Fiona Benson

Fiona Benson (b. 1978 Wroughton) began keeping a poetry notebook at 17 on hearing that someone she knew wrote poetry. Suddenly, poetry ‘seemed permissible and possible’. She discovered Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson at this time. Although she considered becoming an actor or a lawyer, she says ‘poetry just gradually became the thing I depended on’.

Bright Travellers is arranged in sequences on miscarriage, childbirth and motherhood, interspersed with stand-alone bridging poems. One sequence, ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’, is inspired by Van Gogh and is written in the voice of his prostitute mistress. Benson says there is ‘a certain amount of slippage between this voice and my more usual lyric I’.

In 2006 Benson won an Eric Gregory Award and a Faber New Poets Award.

Liz Berry

Liz Berry (b. 1980 Black Country) says that poetry ‘was really a secret love’ until her mid-twenties. While working as an infant school teacher, she took night classes in poetry before studying in 2008 for an MA at Royal Holloway with Jo Shapcott and Andrew Motion. ‘Everything came alive for me that year,’ Berry says, ‘and I began reading and writing with a fury.’

In 2009, she received an Eric Gregory Award and in 2012, she was selected for the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme and was mentored by Daljit Nagra. He encouraged Berry to use the dialect of her friends and family in her writing.

‘I wanted to tell a story about the place where I grew up,’ Berry says. ‘In many ways, the book (Black Country) is a love letter to the Black Country.’ Berry draws inspiration from the use of dialect by other poets, including Katrina Porteous and Billy Letford.

Kei Miller

Kei Miller (b. 1978 Kingston, Jamaica) enrolled in Creative Writing Poetry at the University of the West Indies because the Fiction course he wanted to take was full. ‘I thought of poetry as just an exercise that would make me write better fiction but it took over,’ he says.

As a penniless graduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University, he entered a poetry slam for what he insisted were purely financially reasoned. On winning the £100 prize and becoming Manchester Slam Champion 2004 , he felt ashamed – and ashamed of feeling ashamed.  His sense of this contradiction – of being at once a “real” poet who can “bore the socks right off of you” and also a popular performer who can wow crowds – informs all his work.

In his first short story collection, The Fear of Stones and Other Stories, he wrote of homophobia in Jamaica. It was shortlisted in 2007 for the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book prize.

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, his fourth poetry collection and the winner of the 2014 Forward Prize for Best Collection, was prompted by his realisation that ‘maps pretend to be innocent, but aren’t’. He finds parallels between the rules governing the reckoning of distance, size and location and the rules imposed by poetic form. Quoting the poet Kamau Brathwaite, he observes ‘the hurricane does not roar in pentameters’.

He has a PhD in Caribbean Literature from the University of Glasgow and now teachers creative writing at Royal Holloway college, University of London.

His advice to would-be poets: ‘Allow your work to be shaped by voices that aren’t poetic voices, people who have never thought of themselves as poets.’

Louise Glück

Louise Glück (b. 1943 New York City), has written poetry for as long as she can remember. She was US Poet Laureate from 2003-4 and has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the William Carlos Williams Award. As a child with ‘a premature sense of vocation’, she was inspired by Blake’s Songs of Innocence and songs from Shakespeare’s plays. As a teenager, she sent off manuscripts to publishers. ‘It was good practice,’ she says, ‘that decade of rejection.’

Faithful and Virtuous Night took five years to write: when stuck, she would turn to the very short stories of Kafka for inspiration. She finds DH Lawrence’s ‘great, imperfect poems’ encouraging and draws from the work of younger poets and her own students.

Her advice to would-be poets: ‘Persist. Stay, or become, capable of change. Trust what seems an adventure however confusing.’

John Burnside

John Burnside (b. 1955 Dunfermline) describes his Catholic childhood in Corby as solitary: ‘Reading poetry was probably the only real education I had in anything.’ Poetry, he says, is ‘a defence of care over the language, its richness, its subtleties, its possibilities’. He believes that ‘if we keep reading poetry, and so educating ourselves in metaphor, we can see through and scoff at the deceptive myths peddled by certain politicians and salespeople.’

He became a writer while working as a software engineer. His novels, memoirs and poems have won many awards and his 2011 collection Black Cat Bone won both the Forward Prize and the T S Eliot Prize.

All One Breath, his thirteenth poetry collection, was inspired by Ecclesiastes: ‘For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts… yea, they have all one breath.’ Our kinship with all living things is a matter, he maintains, for awe.

His advice to would-be poets: ‘Do it for love. Listen to music. Read the classics, read your contemporaries, get advice from other readers, read in translation. Read, read, read.’

Colette Bryce

Colette Bryce (b. 1970 Derry) spent much of her twenties reading contemporary poetry while working as a bookseller in London. She started to write poems in the early 1990s. After publishing her first collection in 2000, Bryce won a literary fellowship and has worked freelance as a writer and editor ever since.

