The organisation involved in getting Poetry Parnassus together must have been phenomenal.
I don't know whether this festival could have taken place pre-internet. We are drawing on the Southbank's huge experience and Poetry International, the British Council and Modern Poetry in Translation. But we have also been able to search online and curate something with real range – from literary poets to spoken-word artists, rappers and singers. That is what we wanted – a cross-section of world poetry, even from countries with no written tradition.
Which countries are still missing?
We couldn't find anyone from Monaco, the Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Vanuatu, Liechtenstein… That is not to say there aren't wonderful poets living and working in these countries – we just couldn't find them.
How much does the job description of a poet change from country to country?
The only constant is language, but whether and how it is written, spoken or sung changes enormously. You tend to get into a bookish frame of mind about poetry in Britain. But poetry is a very broad church. One of the things I am looking forward to in this festival is a poetry reading being different from a poetry reading.
The talent for writing poetry does not always coincide with the talent for performing it. How far did ability to perform sway selection?
Our yardstick has been: is this good? I remember Grayson Perry once saying: stop asking whether it is art, just ask whether it is any good. That can be a huge relief. Some people make performance the primary element of their work and I respect that. And there is a huge groundswell among the new generation, of energetic spoken-word poetry at festivals and clubs. It is not always poetry you would want to take home and read again but I don't think that matters.
But you know what I mean – some poets really don't read well…
Some of my most electrifying and spine-tingling moments have been in a quiet auditorium when someone has been reading, head down, from a book.
How much agitprop poetry is there?
This Olympic framework excites the opportunity to speak out. We should expect as many protest songs as songs of praise. This is not an anti-Olympic event but when I watch the Olympics, it sickens me that people are gagged and labelled and everybody has to stand up, drape themselves in a flag and stamp to their national anthem in front of the official fizzy drink. That is not the way most people feel about their country. This is an opportunity to address some of those issues.
Are you representing Britain?
We have invited Jo Shapcott, so I don't have to perform that function. And we have said to everybody who comes: don't feel you have to represent your country. It is not the Eurovision song contest. We are not expecting you turn up in national costume. Bring your culture in the form of your poems.
Could you single out one or two treats?
Continental Shift is a night of Nobel prize winners and international laureates including Seamus Heaney, Wole Soyinka, Kay Ryan and Bill Manhire. And I really like the work of the Canadian poet Karen Solie and have never heard her read.
Are there any ways in which poetry is like a sport?
You are working at an extreme of intensity with language, a pitch you can't manage all the time.
Speaking of intensity, you have just published Walking Home – in prose – about walking the Pennine Way. Did the experience stimulate your poetry?
No. Whatever part of my brain I write poetry with must be the same part I need to navigate – just the business of staying on the path was as much as I could deal with. I have described poetry as daydreaming. I dared not daydream while I was up there. It was a bloody assault course, a real slog.