What kind of poetry do you like? If you’re not sure, or like a wide range of voices and styles, then the Forward Prize readings at Southbank Centre on 18 September is looking like the one event not to miss this year.
Of course what makes for the ‘best’ in poetry is hotly contested, with readers and judges going by their own intuitive senses to come to a collective decision. What else has any reader got to go on? It hasn’t been easy for this year’s judges, Bidisha, Niall Campbell, Mimi Khalvati, Jen Campbell and myself, but we have found a strong shared ground in agreeing on the books chosen for each category of the prize: Best Poem, Best First Collection and Best Collection.
The Prize for Best First Collection threw a lot of interesting and varied work our way. What is it that makes a first collection stand out? Confidence, for a start. Each of the poets we chose for this category made it look like they’re old hands and have been at the art for years, which of course they have been. The tone and concerns of the poets range from the tricksy and magical to the confessional and projective. Formal range, invention and lyric self-confidence defined this category.
Phoebe Power's Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) is a wonderfully strange and intriguing book. Peppered throughout with Austrian words and ways of seeing, Power (currently living in York), plays the UK back to the reader as an oddly self-centered place:
'We can learn a skill, like knitting, papermaking or cake decoration. We can go
camping, do a cycle trail. We can use the Internet to share opinions and
keep up to date ... We can do most of these things without really
Responding to climate change seems to be a thing that can be taken on as a lifestyle choice; after all, we don’t actually see the snowfall decline on the upper peaks of Austria. In her poem Milk the main character, Jessica, gives up milk to benefit the environment. She then takes up, and abandons, soya, almond milk and rice milk until she decides to make her own drink with blended hemp. The poem ends with Jessica guiltily looking at the ‘gadget unplugged, the electrical socket searing with heat’.
Power writes tenderly of childhood, with a series of colourful, open-ended lyrics that are offset in the collection between the stranger and darker prose poems, a series of which recount a noiresque murder crime. Office culture, particularly the privileged over-paid male, is acerbically taken to task. And it’s a delight to have so many Austrian phrases used in the book, my favourite being: ‘Wann wird es winder richtiges Winter?’ which translates as ‘When will winter be right again?’
Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin) is woven together with a sequence of poems called ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic....’ which includes ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy’, ‘….with craving’, ‘….in space with Severed Umbilicus’ and ‘….with Moths and River’.
Akbar, an Iranian-American poet, is gifted with the ability to become completely detach from himself in his writing, as if he can see his life and body as a still life painting. He’s even prepared to present a portrait of himself as a nude:
looks uglier naked or at least
I do my pillar of fizz my damp
These poems, focused on a long period of alcoholism (the poet is only 29) soar due to the open form rhythms and freedom from punctuation. Poems are often aligned away from the left margin or positioned in stanzas clustered across the whole expanse of a page. What impresses most in Akbar’s work is his gift for deep images. In my view rhythm and imagery are the two aspects of poetry that can’t be learned at night school and it’s a delight to watch Akbar create beauty and colour from his despair, with the moon appearing ‘like a pale cabbage rose’ and a heart ‘flapping at dawn like a baby’s cheek’. Lungs becomes ‘God-harnesses’. This tension of unflinching self-portraiture and the creation of beauty works because Akbar refuses to stereotype or to simplify complex experiences with soundbites: ‘I am not a slow learner’, Akbar writes, ‘I am a quick forgetter’.
Abigail Parry’s Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) is a book full of feints, tricks, illusions and masks. It’s no surprise to find out that Parry once worked as a toy maker, in fact her poems bear out the point made by American poet Kenneth Rexroth that poems can often push language like a child’s use of a toy, putting it to every kind of use other than that which it was meant for.
Her poems are technically distinct for their listings of oddities: ‘Voracious, Venture, Vanguard, Vulpine, Vox.’ Parry collects words like gemstones, each for their own aura and luminosity, and excels in repetitions, often with variations around people’s names:
‘That’s Annie. Fingers Annie.
If there’s a theme binding the collection it’s in the desecration of a mythical, sweet-talking, elusive, never-to-be-trusted lover who loves and leaves, the ‘Stickpin’ goat who goads, gets what he wants, and goes. There is a strong sense of empowerment in these poems because for all the trickery of this lover figure Parry’s poems out-trick him.
One of the joys of the collection is in reading how far Parry can go in extending a conceit, for example a narrator in one poem finds a heart stranded ‘down the M4’, which they split in two and throw half out of the car window. The poem then leads to a fusion of connections around the heart, its symbology and functions, bringing in the views of the narrator’s therapist and her mother. The fact that the narrator says ‘This is not…a metaphor’ shows how far Parry can take an idea, pump it out and wring it, leaving the reader wondering how on earth they ended up ‘out beyond the London Orbital’.
Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press) is a collection full of Gods, invented characters and strained family relations, with lessons learned from grandmothers and wisdom and language gifts handed on to daughters. This is a dark and mysterious collection full of taut, sinuous lyrics in which the author’s identity flows freely and refuses to stabilise in a fixed position.
Ramlochan’s style is distinct for its rangy lines which are often formed of single words:
I write into you hard enough
the rumour murmurs that you’ll come for me.
Ramlochan excels under the personas of her dramatic monologue poems, especially those written from the perspective of ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter’. It’s here that Ramclochan’s caustic vitriol towards the clinical male takes fire. There’s a tremendous paradox in the invention of this character, a woman related to a man whose occupation it is to terminate life.
Ramlochan’s poems draw on a strong female ancestry and invoke spirits from the minotaur to Khali. ‘Jouvay’ is written in a Trinidadian dialect and demonstrates a powerful metamorphism and transcendence, ‘thanking the thrashtongued of my own shrine’.
The blurb for Richard Scott's Soho (Faber) describes it as ‘an uncompromising portrait of love and gay shame’. In the expansiveness of this self-exploration there are also poems of gay liberation, tenderness and eroticism. Scott builds on the groundwork of his luminaries, historic gay poets from Walt Whitman and Paul Verlaine to Thom Gunn.
In fact, it is this engagement with the work of early gay poets that adds such weight to this book. Scott’s is a work of rich decoding of the English canon, with the opening poem seeing him trawling through the Golden Treasury of Verse looking for some inclusion of a gay voice. Scott finds this through close reading lines such as ‘tongue-true’ and ‘vaunt’, a queer subtext in a poem by the Victorian Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. Further into the collection lines from Whitman are interspersed within Scott’s own, showing a lineage in poetics as well as experience.
What’s so impressive about this collection is its lyrical fluency, its inventiveness, its easy travel across language borders into experimental terrain. The majority of the poems are unpunctuated and written in lower case, which adds to a strong sense of resistance to the authority of the straight white male in poetry. If some readers are unsettled by Scott’s detailed descriptions of a gay sex they might want to ask if they feel the same about Lord Rochester’s writing about his forays in St James’s Park, or Bukowski’s detailings of affairs with women. The final denouement to the collection is the sequence ‘Oh My Soho!’ Through this series of poems Scott excavates gay history which allows him to find his place in his culture and achieve an epic ending to his book:
‘Every empire, ours included,
has done its savage best to stamp us out, redact our mission
violent reception from the permanent collection.’