Helen Tookey (b. 1969, Leicester) takes inspiration from the fleeting and vestigial – dreams, overheard stories, works of art and remembered children’s book illustrations all contribute to the eerie landscapes of City of Departures. There is also a strong European dimension, with poems set in Germany, Denmark and France: part of the overwhelming sense of loss arises from Brexit and the consequent ruptures of place and identity.
Tookey lives in Liverpool, where she works as Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at John Moores University. Her previous collection from Carcanet, Missel-Child, was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize. The poems she is currently writing arise out of her response to the ecological crisis: poetry, she says, can and should tackle big ideas, ‘but you’ve got to get those ideas across by showing the reader something specific and tangible that they can take hold of.’
Mary Jean Chan (b. 1990, Hong Kong) is a Ledbury Poetry Critic, editor of Oxford Poetry, and a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. The ‘window’ of her poem’s title represents, among other things, a threshold: the speaker ‘struggles with facets of their identity (i.e. queerness) but chooses to survive, and the window crystallises precisely what it is that the living do – that they choose love, reconciliation, and the stubborn – often painfully complex – realities of living.’
In 2017, Mary Jean Chan was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, becoming the youngest shortlistee in the prize’s history. Her first collection, Flèche, is forthcoming from Faber (2019).
Jonathan Edwards (b. 1979, Newport) works as an English teacher. His poem, ‘Bridge’, is a monologue in the voice of one of the bridges from his hometown of Newport: ‘I bear the city’s weight here on my back, / all these commuting cars and belching vans’. A touching attentiveness to small absurdist details (‘the acupuncture of a gentle moped’) does not obscure a deeper seriousness: of a potential suicide, the bridge reports ‘I know by heart, exactly / what it is to just have too much weight to bear’.
Edwards won the Costa Prize for Poetry in 2015 for his debut collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, and his second collection Gen was nominated for Wales Book of the Year.
Holly Pester (b. 1982, Colchester) works as a practice-based researcher; she’s completed residences in the Text Art Archive, the Women’s Art Library and the Wellcome Collection. ‘Comic Timing’, her shortlisted poem, takes for its subject an early medical abortion, a ‘banal and farcical one’. ‘[A]che is tempo / I have seen millions of films / I get it’, she writes, as the rhythms of her retelling translate into the rhythms of the ‘bodily-yet-politicised experience’.
The poets Pester most admires, in her own words, practise ‘formal experimentation in time with lived experience, which becomes a new thought and an expression of a politics, and sometimes, also, a form of comedy (as an affect on life)’. She is currently working on a new collection, from which ‘Comic Timing’ is taken, ‘all around latency and radical rest states’.
Parwana Fayyaz (b. 1990, Kabul) was raised in Pakistan, and is currently working towards a PhD on the medieval Persian poet Jami at Trinity College, Cambridge. ‘Forty Names’, her shortlisted poem, draws inspiration both narrative and lyrical from those medieval Persian traditions; Fayyaz heard the story from her parents when she was a child. ‘It is about a mountain called kohi chehal dokhtaran, the forty girls’ mountain. My poem tries to re-narrate the story by giving the forty women their names, a lamp and their colourful scarves.’
Fayyaz graduated with a BA and an MA in CompLit, Creative Writing and Religious Studies from Stanford University, studying under Eavan Boland. She intends to stay in academia to pursue her studies of Persian Sufi poetry, and work towards her first collection.
Liz Berry (b. 1980, Black Country) won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2018 with ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, having previously won Best First Collection in 2014 for her Chatto debut Black Country. ‘Highbury Park’ describes an overgrown park in Birmingham where Berry went on long walks with her newborn son: ‘As the spring came I felt my body being brought slowly back to life by it. I thought often of Highbury’s nighttime lovers (I was the day shift) and how the pleasure of our experiences and longings might intertwine.’
Berry’s advice to poets starting out is to ‘be tough on your poems but kind to yourself… Listen to poems being spoken, let their electricity light you’. Berry’s unforgettable final image of the lover taken by the wind – ‘stripped and blown, / then jilted dazzling in the arms of the trees’ – is surely a prime example of that illuminating electricity.
Stephen Sexton (b. 1988, Belfast) spent a lot of time when he was nine years old playing Super Mario World. If All the World and Love Were Young remaps the pastoral tradition onto the familiar Nintendo landscapes; like Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ it is a pastoral elegy, in this case for the poet’s mother. He began work on the sequence in 2015, and in his own words ‘soon realised that this particular game was so much a part of my childhood that I couldn’t write about it without thinking of my childhood, and I couldn’t write about my childhood without thinking of grief’. But the poems, like the best pastorals, still retain a real sense of freshness and wonder well summarised by the collection’s familiar epigraph: ‘It’s a-me, Mario!’
Sexton’s first pamphlet, Oils (Emma Press), was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice; he won an Eric Gregory Award in 2018. He lives in Belfast, where he teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.
Isabel Galleymore (b. 1988, London) was the first poet-in-residence at Tambopata Research Centre in the Amazon Rainforest. ‘The opportunity to encounter different types of creature –spider monkeys, pink-toed tarantulas, caiman – was irresistible’, she writes, and many of the poems in Significant Other display the fruits of that opportunity. Another residency in Cornwall gave her the opportunity to make a close study of local rockpools, and the collection is liberally dotted with sonnets about bivalves and barnacles, including the magnificent spiny cockle which gives the book its cover illustration, ‘let[ting] / its long pink foot slip like a leg / from the slit of its crenulated skirt’.
