THE FELIX DENNIS PRIZE FOR BEST FIRST COLLECTION SHORTLIST
Nancy Campbell (b. 1978, Exeter) grew up in Berwickshire, Scotland. She began writing Disko Bay while Writer in Residence in the world’s most northerly museum, on the island of Upernavik, Greenland. ‘The darkness of the polar winter,’ she says ‘may come across in the tone of the collection.’ Campbell’s book ‘considers the connections between northern Europe and the Arctic, looking at migrations across the North Sea and the Greenland Sea, as well as the consequences of colonialism and climate change.’ While in Upernavik, she also worked on an artist’s book How To Say I Love You In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet (winner of the Birgit Skiöld Award).
Campbell trained as a printmaker and is currently editor of Printmaking Today, a position that she says focuses her interest on ‘the material form that has for so long been a central concern of my work.’ A delicate understanding of balance – ecological, social and visual – underwrites her work as poet.
“I was aware of danger” Read Nancy Campbell’s new Forward interview here.
Choman Hardi (b. 1974, Sulaimaniya) sought asylum in the UK in 1993, and subsequently earned degrees from Oxford, UCL and Kent, before returning to Iraq to teach English literature. As a Kurdish poet, born in Iraqi Kurdistan, and a woman raised in a repressive, patriarchal society, she writes poems about, arising from, or in response to the intersecting inequalities she has seen. This is also the subject she continues to research as an assistant professor in the department of English in the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniya.
Hardi’s family fled to Iran when she was fourteen, and it was then, learning Persian and reading the modern Persian poets, that Hardi first came to poetry. She began writing poems soon after, inspired by love, ‘real, tangible, and tidal’.
As well as two collections in Kurdish, Hardi has published one previous collection in English, Life for Us. Bernard O’Donoghue wrote that he had ‘rarely read a book which so indisputably establishes the capacity of poetry to express the historical and political’. Hardi says of her Forward shortlisting that she can now believe that those to whom she ‘tried to give voice… in Considering the Women will be heard, that bearing witness is valued, that telling the truth about the human condition is necessary.’
Sasha Dugdale (b 1974, Sussex) is renowned as a translator of poetry, and has published numerous books of poetry and plays translated from the Russian, as well as three collections of her own poetry – most recently Red House (2011). As editor of the acclaimed magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, she is necessarily immersed in world poetry, and writes that ‘I read this work because I need to – it is like a vitamin injection. English suddenly seems bigger and richer and I itch to write again.’
Dugdale recognises that writing can be a matter of ‘tending’ a poem, and notes that ‘tending poetry is still harder for women, who are often juggling jobs and being carers’. This observation gives resonance to the poignant line in her shortlisted poem ‘Joy’, in which Catherine Blake – the recent widow of William – speaks the words ‘I tend the light’. In this very long poem of affection and loss, Dugdale carefully conjures ‘the natural grief of losing a life-partner’, while weighing ‘what it would be like to lose a partner in creativity, in poetry.’
Alice Oswald (b.1966, Reading) Devon-based gardener and classicist, is as a poet intricately engaged with nature, and with histories both communal and linguistic. Her second book, Dart (2002) trailed the river Dart from its source, through the communities which rely on its waters, down to its mouth.
Since receiving the T. S. Eliot prize for that collection, her reputation has grown: her subsequent books – including Woods etc. and Memorial – have received the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Hawthornden Prize and the Ted Hughes Prize, amongst many others.
Oswald recalls that she began writing poetry at age eight when, after a sleepless night, she found herself ‘astonished by the clouds at dawn and realised they required a different kind of language.’ This search for a different kind of language runs through her career; her subjects – whether water, flowers, insects or Agamemnon – never settle down or still, are never simply their present selves.
Her shortlisted collection Falling Awake – including ‘Dunt’, 2007 winner of the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem – aims, as Oswald writes, ‘to speak relentlessly, anonymously, almost inadvertently, (as insects do) without using the mouth.’
Solmaz Sharif (b. 1983, Istanbul) studied at the University of California, Berkeley and New York University. She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, and is a former managing director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
Sharif, whose parents were both Iranian, writes that she admires most those poets ‘who refuse to bar the political from their work while refusing to capitulate to it.’ This balancing-act is recognisable in ‘Force Visibility’, her shortlisted poem. As she describes it, the poem ‘deals with the language of state-sponsored violence. Or the violence of state-sponsored language’, noting that ‘the words that appear in small caps are terms taken from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.’ What’s striking about the poem, though, in its almost queasy intrusion of the public and the private worlds into one another, is the disorienting effect of its overlaid perspectives, the impression of several lives being lived at once. Is this, the poem invites us to ask, one effect of living with a multiple heritage in modern America?
