The Moth fans the flames of poetic collaboration

A fortuitous meeting between a literary couple and a celebrity chef has resulted in one of the world’s most lucrative poetry prizes, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Rebecca O'Connor and Will Govan of The Moth.

Artist Will Govan and his literary editor wife Rebecca O’Connor decided to leave the urban bustle of London when they had a baby. The surroundings of O’Connor’s home county of Cavan may have provided the quieter pace of life they were seeking to raise a family but professionally, they needed a project to get their teeth into.

“When we moved back, the intention was I was going to do some painting and Becky was going to do some writing. But we are fairly ambitious people and we realised that wasn’t going to work,” says Govan, who was born near London.

“We were having dinner one night in Dublin, and we came up with the idea for a magazine that would contain the kind of thing we liked ourselves. Neither of us were readers of what people refer to as ‘highbrow’ literary magazines but we both love writing, poetry and visual art. We thought it would be fun to curate something which would appeal to us and was accessible to people.”

And so The Moth arts and literary magazine was born. The first issue was published in 2010 and it has since gone from strength to strength and built an international audience. The magazine is published quarterly, and also has a younger sibling, The Caterpillar which features writing and artwork for children.

Govan’s artistic experience and O’Connor’s editorial skills have resulted in a distinctive and aesthetically striking package.

“We always strove to produce an artefact. There was never going to be an online magazine, we wanted to produce something physical. People love something they can hold and feel.”

Govan says their remote physical location in a farmhouse near Belturbet has allowed them keep their singular focus.

“We live in the middle of nowhere, so I guess we’re not completely tuned in to what other people are doing. That can be helpful, we just focus on what we do and we’re not too influenced by anyone else.”

Govan and O’Connor were also keen to expand the remit of the magazine through the inauguration of prizes. One of these, the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize is now in its sixth year; with a first prize of €10,000 it is one of the world’s largest for a single poem.

The involvement of food writer Darina Allen arose serendipitously. “When we started the magazine, we had a handful of small advertisements, one of which was for the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Susan McKeown was working with Darina at the time and I said to her, ‘Do you think Darina might be up for sponsoring an international poetry prize?’.

“Susan put an issue of The Moth on Darina’s desk and on the cover was the name of the Indian writer Tishani Doshi, who, it turned out by pure chance, was a friend of Darina’s. That caught her eye and we subsequently went down to Ballymaloe and met Darina.

“When we were down there, we realised that the place was covered in poetry — it was literally on the walls, with lots of art. There seemed to be a real synergy between what she was doing and what we were trying to do. Darina has been incredibly supportive and we are delighted with her involvement.”

This year’s prize received thousands of entrants and there are four poets on the shortlist; the English writer Katie Hale, and Americans Greg Geis, Mikal Oness and Lee Sharkey. Govan says such prizes can make a big difference to poets’ careers.

“They are massively important because they bring a poet to the attention of the broader public and to publishers. Previous winners have gone on to great success,” says Govan.

Away from the magazine, Govan jokes that he barely gets any time to do any other reading.

“We are always busy and we have two boys aged 8 and 5 now, and a girl who is 2. The last books I read were probably the The Famous Five.”

  • The winner of the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize will be announced at Poetry Ireland in Dublin at 6.30pm on Thursday. Tickets are free and can be reserved at www.poetryireland.ie. All four shortlisted poems appear in the spring issue of The Moth

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