T. S. Eliot Prize News

Poem of the Week

Poem of the week this week comes from Pascale Petit’s Fauverie, published by Seren. Fauverie was shortlisted for the 2014 T. S. Eliot Prize. You can hear Pascale reading from this collection here.

‘Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier’

The man with an aviary – the one
sparrows follow as he shuffles along,
helping him with caresses of their wings.
The one a nightingale serenades
just because he’s in pain – that’s
the father I choose, not the man
who thrusts red-hot prongs in their eyes
so their songs will carry for miles.
He is not the kind to tie their wings. No.
My father’s nightingale will pine for him
when he dies. My Papa
with a warbler on each shoulder
and a linnet on his head, the loner
even crows chatter to. He does not
cut the nerves of their tongues
so they will sing sweeter.
When my father’s bullfinch has a bad dream
only his voice can calm it.
The hoopoe warms itself on his stove.
It leaps in the air when he wakes
and rubs its breast against his face.
It can tell what mood he’s in at a glance
and will raise its crest in alarm
if Papa struggles for breath.
My father’s chaffinch can bring him
all the birdsong from the wood.
He does not glue its eyelids
shut so it will sing night and day.
He does not make canaries trill so loud
that the tiny branches of their lungs
burst. I am sure of this, though I am just
an ounce in the fist of his hand.


Poem of the Week

Poem of the week this week comes from Ruth Padel’s Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, published by Chatto & Windus. Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth was shortlisted for the 2014 T. S. Eliot Prize. You can hear Ruth reading from this collection here.

‘Capoeira Boy’

I saw him on YouTube. He was learning the martial art
that masks fighting as dance; the rocking, foot-
to-foot ginga bracing him for kicks, swipes
and thistle-light acrobalance. He was finding how to spin,

feint, soar with his opponent. You could worry about him,
at least I did, but I saw he was loved. A favourite
perhaps. Enough anyway to give hope a chance
despite his lumbering, faintly victim, stance

as the two circled each other, holding their arms
off their torsos like cormorants drying their wings.
He was seven or eight, wearing glasses. Eagerness
shone out of him inside the ring of boys

chanting to a tambourine. They knew slaves in Brazil
made the rules. Only by dance do you learn how to fight.
Only by fight how to dance. And also that kids like them,
on the West Bank, could learn this in Hebron.

I saw him on YouTube in Jalazoun Refugee Camp.
The teacher, laughing, supervised falls, accidents,
cat’s whisker escapes. I imagined he was telling them
Squat and spin! Flat on your hands! Aim your kick in his face –

let him duck – then cartwheel away. This is all about you
but you’re nothing without him. Let the dance-fight-dance
set you free. Free of the six-lane motorway
shaking the camp with its sorrowful vibrations.

Free of the twenty-foot wall of cement, a stage set for Macbeth.
Grey olives flickered beyond, on hills where I guessed
older men like his grandfather were born
and are forbidden to graze sheep or tend their trees again.

While the boys danced, I pictured the flame of a split aorta
in the chest of a man who has lived all his days in the camps
and will die in one now. Afternoon flowed
through rows of tents like mist coming off black jade

as each became the other’s mirror. They were twin lights
in a sconce, tiger cubs perfecting life skills – pounce timing,
split speed for the roda – each pouring all he was
into the little space between self’s flying heel and other’s face.

Clare Pollard – The New Diversity

Fresh from reading a record 176 submissions, T. S. Eliot Prize judge Clare Pollard celebrates the boom in poetry

By most measures, this is a good year for poetry. As life moves increasingly online, poetry suits the internet – it fits in a tweet, a blogpost, an Instagram snap, a podcast, a Youtube video. In an age of activism, poets create phrases that cut through the propaganda – think of how Warsan Shire’s line: ‘no one leaves home / unless home is the mouth of a shark’ has touched millions. Novelists find themselves competing with mobile phones, but those devices in our pockets deliver a steady stream of poetry to people every day, accompanying their commutes and coffees. The internet’s global reach has meant a surge of interest in other poetries, American poets and translated poetry in particular, whilst British poets are being recognised on a global stage. With our working lives often spent in front of a screen, in their free time people also want real experiences. Poetry is ideally placed for this too – as a (usually) brief art-form, rooted in the human voice, festivals and theatres know poetry is crowd-pleasing in a way other literary forms find hard to emulate.

The good news is, whilst there has long been concern that gigs and clicks don’t convert into book sales, it seems that they actually do – the MD of Nielsen BookScan recently declared that poetry sales have risen 66% in the last five years. This is, in part, because of big presses like Penguin catching the zeitgeist and putting poetry back on their lists, but also because of the surge in small presses producing beautiful, ambitious books that people want to own and photograph for their shelfies – in those last five years Nine Arches, The Emma Press, Penned in the Margins, Boiler House Press and Offord Road Books (to name a few) have become important players. It’s also undoubtedly because hard groundwork done to increase diversity is finally paying off, with many of the most exciting poets graduates of schemes like The Complete Works for BAME poets, or anthologies such as Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, edited by Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman. It turns out that poetry’s subjects have not been exhausted: there are still new perspectives, new forms, new thoughts, new battles to be fought. It also turns out that when people see themselves represented in the poetry scene, they might actually turn into writers and readers of poetry themselves. (Who knew? Oh yes, it’s completely obvious).

Some get grumpy about this new diversity of platforms and voices, as they are used to a certain type of poetry being held up as best; to narrow definitions of ‘craft’ and ‘seriousness’. It’s like they love wine so have spent a lifetime memorising the subtleties of certain grapes, vintages, terroir, and suddenly they’re being offered a coffee, a cocktail or a smoothie. ‘But this isn’t a Rioja!’ they bellow. Well, I like wine as well, but not all the time, and, once you educate yourself, you discover there can be as much skill involved in the preparation of other drinks. Let’s raise a cup of whatever you enjoy to the current state of poetry!

2018 T. S. Eliot Prize judges

Clare Pollard’s website

Photo credit Marcos Avlonitis