Jay Bernard’s Surge, an exploration of the 1981 New Cross fire in south London that killed 13 young black people, is one of 10 collections shortlisted for the prestigious TS Eliot prize for poetry.
Surge has already won the Ted Hughes prize, and is also up for the 2019 Forward prize for best first collection, to be decided next week. Bernard is nominated alongside former winner Sharon Olds, who was picked for Arias, a collection that considers a woman’s intimate life and political conscience, tackling subjects from the cervix to Trayvon Martin.
The chairman of the judges, John Burnside, paid tribute to all the writers on the shortlist, calling them “some of the finest and most fearless poets working today”.
In a list tinged with violence, Anthony Anaxagorou was chosen for After the Formalities, which moves from the racial abuse of an Uber driver on the day of the Brexit referendum to a knife being pulled. Fiona Benson is selected for Vertigo & Ghost, a series of poems about Zeus as a serial rapist, and Ilya Kaminsky for Deaf Republic. Set in an occupied country, Kaminsky’s poems tell of how when soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, the citizens of the town all go deaf.
“In an excellent year for poetry, the judges read over 150 collections from every corner of these islands, and beyond,” said Burnside. “Each had its own vital energy, its own argument to make, its own celebration or requiem to offer, and we knew that settling upon 10 from so many fine books would be difficult. Nevertheless, as our deliberations progressed, the same titles kept coming to the fore.”
Vidyan Ravinthiran, who was born in Leeds to Sri Lankan Tamils, is shortlisted for his second collection, The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here. It is a book of sonnets for his wife, many of which describe life in the north-east for a mixed-race couple.
With numerous poetry awards already under his belt, Paul Farley makes this year’s list for his new collection The Mizzy. The lineup is completed by Deryn Rees-Jones’s Erato, which draws its title from the muse of lyric poetry, Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, and Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves. The Canadian poet’s fifth collection, the latter tells of the seventh-century Irish missionary to Scotland, St Ethernan, and how he retreated to the caves of the Fife coast.
At £25,000, the TS Eliot is the UK’s most valuable poetry award. Previous winners include Alice Oswald, Ted Hughes and Carol Ann Duffy. The winner will be announced on 13 January 2020.
The 2019 TS Eliot prize shortlist
After the Formalities by Anthony Anaxagorou (Penned in the Margins)
Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson (Cape Poetry)
Surge by Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus)
The Mizzy by Paul Farley (Picador)
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Faber & Faber)
Arias by Sharon Olds (Cape Poetry)
The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here by Vidyan Ravinthiran (Bloodaxe)
Erato by Deryn Rees-Jones (Seren)
A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson (Peepal Tree Press)
The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie (Picador)