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.