Vahni Capildeo (b.1973, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago) won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2016 with Measures of Expatriation. Asked about future projects in a subsequent interview, Capildeo spoke of writing ‘thing-like poems which did not belong in any of the recent books: moss, glass, lizard words’. Some of these have found their way into Venus as a Bear, a collection that explores the strange affinities humans have for creatures, objects and places.
Capildeo’s poetry deliberately resists purely biographical interpretation: the author elects to be identified as ‘they/them’ in the context of their work. They came to the UK in 1991 to study Old Norse at Christ Church in Oxford, and to work for the Oxford English Dictionary. Their advice for anyone starting out in poetry today is simple: ‘Delete Facebook. Go outdoors’.
J. O. Morgan (b. 1978, Edinburgh) is the son of a former R.A.F. officer, who was involved in maintaining Britain’s Airborne Nuclear Deterrent. Assurances is Morgan’s response to his father’s tremendous responsibility: it eavesdrops on the thoughts of those trying to understand and justify their roles in keeping peace by threatening war. Those overheard include civilians unaware of danger, enemy agents, the whirring machines and even the bomb itself.
Morgan, who lives on a farm in the Scottish Borders, is the author of five previous collections, each (like Assurances) a single book-length poem. Natural Mechanical won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection; Interference Pattern, the first of his collections to be published by Cape, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.
Danez Smith (b. 1989, St. Paul, Minnesota) writes poems which are simultaneously jubilant and confrontational. Their debut, [insert] Boy, won the Lambda Literary Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. After their poem ‘dear white america’ – included in Don’t Call Us Dead – was featured on PBS NewsHour, Smith’s performance received 300,000 YouTube views in the space of a few days.
Smith is African-American, queer, gender-neutral and HIV positive. They first became aware of the possibilities of contemporary poetry through HBO’s ‘Def Poetry’, and honed their performance skills with theatre training and slams (Smith is the reigning Rustbelt Individual Champion). The poems which excite them most, they say, are those which ‘through language, better equip me to re-enter the world and proceed vigorously’.
Tracy K. Smith (b. 1972, Falmouth, Massachusetts) is the Poet Laureate of the United States. She began writing poems aged ten, but it was not until she lost her mother to cancer at 22 that poetry became in her words ‘a tool for living’.
The five books she published prior to Wade on the Water established her as one of the most exciting poets in the USA. In 2012 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars – a collection she has described as ‘looking out to the universe and forward to an imagined future’; Wade on the Water, by contrast, looks ‘earthward and backward’, confronting unflinchingly the moral crises of race and history in America.
Smith is also a librettist and translator. She is currently writing the libretto for an opera entitled Castor and Patience, and co-translating the work of the contemporary Chinese poet Yi Lei.
Kaveh Akbar (b. 1989, Tehran, Iran) teaches at Purdue University, Indiana, and is the founding editor of Divedapper, a journal devoted to interviews with poets. His first published poem, at seven years old, was called ‘A Packer Poem’, and took as its subject-matter the Green Bay Packers football team. Calling a Wolf a Wolf has darker concerns at its heart: alcoholism, desire, faith. He has described it as an unconventional addiction recovery narrative, ‘less focused on war stories and more on the psycho/physio/cosmological implications of addiction and recovery’.
As a very young child in Tehran, Akbar was taught by his parents to pray in Arabic, a language none of them spoke. This idea of a special, secret language would become the bedrock for his conception of poetry: ‘the understanding that language has a capacity beyond the mere relay of semantic data, that if a line could be spoken with sufficient beauty and conviction, it might thin the membrane between its speaker and whichever divine (God, desire, despair, the mind, the body) they wish to address.’
Abigail Parry (b. 1983, UK) worked as a toymaker for seven years, and the poems in Jinx bear a resemblance to dangerous toys or games: patterned surfaces, concealments, trick doors, sliding panels abound. She began thinking seriously about how poems worked when she read Maura Dooley’s ‘History’ for the first time: ‘It fascinated me: you could take it apart, like an engine, and examine every part to see what it was doing; at the same time, it worked a spell, and you can’t see the joins in a spell.’
She used money earned while travelling with a circus to join Maura Dooley’s creative writing MA course at Goldsmith’s in 2008. Parry published her first poems under pseudonyms: ‘I wanted to have the option of jettisoning this or that identity if it didn’t work out.’ In 2016, she won the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize, the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair Competition, and the International Troubador Prize.
Phoebe Power (b. 1992, Newcastle-upon-Tyne) was a Foyle Young Poet of the year before studying in Cambridge, where she ran the Pembroke Poetry Society. Her pamphlet Harp Duet was published by Eyewear in 2016. The poems in Shrines of Upper Austria take their bearings from the landscapes and local detail of Austria – where Power has travelled – sometimes incorporating and assimilating whole lines of German among the English. Several of the poems draw from the life-story of her Austrian grandmother, Christl.
Power says that ‘You can never be sure how readers will engage with your work when you write it – readers are all different – so knowing that some people have connected with it is truly a joy.’ Her enthusiasm with different modes of engagement has included adapting her poems into collaborative video installations and performance pieces, featuring harps, electronica and a flood-destroyed piano.
