There is a lot to like about the shortlists for this year’s three Forward Prizes. Announced today, they look like this:

Forward Prize for Best Collection
Ciaran Carson, From Elsewhere (The Gallery Press)
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, The Boys of Bluehill (The Gallery Press)
Paul Muldoon, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber & Faber)
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin Books)
Peter Riley, Due North (Shearsman)

Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection 
Mona Arshi, Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry)
Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus)
Andrew McMillan, Physical (Cape Poetry)
Matthew Siegel, Blood Work (CB Editions)
Karen McCarthy Woolf, An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet)

Forward Prize for Best Single Poem
Maura Dooley ‘Cleaning Jim Dine’s Heart’ (Poetry Review)
Andrew Elliott ‘Döppelganger’ (Sonofabook)
Ann Gray ‘My Blue Hen’ (The Moth)
Claire Harman ‘The Mighty Hudson’ (TLS)
Kim Moore ‘In That Year’ (Poetry News)

First, though, the judges. They are: A L Kennedy (Chair); Colette Bryce; Carrie Etter; BBC radio producer and all-round poetry-focused good egg Emma Harding; & the young London-Somali powerhouse, Warsan Shire. This is a pretty interesting judging panel in several ways.

First, obviously, it is entirely made up of women – not a bloke in sight, not a single dash of the cold water of common-man-sense, not a single member of the panel who finds girly concerns a bit – well, you know – weird, and off to the side a bit, you know. (As an example of what I mean, I once had a fascinating interview with Ruth Fainlight, in which we ended up discussing women writing poems about lipstick.) AL Kennedy, low-key but outspoken Scottish novelist, is perhaps the antidote to last year’s Jeremy Paxman.

It’s a not-very-English panel: Scottish, Irish, American, English, Somali. A highly politically engaged panel, and a youngish one. No éminence grise, no one going, ‘Whippernappers! No idea how easy you have it. In my day…’ Carrie Etter, for one, leans towards the ‘innovative’ end of things and has edited an anthology of women’s innovative poetry (Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets, published by Shearsman). Carrie’s most recent collection, with Seren, is about the lifelong aftermath of giving a child up for adoption. Emma Harding is quiet and unassuming but you will find her at almost every event: she knows the current UK poetry scene as well as and better than very many poets. and produces many poetry-related & literary radio programmes. And Warsan Shire, a Kenya-born Somali poet and London’s first Young Poet Laureate, is a soft-spoken but utterly powerful voice for women and girls, women of colour, women from other places, survival of war and trauma, humanity, and the power of words to save lives.

In fact, this group of women all appear to share a single quality, which I think we can define as being a sense of the prices we pay in life. As women, as human beings. A sense of poetry within that particular framework.

Apologies if I’m talking through my hat. Last year’s panel was mixed and interesting, too, and the winners were exciting. So on to this year’s shortlist. My own idiosyncratic take on it, having not read most of it, is as follows.

Best Collection: Really great to see  the long-loved-by-Baroque Irish super-duo of Carson and Muldoon, on here. And alongside the male dynamos, the equally wonderful (& I think rather undersung) Ní Chuilleanáin.

Good to see a Shearsman volume shortlisted for a major national prize, a book that appears rather bleak and wonderful: ‘a poem in twelve chapters concerned with human movement northwards or out in the quest for work, subsistence, settlement and gratification, and in danger of getting trapped in various enclosures, including thought-traps… Woven into this are various artistic, poetical, cultural and instinctive ventures to traverse cold and emptiness, limit and futility, in the hope of attaining the metaphor of lasting warmth. Its pattern is that of a long sequence of beginnings, some of which reach their conclusions, usually elsewhere in the text, some of which don’t.’

Claudia Rankine is a distinguished US-based Jamaican poet whose shortlisted collection, Citizen,  takes on the race explosion that’s been happening in the US this past year (and before). She is experimental in her approach to form, and this is the second collection she has subtitled ‘An American Lyric’. As a general principle, it’s surprisingly nice to see a Penguin book on the list, too, for some reason.

In short: this list of possible Best Collections looks like a list I’d like to read.  And lovely to have not a usual suspect in sight (unless of course you count Muldoon, but he is less of a coterie man than many.) There is so much being written out there, and so much of it is really important and interesting.

