Hillsborough survivors' words shortlisted for Forward poetry prize

Truth Street by David Cain, which combines eyewitness accounts of the 1989 disaster, is nominated for best debut in year when ‘poetry has come down from its high shelf’

A debut poetry collection made entirely from formal evidence given during the second inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster has been shortlisted for one of the UK’s most prestigious poetry awards.

David Cain, a football fan since childhood who is nominated in the Forward prizes’ best first collection category, began reading the daily reports of the two-year inquest into the disaster, in which 96 people died and hundreds were injured. He found himself “repeatedly struck by the poetry of the language used by the eyewitnesses to try and describe such horrific events”.

Best collection

Fiona Benson – Vertigo & Ghost (Cape Poetry)

Niall Campbell – Noctuary (Bloodaxe Books)

Ilya Kaminsky – Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber)

Vidyan Ravinthiran – The Million-petalled Flowers of Being There (Bloodaxe Books)

Helen Tookey - City of Departures (Carcanet)

Felix Dennis prize for best first collection

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books)

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet)

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

Best single poem

Liz Berry – Highbury Park (Wild Court)

Mary Jean Chan – The Window (National Poetry Competition)

Jonathan Edwards – Bridge (The Frogmore Papers)

Parwana Fayyaz – Forty Names (PN Review)

Holly Pester – Comic Timing (Granta Magazine)

Cain said: “There was a real humanity and indeed beauty in these words, and I wanted to try and rescue those fragile lines from all the legal jargon, and also the headline news verdicts.”

One of the poems, titled 4.06pm, includes the testimony: “I remember holding him and I thought, no, he’s only a baby. / It can’t be happening. I had his head in my arms and so much of his back, / and that’s when his eyes opened and he said, ‘Mum’.”

In the earlier poem, 2.59pm, Cain writes: “the scene reminded me of pictures on television in the nature programmes. / Molten lava / Molten lava flowing down a hillside from an active volcano. / like a wave. / down towards the terrace. / Wave after wave / coming in from behind you / there was no going / back.”

Published by small radical press Smokestack Books, Truth Street is one of five collections in the running for the £5,000 prize. Alongside it are Jay Bernard’s Surge, an exploration of a house fire in New Cross, London, in 1981 that killed 13 young black people, and Raymond Antrobus’s personal evocation of the deaf experience, The Perseverance, which won the £30,000 Rathbones Folio award on Monday night.

Poet David Cain, who has been nominated for the Forward prize for best first collection with his debut collection, Truth street. It is made of the testimony taken from the 1989 Hillsborough disaster
Poet David Cain. Photograph: PR

Judge and poet Andrew McMillan said the lineup showed how poetry today is grappling with politics. “Certain poets in the past may have thought that politics was beneath art but a lot of these collections, especially from newer poets, are really getting down in the mud and wrestling with the intricacies and difficulties of our new political situation,” said McMillan. “Poetry remains high art but has come down from its high shelf: its boundaries have expanded.”

Cain said his nomination had made him “feel a deep sense of responsibility”.

“To be able to take the voices of ordinary people tragically thrust into the horrors of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, and then to be able to give to them a voice beyond their own, is something that is far greater than what it means to me individually. It is everything,” said the poet.

The five poets up for the £10,000 Forward prize for best collection were also announced: Fiona Benson’s repurposing of Greek mythology, Vertigo & Ghost; Niall Campbell’s look at early fatherhood, Noctuary; Vidyan Ravinthiran’s love sonnets, The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here; Helen Tookey’s City of Departures, a mix of prose and verse; and Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, a collection punctuated with sign language to tell a love story set during a military occupation, where resistance takes the form of deafness.

Broadcaster and academic Shahidha Bari, who chaired the judging panel as they considered 204 collections, said: “Some of the work we’ve selected will look like poetry, sound like poetry, but it could also fall into the categories of other forms. There are lots of prose poems, too. And we were surprised at how blurred the boundary between poetry and drama has become. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, as we have such a rich tradition of performance poetry in this country, but this is different.”

Bari added that the currently booming UK poetry market – with sales up 50% over five years to reach a record 1.3m books sold in 2018 – was an additional fillip.

“It’s been so thrilling in the last few years watching the boom in poetry, the great affection for poetry, the passion for poetry. That’s given people who both read and teach poetry a great deal of comfort, inspiration and hope.”

Won in the past by names from Seamus Heaney to Carol Ann Duffy, the Forward prizes will be presented on 20 October.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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