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.
Abigail Parry reads at Forward Prizes for Poetry ceremony
Phoebe Power (b. 1993, Newcastle-upon-Tyne) was a Foyle Young Poet of the year before studying at 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.
Phoebe Power reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry ceremony
Phoebe Power wins the Felix Dennis Prizes for Best First Collection
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.
Shivanee Ramlochan reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry ceremony
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 2016 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’.
Fiona Benson reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry
Sumita Chakraborty is a poet, public critic, and scholar who hails from Boston, Massachusetts and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY, the American Poetry Review, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Cultural Critique, and elsewhere; she serves as poetry editor of AGNI Magazine and art editor of At Length. In 2017, she received a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation.
She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as Lecturer in English and Creative Writing, at Emory University, where she received her doctorate. She is at work on her first scholarly book project, titled The Poetics of Ethics in the Anthropocene, which forges connections between lyric poetry and ethics. Her first collection of poems, Arrow, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in the US and from Carcanet Press in the UK in September 2020.
Sumita Chakraborty reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry Ceremony
Liz Berry (b. 1980, Black Country) was selected for the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme in 2011: 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.
Liz Berry Reads ‘The Republic of Motherhood’
Liz Berry wins the Forward Prizes for Best Single Poem 2018
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 fifteen 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.’
Jorie Graham reads ‘Tree’
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’.
Toby Martinez de las Rivas reads at the Forward Prizes for Poetry
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.’