It’s not often you get asked to read 222 books at a sitting – let alone within two months. But that was the challenge – and the gift – that being asked to judge the 2022 Forwards Prizes brought to the doorsteps of Fatima Bhutto, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Rishi Dastidar, Stephen Sexton and I over the spring of 2022. Delivered by increasingly disbelieving couriers, box after heavy box of books made their way to us. They were accompanied by emailed individual poems, for the Best Poem category. With submissions for 2023 closing on 5 March, and this year’s judges revving up for their marathon read, it seems a good time to look back on the gift of being one of the 2022 Forwards Prizes crew. I also wanted to re-share the 2023 good news that poets can submit their own work for Best Single Poem, Performed here, free of charge. All other entries need to be submitted by publishers.
Back in 2022, for Fatima, Nadine, Rishi, Stephen and I, the impact of all those books arriving was something like a lifelong chocolate lover finding themselves suddenly swimming in a chocolate fountain. How to take it in the richness we were offered, without becoming overwhelmed and losing our powers of discrimination, was the challenge we faced. In my own case, to fit in the reading, overnight everything became book-shaped. If I was making a meal, I was reading a book on the side. If I was eating a meal, I was reading a book on the side. If I was travelling on the tube, I was reading a book standing, or sitting. When we met for the short-listing meeting, one of my fellow judges said that they were reading anything between two and ten books a day once the numbers of submissions ramped up. The rest of us simply agreed.
Because the books followed me everywhere, wherever I happened to be, I was constantly reminding myself not to let go of, lose, mislay or forget the collection which was my companion of the moment. For all I knew, it might prove to be one of the ones which made the prestigious Forwards Shortlists for Best Poem, Best First Collection, or Best Collection, or indeed ultimately won one of the big prizes. Respectively worth £1,000, £5000 and £10,000, they offer an incalculable and enduring career uplift to the poet concerned, beyond their already significant cash value.
To make it more interesting, I’d never formally judged anything before. I have a PhD from UCL. And I’ve done a lot of reviewing over the years, everywhere from the TLS to the Poetry Review and Poetry London. So the tools were in place. Would I know how to use them to winnow down such a huge mass of material? The first test would be creating our individual shortlists, ahead of the formal shortlisting meeting. Building up to it, I found myself waking in the night with the weight of responsibility. I was comforted by knowing this was a shared endeavour. Up and down the country, and across Scottish borders and over the Irish sea, and further afield too, Fatima, Nadine, Rishi and Stephen also had their shoulders to the wheel. We were carrying the decision-making collectively.
Fortunately, as I read steadily onwards, in my book-shaped world, a sense of the material began to emerge. We were sent many outstanding poems, but certain collections had a coherence, as well as newness and difference, that made them stand out. Their parts held together and were of a consistently high standard. As Rishi Dastidar observed, they often also made our pulses race with excitement. These books, and individual poems, also gave us a sense of entering new worlds – defined by the language through which they were realised, the shapes they made on the page. In my own case, this was the work which began to make its way onto my longlist. Or rather into the set of four stacked plastic drawers into which I was posting my serious contenders, for further consideration.
When we came to swap longlists, ahead of our first meeting, our intersection points became the roadmaps which led to the eventual nominations. The judging meeting to decide the shortlist took place over many zoomed hours, on a hot, late spring day. It was exhausting and wonderful in equal measure, generating deep conversations around the works under consideration with other people who had thought about them as intensely as we each had. At the end of the day, we all felt that the shortlists that we arrived at were genuinely communal decisions.
We chose poems written on front lines, responding to climate change, exploring migration, queerness, illness, identity, questioning, affirmation, faith, shame, desire, sexual predation, and sexual reclamation. They went into the woods, and into stinky kitchens, peered back at us out of buckets. Our non-human species included crows, butterflies, hyenas, cats, dogs, seagulls, and fungi, to name but a few. Mothers were sometimes wrecked, sometimes wrecking. Other times sources of profound nurture. Fathers might, or might not be, not terrorists. We were there as life began, and ended, with Nobel prize winners, and poets who had yet to publish their first full work.
There was humour and anger, play of all sorts, a relentless inventiveness and above all a sense of the sheer magnificence, and courage of the creative process, on page after page. It felt extraordinary, and deeply heartening, in a year when hope and joy often seemed in short supply. You can read excerpts from all the 2022 shortlisted collections, and the single poems in full, on the Forwards website, and find them, along with all the Highly Commended Poems, all in the Forwards Anthology for 2022.
Over the summer and autumn, we then had the task of winnowing down the five shortlists to a single winner. Every shortlisted poet had a compelling case for being chosen as the winner of their category, so it was a hard call. Because I knew how much I’d valued hearing from Stephen, Fatima, Nadine and Rishi, there was less anxiety this time around. We were a good team, who had found our collective process and identity through the first sets of strong choices. But we were going to need all those skills to come to the best decision we could make.
