Last Sunday saw me high-stepping it to London for the T S Eliot prize readings. A week has passed; there’s been much social media discussion of the short-listed poets, their readings, their respective collections, and, not least, last Monday’s announcement of the winner. Robin Houghton slightly pipped me at the post with her own account (see here). And, sticking to my newly-acquired habit of weekly blogging, what follows is my own retrospective, albeit a tad ‘late’.
As a first-timer, my expectations were based on poet friends’ experiences as regular attendees. I wasn’t disappointed.
I’d booked for Malika Booker’s preview event as, having read only two of the short-listed collections, I decided an overview of all ten would be useful and enhance my enjoyment of the evening to come. I arrived slightly breathless after a very brisk walk along the South Bank from Tower Bridge tube station (this provincial having stopped for lunch along the way and under-estimating the remaining walking distance/time). I found the ongoing reprographics issue (too few copies of poems for discussion, handed round singly before each of ten readings) rather irksome (proof that you can’t take the teacher out of the poet!). That said, I did appreciate Booker’s overviews, insights into recurring themes in each collection and more. She had much to unpack/unpick in the two hours allotted, and she did it well.
Afterwards, I headed for Foyles to purchase a copy of James Sheard’s The Abandoned Settlements (I’ve reduced my poetry TBR by half, lately, so I felt entitled…) as I’d particularly enjoyed his readings amongst the T S Eliot shortlist recordings.
Then there was tea and cake (those that know me know…), and much poetry talk as I was joined by fellow Soundswriters and others before it was time to find our seats.
With the Royal Festival Hall lighting, temperature control and seats just right, nothing detracted from the proceedings, from Bill Herbert’s opening with Eliot’s ‘Difficulties of a Statesman’ through Ian McMillan’s informed yet informal introductions steering the auspicious programme of ten poets, ten readings. For once, I wasn’t longing for the interval – and it took me by surprise when it came.
My Top Five high points (in running order):
James Sheard was an engaging reader; his measured pace allowed his lyrical poems breathing space. I looked forward even more to cracking open my latest poetry purchase on the return train journey.
Tara Bergin oozed confidence and composure. ‘Making Robert Learn Like Susan’, a deliciously tongue-in-cheek poke at pedagogy, made me smile.
Jacqueline Saphra’s feisty but polished delivery and considered choice of poems from a collection I loved on first reading (am biased, having enjoyed everything she’s published to date). And Ian McMillan’s praise for the small poetry press did not go unnoticed. What an accolade, for Saphra, her editor Jane Commane, and Nine Arches Press, when the poetry-publishing big guns so frequently hog the limelight when it comes to the ‘top’ awards. (Jacqueline adds her own praise, here).
Ocean Vuong’s wisdom and humility belie his age. For the duration of his allotted eight minutes the audience held their coughs (mostly); the hush before applause for ‘Aubade With Burning City‘ was almost tangible. He is a worthy winner. I wasn’t at all surprised by Monday’s announcement, despite the stiff competition. (And, yes, Night Sky with Exit Wounds should be popping through my letterbox any day now).
Caroline Bird was in her comfort zone, I thought, moving swiftly on from an early hiccup in an otherwise consummate performance, finishing with ‘A Toddler Creates Thunder by Dancing on a Manhole’ to an enthusiastic response from her punters.
You can listen to recordings of all ten T S Eliot Prize 2017 readings here.
In other news, my poem, ‘Towards a Safe Return,’ was shortlisted in the WoLF (Wolverhampton Literature Festival) poetry competition. I’m pleased, especially as this means said poem now has ‘published’ status, being included in the competition anthology of winning and short-listed poems. I’m looking forward to receiving and reading my contributors’ copy (Another poetry parcel? Yes, please!). You can read Rachel Plummer’s winning poem and the full results here.