Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo wins 2016 Forward prize for poetry

Poet takes £15,000 prize for Measures of Expatriation – the third Caribbean poet in a row to win the award

Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo has won the 2016 Forward prize for best poetry collection, making it three years in a row that a Caribbean poet has won one of the most prestigious poetry awards in the UK and Ireland.

The prize for first collection was also awarded to a Caribbean writer, Tiphanie Yanique, who was born in the Virgin Islands.

Capildeo’s collection Measures of Expatriation, which explores ideas of belonging and home, saw off a shortlist including TS Eliot winner Alice Oswald, Ian Duhig, Choman Hardi and Denise Riley. She follows two Jamaican-born poets, Kei Miller and Claudia Rankine, who took the main prize respectively in 2014 and 2015.

Chair of the judges, Malika Booker, called Capildeo’s collection “a book you will forever be opening”.

“She is trying to articulate something quite hard to pin down and isn’t afraid to boldly take risks in language and layout,” Booker said. “It is a book that no one else could have written; it is her DNA, her stamp. Every time you open that book, you’ll find something peculiar, something exhilarating, something new, something exquisitely crafted.”

“[Measures of Expatriation] is almost like a swan – calm on top of the water, and underneath it is pedalling furiously, to create a new vocabulary in terms of the layout and language used, the lexicon it uses.”

Capildeo received the £15,000 prize at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Tuesday night. She previously worked as a OED lexicographer and has an Oxford DPhil in Old Norse. She comes from a well-known Trinidadian family of politicians and writers, which includes Booker prize-winning novelist VS Naipaul.

Yanique’s first collection Wife, which has taken the £5,000 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection, is an exploration of matrimony that Booker described as “deceptively simple but [actually] complex and bold”.

“Thinking about the region, and how patriarchy is so rife there ... how Yanique examines the different facets of matrimony and how witty it was, was so exciting to us. Her titular poem Wife is a tour de force,” Booker said.

English poet and translator Sasha Dugdale was awarded the £1,000 best single poem prize for Joy, which was first published in PN Review. A “surprisingly long winner” according to Booker, Joy is written in the voice of William Blake’s newly widowed wife Catherine, and is “mesmerising, beautiful and effortless to read”.

“It shows craftsmanship, to be able to maintain and sustain an emotional intensity, a dramatic play-like poem that still left us fulfilled and satisfied,” Booker said.

Joined on the judges panel by poets George Szirtes and Liz Berry, musician Tracey Thorn and Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, Booker said they were divided initially but the decisions were unanimous after “passionate argument” and that they were all “surprised to find two Caribbean poets and three women as winners”.

“I’m so excited and so happy about our decisions. If the shortlists this year are indicative of what is happening in British poetry, it is such an exciting place to be at the moment. All three poets to me have added something to the poetic landscape and extended some of the conversations we are having in terms of what is poetry,” she said.

With 2016 marking the 25th year of the Forward prize, an annual studentship programme was announced on Tuesday night to support young poets. This year it was awarded to Shukria Rezaei, a young poet from Afghanistan who works as a teaching assistant at Oxford Spires Academy with poet Kate Clanchy to run writing groups with refugees and disadvantaged children.

A poetry collection called 100 Prized Poems: 25 years of the Forward Books, featuring past winners Carol Ann Duffy and Don Paterson, has also been released to mark the prizes’ anniversary year.


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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