place to enter, and so her voice is imbued with humility as she confesses that she never expected to win either time. “I treated it more like a deadline, a useful way to get things finished, perfected." 

When I ask more about this writing process, it seems that style and voice are supposed to slip, ever so slightly, from the poet’s firm grip, and be at the whim of the particular poem itself. “There's a certain chemistry I'd say, an alchemy that happens in a notebook. You close the cover and then leave it to cook.” 

It’s as though the poem becomes master of the poet as soon as the writer drags out the chains.

 

Jo Shapcott's most recent collection, Of Mutability, was published in 2010 by Faber and Faber and won the Costa Book Award. You can read more about the work of Jo Shapcott here: www.joshapcott.co.uk