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Tuesday night’s award ceremony for the 2018 Forward Prizes for Poetry was an evening filled with a spirit of healing determined to overcome some of humanity’s worst traumas. Some of the best poets working today, stood on that grand stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank to reveal the power of the human voice, to stimulate, inspire, and feed the soul, as we feasted on one poem after another with greedy delight. Live poetry readings are a phenomenal experience, with last night’s prize-giving event being one that will stay with me for a long time.
The diverse range of poets’ ages, nationalities, ethnicities, gender identities, and artistic styles felt like a celebration of all humankind. The poets’ genuine sense of camaraderie visible onstage as they sat beside one another, listening to their peers read their poems aloud to an eager and packed audience added to the feeling of inclusivity. It was an amazing night of poetry, and a heartfelt thank you goes out to the judges (Bidisha, Mimi Khalvati, Chris McCabe, Niall Campbell, and Jen Campbell) who brought these fifteen poets to a London stage to share their gift of poetry with us.
I haven’t had the opportunity to attend a night of live poetry readings in some time, and I’m glad to have had Suji Kwock Kim’s invitation to the Forward Prizes Event. Witnessing poet and performer Danez Smith recite their award winning poem (and viral Youtube sensation), summer, somewhere was a truly novel experience. Smith’s powerful voice transformed the Queen Elizabeth Hall into an emotionally charged arena, making the #blacklivesmatter hashtag that has swept across America and the world in recent years, palpable. Through images and emotion, the poem depicts what is often misunderstood in social media and news reports- the experience of those who Smith calls ‘brown’ ‘black’ ‘boy’ ‘son’ ‘warning’ ‘myth’ and eventually ‘god’, master of his own domain, paradise. Here the faultless dead can finally rest in peace because no peace on earth is offered to the sons, the boys, the men who are guilty before they even say a word. The power of poetry lies in giving voice to the voiceless, especially when in the hands of experts like Smith, who is gender neutral, queer, HIV positive and African-American thus positing themself as an inspiration for many.
Their poem opens with a tranquil scene common anywhere in America and ends in paradise where only the unjustly fallen, may rest for eternity:
‘somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. Boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides…
‘we earned this paradise
by a death we didn’t deserve.
someone prayed we’d rest in peace
& here we are
in peace whole all summer’
I had previously read Smith’s collection (Don’t Call Us Dead by Chatto & Windus) when it was published in the UK earlier this year, but the live performance made the printed words come alive with an explosive energy. Smith was graced with an applauding audience at the end both for the strength of their poem and the performance delivered. The experience was akin to that of watching Shakespeare perform his own Hamlet, or Beethoven play his own piano sonata.
In contrast to Smith’s passionate performance, Tracy K. Smith’s style was understated and therefore stunning. Poet Laureate of the United States, T.K. Smith’s poem, The Angels, from her new collection (Wade in the Water by Penguin UK) recounts a visit from heavenly emissaries:
‘To think how they smelled, what
Comes to mind is rum and gasoline.
And when they spoke, though I couldn’t,
I dared not look, I glimpsed how one’s teeth
Were ground down almost to nubs…”
These angels say not to fear them, age after age, and T.K. Smith leaves us with the desolate image of her dying mother:
“My mother sat whispering with it [an owl]
At the end of her life
While all the rooms of our house
Filled up with night.”
Her delicate prose fills the senses with images of fear, pain, and grief that transcend time. She juxtaposes ugly realities of the otherworldly, once thought of as beautiful, against their true moralites, exposed in their fearful natures. The nuanced tone of her voice flooded the audience with serenity and offered us a moment of quiet, inner reflection.
Shivanee Ramlochan, shortlisted for Best First Collection (Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting by Peepal Tree Press), read her first poem of the night, The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares Her Love, and took the audience’s breath away. We let out a collective sigh of emotional release, exasperation, and surprise at the beauty of the final lines:
‘Never give a woman more sadness than she needs.
From this fabric, from this persistent earth, she will wrangle greater things
than men can fathom.