The Whole & Rain-domed Universe, her fourth collection, centres on her Derry childhood and questions the nature of memory and the emigrant’s perspective. Bryce was awarded first prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors in 2010. She cites Emily Dickinson and Louis MacNeice as inspirations.

Her advice to would-be poets: ‘Enjoy the journey. Read widely. Write the poems that only you can write.’

Vahni Capildeo


Vahni Capildeo (b. 1973, Port of Spain, Trinidad) writes that, throughout her childhood, ‘my mother recited poetry by heart (in French, various Caribbean dialects, and English), for the love of it, as did my father (in Hindi and English).’ Capildeo’s own poetry is characterised by a kind of omnivorous, long-armed reach. Many-tongued and multi-cultural, her shortlisted collection Measures of Expatriation sweeps through long prose poems and short imagistic bursts, through surrealism and gritty realism, acutely seeking the right form for each individual thought.

Capildeo has lived in the UK since 1991, studying Old Norse at Christ Church, Oxford and working as an etymologist on the Oxford English Dictionary. She is able to summon double – or triple – perspectives on the questions of colonialism, migration and expatriation, which she explores just as ruthlessly as she explores questions of the stability and fitness of language. Her work is infused with ‘the sense of coexistent distance-in-presence, presence-in-distance’ which she characterises as typical of electronic communication today, while showing ‘how travellers carry elsewhen as well as elsewhere in their heart.’

Helen Mort

Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985 and is five times winner of a Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award. Carol Ann Duffy has described her as “among the brightest stars in the sparkling new constellation of British poets”.

Her first poetry collection Division Street (Chatto & Windus) was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize. She was Poet in Residence at The Wordsworth Trust from 2010-11 and is the current Derbyshire Poet Laureate, a post in which she combines her love of mountain climbing and of language.

“I like to think of climbs as a set of instructions for the body that you have to interpret, and they only make sense when you do it. So a climb can’t be paraphrased, it can only be done,” she says. “And there’s an affinity with poetry because a poem’s a bit like a set of instructions to the reader. You can’t paraphrase a poem. You can only write it or read it.” (Daily Telegraph)

To find out more about Helen’s work, see her website

Dannie Abse

Dannie Abse CBE  (1923-2014) was a poet, playwright and novelist whose literary career spans almost seven decades: his latest collection, Speak Old Parrot (2013) was short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize. He died on Sunday 28 September at the age of 91.

His death deprives the world of a great poet, and the 2014 Forward Prizes of a superb judge. When asked to join the jury, he wondered what it involved. “Reading just about every book of poetry that comes out this year,” I replied. “Ah! Well, it’s a good way of keeping up,” he said, brightening immediately. “I do like to know what’s going on.”

In the event, this week’s final judging and awards ceremony will happen without Dannie, though not without his contribution. He was a powerful jury member at the first meeting in June: at one point, he banged the table at the suggestion that a certain name be dropped from one of the shortlists. “That would be a shame,” he said. “Not just a mistake, but a shame.” The name stayed.

Jeremy Paxman, chairman of the judges, who has reduced many younger men to incoherent jelly, knew better then to argue back: indeed, when the judging threatened to get bogged down, the chairman turned to Dannie for a marvellously simple solution involving scrumpled paper and a great deal of laughter.

For Dannie was fearless and funny to the end: when asked how he decided whether a collection was any good, he said he would read the first ten pages and if nothing struck him as interesting, it was ditched.

“I hope to go into a poem sober and come out a little drunk. And if I do then that’s a real poem.”

We will miss him very much on Tuesday and dedicate this year’s Forward Prizes ceremony at the Southbank centre to his memory.

Susannah Herbert

Director, Forward Arts Foundation


“Abse is from a Jewish background, is Welsh, and a doctor: biographical facts which feature in his poems. He has an immediately likeable poetic voice, compassionate, humorous, observant.” (Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry) You can hear him read his poetry at the Poetry Archive.

Sheenagh Pugh

Sheenagh Pugh was born in 1950. She lived in Wales and taught creative writing at the University of Glamorgan for many years, but now lives in Shetland. She has published two novels, a critical work on fan fiction, and many collections of poetry. Her current collection is Long-Haul Travellers (Seren) and another, Short Days, Long Shadows, is due out from Seren in 2014. Her poem ‘Envying Owen Beattie’ won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 1997, and she is a judge for the 2013 Forward Prizes.

Hugo Williams

Hugo Williams (b. 1942 Windsor) first wrote poetry aged 13, copying Laurie Lee and the Movement poets. ‘I liked writing,’ he says, ‘because I could do it and it cheered me up.’ Recently, while enduring the dialysis treatment that forms the subject of some of the poetry in I Knew the Bride, he has attempted more abstract styles and virtually ‘nonsense’ poems: ‘I see these as my future because my mind is going.’

