This past week marked the launch of a brand new English-language literary award, the Montreal International Poetry Prize, which will bestow $50 000 for a single poem. That’s right. Fifty grand. As well, the contest will produce a new annual poetry anthology of the top 50 poems from around the world, edited by an international jury of editors. The lone judge of the winning poem will be the former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Andrew Motion. Wegot in touch with the contest’s founders, Len Epp and Asa Boxer, to find out more.
How did the idea for the Montreal Poetry Prize come about? What inspired it?
Asa Boxer: It began when I started hunting for contemporary world anthologies and and couldn’t find any. Instead I purchased a good number of national anthologies, often two or three from the same country, and I began reading and discovering terrific work from everywhere. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I thought, “to create a global anthology and share this exhilarating experience.” It struck me that here was an opportunity, a chance to do something significant. And things developed from there. But perhaps I owe my deepest motivation to the legendary Montreal poetry scene. I grew up in a Montreal redolent with eccentric characters, many of whom were (and still are) writers, charismatic figures like A.M. Klein, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen. My father was one of them. Later I got to know Michael Harris, David Solway and Peter Van Toorn. So my motivation is the dynamic cultural scene here. I grew up inspired by it and I want to share it with the world. And I feel that by doing something big, we can not only celebrate it, but give it some permanence. We have a strong tradition of great writing, imaginative writing, and it needs to be sustained.
Len Epp: There are a few ideas at work in the Montreal Prize. First, to create the biggest prize for a single poem in history. We were looking at prizes and noticed there was no truly big award for a single poem. Given the fact that $50,000 seems to be the marker of a major prize these days - for example for the Giller (novels), the Grange (photography), and others I could mention, we saw a chance to apply the same value to poetry. There are of course other, larger poetry awards, such as the Griffin in Canada and the Kingsley Tufts award in the US, but these are for collections, and are essentially career-based awards. Second, you can find many anthologies that showcase the best work done in a given country in a given year, but there exists no global anthology of the best contemporary work being done around the world. It’s surprising that no effort to produce such an authoritative survey has succeeded.
Another thing making this prize unique is we don’t have a team of judges, but rather of editors, since from our perspective their job is to select poems for the anthology, like any editor would for a poetry collection. The prize judge, Andrew Motion, is not one of the editors but he picks the final winner from the anthology; this helps keep the anthology and the Montreal Prize itself separate. Each editor will read a selection of poems and pick a certain number for publication in the anthology. In other words, no poem will be read by more than one editor. This means there will be no committee round of assessment and our editors’ judgements won’t be melted down into some pretence of collective agreement. Anyone who’s ever been on any kind of jury knows what that really means: painful compromises and horse-trading, where everyone gets, at best, their third choice.
In your opinion, what is the importance of this contest to the city of Montreal?
AB: Well, I can tell you what the folks over at City Hall said. Helen Fotopulos, executive committee member for Culture, and Daniel Bissonnette, the man in charge of coordinating the Montreal festivals, were both highly enthusiastic and supportive. One of their happy observations was that this project would generate employment in the culture sector. We thought it might add to the city’s sex appeal and they couldn’t help but agree. But seriously, I’d like to see Montreal become a locus for global poetry and by that I mean globally aware, globally sensitised. There are so many niches and scenes and groups out there in the world and we’re in a position now with the internet to know about them.
Are you at all concerned about the possibility that the fifty best poems might be dominated by a few specific countries, that the Prize may not end up being as global as you want it to be?
LE: The final selection is made by the editors in a blind process (i.e. they have no idea who wrote any of the poems they’ll be reading) and they are given no instructions or direction. It’s important that their independence is preserved throughout the process. We’re working hard to get the word out to people from around the world and we hope the fact that over half our editors come from outside North America and Europe will result in a global reach and attract a wide community of writers.
More and more, literary periodicals opt for themed issues, and contests are often oriented around specific genres or subjects. This contest appears to be bucking this trend. Do you see the Montreal Poetry Prize as a way to emphasize formal elements and aesthetic power, aspects of poetry that readily span borders and different cultures?
AB: I don’t really like the idea of themed competitions—maybe because it’s not how I write. I think our chances of getting peoples’ best work increases if no theme is set. There’s no especial push for formal work. Form of course is nothing without emotional content. I think you’re right to point out that successful poems will move people anywhere, anytime. And I expect that due to the international nature of our editorial team, the poems that ultimately comprise the Montreal Prize Global Anthology will have just such an appeal—a global appeal.