Here is the church. It lies close to the land that they gave us.
Come see the land of my grandmother, and her mother, and hers.
Come walk on the borders of my mother’s land, where no trees grow.’
A poem that scrutinizes the yoke of patriarchy, it examines how women are stripped of their autonomy over their bodies and of how they experience their own lives. It explores what is given and what is expressly taken away when too much sorrow, pain and humiliation overwhelms the victim. The poem paints a picture that is bleak, but also beautiful, in revealing that the strength of women under terrible systems of authority often rise above, if they manage to survive.
In Ramlochan’s second poem, On the Third Anniversary of the Rape, she explores the trauma of reporting a rape and offers emotionless words to replace the emotionally charged terminology involved in sexual assault:
‘Don’t say forced anal entry.
Say you learned that some flowers bloom and die
Don’t say rapist.
Say engineer of aerosol deodorant because pepper spray is illegal,
anything is illegal
Fight back too hard, and it’s illegal,
your nails are illegal […]’
She finally closes her emotional poem with another exquisite image:
he took something he’ll be punished for taking,
not something you’re punished for holding
like red thread between your thighs.’
It’s a powerful poem that strikes a chord in the hearts of the infinite number of women who survive rape only to suffer society’s ignorance and mistreatment, forcing the trauma and shame to remain etched in the minds of the victims. Ramlochan’s view of rape is a forward thinking one which becomes explicit in her poem. It must be read by everyone who holds a political office (deciding the fate of rapists) or are the first responders: the police officers (who investigate the rapes) and the medical personnel (who first attend to the victim’s injuries and evidence).
With recent cases such as the one where Brett Kavanaugh allegedly attempted to rape Ford when they were back in school being brought to mind, Ramlochan’s poem does well to remind us of the censure and ignorance directed at the victim by the society. We must share her poem far and wide, to encourage the new generation to nurture fresh views on rape and the politics of the same. I purchased Ramlochan’s first collection of poems the moment I arrived back home and cannot wait to read it from cover to cover!
While a total of fifteen brilliant poets were shortlisted for the Forward Prizes, five in each of the three categories, I’ve mentioned the three poets who personally stood out for me on the night because of my own experiences. The winners of each category were decided on, by the five talented judges after intense scrutiny and greatly deserve their awarded prizes: Best Single Poem, Liz Berry for The Republic of Motherhood by Granta; Best First Collection, Phoebe Power for Shrines of Upper Austria by Carcanet; and Best Collection, Danez Smith for Don’t Call Us Dead by Chatto & Windus. I extend my heartiest congratulations to the winners and the other shortlisted authors as each of them contribute to the canon of poetry that explores a variety of experiences that resounds with people coming from all walks of life.
Listening to the fifteen shortlisted poets read their work aloud to an audience full of poetry enthusiasts and newcomers to poetry was a special experience, at once intimate and emotionally charged, as each poet expressed, in their unique style, and voice, the poem that represented a part of them, their life, their experience, and their art. The power of poetry resides in its unique ability to transmit human experience between the poet and the reader/listener with fresh imagery that excites, angers, saddens, and even amuses, while instilling mutual understanding–an expression of human experience both foreign and familiar to each of us. This diverse group of poets represents every part of our collective human experience: youth, wisdom, trauma, grief, love, lust, rejection, motherhood, ostracization, persecution, and broken histories. So go on, buy their poems, read them in bed, aloud or privately in your head, see the world through new eyes, feast on images and ideas that will feed your soul for a lifetime.
The Forward Prize for Best Single Poem
The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books)
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet)*
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)
The Forward Prize for Best Collection
Vahni Capildeo – Venus as a Bear (Carcanet)
- O. Morgan – Assurances (Cape Poetry)
Toby Martinez de las Rivas – Black Sun (Faber & Faber)
Danez Smith – Don’t Call Us Dead (Chatto & Windus)*
Tracy K. Smith – Wade in the Water (Penguin UK)
*denotes the category winner
To see future live poetry readings, visit these sites: