We caught up with Frieda Hughes, one of this year’s Poetry Prize 2017 judges. Although this prize has now closed, Frieda will begin reading your entries in the coming weeks. In this interview, she gives poets advice on how to make tells us why she loves judging poetry competitions
You’ve got an exhibition in Chichester Cathedral this summer, along with a new poetry collection, Out Of The Ashes, to be published in autumn by Bloodaxe Books. How do you find time to write between all your other projects?
Frieda Hughes: It’s difficult to fit all the work that I want to get done, into the time that it is possible to be awake! I inevitably have piles of filing and paperwork waiting for my attention among other things. But really, when I’m working on a book, or an exhibition, everything else has to fall away and I become very focussed. The exception was my project, 400 DAYS, which is a panel comprising 400 10inch by 14inch oil-on-canvas paintings, one for each of 400 consecutive days of my life, finishing on 31st December 2016, which is included in my Chichester exhibition, together with the paintings from my recent poetry collection Alternative Values.
For 400 days I lived and worked through each day as normal – and did a great deal of writing – then painted my ‘daily painting’ at night, as my visual diary of that day. It was exhausting!
As someone who has judged many prizes, including both the Forward Prize and National Poetry Competition, what role do you think competitions have in the development of a poet?
I believe that poetry competitions bring poetry to the attention of a wider public, because anyone can enter, and they might encourage someone who hasn’t thought of poetry seriously, to focus their attention; the hope of a prize and recognition can be very appealing. And for the lucky winners, the cash prizes are a welcome bonus, as well as having the satisfaction of seeing their work receive the critical validation it must surely deserve, outside publication in magazines and books. Reading the poems for me, as a judge, is always an education because there are as many different points of view in poetry as there are poets; I find the journey through the observations, ideas and emotions of the contributors is a thought-provoking privilege and a pleasure.
Do you have any advice for poets who are in the process of entering poetry competitions?
Keep writing, and read every poem you write, out loud each time you work on it, and through every draft. Reading out loud exposes the weaknesses in poetry – and prose – that our eyes and minds gloss over when we skim through it otherwise. Letters and emails should also be read out loud!
Could you tell us three things you’re reading/watching/listening to/thinking about and what you think of whatever that may be?
I’m not watching anything because it means I have to sit still, and I’ve too much else I want to do (write, paint, play with dogs, ferrets and owls, ride motorbikes). I’m reading my police handbook on being a better motorcyclist, prior to taking my advanced motorbike riding test with IAM (Institute of Advance Motorists). I’m listening to AC/DC, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Queen, Nickleback, Mental as Anything, to get me through a backlog of intensely testing filing and paperwork, in between trying to finish writing a book about keeping owls.
And finally, what is your all-time favourite poem? Or if that’s too tricky, whose work do you admire the most?
There is no all-time favourite poem as such, because there are too many that I find irresistibly funny, or uplifting, or moving. But there are two poems that mean a great deal to me because they were written for me by my parents: one, by my father, Ted Hughes, is about me as a child: ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’, and one by my mother, Sylvia Plath, is about me as a baby: ‘You’re’. If I were allowed to include one of my own, it would be ‘One Last Kiss’ from my recent collection Alternative Values, because it is about being conscious of love and not taking it for granted:
“If that one last kiss is still
The thing you’d long to give someone
Then give it now before they’re gone.
Give it daily; never be caught out
For never passing on
The one last kiss you’d give
Just because you didn’t know
That’s what it was.” Frieda Hughes, Alternative Values
Interview by Abi Lofthouse
Our annual Poetry Prize runs 1st May – 30th June. More information here.