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Paperback Q&A: William Sieghart on Winning Words


The founder of the Forward prizes for poetry explains why an appropriate poem can be more helpful than therapy

Winning Words is a project intended to highlight poetry during the 2012 Olympics; it's also an anthology – Winning Words: Inspiring Poems for Everyday Life – designed to exhilarate. Here, editor William Sieghart, founder of National Poetry Day and the Forward prizes for poetry, explains why poetry is better than therapy.

How did you come to compile Winning Words?

I have always found poetry to be a magnificent companion through the most difficult moments of life. My project Winning Words has installed inspirational poems at many of the Olympic venues; for the book, I have selected 160 or so poems, from the ancient to the modern, that I believe can inspire and help the reader through the tribulations of daily existence, by providing a sense of complicity and understanding. Recently I was able to test this out when I ran a Poetry Prescriptions tent at the Port Eliot festival. To my surprise I found a lengthy queue of people seeking my help – and, best of all, a dramatic response when I managed to prescribe effectively.

In our increasingly alienated modern lives, an appropriate poem can be more helpful than many forms of therapy. We love our poetry but are often intimidated by it. Yet we consume more greetings cards than any other nation, enjoy our chants on the football terraces and have contributed significantly to the canon of rap music. Poetry is all around us, and as our great cultural legacy to the world it deserves to feature in the Olympic park and celebrations. That's what Winning Words is all about: the joy of inspiration and of shared understanding.

What was most difficult about it?

Ordering the anthology. Typically these things are done by date, but this was different. I wanted the book to ebb and flow. I had to mix things together, much like a DJ, to get the right feeling.

What did you most enjoy?

I enjoyed every moment of it. Spending time reading, discussing and selecting my favourite poems – what could be more fabulous than that?

How long did it take?

About a year.

What has changed for you since it was first published?

The sense that there are poems that I forgot to include, which leads me to thoughts of a sequel.

Who's your favourite writer?

If pressed, I confess to a soft spot for Philip Larkin.

What are your other inspirations?

I spend a lot of my life working in the field of conflict mediation in some of the worlds most intractable conflict zones. I'm inspired by those who never give up searching for a solution.

Give us a writing tip.

If at first you don't succeed, try and try and try again.

What are you working on now?

Trying to persuade the publisher to do a hardback version for Christmas!

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