Best First Collection: Well. Here we have three young women of diverse non-European heritage, a young gay man (only a few years ago we used to talk about why the US had all these prominent poets writing about being gay, and hardly any in Britain really doing so; now look!), and a really interesting young American  published by one of the two or three best indie – totally indie – UK presses. CB Editions’ list is uncompromisingly excellent, a totally literary – non-marketing-driven –  reflection of the tastes and standards of its publisher, Charles Boyle. Mona Arshi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Sarah Howe were all involved in the second Ten anthology, which has marked, I think, a massive turning point. They write very differently from each other; this is a really eclectic list. Andrew McMillan’s debut is long-awaited and I am intensely interested to see it.

These two lists taken together really, to me, speak of multiplicity and a wide engagement with both language and the world itself. No matter how eminent Muldoon or Carson may be, I feel confident that they are on this list because the judges felt their books are exciting and enriching, not just as a knee-jerk thing.

Best Poem: This is the only category for which your correspondent coulda been a contender, so that is a little disappointing. I’ve had quite a few poems out in the past year and a couple of them (notably, if I say so myself, ‘Croonerisms’, in ‘Ambit’) I thought were rather fine… But this list includes Maura Dooley with a poem with the American neo-Dada painter Jim Dine in the title. I love Jim Dine. The poem must be good!

Also, Andrew Elliott, with a brilliant poem from the first issue of ‘Sonofabook’ magazine – published also by CB Editions. Andrew Elliott was scuppered last year from being in the shortlist by his preference not to have his photograph taken. Talk about anti-marketing. And his poetry is wonderful. I reviewed his CB Editions collection, Mortality Rate, in ‘Poetry London’ – exhilarating, exuberant in its crustiness and register, and (in the best way) very male.

Good to see Ann Gray on this list with a poem from ‘The Moth’ (more of the Irish presence, along with the also-undersung Maura Dooley). ‘The Moth’ is a really good magazine, edited by Rebecca O’Connor, & its sister magazine, ‘The Caterpillar’, is one of the very few outlets around for children’s poems. I don’t know Claire Harman’s poetry, but I have her biography of Fanny Burney on the shelf right over this desk. And I too have written a poem about the mighty Hudson, which was the big river of my childhood. And Kim Moore is going great guns lately. It’s also nice to see a poem included that was published in Poetry News – the newsletter that goes out alongside Poetry Review. It speaks of a pleasing openness.

So there we have it. The Baroque take.

The results will be announced on 28 September, but in the meantime this looks like a workable reading list for the summer! Better get going – especially as there are so many other books out that you need to be reading, for example the new ones by Steve Ely and Annie Freud, and also Jim Carruth’s debut, Killochries.

 

It’s been a very serious year so far, here in Baroque Mansions. I’m currently suffering from borderline panic or at least anxiety disorder and trying to get myself together while keeping fingers and toes crossed.

One of the funniest things that has happened in our family (like, ever) took the form of a Facebook update by my sister-in-law. My niece was 12;  my uncle, the Estonian one I loved, who had fled from Stalin at the age of 5 and never seen his dad again, who had grown up in a displaced persons’ camp and then gone on to get as scholarship to art college, but had never seen his dad again, and who had kept me going with his humour, cooking and intellectual integrity (and by plying me with books) all through my teens, had said to my niece: ‘Life is a vale of tears’.

Brilliant!

She was like, what is it with your family? You’re all so upbeat

He came by it honestly. When he was five he had fled Estonia with his mother and his two aunts. I had had experience of these two aunts. One Thanksgiving. for example, we had gathered in the house in Bearsville, New York. Tom had come into a bit of of money and had decided, ‘Babette’s Feast’-style, to cook a meal we would never forget. We never did. Crown roast of lamb, all kinds of delicacies to go with it – I remember some endive, or chicory, whichever country you’re in – and wines, and sorbets between the many courses to freshen the palate, only they wouldn’t freeze because they had too much vodka or champagne in them… I was sat at the kids’ table, but I could hear the aunts talking kvetching throughout the meal: ‘Did you hear of so-and-so’s husband?’ ‘Yes. Dead. He’s dead. You con’t take it vitchou you know.’ ‘Dod you speak to her, yes, it was a terrible business, everything is lost’, and so on. In their black dresses.