Shivanee Ramlochan (b. 1986, St. Joseph, Trinidad and Tobago) works as an arts journalist and blogger in Trinidad. The daughter of a teacher, she grew up surrounded by books: she says that ‘poetry was part of my earliest experiences in reading, so that I remember books that were not poems as though they were.’
Poetry for Ramlochan is a work of witness: the central thread of Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, ‘The Red Thread Cycle’, addresses and gives voice to survivors of sexual assault. ‘Some of the poems are as they emerged, almost as if gifted, with me as a startled conduit of interpretation’, she says. ‘Others have been worked and reworked, finessed, hewn and shattered and restitched, to say what they must.’ The idea of a poem which says what it must – which speaks with its own unmistakable interior voice, and leaves the poet ‘awestruck and bewildered’ – is central to Ramlochan’s practice as a writer.
Richard Scott (b. 1981, Wimbledon, London) used to be opera singer but the ‘inhuman rigours’ of the profession left him seeking escape. ‘After years of obsessing over texts, librettos and poetry that had been set to music, poetry seemed to me like almost a logical step. It became clear to me that when you took the music away, there was still a “music” and a rhythm to the poem – and that fascinated me.’
His chapbook Wound won the 2017 Michael Marks Award. In the same year, he won the Poetry London competition with ‘crocodile’, a poem at the centre of many of the trajectories worked out in Soho – submergence, flesh, the vulnerability of queer bodies. Its snapping linebreaks and sharp images remind the reader that he is, above all else, a thrilling poet.
Fiona Benson (b. 1978, Wroughton, Wiltshire) began keeping a special notebook for poetry, as distinct from song lyrics, at the age of 17. A Faber New Poet, her first collection, Bright Travellers (Cape), won the Seamus Heaney Prize. A second collection, Vertigo & Ghost, from which her shortlisted poem is taken, is forthcoming from Cape in 2019.
Benson describes ‘Ruins’ as ‘a poem that tries to look at a real, hardworking, postnatal, middle-aged body. I like that while it starts with dismay, it pivots on the recognition of the lopsided stomach into a celebration of what the body housed.’ She welcomes the new awareness and openness she discerns towards these themes in contemporary poetry. She describes the Forward shortlisting as ‘a validation of poems that write of the body, of the domestic realm, and of familial love, (it) says ‘yes, these subjects are of interest, they really matter…and I agree. They do’.
Sumita Chakraborty (b. 1987, Nyack, New York) was awarded the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation in 2017. She describes her ideal poem as one that ‘will write into being a world that already in some way exists’.
Her shortlisted poem, ‘And death demands a labor’, takes its title from a line of Rilke’s. She has described it as an ‘imagined elegy’ for her father. ‘After having hassled at it unsuccessfully for years’, she says, ‘one evening I walked back into my apartment after a full and ordinary day, sat down on my bed and rewrote it in a single go.’
Chakraborty has recently completed and sent off both the manuscript of her first full collection, O Spirit, and her Ph.D. thesis for Emory University, Georgia.
Liz Berry (b. 1980, Black Country) was selected for the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme in 2009: with the encouragement of her mentor Daljit Nagra she incorporated the Black Country dialect of her childhood into her poetry. The resulting collection, Black Country (2014), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Berry’s ‘The Republic of Motherhood’ is the title poem of a forthcoming pamphlet, describing the experience of becoming a new mother. The poem responds both to the support she received from other mothers after the birth of her first son, and to a literary absence. ‘Our stories were beautiful, raw, heartbroken, joyous and deep beyond reckoning. But when I looked to poems, the places that had always comforted me, that experience was hard to find.’ In ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, Berry extends her project of drawing comfort from the hard-to-reckon-with.
Will Harris (b. 1989, London) is the author of Mixed-Race Superman (2018) – an essay examining resilience and self-creation, which takes as subjects Keanu Reeves, Barack Obama and Harris’s own Anglo-Indonesian heritage – as well as a chapbook, All This is Implied, winner of the LRB Bookshop Poetry Pick for best pamphlet. A selection of his work was included in Ten: Poems of the New Generation; a full collection, provisionally entitled Rendang, is currently in the works.
Harris began his shortlisted poem, ‘SAY’, after his father fell very ill. He describes it as being ‘about my dad’s breached body; about fear and borders; about our desire for wholeness and purity; and about the illusion of flow that can only be maintained by violence’. It was drafted in mid-air, on the back of a Ryanair boarding pass.
Jorie Graham (b. 1950, New York City) was expelled from the Sorbonne for participating in the 1968 student protests. She has since published thirteen collections of poems, most recently Fast. Over the years, she has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Wallace Stevens Prize, the Nonino Prize and the 2012 Forward Prize for Best Collection. She teaches at Harvard.
The crown of branches which Graham conjures in ‘Tree’, her shortlisted poem – ‘full of secrecy insight immensity vigour bursting complexity’ – might also describe her own poetic. Her characteristic long lines and jolts of syntax illuminate the held objects suddenly and very brightly. ‘Tree’ shows us, too, the process of its own making: ‘The imagination tried to go here when we asked it to, from where I hold the / fruit in my right hand, but it would not go.’
