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Bhanu Kapil wins 2021 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize

According to the T. S. Eliot Prize Chair Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘Poetry is the most resilient, potent, capacious and universal art we have’. Despite the fact that this year’s award ceremony is taking place digitally, I cannot help but agree. When burdened with the reality of a global pandemic, sometimes an artfully concise poem can soothe the body and quiet the mind.

The T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize aims to encourage public engagement with modern poetry. Among the list of previous winners are poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. This year’s selection of long-listed candidates provides a diverse range of artistic voices and poetic themes. 

Ella Frears’ Shine Darling is a personal favourite for her penetrating exploration of sexual assault and spontaneity as a method to propel her examination. J. O. Morgan’s The Hopes of Martian Settlers introduces thought-provoking poems inspired by myths, folktales and songs, and succeeds in holding a mirror up to the contemporary ecological emergency. 

This years T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize winner, announced on the 24th January, is Bhanu Kapil for her work How to Wash a Heart. This anthology deals not only with displacement, diaspora and exile but with the aftermath of such journeys. Having grown up in a South-East Asian working-class community in London and the daughter of Indian parents, Kapil’s focus on the aftermath of immigration is semi-autobiographical. 

The titular poem is a great example of how Kapil expertly mixes narrative, prose and verse to create a contemporary prose/poetry style, thus relating the story of her often misfit characters to her artistic style by creating something recognisable, but still alien. With expert knowledge of poetic technique, relationships, racism and mental health, Kapil confronts inequalities unapologetically.

Kapil includes haunting quotes that provide insight into the difficulties of integration, and evokes empathy with her first-person narratives: ‘It’s exhausting to be a guest in somebody else’s house forever’. Her examination permeates further into race dynamics, highlighting the deadly and othering consequences of white supremacy and anti-immigration rhetoric in Western countries. ‘As your guest, I trained myself / To beautify / Our collective trauma’, Kapil declares. ‘I understood that you were a wolf / Capable of devouring / My internal organs / If I exposed them to view’.

Kapil suggests that if a place claims to be hospitable, it already creates a power dynamic between host and guest. In that way, the host can at any time evict the guest just as she was supposedly welcomed. Kapil invites every reader to consider the power dynamics embedded in relationships and the systems built around us.

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