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.’
Richard Georges (b. 1982, Port of Spain, Trinidad) was raised and now lives in the British Virgin Islands. Writing poetry, he says, is ‘something that I feel like I’ve always done with varying degrees of commitment and dedication’. During his undergraduate degree, he found himself ‘falling in love with images and rhyme and would find parallels between writers like Walcott and Eliot with lyrical rappers like Nas and Eminem.’
Make Us All Islands is various, familiar and challenging by turns, but keeps returning to what Georges describes as its ‘bones’: ‘Those bones speak to certain submerged narratives of the British Virgin Islands, a place which is rich in histories that aren’t well understood here, and almost unknown abroad. Make Us All Islands attempts to write those narratives into the Caribbean landscape, to fill these island-sized gaps.’
Georges finds inspiration and influence in ‘the wonderful generation of contemporary Caribbean poets writing today. I admire various aspects of their poetics, for example: Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ mastery of form, or Ishion Hutchinson’s range of language, or Shivanee Ramlochan’s honesty, or Kei Miller’s lyricism, or Safiya Sinclair’s ambition.’
Eric Langley (b. 1977, Birmingham) lectures in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at University College London, and is the author of Narcissism and Suicide in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (OUP, 2009). He turned to the writing of poems in 2011, after the death of his father – award-winning poet R. F. Langley. ‘When the real poet of the family died, I found that writing poetry was a way of continuing conversations which we’d had.’ It is no coincidence, he says, that Hamlet and Oedipus crop up in his work.
A resolutely intellectual writer, who cites as influences ‘Derrida, Kafka, Barthes and Teresa Brennan’, Langley is also fascinated by ‘connections between people (eyebeams, communication, arrows, interactions traversing the interim between people, verbal and emotional transmissions).’ Raking Light manages to be simultaneously riotous and high-minded, metaphysical and modern, austere and romantic. ‘I take my cue from the art restoration technique of “raking light”, when a beam is shone across the picture plane to reveal over-painting, under-drawing, the artist’s first intentions, buried depths: pentimenti, or regrets.’
Nick Makoha (b. 1974, Lumino, Uganda) fled Uganda’s civil war and Idi Amin’s tyranny as a boy. The childhood hobby of poetry became a sense of vocation when he completed a degree in Biochemistry in the UK. On daring to quit his London nine-to-five banking job, he set fire to his suits: ‘I did this to remind me that I did not want an easy way back. I wanted to give my all to the art of writing.’
The poet Kwame Dawes, teaching at Arvon, first made him feel like a poet: ‘He asked me, ‘What type of poet do you want to be; one that obscures or one that reveals?’ Till then I felt like I was treading water but after that conversation I was aware of a burning purpose forming inside of me.’ That purpose is manifest in Kingdom of Gravity, a searing, mysterious contemplation of exile, fatherhood and violence.
His advice to young poets is advice that he has himself received and found helpful: ‘Poetry works best when you serve it daily with reading, writing and conversation. Read what you like, read what you don’t like, read what you know and read what confuses you.’
Ocean Vuong (b. 1988, near Saigon) has been immersed since birth in the oral tradition of poetry, as transmitted through his grandmother’s ‘complex, wild and imaginative’ folk songs. The first member of his immediate family to be able to read or write, he moved with his mother to the US at the age of two. He lives in New York, and studied with Ben Lerner at Brooklyn College.
In its powerful contemplations of brutality, family and sexuality, Night Sky with Exit Wounds is almost religious and almost profane. This is poetry of questions, which refuses to separate the intensely personal from the globally political. It’s also an investigation into writing. Vuong says he is ‘interested in that shifting of meaning and usage because it feels innately Queer to me – how language, like people, can be perpetually in flux.’ Words, he says ‘are, in a sense, bodies moving from one space to another.’
In a good year, he says, he drafts between 6 and 8 poems, of which maybe 4 or 5 will be worth keeping. ‘I spend most of my time listening instead of writing. A shard of language may come: a phrase, a word, an anagram, and I’ll just keep it in my pocket, like a little seed.’
Malika Booker (b. 1970, London) is the author of Breadfruit (flipped eye, 2007), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and Pepper Seed (Peepal Tree Press, 2013). She was the inaugural Poet in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company and a Fellow of both Cave Canem and The Complete Works. She also appears alongside Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire in Penguin Modern Poets 3.
Booker is of Guyanese and Grenadian parentage: her shortlisted poem, ‘Nine Nights’, is taken from a series of poems around Caribbean funerals written in post as a Douglas Caster Fellow at the University of Leeds. This work takes the form of nine fragments, and charts a vivid intersection between biblical and Grenadian funeral rites: ‘Lazarus dash way hymns and cuss words from he house with the heavy bass of a thumping speaker box.’
Mary Jean Chan (b. 1990, Hong Kong) has been a Fellow of Callaloo and VONA, and is currently a Research Associate at the Royal Holloway Poetics Research Centre at the University of London. She writes that being shortlisted for a Forward Prize ‘means a lot in terms of feeling as if I have been accepted into a community of writers whose work I deeply admire… [poets] the Forward Prizes have been instrumental in promoting’, including Kei Miller, Vahni Capildeo and Christian Campbell.
Chan writes that her shortlisted poem ‘//’ was ‘born out of an intensely personal experience, and also informed by ruminations on the state of mental health amongst LGBTQ youths in a city that I flee from, yet constantly wish to return to.’ Its rolling couplets manage the trick of being simultaneously intimate, passionate and politically widely-scoped: ‘How many / times have you and I wondered about leaving our bodies / behind, the way many of us have already left?’ In this, perhaps, there is an echo of Adrienne Rich, a poet Chan describes as ‘opening up a whole new world for me in which poetry was not only enjoyable, but vital to life’.
Harmony Holiday (b. 1982, Waterloo, Iowa) is the author of books including Negro League Baseball, Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues and Hollywood Forever, and has been awarded the Motherwell Prize and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship.
As the daughter of the R&B singer and songwriter Jimmy Holiday, she was immersed in music from early childhood: ‘I just thought it was part of being human, to communicate in some form of sound grammar outside of the mundane daily rhythms and speech patterns. I never really separated poetry from music and music from the body and dance, from ways of moving through space and time.’
Her poem, ‘The City Admits No Wrongdoing’ is built around Billie Holiday, as a singer, an icon and a subject of ‘poised suffering’. Written without line-breaks, it finds its urgent rhythm in the patterns of unexpected connections: ‘She loved candies. We need sugar. We run on sugar. Melanin is carbon. Carbon is sugar. Billie is shook, hurry, you love her.’
Ishion Hutchinson (b. 1983, Port Antonio, Jamaica) teaches on the graduate writing program at Cornell University, USA. His poetry collection include Far District (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) and House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), soon to be published by Faber.
He first felt himself to be a poet early in childhood: poetry became a vocation in high school. ‘The rest is devotion and luck.’ That luck includes the right teachers, the right books, though he also credits his imagination’s growth to his Jamaican background, particularly ‘the landscape – its elemental power as much as the force of its historical current.’
Hutchinson’s shortlisted poem, ‘Nightfall, Jane Ash Corner, St. Thomas’ seeks to overlay landscape with history and the movements of culture: ‘Progress is back, but centuries / are one here.’ The poem handles its materials delicately, allowing them to remain both symbolic and sensual. ‘The first solid draft,’ he writes, ‘came last year after I read a poem called ‘That Place’, by R.S. Thomas, and something blistering and striking in the words ‘To return to after the bitter / Migrations,’ jolted me towards my poem.’
Ian Patterson (b. 1948, Birmingham) has taught English for almost twenty years at Queens’ College, Cambridge. His academic books include Guernica and Total War (Profile, 2007) and he’s currently working on a book which analyses contemporary literature through a hostile critique of Ian McEwan’s work. He’s published numerous works of poetry, recently including Time to Get Here: Selected Poems 1969-2002 (Salt, 2003), Still Life (Oystercatcher Press, 2015) and Bound To Be (Equipage, 2017).
Patterson says that his poetry comes from an awareness of poems as ‘a strange form of knowledge with the capacity to arouse intuitive or unconscious responses, almost like echoes of being’. ‘The Plenty of Nothing’ is an elegy to his late wife, the writer Jenny Diski.
