Photo by Bob Jenkin
On the 15th of January 2023, 10 poets took to the stage at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall for the T. S. Eliot prize shortlist readings. The night began with one of the judges, Jean Sprackland, reading T. S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages in tradition with celebrating his work. Ian McMillan then entered the stage as the host for the evening, with quick-witted jokes and insightful introductions to each poet keeping the audience engaged and cheerful throughout the evening. Each poet was given eight minutes to perform a selection of poems from their nominated collection and they did not disappoint.
The first poet to grace the stage was Philip Gross reading from his twenty-seventh collection The Thirteenth Angel. He succeeded in making everyday objects appear ethereal with A Near Distance, commenting on the closeness and distance we have experienced in the past few years, seemingly a nod to the pandemic. He managed to easily yet eloquently merge the metaphysical and the physical with his beautiful imagery alongside delicate language that created an enthralling start to the evening.
Next was Victoria Adukwei Bulley with her debut collection Quiet, exploring black interiority and selfhood. Using experimental forms, she interrogates the perceptions of racial binaries, inciting a questioning of what it means to be black in a western society, asking ‘what might it mean to have a black mirror?’. She also talks about the black female body beautifully with her poetry, leaving questions for the audience to ponder on.
Following up with another debut collection was Mark Pajak with Slide. This collection is violent yet emotional with poignant imagery, such as with A Set Place - a sentimental poem of his aunt’s pregnancy, which takes a disheartening turn. Pajak’s confident stage presence contrasted Bulley’s reservedness, yet they both commented on difficult topics that were significant to the current climate.
Another personal and emotional collection was Denise Saul’s The Room Between Us, detailing the story of her mother’s illness and the aphasia she developed afterwards. The difficulty of language and identity were apparent in her readings and most striking was Minor Variations that explores how her mother's language developed into hand signals in order to communicate. Saul read with a beautiful softness that heightened the emotions of her dedication to her mother in Golden Grove.
My personal favourite performance of the night was Manorism written by Yomi Sode, an insight into what it means to be a Black male in Britain. The only poet to directly engage with the audience, Sode had us chanting ‘ohhhh Thiago Silva’ in his poem centring around the difference in the way that media treats Black artists. Sode provided a stark criticism of racial binaries, of which he condemned the media's double standards and cultural appropriation. This collection was certainly intended to be shared orally and Sode did so with power and emotional vulnerability that guided an audience through a range of emotions from laughter to anger and sadness.
After Sode, Zaffar Kunial followed with England’s Green. His focus on landscape and how he connects this with the aural nature of his poetry constructed a masterful teasing out of sounds one would usually pay no attention to. His experimentation with language and sound felt innovative and refreshing, which was further exemplified through his readings.
Also exploring the natural world was Jemma Borg’s Wilder that rejects the sterility of an ever-changing climate to embrace the resilience of the natural world along with the struggles of motherhood. Although she could not attend on the night, Merly Pugh did her collection justice, highlighting Borg’s conversation between human and nature that she evokes through skilful personification and delicate language.
James Conor Patterson then read from his debut collection Bandit County. Very different from many of the other poets performing, this collection fixates on a narrative of a young man navigating the largely lawless borderlands between the Republic and the north of Ireland. His first poem was dedicated to Ciaran Carson, evidently a large source of inspiration for his work. Patterson evoked unique imagery with his idiomatic language, much of which was unfamiliar yet thought provoking.
Then it was the turn of King’s very own lecturer Anthony Joseph. Grief and loss become the primary themes of Sonnets for Albert, a personal exploration of the absence of a father figure. Focusing on the form of the sonnet, Joseph managed to masterfully craft a refreshing take on a traditional form. He seemed at ease on the stage, offering a memorable performance and placing him as a strong contender for this year's prize.
The final poet of the night was Fiona Benson with Ephemeron, a collection of poems that explores the transient and fleeting quality of life from adolescence to parenthood. She retells the story of the Minotaur in a tragic manner, offering a new outlook on the classical tale from the point of view of Ariadne. Benson creates emotional narratives with her powerful prose which she read poignantly on the night.
All the poets offered beautiful readings of their nominated collections and I don’t envy the judges in what will be a truly difficult decision to make. The results are announced on the 16th of January at an awards ceremony, where the winning poet will receive £25,000 and each nominated poet will receive £1,500.
Edited by Holly Cornall, Literature Editor