There’s something going on, and it’s changing the culture of UK poetry. Okay, it’s changing the prize culture of UK poetry, but that really does have an impact on who reads what. In the three years (this year), since its new Director Susannah Herbert took over, the Forward Prize has quietly achieved a bit of a revolution in its approach to poetry – and audiences.
Susannah came from a background in arts journalism, not poetry. She came from a background at the Telegraph, which is not exactly the paper most poets prefer to read (and one about which some might entertain some fixed ideas; but it has excellent arts coverage) – and she came determined to do things in a new way, whatever that way turned out to be. Her brief was to put poetry in the general culture and get it into the hands of people who wouldn’t normally think of it. It’s been a little controversial at times, some poets’ toes got stepped on – especially in the first year, with the famous ‘Actorgate’ episode which left so many bruises – but she is bouncier than that, and not afraid to try again, fail again, fail better – with the result that the Forward is absolutely doing what it set out to do. With the energy of ten, she will always try an new and different ways to engage with both poets and readers, wherever they are. The Forward Prize, without always getting it exactly right (because success comes from trying more things) is working from inside what poetry is for, and I find that deeply exciting. Three years in, it appears to be actually driving positive change in UK poetry culture.
And it’s doing it with less-commercial shortlists!
Their shortlists the last few years have definitely felt different. Fresh. They have made unprecedented space for poets of colour: there was real jubilation the year Kei Miller won, and last year when Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was declared the winner, the place went wild – people were standing, cheering, almost weeping. The atmosphere was amazing – and it didn’t feel much like a poetry reading.
This year, the shortlist continues to do its magic. Four out of the five titles on the shortlist for Best Collection are by women. (And the other one is by Ian Duhig, who has five sisters, so he’s cool with this.) One of them is by Vahni Capildeo, an uncompromising work on the nature and forms of expatriation, in a variety of genres including rather dry prose poems. It’s a stupendous work and has very widespread support to win – and the shortlisting will definitely get it out to people who might otherwise have thought it looked ‘too hard’.
The list for Best First Collection is a multicultural list of small and indie press publications, displaying real verbal virtuosity, and even surprise.
Now, the main prize this country for a long time was the TS Eliot Prize, and they have done amazing work. There have been wonderful books on their shortlists; four a year of the ten have been the seasonal ‘Choice’ books, meaning the judges only chose six. This either waters down the list or gives it built-in diversity, depending how you look at it. It’s resulted in books being shortlisted which were just not up to it, but it’s also put an element of openness and surprise into a prize that was just not usually very surprising. The grumbles have grown year on year over the past decade, the ‘same old’ poets being shortlisted with every book, small presses finding it too hard to compete, the poetics very narrow…
Well, the Forward is catching up – it’s allowing a much broader range of poets a place at the table, and it’s thrilling. I mean, it’s thrilling. It reminds me of the year when Jen Hadfield won the Eliots, and everyone went mad with joy. Look at this list of previous winners and you can see clearly the moment when the box started getting shaken up and thought outside.
So, there’s a workshop coming up
Basically, this is an amazing opportunity to sit and read poems and talk about each of the shortlisted books.
This year, on Saturday 10 September – the week before the prizes are announced – I’m going to run a one-day workshop, the same as I’ve been doing with the TS Eliot shortlist in recent years. It’s just an exciting moment. This is a unique chance to engage with the change as it happens: the shortlists, the books that make them, and the poems in the books. Stretch your awareness of who’s really writing what, and have a look at tons of great new stuff. (Also, time is tight, but I will have printed copies of the shortlisted ‘Best Poems’, so even if we don’t have tie to read them you can take them with you.)
These shortlist-workshop days are always really fun and exciting; we get through an enormous amount, somehow, and there’s a brilliant cafe nearby for lunch (or you can bring your own). And there’s always a chance for a drink afterwards to unwind.
Here are the details:
When: Sat 10th September, 11am-4.30pm
Where: Poetry School, Lambeth Walk, London (near Lambeth North tube)
How much: £50 /£40 concs on a first-come basis
You don’t need to have read any of the books. Sign up now to make sure of getting a place.
* And never fear, there are still a few weeks of ‘summer’ left – I for one am holding out some hope of getting ‘forward into the beach’ before this workshop…