Even if you don’t know much about the Forward Prizes for Poetry, the chances are you will have heard of some of the previous winners. Founded by the publisher and philanthropist William Sieghart, compiler of The Poetry Pharmacy, in 1992, the prizes have among their alumni Ocean Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds), Claudia Rankine (Citizen: An American Lyric), Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and Scots Makar, Jackie Kay.
The annual awards are comprised of a £10,000 prize for Best Collection, £5,000 for Best First Collection, and £1,000 for Best Single Poem. The 2019 prizes were awarded on 20 October, with the winning poets’ writing covering Greek mythology, a retelling of a legend recalled from childhood, and Super Mario. Chair of the judges, the writer, academic and critic Shahidha Bari, said at the awards ceremony at the Southbank Centre in London that the “challenge for the judges has been to try to understand how each of these collections have balanced technical brilliance and daring with political urgency and emotional resonance.”
Fiona Benson, winner of Best Collection, was shortlisted for the debut collection prize in 2015 for Bright Travellers, and last year her piece ‘Ruin’ was shortlisted for best poem. Her winning collection, Vertigo & Ghost, was described by The Guardian as “addictive, thrilling, sickening… a book of two halves: one merely very good, the other quite out of this world.” The first half is a series of poems in which Zeus, the ancient Greek king of the gods, is portrayed is a serial rapist; the latter half is more personal, addressing Benson’s experiences with parenthood and depression. The poet Andrew McMillan, one of the judges, said, “Fiona’s are poems which ask us to contemplate some of the darkest parts of human nature, with Fiona as our guide, there is no need for us to be fearful.” The collection won the Roehampton Poetry Prize in May, and has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, the winner of which will be announced in January 2020.
The winner of the prize for Best First Collection, Stephen Sexton, is reluctant even to call himself a poet. In an interview with the Forward Arts Foundation (FAF), he explained, “I find the idea of writing a poem much more approachable than the idea of writing poetry.” His winning book, If All the World and Love Were Young, is a pastoral elegy for his mother, who died in 2012; but, in a bold twist, the pastoral landscape is that of Nintendo’s Super Mario World. Sexton, who is from County Down, wrote in The Irish Times that he started his Mario-based poetry as “a kind of joke”, but soon realised, “I couldn’t interrogate these worlds without thinking about my childhood, and I couldn’t think about my childhood without thinking about my mother.”
The judges described the collection as talking to “a generation whose memories are formed by hardware and software as well as space and place.” Sexton recently earned his PhD from the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast, where he is now a lecturer.
Parwana Fayyaz, who won the prize for Best Single Poem, learned English only ten years ago. Fayyaz, who was born in Afghanistan, won for her poem ‘Forty Names’. Speaking to the FAF, the poet explained, “The poem communicates a story about forty women jumping off a cliff to preserve their honour…[it] tries to re-narrate the story by giving the forty women their names, a lamp and their colourful scarves.” Accepting the award, Fayyaz, a Stanford graduate who is now studying for a PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, said, “I have not won, the poem I have written has won, and the words, the mountains and the legend of this poem have been won, and the legend I heard from my parents, they have won. I have only written it.”
Image: Jonathan Cape