Poetry, for Williams, is an opportunity to say the unsayable, ‘a search for meaning rather than an extension of existing thoughts’. He cites Michael Hofmann, Ian Hamilton and Philip Larkin as inspirations.

His advice to would-be poets: ‘Don’t have anything to do with universities or creative writing courses.’

Rosie Shepperd

Rosie Shepperd worked in banking and financial journalism in London and New York until 2004, when she discovered a talent for poetry. She finds food inspiring: “There’s a deliberation in my enjoyment of tastes which is very similar to my enjoyment of words and images.” She enjoys experimenting with the syntax of spoken speech: pauses, emphases, the rises and falls of verbal expression. Poet she admires include Paul Muldoon, Paul Durcan, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and she “never stops reading” Raymond Carver.

Nick MacKinnon

Nick MacKinnon, winner of the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, worked as a psychogeriatric nurse in the early 80s before teaching Maths and English at Winchester College: both experiences inform his writing. He won the £5000 Hippocrates prize (NHS section) for a poem imagining the changing role of a psychiatric hospital from the point of view of a local landmark.  He spent his teenage years in Ardrishaig on the long finger of land that points at Ireland.

Watch Samuel West read The Metric System at the Forward Prizes 2013 Award Ceremony below

C J Allen

C J Allen came to poetry via the comedian Ken Dodd, whose radio shows taught him, he says, “about the power of language harnessed to a keen sense of rhythm and timing.” He achieved “45 glorious seconds of radio fame” when he wrote and sold a commercial radio jingle for Morrison’s supermarkets in 1976.  One of his poems is engraved on a granite rock in the Derbyshire Peaks, others have appeared in Poetry Review and Modern Painters.

He withdrew his poem Explaining the plot of Blade Runner to my mother who has Alzheimer’s from the 2013 Forward Prizes after admitting that he has plagiarised other writers in earlier work. He does however insist this particular poem – shortlisted for the Best Single Poem award – is entirely his own work.

Patience Agbabi

Patience Agbabi was born in London in 1965, to Nigerian parents. She has been poet-in-residence at both a tattoo parlour and Eton College. She is a popular performer, influenced by dub poetry and rap, and her work has been broadcast, featured on Poems in the Underground and etched into human skin. She is currently a Fellow in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. Her new collection will be published by Canongate in 2014.

Dan O’Brien

Dan O’Brien is an American playwright and poet living in Los Angeles. He was raised near New York City and describes his family as working-class Irish-American.  He started writing poetry at school, inspired by Anne Sexton, and won a scholarship to Brown University.

In 2007, he heard Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Paul Watson speak of being haunted by a soldier he had photographed in 1993 in Mogadishu. After meeting Watson, O’Brien turned their exchanges into the poems collected in War Reporter, his first collection. They have also collaborated on a play and an opera.

Hannah Lowe

Hannah Lowe was born in Ilford to an English mother and Jamaican-Chinese father. She began writing poems aged 29, after her father, a professional gambler, died of cancer and her mother had a stroke.

She cites Gerard Manley Hopkins, Anne Sexton and Mark Doty as influences. “I had been suppressing a lot of grief over a sustained period of time and poetry…opened a door on that pain. I found that I could revisit the past in my poems, and contain it, or alter it even.”

Chick, her first collection, stems from an Arvon course in 2010 in which the Scottish poet John Glenday suggested she write about her father.

Steve Ely

Steve Ely started writing poetry on his seventeenth birthday. A former Sunday League footballer, revolutionary socialist and secondary school head teacher, he lives in the West Riding of Yorkshire and is fascinated by the history of England and the English propensity for violence.

In Oswald’s Book of Hours, he sets up the seventh century King of Northumbria as an alternative patron saint of England and writes for him a “handbook of devotions” loosely modelled on a Medieval Book of Hours.

His other works include a novel and five unpublished poetry collections.

Marianne Burton

Marianne Burton recited poetry from earliest childhood, because her mother wanted her daughters to “speak proper”. She won her first poetry prize for an elegy to a dead butterfly. She qualified as a solicitor, working in the City advising Friendly Societies, and as a director on the board of a pharmaceutical company. Both jobs have fuelled her writing: “People wanted me to understand the intricacies of their lives.”

In 2010, Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy, who encouraged her to put together her first collection, She Inserts the Key, tutored her at Ty Newydd.

Emily Berry

Emily Berry (b. 1981, London), editor of The Poetry Review, is shortlisted for her second book, Stranger, Baby. It addresses, she says ‘the long shadow cast by the loss of a mother in childhood – my own loss’.

Her first book, Dear Boy, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2013. That book focused on eerie, elliptical narratives and askance, lively interactions with the discourse around mental health, gender, domestic (dis)harmony and psychoanalysis.

Stranger, Baby drives those strategies into a more personally intimate space. ‘There are’, she says, ‘a lot of other people’s words in the book alongside my own. So it’s lonely but it’s also companionable.’