Patterson’s advice to poets starting out is to ‘read as much as you can, as thoughtfully and as feelingly as you can. Don’t try to be “a poet”.’
Joshua Seigal is an award-winning poet, performer and educator who uses poetry to develop literacy skills and inspire confidence and creativity in communication. He has worked in hundreds of schools, nurseries, libraries, theatres and festivals around the country, and has poems published in numerous anthologies. Joshua’s most recent book is My Grandpa’s Beard, illustrated by Matthew White.
Matt is a poet and primary school teacher from Manchester. His poems have been published in magazines and anthologies worldwide. Matt’s high-energy performances and workshops have delighted, excited and enthused thousands of children (and adults!) in schools, libraries and bookshops across the UK. You can book Matt for your school by contacting him directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
His most recent publication is Carry Me Away.
Sophie Herxheimer is a London born artist and poet. She trained in painting at Camberwell and Chelsea. She’s held residencies for LIFT, Southbank Centre and Transport for London. Exhibitions include The Whitworth, The Poetry Library and The National Portrait Gallery. She has illustrated five fairy tale collections, made several artists books, created a 300 metre tablecloth to run the length of Southwark Bridge, featuring hand printed food stories from a thousand Londoners; narrated an episode of The Food Programme from Margate, made a life size concrete poem in the shape of Mrs Beeton sited next to her grave; and a pie big enough for seven drama students to jump out of singing, on the lawn of an old peoples’ home. Recent publications include The Listening Forest and The New Concrete. Sophie teaches and collaborates extensively.
Rachel McCrum has worked as a poet, performer and promoter in Edinburgh since 2012, arriving via Manchester, Belfast, New Zealand, Oxford and a small seaside town in Northern Ireland. She is Broad of Rally & Broad, winner of the 2012 Callum Mcdonald Award and the 2015 Writer In Residence for CoastWord, Dunbar. She has performed and taught workshops in poetry and performance in Greece, South Africa, Haiti and around the UK. Her second pamphlet Do Not Alight Here Again was published in March 2015 by Stewed Rhubarb Press, and in August 2015, she wrote and performed her first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe, as part of new spoken word collective SHIFT/. She was the inaugural BBC Scotland Poet In Residence in 2015.
BEST SINGLE POEM SHORTLIST
Rachel Hadas (b. 1948, New York) is an American poet, prose-writer and translator, who is currently professor of English at Rutgers University, in Newark, New Jersey.
Hadas describes her project as being one of ‘negotiating the divide between inside (memories, emotions, dreams) and outside (the weather of the world)’. It is the ability to span this fraught distance that marks out her work, and ‘Roosevelt Hospital Blues’ is no exception. The poem gets its electricity from the contrast between, on the one hand, its thumping, blues-format rhymes and repetitions and, on the other, the sheer variety and amount of ground it manages to cover. Stark considerations of mortality rub up against American slang and love-song sentiment.
Hadas’s most recent book of poems is Questions in the Vestibule (2016). Asked what’s next, though, Hadas notes that she has an ‘immense pile of uncollected poems that is beginning to pluck at me and ask for some overdue attention, the way my elderly cat does.’
BEST SINGLE POEM SHORTLIST
David Harsent (b. 1942, Devon) is the author of eleven collections of poetry, that have between them accumulated a wide array of prizes, from Legion’s Forward Prize for Best Collection, to Night’s Griffin International Poetry Prize, to Fire Songs’ 2014 T. S. Eliot Prize. He is currently a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.
Harsent describes Salt, the work for which he has been shortlisted, as ‘a group of short poems that have a common tone and mood’. Robert Frost talks about the ‘sound of sense’ but Harsent excels at something further – a kind of ‘sound of significance’; a subtle, careful music which urges the reader towards a deeper-than-usual meditation. Music, indeed, is another important aspect of Harsent’s practice. He has collaborated with a number of composers, most significantly with Harrison Birtwistle, and they have several widely performed collaborative works to their credit.
Harsent has recently published a book of versions of poems by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, and the works in Salt – with their muted, uncertain backgrounds offering up sudden vivid flashes of colour and significance – evoke something of those Ritsos poems.