British poets have won all of this year’s Forward prizes for poetry, with Caroline Bird’s “audacious and erotically charged” The Air Year taking best collection, Will Harris’s RENDANG winning best debut, and Malika Booker winning for best single poem.
Bird’s sixth collection The Air Year, named for the first 12 months of a relationship before the “paper” anniversary, was announced as the winner of the £10,000 prize in an online ceremony Sunday afternoon. A playwright, and published poet since the age of 15, Bird saw off competition from the acclaimed Native American-Latinx Natalie Diaz and the award-winning Pascale Petit.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, it is very weird,” Bird said of her win. “Obviously, it feels amazing. But it is also unsettling, as I write poetry imagining no one will ever read it. I read it now and I find it quite upsetting, even though some of the poems are funny and lively. You wouldn’t want to watch a video of yourself in distress, and it feels like that. But I guess that is a good sign in some ways, that I don’t want to ever read it again.”
Chair of judges, the critic and cultural historian Alexandra Harris described Bird’s poems as “trapeze ropes made with words, swinging us up and out into the unknown”.
“A lot of contemporary writing demands sympathy in a rather worthy fashion. She won’t do that,” she added. “The Air Year is the opposite of sentimental, it is brimming with humour.”
Written in “a time of complete uncertainty” in her life, Bird set herself the challenge of writing poems starting from a single opening line that she would not change, leading to humorous and often melancholic poems that begin “Nancy found an entire torpedo in the forest”, in Nancy and the Torpedo, or “The 18th-century bawd who sells her daughter’s / virginity / to an Earl. The tired CIA operative who says ‘just do / it’ / and half a village dies”, in her poem about endings, The Final Episode.
“At that time in my life, I felt like a cartoon character running in mid-air, only not falling because I hadn’t looked down. Romantically, emotionally, mentally, I did not know what I was doing or where I was going, in all areas of my life. And the poems, as they came out, seemed to want me to land safely,” Bird said.
One of the most acclaimed debuts in recent years, Will Harris won the £5,000 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection with RENDANG, which explores his Chinese-Indonesian and British heritage, family ties, language and borders. RENDANG was praised by judges as containing “acute intelligence and mobile grace”.
Previous nominee Booker, co-founder of the influencial collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, won the £1,000 prize for best single poem with The Little Miracles, documenting her experience of caring for her mother in the aftermath of a stroke: “Since I found mother collapsed on the kitchen / floor, we siblings have become blindfolded mules / harnessed to carts filled with strain, lumbering / through a relentless storm.”
Booker had previously refused to write about her mother’s illness but was moved by medical research to “be more present during [visits] with my mother, scrutinising our time together by tuning in as a daughter, which has led to more meaningful and precious interactions, culminating in this poem of witness capturing the reality of my family’s emotional upheaval.” Judges praised The Little Miracles for its “warmth, frustration and humour”.
The three poets were selected from 205 collections and 208 single poems submitted. “What we were looking for in the end were collections that could keep growing as the world changed,” said Alexandra Harris. “The best poetry we were reading found ways to connect the unknowable with the ordinary.”
Past winners of the Forward prizes include three of the UK’s poet laureates – Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Ted Hughes – as well as Seamus Heaney and Claudia Rankine.