The days were shortening by the time we met again, and the conversations were engaged and warm, but also searching. We had had the summer to live with our fifteen shortlisted books and poems, to think about them from different angles, to respond to them in more open and relaxed ways than had been possible in the frantic read-to-the-finish-line of the first judging meeting. Once again we gathered on our zooms, with companion animals appearing in the background, or sometimes foreground, and occasionally barking their comments. And the winners that we arrived at were, miraculously, all ones we believed in, and stood behind wholeheartedly.
That knowledge made the awards ceremony in Manchester’s Contact Theatre a genuinely joyous event. The event format celebrates the entire shortlist, with each poet reading, before the final decision is announced. This was also the Forwards Thirtieth Year, and its first Award taking place outside of London, which added to the edgy, vibrant excitement. Despite the chilly weather, there was a real buzz in the theatre even before the sold out audience took their seats, with many more joining from around the world via streaming. Reflecting the Northern location, poets within reach of Manchester were packing in, including Malika Booker, Jason Allen-Paisant, Andrew Macmillan, Simon Armitage, Kayo Chingonyi, Natalie Linh Bolderston, and many more.
The readings were mesmerising, and moving, bringing out the value in each work. Together we cheered Stephania Sy-Quia, Padraig Regan, Warsan Shire, Holly Hopkins and Mohammed El-Kurd for the best debut, with Kim Moore, Anthony Joseph, Kaveh Akbar, Shane McCrae and Helen Mort for Best Collection, and Nick Laird, Cecilia Knapp, Louisa Campbell, Clare Pollard and Carl Phillips for Best Single Poem. You can read more from each of them on the Forwards website, and I would warmly recommend this. Kim Moore, Stephanie Sy-Quia and Nick Laird were then announced as the winners.
Because the word ‘winner’ can have an almost obliterating quality, as if that achievement becomes the defining quality of the work, I wanted to finish this blog by sharing something of what I felt gives so much to readers in the Kim Moore’s and Stephanie Sy-Quia’s collections, and why the work of the Forwards Prizes has so much value in supporting artists whose work will make a lasting difference to the world at many levels. Nick Laird’s extraordinary poem, ‘Up Late’, can be read in its entirety via the Forwards website, and speaks for itself, but it can be a big investment for many people to buy a book at the moment. Here are some pointers towards what lies between the covers of Amnion and All the Men I Never Married, for those considering taking the plunge and buying these two brilliant collections.
Turning first to Stephanie Sy-Quia, who won the Felix Dennis prize for best debut for Amnion, from the first time I heard from her read from the book, at the online launch, and well before I ever saw a printed copy, I had the sense that she was working into crucial new territory around questions of migrations and gendered identity, both thematically, and in terms of delivery. I was also struck by how she was able to embed a very young woman’s voice into the poem, including sections which were first drafted while she was still at school.
Through the extended, fragmented form, Amnion builds an organically alive structure which is simultaneously open and connected, able to interlink multiple generations and diverse identities, always questioning how the individual narratives are sited relative to the dominant power structures and historical realities shaping their outcomes. Part of this arises from Sy-Quia’s ability to find language and imagery that locates the individual as a moment in time, and a product of their histories and migrations, but also of the languages which have determined the apprehension and transmission of their cultures, and the experience of their gendered bodies.
Re-reading Amnion for the second Forwards judging meeting, I found the idea of the family or social group as an externalised amnion – that is a symbolic version of the membrane that protects the growing foetus – interesting to explore. It made me think about how groups can shelter and contain growing, evolving beings, but can also generate their own forms of harm through the holding-in of intergenerational and other traumas, especially ones that lead to, or result from, displacement. My own father-in-law, Oscar Nemon, came to the UK as a refugee, and lost 22 members of his family to the Holocaust. Sy-Quia’s ability to invoke and create imaginative empathy for the impacts on psychological health (including depression), of feelings of un-rootedness arising from cultural displacement therefore resonated with me, as it will potentially with many readers.
Writing about adolescence and young womanhood, Sy-Quia also places the female body centrally within the narrative, as a unit of reception, and perception. She explores teenage desire and vulnerability, and the loss or confusion of self which can come about as a result of predation, and exploitation during those vulnerable, hope-filled, urgent years, in a way which felt radical. There is a degree of privilege in the boarding school segments, but they butt the narrative up against the gender and class monopolies which Amnion interrogates, while also reflecting how ‘history’ and myth may be manipulated to shore up existing power structures, including those of empires and their toxic, ruinous aftermaths. All these questions come together towards the end in the final ‘Epilogue: Epithalamion’, which merges the political and the personal with immense power:
I AM WRITING NOW from the inky heart of empire,
its assonance no more unknown to me.
I shall knock the pillars out from under you
and label you up
in room upon room
of Wedgwood blue.
