The TS Eliot prize for poetry 2013 winner talks about her delight over the prize, and the many perspectives in her winning collection, Parallax
How did it feel when chair of judges Ian Duhig read out your name last night?
"I just couldn't believe it. It's my fourth shortlisting, so three times before they haven't said my name. Then finally they did, and it was amazing. The best moment of my life - I'm so happy."
How long did it take to write Parallax?
"I wrote it mostly in a year. I got a sabbatical from work [and] it was a really productive, happy time. I started on my first day off work, and wrote Photographs of Belfast by Alexander Robert Hogg, and I just kept going."
Was the theme of parallax – which you define as "apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object,caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation" – there from the start?
"It grew. Because I started with a poem about photographs of Belfast's slum district, that theme was very generative for me, and I went on to write a lot about photography, and film. I just found myself being re-drawn over and over to visual media as a subject. This extended to the Soviet Union, poems about which act as punctuation throughout the collection. It's this idea of looking at things from different perspectives, shifting positions. It became broader, more political. Parallax can be applied in so many different ways. It really became
about different perspectives within the poems, and between the poems."
Was the title there from the start?
"The title came last actually. I was speaking to a colleague at Queens, Joan Rahilly, about photography. She said 'do you take photos?' and I said no, just family snaps. She said she did, and mentioned [what parallax was] - in photographic terms it is the disjunction between what you look at through your viewfinder, and what is taken through the aperture. I got this light bulb in my mind. That disjunction - that is what I'm doing. It was brilliant to get that title."
How did you find the pictures you would go on to write poems about? (Parallax covers images from David Niven on an escalator to heaven in A Matter of Life and Death to LS Lowry's studio after his death.)
"They just started coming to me really. It was like being in a magical space, where things cross your path and it just seemed they could be poems. I saw 1930s news footage of callisthenics in Hyde Park – it was such a bizarre social phenomenon of the 1930s. That became Display. I came across a mutoscope in the Guardian, actually, in a piece about Southwold pier… I found out about what it was, and I was able to go and look at images on YouTube. That became The Mutoscope.
"Then my friend lent me a book called The Commissar Vanishes by David King, about how photographs were doctored under Stalin. With some photos, I had been amazed how powerful [photography] could be as a medium for social change … how there is a claim to authenticity about a photo. When I came across the Soviet photos both these things seemed turned on their head … These Soviet photos went through substantial changes, for example there was a photo of Stalin with four people, and as each in turn fell out of favour, they would need to be cut out of the photo, until it eventually became Stalin on his own, because so many people were killed, and written out of the record. It's just so fascinating."
How do your Soviet Union poems "punctuate" the collection, as you said previously?
"There are five of them. They come up at different instances through the book. To me they are five looks at something I am trying to come to terms with – parallax, and my attempt to exploit it for my own interests.
"In Shostakovich, for example, the parallax is the way in which sound could be doubled. I'm thinking of how Stalin liked his fifth symphony after hating his opera, which made it approved Soviet music. But so many people say it is not, that there is an undertone of mocking, that Shostakovich is doing something incredibly sophisticated. The parallax there is that music can have two meanings."
Which is your favourite poem of the collection?
Puzzle. It's a sonnet based around … a book of mathematical puzzles published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. A friend lent me this book – the puzzles tell you how to be a good Soviet citizen, how to make more iron with fewer resources … The second section is a meditation on the way in which the Soviet Union is completely finished
and gone and part of history; it's a sort of meditation on lost things. Again, it was in the Guardian a couple of years ago, this a story about a box of negatives from the 1880s which turned up ... What was amazing to me was this window onto a completely lost world."
"I've been having a break because it was such an intense writing experience when I had the year off. But I'm hoping to get back to writing again this year."
And what'll you do with the £15,000 from the TS Eliot prize?
"I don't know yet. It's a lot of money. Maybe a bigger car – we've got a tiny car and two children growing up fast, so maybe a car with more leg room for the kids … "
• Sinéad Morrissey, poet laureate of Belfast, has been named this year's winner of the TS Eliot prize for poetry for her collection Parallax.
Currently reader in creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University in Belfast, her five collections are There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996), Between Here and There (2002), The State of the Prisons (2005), Through the Square Window (2009) and Parallax (2013), all published by Carcanet Press.