Danez Smith becomes youngest winner of Forward poetry prize

Chair of judges Bidisha pays tribute to collection Don’t Call Us Dead’s ‘passionate and very contemporary’ verse

The 29-year-old African American poet Danez Smith has beaten writers including the US poet laureate to become the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Forward prize for best poetry collection – and the first winner to identify as gender-neutral.

Smith, who prefers the pronoun “they”, confronts race, police brutality and gender in their collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, as well as their HIV-positive diagnosis. In its opening sequence, “summer, somewhere”, Smith imagines an afterlife for black men shot dead by the police. In “dear white America”, a poem that went viral on Youtube, Smith writes: “i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave.”

The collection is, said chair of judges Bidisha, “a powerful warning: this is what’s happening. Be alert, pay attention!” She added that its tight and lyrical poems show “an astonishing formal and emotional range and a mastery of metrical, musical language”.

She paid tribute to its “bravery and defiance, and also yearning and anger. There’s desire and vulnerability. For us, this was a passionate and very contemporary collection and very universal in lots of ways. It’s not just about reducing a poet and saying they’re writing about police brutality in America. It’s about injustice and it’s about countering inequality with a stance of saying ‘I’m going to get up and speak out, I’m going to externalise my reality’. We loved that, the confidence of it.”

Smith, who was shortlisted alongside the US poet laureate Tracy K Smith and former winner Vahni Capildeo, earlier said they hoped that making the final cut for the £10,000 award would mean that “someone out there will see my work – my black, queer loudmouth work on this platform – and recognise the worthiness in themselves”.

Four years ago, Jeremy Paxman judged the Forward prize and found, at a time of declining sales for poetry, that the art form had “connived at its own irrelevance”, with poets “talking to other poets” rather than to their readers. As a new US survey uncovered a boom in poetry reading, especially among young people and African Americans, Bidisha said that poetry is now “having a total rebirth”.

“There’s been a real injection of new perspectives in poetry. The poets are really outward-looking,” she said. “It’s not poems about ‘I love you but you don’t love me and here’s 50 poems about that’, it’s much more about getting outside of the house and using your eyes to look outwards. There’s also a real diversity in terms of form. The verse, the stanza form and very polished writing is still there, but it’s interpolated with great humour and aphoristic witty quality and things that reminded me of song, lament and declamation.”

Bidisha also announced Phoebe Power as the winner of the £5,000 Felix Dennis award for best first collection for Shrines of Upper Austria, which explores the culture of Power’s grandmother’s homeland, and Liz Berry as winner of the £1,000 best single poem prize for The Republic of Motherhood, which tackles the experience of becoming a new mother.

The work of the three winners when taken together, Bidisha said, “speaks of poetry’s power to bear witness, express new ways of seeing, and apply itself with endless versatility. At a time when poetry sales are growing, the jury’s choices illuminate the capacity of contemporary poets to find public words for matters of intimate importance and political urgency.”

Liz Berry, winner of the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem
Liz Berry, winner of the Forward prize for best single poem. Photograph: Adrian Pope

Berry, who writes of how she “crossed the border into the Republic of Motherhood / and found it a queendom, a wild queendom”, where she “handed over my clothes and took its uniform, / its dressing gown and undergarments, a cardigan / soft as a creature, smelling of birth and milk”, previously won the Forward prize for best first collection in 2015. She first published The Republic of Motherhood in Granta magazine, and said she had been overwhelmed by how many women contacted her after reading it. “I was emboldened by their belief in the power of poems to bear witness,” she said.

Bidisha was joined on the judging panel by Chris McCabe, director of the National Poetry Library, and the poets Mimi Khalvati, Niall Campbell and Jen Campbell.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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