Galleymore works as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham; her poetry appeared in Carcanet’s New Poetries VII anthology, and in a pamphlet from Worple Press, Dazzle Ship. She’s currently working on a new pamphlet of prose poem fragments, tentatively titled Cyanic Pollens.
David Cain (b. 1972, Luton) found his interests in poetry, social history and sporting history being drawn together, when a poem of his about the agony of watching Luton Town lose at Wembley was read on national radio, and he was invited by the club to contribute a regular poem to the match-day programme. His debut collection, Truth Street, explores a darker part of the same territory; published to mark the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, it is a collage of eyewitness statements from the second inquest in 2014.
‘There was a real humanity and indeed beauty in those words’, writes Cain, who modelled his process on Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust. ‘I wanted to try and rescue those lines from all the fragile jargon, and also the headline news verdicts.’ Truth Street was first performed in its entirety at the Utter Lutonia festival, in 2017.
Jay Bernard (b. 1988, London) is an archivist and filmmaker as well as a poet, and the poems in Surge bring an archivist’s eye and a filmmaker’s technique of pacing to bear on their radical excavation of black British history, drawing lines between the New Cross Fire of 1981 (in which thirteen young black people were killed) and the contemporary legacy of racism and neglect which culminated in the Grenfell disaster. What place in the archive can there be for the lack of accountability and closure, the body and its wounds? Bernard gives a partial answer in ‘Ark’: ‘I file it under fire, corpus, body, house’.
‘In one way, the most important poems [from Surge] are the voices from beyond, because those are the ones that invite the audience in’, writes Bernard. ‘In another way, the more important poems are the ones I read less often. The quiet ones that document commemorations, small moments, people I have known, notebook fragments.’ In 2018, Bernard won the Ted Hughes Award for ‘Surge: Side A’, produced by Speaking Volumes and first performed during the Last Word Festival at the Roundhouse.
Raymond Antrobus (b. 1986, London) has been writing poetry for as long as he can remember. ‘I had permission to engage with it without the baggage that many people in the UK have, where poetry is solely associated with some negative experiences in English lessons at school’, he writes. ‘I associate it with family and songs and solitude.’
Antrobus is a freelance teacher, and one of the first six graduates of Goldsmiths’ MA in Spoken Word Education, as well as one of the inaugural Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellows, and the first Poet in Residence at the London Book Fair. His advice for younger poets is to be bold in their dislikes: ‘There is no holy grail of poetry, no matter what a school curriculum or University reading list tells you. Trust the things you connect with and grow from there.’
Vidyan Ravinthiran (b. 1984, Leeds) started work on The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here with no intention of publishing it. ‘I began writing sonnets to my wife, privately – they were genuinely for her ears only’, he says; it was only in the middle of the sequence that he began to realise that it might be of interest to other readers.
Ravinthiran is a Senior Lecturer in North American Literature at the University of Birmingham and an editor from the online magazine Prac Crit. The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here, which takes its title from a line in Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Old Fools’, is his second collection; his debut, Grun-tu-molani, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Seamus Heaney Prize.
Ilya Kaminsky (b. 1977, Odessa) has described how, ‘for a refugee, there is a beauty in falling in love with a language’. His first poems were written in Russia; after his family emigrated to the USA in 1993, Kaminsky chose English because ‘no one in my family or friends knew it – no-one I spoke to could read what I wrote. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.’
Deaf Republic, Kaminsky’s second collection, is a modern fable or parable; in an unnamed country, a deaf child is killed by soldiers dispersing a protest, and the town falls sympathetically deaf in response, coordinating their dissent via sign language. ‘This silence is personal’, writes Kaminsky. ‘I did not have hearing aids until I was sixteen and my family immigrated. As a deaf child, I experienced my country as a nation without sound. I heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes.’
Fiona Benson (b. 1978, Wroughton) says that the terrifying sequence of Zeus poems that form the first half of Vertigo & Ghost emerged from ‘a long buried experience, and then a sudden pouring-in of words, that I can only explain as coming out of the woods’. The sequence makes palpable the sexualised violence latent in Greek mythology, with Zeus as abuser-in-chief, abetted and feared. It is followed by an exploration of the complex and ambivalent terrain of early motherhood.
Benson’s debut collection, Bright Travellers, was shortlisted for the 2015 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and received great critical acclaim. Ben Wilkinson described how she ‘treat[s] the poem as a kind of secular prayer’ and indeed many of the works in Vertigo & Ghost arrive at prayer as their end-point: the last words of ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’, the final poem in the collection, are ‘Mary, Mother of God, have mercy, mercy on us all.’
Niall Campbell (b. 1984, South Uist) published his first collection, Moontide, a month after the birth of his son: the poems in Noctuary (a journal of the night hours) were written in whatever moments he could snatch from the larger responsibilities of parenthood. ‘The world, I think, seems larger in my first collection, while in this book it is often just the size of a dark room’, he writes.
One of the inspirations for Noctuary were the Elegies of Douglas Dunn: as Dunn’s work is a book of ‘love strewn through with sadness’, Campbell envisaged his own poems as being animated by love intermingled with ‘the hope, the tenderness, the exhaustion’ of being a father. He lives in Manchester, and is currently collaborating on an opera with the composer Anna Appleby.
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’.
Vahni Capildeo reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry
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.
J.O. Morgan reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry
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’.
Danez Smith reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry
Danez Smith wins the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2018
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 four 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.
Tracy K. Smith reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry Ceremony
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.’
Kaveh Akbar reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry Ceremony