This year, for the first time, the Forward prizes for poetry introduced a category to honour performed as well as written poetry. Polish-born, Birmingham-based poet and professor Bohdan Piasecki has become the first winner of the prize’s new “best single poem – performed” award for his poem Almost Certainly.
Meanwhile Malika Booker won the “best single poem – written” category for the second time with her poem Libation, while Jason Allen-Paisant’s Self-Portrait as Othello was awarded the £10,000 best collection prize. Bad Diaspora Poems by Momtaza Mehri won the Felix Dennis prize for best first collection.
Jamaican writer and academic Allen-Paisant is based in Leeds, where the award ceremony took place. In her Guardian review, Fiona Sampson described Self-Portrait As Othello as an “indispensable collection” that “explores Shakespeare’s pernicious archetype, observing how ‘the Moor remains invisible, despite the obsession with his body’”.
Bernardine Evaristo, the chair of judges for the best collections category, called it “an exhilarating and propulsive read”.
“Playful, intimate and allusive, these poems interrogate masculinity and history, experiment with the myth of Othello, mourn absent fathers, and offer us a refreshing mash-up of languages that regenerate poetry so that it feels freshly minted,” she said.
Booker, also based in Leeds, is the first woman to win the £1,000 best single poem award twice, first in 2020 for The Little Miracles, a poem about caring for her mother, and this year for Libation, which explores loss and Caribbean rituals. 2023 judge Chris Redmond said Libation “reads like a drink”, describing it as “a slow pour of linguistic libation that funnels the reader down into the depths of ritual, grief, culture and society”.
The decision to include a performance category in this year’s prizes was welcomed by many in the poetry community. The category is “a much-needed addition to the literary prize”, poet and chair of judges for the best single poems panel Joelle Taylor told the Guardian at the time of the shortlist announcement. “Historically, spoken word artists have been ignored by the poetry establishment, and this prize means that is no longer possible,” she said.
The inaugural poem to win the £1,000 award, Almost Certainly, is an exploration of Polish and British communities written and performed by Piasecki. Redmond said the poem “is not only moving and meticulously crafted”, but Piasecki’s performance of it is “electric”.
“It’s a great example of how many things come into play for ‘performance poetry’ to be more than a recitation,” he said.
Taylor said the two winners of the single poem categories are both “technically brilliant, but also navigate an emotional response that brought us here, to this room. They reminded us that at the heart of every poem is indeed heart.”
Mehri, a former young people’s laureate of London, will receive £5,000 as winner of the best first collection category. Evaristo said Bad Diaspora Poems is “an exceptional debut collection” that “reinvigorates ideas around diaspora, migration and home”.
“Mehri is a truly transnational poet of the 21st century whose words pulsate out into the world-at-large,” she added.
The Forward prizes were established in 1992 and have recognised some of the biggest names in poetry, including Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes and Carol Ann Duffy.
Last year’s best collection prize went to Kim Moore’s All the Men I Never Married, while the best first collection was won by Stephanie Sy-Quia for Amnion. The best single poem prize went to Nick Laird’s Up Late.