A mix of the serious, the therapeutic and the theatrical, the Emergency Poet offers consultations inside her ambulance and prescribes poems as cures. In the waiting room under an attached awning Nurse Verse dispenses poemcetamols and other poetic pills and treatments from the Cold Comfort Pharmacy. There are skulls, jars of eyeballs and other body parts inside the ambulance.
Deborah is an experienced workshop facilitator and has delivered a range of poetry and creative writing workshops. She works using poetry to help communicate with people with dementia, both for The Courtyard Theatre in Hereford and for Ledbury Poetry Festival. She has been lead writer for Writing West Midlands Writing Squads in Shrewsbury & Ludlow, teaching creative writing to young people and wrote and taught the Writing Poetry module at The University of Worcester. She was writer in residence for the NHS conference in 2013 on Mental Health and Wellbeing and Poet in Residence at The Hurst, for the Arvon Foundation in 2014.
After bursting on to the poetry scene in 2010, Indigo established herself as a poet who commands the stage with gripping presence and powerful poetry. With both substance and passion, her work is emotive and thought provoking. She is the winner of the 2012 New Generation slam and has facilitated workshops across Europe, Bangladesh and Nigeria.
Indigo is one of 6 leading poets working full-time in a secondary school as part of the pioneering Spoken Word Educators programme in conjunction with Goldsmiths University. She is passionate about using the power of poetry to engage and transform the lives of young people.
Her work has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Bespoken Word, Tedx Brixton, Glastonbury Festival, Cheltenham Literature Festival and many more. Her poem ‘The Organist’ was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall and is featured on the BBC Radio 3 page in celebration of the newly restored Royal Festival Hall organ.
Joseph Coelho is a performance poet and playwright. He has written plays for companies including: Soho Theatre, Polka Theatre, Theatre Royal York, Oily Cart, The Spark Children’s Festival, Islington Community Theatre, Pied Piper Theatre Company and Pinhole Theatre Company. His plays have received special note from Soho’s Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition.
Joseph is writer, performer and co-founder for Word Pepper Theatre Company with author/illustrator/paper-engineer John O’leary. Word Pepper’s debut show The PoetryJoe Show has toured widely up and down the country over the last two years, and was this year joined by their second show Pop-up Flashback in association with Half Moon Theatre and Apples and Snakes.
Joseph’s poems have been published in several Macmillan anthologies including Green Glass Beads ed. by Jacqueline Wilson. His debut children’s collection “Werewolf Club Rules” is published by Frances Lincoln and is currently shortlisted for The CLPE Poetry Award. Joseph has been a guest poet on Cbeebies Rhyme Rocket where he was beamed up from The Rhyme Rock to perform his Bug Poem.
For National poetry Day 2015, Joseph will work with schools across the UK via Skype to lead 10 back to back poetry workshops on the theme of Light. Schools can take part by following the link here.
Sally Crabtree is an international performance poet/artist, children’s author and the Poetry Postie. She has been delighting audiences with her deliveries at venues around the country – from small village fetes to large music festivals such as Womad. She has just returned from a visit to China after being awarded an Arts Council grant to create an exciting International project called ‘Communities Communicating’.
On National Poetry Day – October 8th 2015 – Sally will be hosting a Poetry Postie road show in Newlyn, delivering poetic inspiration on her early morning rounds.
Michaela writes all sorts of things including poetry – mostly, but not entirely, for children. She has popped up to share poetry with sticky infants, tattooed felons and bewildered passers by and will be spreading the light somewhere, somehow on National Poetry Day.
Rachel Rooney is a teacher and poet who has two collections of children’s poetry published by Frances Lincoln. The first, The Language of Cat, won the 2012 CLPE Award ( CLiPPA) and the second My Life as a Goldfish was shortlisted for the 2015 CLiPPA. She also has a rhyming picture book A Patch of Black – a tale about nighttime fears published by Macmillan Children’s Books. She goes into schools as a visiting poet, and has performed at Hay Literary Festival, Southbank Centre and for The Children’s Bookshow.
Maura Dooley (b. 1957, Truro) is of Irish extraction and grew up in Bristol. ‘I’ve written poetry since I was a child,’ she says. ‘Both my older brothers wrote poetry, it seemed like a normal thing to do.’ She studied at the universities of York and Bristol and is now Lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths.