Toby Martinez de las Rivas (b. 1978, Winchester) moved from north-east England to Córdoba after the publication of his first collection, Terror, in 2014. In an interview with Lucy Mercer, he described how the ‘black sun’ of his new collection’s title developed from the small black circles which served as Terror’s section dividers: ‘Some time after Terror went to press I was toying around with images and motifs. I sketched a much larger circle into a document and infilled it with black, and I was suddenly aware of it as a presence separate from me… I found something terrible about it, about its featureless, even, dense nothingness. But I sensed some kind of glory in it, too.’
The poems of Black Sun take their place on that line between terror and glory which characterises the best religious poetry. Asked what advice he would give to his younger self, he writes: ‘Be cautious. Not too cautious. Believe in language’.
Nuar Alsadir (b. New Haven, Connecticut) works as a psychotherapist, psychoanalyst and academic in New York. ‘The mind doesn’t see images, hear, smell, perceive in tidy succession,’ she says. ‘That cacophonous chaos, which visual arts often capture so vividly, is exciting to me.’
Alsadir, born of Iraqi parents, responded strongly to the coverage of the Iraqi war. ‘I began to realize the extent to which the chaos of the external world – and my internal world – demanded accurate expression. More than ever, the ready-made forms did not feel relevant to me or able to truthfully hold what the world – or I – had become.’ Fourth Person Singular is a deeply politically engaged book, which dares readers into new ways of ordering their thoughts and the information around them.
Her favourite reading is ‘poetry, aphorisms, philosophy, theory – texts that I can read very little of and then think about, off page, for hours.’
Tara Bergin (b. 1974, Dublin) writes that ‘traditional songs … appeal to me a great deal and they have influenced much of my writing’. That interest is apparent in her first book, This is Yarrow (winner of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection), which maintained an occasionally Plath-esque sense of broken-down fairytales and an edgy musicality.
In The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, Bergin plays these techniques through various narratives, most notably those recounting the deaths of Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) and of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. These poems are intellectually complex – a deep commentary on the politics of gender and family – while remaining songlike and, as she writes, ‘enjoyable to listen to’.
In 2012 Bergin completed a PhD on Ted Hughes’s translations of János Pilinszky, and now lives in Yorkshire. She is interested in ‘changes that happen to English when it is spoken by non-English voices’ and in the relationship between her native Ireland and other countries.
Michael Longley (b. 1939, Belfast) wrote his first poem over sixty years ago, at the age of 16, ‘in order to impress a girlfriend’. His poetry has continued to impress and to move: his honours include the Whitbread Poetry Award, the Hawthornden Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and, most recently, the PEN Pinter Prize. He accepted a CBE in 2010. His friend, the late Seamus Heaney, described him as ‘a custodian of griefs and wonders’.
Longley, who cites the works of Edward Thomas and W B Yeats as his Desert Island books, demonstrates in his latest collection a luminous and engaged sparseness of style. He writes, ‘I think my work has become simpler as I have grown older … writing a poem is a journey into the unknown. If you look after the words, the poem should look after itself. If you look after the poems, the book should eventually materialise. It is an intuitive process. Poetry is a mystery’. Invested in nature and morality, Angel Hill finds a beautiful ground for that mystery.
Sinéad Morrissey (b. 1972, Portadown, County Armagh) was Belfast’s inaugural Poet Laureate, and is now Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle. ‘I knew I wanted to write poetry seriously, all my life, from the age of ten onwards’, she says. She has published six collections, including the 2013 T. S. Eliot Prize–winning collection Parallax.
Morrissey describes her new collection, On Balance, as her ‘most cohesive book’ to date. ‘Just as it says on the tin the book interrogates ideas of balance – physical balance, structural balance, gender balance, ecological balance, life-death balance – and it does so using the high-wire act of poetic form as a conduit for that exploration.’ Combining a subtlety of touch with a powerful turn of phrase – one character finds in all things ‘the über-florid signature of God’ – Morrissey manages to hold narrative and lyric in delicate relation.
Maria Apichella (b. 1985, Oxford) completed her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Aberystwyth, after combining part-time study with several jobs: ‘Every aspect of life feeds into writing: from teaching to cleaning toilets, to working in a call centre by night to sitting in the Welsh National Library reading Dylan Thomas in rainy afternoons.’
Apichella won the Melita Hume Poetry Prize for the manuscript which became Psalmody. Her interest in poetry sprang from reading the Psalms as a child: ‘I was given a grown-up Bible aged seven’. Their influence lives on: ‘I used Psalm-like rhythms, metaphors and images, gaining inspiration from the human body, food and place.’
Psalmody, while remaining in discourse with the poetry of scripture, is also vividly worldly and contemporary in its depiction of the relationship between the religious speaker and her atheist partner: ‘I love to argue back, / Celtic talker, poet-mouth; you’ll never stop exploring, / taking everything apart like a nerd.’