In later years one of these aunts developed dementia, and when the Iron Curtain fell the arrangements were made to take the sisters home. Tom’s father had died by then – unseen – but it was still a miracle, to be able to go. It makes me crazy, even now, having seen and felt the personal price that was paid, that Tallinn is just a cheap place for yobbos to go and get drunk in. The cretins. So they took these two sisters home to the old family house, what kind of a miracle is that. And when they got up to the house, the relatives came out who had been living there, to welcome them, and they got out of the car, and one of Tom’s aunts said: ‘You’ve painted the porch’. And they walked up into the garden. ‘The old apple tree’s gone! What have they done with the apple tree?’

Tom died earlier this year, completely out of the blue; he had prostate cancer for literally years but then dropped dead of a heart attack with no notice, in the middle of a blizzard. His death, and a domino effect of other family emergencies  it raised, have been defining events of our family’s life. But ‘Life is a vale of tears’ still makes me laugh. It makes me feel like he’s right here – and he’s right. I needed him; this was what I needed. It’s profoundly comforting. Just call it like it is.

A friend from the old, old days of childhood, re-found on Facebook, posted up this evening that she is grieving the loss of a guy she had a crush on at school. He has died this week. The past is past. We’ve all had our lives. Last year a couple of our old friends, also from that magical conspiratorial neighbourhood of kids all plotting and playing in the street, started a Facebook group, and naturally in the first month or so all the news was of what happened to this girl and where is that guy. The news came through very fast that two of the kids I’d known, two guys who were best fast friends from the age of 11 or less and inseparable, for both of whom I had a soft spot (because who could not?), were both dead. One a good few years ago, of causes no one seems to want to mention, and one – a lawyer – of a heart attack, last summer. There’s been at least one AIDS death, and a few others.

I don’t really know what I want to say here, except that we all sit with each other over all these decades. We’re all here. My old friend’s sister and my sister have a humorous catchphrase together: ‘We’re all gonna die…’ Well – yeah. This is becoming more and more real with every passing day. but those of us who grew up together, however vaguely and tangentially, we know each other. There’s a real sense almost of sitting shiva, around the world. Facebook does this thing too. We are not alone with things. My sister just said: ‘And when we die. whose heart is it going to break?’

Exactly. The answer is everyone’s. It really is.

And, as anyone from JD Salinger to Nabokov to Dostoyevsky might say, this is the very reason why we must be joyous.

We’re all in it together. Would you rather your heart didn’t break?

“We are all made of dust. But it is stardust.”

May 18, 2015

 This post about the ‘Mozart of Paintings’  is presented exactly as it arrived in my inbox. Above: his ‘Magic Flute’ period Contemporary Italian artist Ottavio Fabbri is a visionary, painter, sculptor, director and conceptual artist today announces his art work will be available for private viewings in UK, with exhibitions planned after the summer. Known […]

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‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’

May 1, 2015

 You remember that 1970s movie, ‘Network’ – it was mainly famous for the catchphrase above, which seemed to strike a chord in disgruntled post-Watergate America. Peter Finch gave a great performance as Howard Beale, a newsreader who threatens to kill himself on air because he’s ‘run out of bullshit’. Well, last Saturday a pair of friends staged a […]

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A cold spring, poetry, and time

April 22, 2015

It is, isn’t it. I’m bloomin’ freezing. But yesterday was lovely and sunny, and the books are pouring in for review. The James Merrill biography has arrived – all 3 kilos of it, I reckon – and I’ve been getting in the mood with his Collected Prose and (of course) some poems, so there’s a kind of wonderful ‘Changing Light’ […]

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Merrilly we go along

April 17, 2015

Something about American book production values… Look! Just a real pleasure, and even buying them is more exciting – you feel like spending your money is an occasion. And can I also say, it got here in three days from New York. UPS. Feels like being a somebody. And the really tragic thing is, no time to […]

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Some reading, and sonofabook

April 8, 2015

This picture from Humans of New York is speaking to me at the moment;  the caption reads: ‘When I came out of the closet, everything came out of the closet’. Here in Baroque Mansions we can only applaud his hat. I’m sitting here in a favourite café in Newington Green, with a frankly ridiculously sunny and […]

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New life

February 27, 2015

Well, the halls of Baroque have been more or less closed for the winter, and there has been black crepe hung along them for Thomas Vink-Lainas, my  much-loved uncle, who died one month and one day ago. He was an artist – a painter, a graphic designer, a maker – a furniture restorer, a framer, […]

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