Dooley’s poetry has been praised for its ‘ability to enact and find images for complex feelings’ (Adam Thorpe). Two of her poetry collections have been shortlisted for the T S Eliot prize. ‘Cleaning Jim Dine’s Heart’ (The Poetry Review), which has been shortlisted for the 2015 Forward prize for Best Single Poem, will be published next year in her forthcoming collection with Bloodaxe.
Her work on behalf of poets and poetry has been longstanding, and includes five years as organiser of creative writing courses for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire. She was founding Director of the Literature series at London’s Southbank Centre, creating a year-round programme of talks, fiction and poetry readings and re-establishing, after an absence of 20 years, the major festival Poetry International.
Her advice to anyone starting out in poetry today is: ‘Pay no attention to fashion. Read, read, read: read across centuries, traditions and continents.’
Claire Harman began her career in publishing, at Carcanet Press and the poetry magazine PN Review, where she was co-ordinating editor in the 1980s. Her first book, a biography of the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, was published in 1989 and won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for ‘a writer of growing stature’ under the age of 35. She has since published biographies of Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson and edited works by Stevenson and Warner. Jane’s Fame, a study of Austen’s authorship and reception, was published in 2009 and her new biography of Charlotte Bronte will be published in October 2015. Claire has taught English at the Universities of Manchester and Oxford and creative writing at Columbia University in New York City.
‘The Mighty Hudson’ – shortlisted for the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem – began with a sweeping comment from an American friend showing her the view over the Hudson river in upstate New York: the phrase “The Mighty Hudson” set her thinking. “I thought what a great name for a strong man that would be, and I suppose that, and the place-names along the drive and the look of the blazing autumn leaves all lodged in my mind somehow.”
“The story of the poem emerged quiet effortlessly but is entirely made up. I was very impressed by how plausible it seemed, so made up the epigraph from the newspaper – and the newspaper – to give it some actual credibility. And I had a sense of the rhythm before any of the story, even: that long thrumming line seemed to be there in advance, appropriate and anticipatory. There’s something inherently deadpan about it.”
Kim Moore (b 1981) teaches the trumpet to schoolchildren in Cumbria for three days a week, works as a freelance writer the other two.
Her first collection The Art of Falling was published by Seren in 2015. Her pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition and went on to be shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award and was a runner up in the Lakeland Book of the Year. She was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2010 and an Eric Gregory Award in 2011. She is one of five UK poets chosen to take part in Versopolis, a European Poetry Platform aimed at creating opportunities for emerging European poets.
‘In That Year’, the poem shortlisted for Best Single Poem is part of a sequence of poems called ‘How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping’ which explores domestic violence within a relationship. It is the first poem in the sequence – which forms part of The Art of Falling. “It sets out a lot of the ideas that are explored throughout the rest of the sequence,” she says, highlighting “the use of animals, birds, insects and the body to explore issues of power and control.”
Ann Gray always knew she wanted to write poetry: “I felt I was able to say more. There was a space inside the poem which I rarely found in prose.”
The author of a number of collections including Painting Skin (Fatchance Press, 1995) and The Man I Was Promised (Headland, 2004), Ann was commended for the National Poetry Competition 2010 and won the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize in 2014.
Her studies for an MA in Creative writing from the University of Plymouth led to her collection of poems about the sudden loss of her partner, At The Gate (Headland, 2008). ‘My Blue Hen’ is one of many written since that publication, which, she says, “prove” she was not finished with those poems.
She describes it as “a love song and a spell” and was inspired by the experience of moving her poultry to a safer place after a fox attack: “Although I was weeping with fatigue from walking up and down the hill, I found myself singing to console her, to console myself.”
Andrew Elliott was born in Limavady, Northern Ireland in 1961 and now lives in East London.
He published his first book, The Creationists, with Blackstaff Press in 1988. Of his second collection Ciaran Carson wrote, ‘Lung Soup is a tour de force: nearer perhaps to the prose of Thomas Pynchon or Italo Calvino in its play with genre than any I can think of.’
Mortality Rate, a book that moves between the hinterlands of Germany, America and the Internet, was published by CB editions in 2013.
His poem ‘Döppelganger’, shortlisted for the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, was first published in CB editions’ Sonofabook magazine.
Karen McCarthy Woolf was born in London to an English mother and a Jamaican father. Her debut collection, An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) commemorates the loss of her still born son, Otto, in 2009. At the time, she had been working steadily on a collection populated by many other poems but the work she wrote in response to maternal loss ‘demanded their place and I wanted to make space for them’.
She composed poetry as a teenager, encouraged by a ‘mum who could write rhyming couplets standing on her head’, but credits the 1995 Forward Prizes with drawing her back to poetry as an adult: she picked up the anthology in a bookshop and read a poem by Kwame Dawes, which left her profoundly moved.
Her pamphlet, The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers (Spread the Word, 2005), was a New Statesman Book of the Year, and in 2008, Karen was one of ten poets selected for The Complete Works – a nationwide mentoring scheme that aims to increase cultural diversity in poetry publishing. She chose as mentor the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, and maintains close links with the scheme, as editor of Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014), the anthology of Complete Works II poets. She is currently working towards a PhD at Royal Holloway: her thesis looks at new ways of writing about nature in the face of climate change.
Read the Forward Prizes Q&A with Karen McCarthy Woolf: “I think when you go through a traumatic experience it tests one’s faith – whether spiritual, philosophical or otherwise – and I think that some of the tensions I enjoyed exploring in the work relate to that – even in death there is beauty, humanity and awe.”
Peter Riley (b. 1940, Stockport) first encountered poetry as a child through ‘bright schoolteachers introducing us to Eliot and Pound and encouraging exploration, which mostly took place in second-hand bookshops’.
He has more than twenty publications to his name, including studies of burial mounds, village carols, lead mines and Transylvanian string bands: the sheer range of his work defies attempts to pigeon-hole him, although it is relatively safe to say that much of his work engages with landscape, often English, but also French, Italian or Transylvanian.
He studied at Cambridge, and then at the universities of Keele and Sussex and has taught in Denmark: he subsisted as a bookseller for many years and declares on his website that he’d rather be known as ‘writer’ than poet’.
‘I’ve always been nervous of calling myself ‘poet’ since it is something you do rather than something you become. My way of writing has developed through a series of some twenty books, generally in the quest for a wider concept of poetical substance, to get away from a standardised person-centred concept of the poem with its attached restrictions on linguistic usage.’
Due North (Shearsman 2015) was inspired by his move back to the area of his birth. Its themes are displacement and quest: he worked towards it by gathering ‘great deal of thought, research, note-making and fragmentary passages of poetry concerning movements of populations’.
His advice to young poets starting out is: ‘Beware of polemical concepts, which threaten to narrow the poem concept. Get an idea of what you believe in, what a poem by you could be and do it at its best.’
Read the Forward Prizes Q&A with Peter Riley: “I am as likely to be captivated by a few lines from an old song as by any poetical product. I think that the recent transgression I’ve noticed among young poets of the rigid boundaries we have inherited between so-called “innovative” and so-called “mainstream” is very encouraging.”
Mona Arshi was born in 1970 to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London and grew up in Hounslow. She worked for a decade as a lawyer for the human rights charity Liberty UK, acting on many high profile cases, including that of the ‘right-to-die’ campaigner, Diane Pretty.
Her debut collection, Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, 2015), was six years in the writing. It features poems in terza rima, ghazals and a ballad and the subjects include the loss of her younger brother, who died three years ago. ‘Observing the anguish of a family trying to come to terms and survive was a difficult task, but one I felt I had to negotiate, especially if you believe that one of the functions of poetry is to make the unbearable, bearable.’
She rejects the idea that poets are overly sensitive and that poetry can only be appreciated by certain people. ‘It’s simply not true. Writers, and poets in particular, are pathologically inquisitive about the physical world around them and poetry is simply the world we live in, translated into language.’
She studied for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2010, won the inaugural Magma Poetry competition in 2011 and was joint winner in 2014 of the Manchester Poetry Prize. Her work is included in Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe 2014).
Claudia Rankine (b. 1963, Kingston, Jamaica) began writing poems at Williams College, Massachusetts, after studying the poetry of Adrienne Rich. She wrote about embarking into the places where language failed us. For whatever reason, this seemed like an invitation.
She decided against law school to pursue creative writing: ‘Being a poet seemed like a risky career choice, but it felt like a calling – I didn’t argue.’ Her poetry, plays and criticism have been widely honoured: she is currently a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and Professor of English at Pomona College, California.
Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin Books 2015) may seem at first glance to the casual reader not to be poetry at all but a collage of prose, graphic art, photography and scraps of documentary film script. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in America after becoming the first book in the prize’s history to be a finalist in both the poetry and criticism categories, causing considerable confusion to booksellers and librarians along the way.
The form of the collection, she says, is ‘both archival and curatorial’: it came about ‘by asking friends to share their stories regarding interactions with either friends or colleagues.’ She stresses that many of the stories of everyday racism recounted in Citizen are not her own.
On being asked what the nomination for the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection means to her, she says: ‘I am filled with gratitude that the concerns of Citizen are being recognized as legacies of our shared postcolonial past.’