I HAVE SHUFFLED ALL THE SHARDS of what came to me broken
and I have not pried, for dealing in shards is what I wanted;
these being my inheritance.
my by rights
I USED TO WORRY that the performance was never quite for my own
that I owed it to others, that without me they might never apprehend and
therefore I was duty-bound to make the point
again and again
with the quiet militancy of washing rice before cooking it in a saucepan.
This has been the extent of it: cooking rice.
But it is possible, as I have found, to delineate blood-bearings to each
My brother, for instance, is less interested in this quandary.
My father, for instance, professes to be half, which would make me a
I reserve his right to do so; but my claim is my own.
Ultimately, Amnion left me with a feeling of making a path out of darkness and displacement towards claiming and belonging, which was powerful and real, and to which I think many will relate. Kim Moore’s second collection, All the Men I Never Married, also works with the gendered body as a political, as well as an intimate space, engaging with and articulating some of the forces and constraints which inform how women, and men, move in the world – both as living beings and as artists. It is the interplay between these two strands – of the lived experience and the creative response – which gives the collection much of its uniqueness.
As I read, and re-read Moore’s collection, it became a hauntingly ‘big’ book. Its surface ‘accessibility’, arising from a string of ‘anecdotal’ poems in a variety of registers and forms, builds a navigable causeway leading the reader out into deeper waters. Moving through them, we explore desire, and its consequences, and the complex societal and cultural forces that form and give rise to this force within individuals, whether they are predatory, or subjected to predation. The poems also allow us to question from whose perspective the narratives under scrutiny are, and have historically been, represented.
Moore is writing in conversation with Rachael Allen, Rachel Long, Olivia Laing, Maggie Nelson, Katherine Angel, Fiona Benson, Helen Mort, also on this list, and many others, giving a porousness and permeability to the poems within a larger discourse – which enhances their resonance. Her building block is the individual self, and the individual body, and how these tessellate either lastingly and fleetingly to those around them. The prefatory, un-numbered poem begins, ‘We stand at the base of our own spines/ and watch tree turn to bone and climb/ each vertebra to crawl back into our minds,/we’ve been out of our minds all this time’.
A stand-out poem is 7, which Moore read at the Forwards ceremony. Beginning “Imagine you’re me, fifteen, the summer of 95” it remembers the “stranger” at the end of a log flume ride who reaches out to brush a drop of water from the speaker’s thigh. The work of the poem takes place in the doubled perspectives of the account, moving from the second person address to the teenage girl – “And you are not innocent, you’re fifteen,/ something in you likes that you were chosen./ It feels like power, though you were only/ the one who was touched, who was acted upon.” – to the third person, seen as if from the man’s point of view. Now she becomes “A girl… with hair to her waist/ and he’s close enough to smell the cream/ lifting in waves from her skin…/ and why should he tell himself no, hold himself back?” The poem closes “You remember this lesson your whole life,/ That sliver/shiver of time, that moment in the sun./ What am I saying? Nothing. Nothing happened.”
There’s a blend of delicacy, quietness, and horror, and a sense of this transgressive action echoing down through the years because not called out or defined as wrong, that is potent, partly in its restraint. Other poems aren’t afraid of exploring rawness, and a compulsive, propulsive sexualised intoxication, as with 15, when the speaker writes of a relationship where: “I thought love was a knife/ pressed to the throat, I thought there was a blade/ in each of our hands. I am telling this now so he appears/ as real as that first night when we didn’t sleep./ The slight red stubble of his beard, the freckles/ covering his arms – his gaze, his attention all mine –”.
From fumbling teenage confusion, to disturbing encounters in hotel corridors, or on trains or in taxis, while including also support from mentors and others who positively expand the sense of being differently, the collection makes the reader part of its own process of investigation and discovery. Through this, we share in the work of progressive redefinition and reclamation, from the starting point of being “a stone pretending to be a woman/ in the dark or like someone returning/ from a land nobody else could see.”
This trajectory generates a sense of arrival upon reaching 48, the concluding poem. Here, Moore’s voice recalls being told by an established, canonical, male poet, at the start of her writing life, that she should not speak of straightening her mother’s hair as a child. We, the readers, feel why she has come to understand that as a result of this “I have held my tongue for many years.” Evidence of the journey travelled, away from that silencing, lives within the poem. Moore has formed language and imagery that enables what was not allowed to be said to resonate with the reader in all its subtle complexity and vivid life:
My father elsewhere, and part of me still there,
part of me in the library with the man
who told me not to speak about such things.
The lawn. The drifting dusk. The bats.
My mother’s hair. My hands. That house.
The shudder of a horse’s flank.
As I publish this, the 2023 Forwards judges will be receiving their last boxes of books, and print-outs of poems. This year’s judges are Kate Fox, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Andrés N. Ordórica, and Jessica Traynor, coming together within two separate panels, being chaired respectively by the legendary Bernardine Evaristo for the Best Collections, and Joelle Taylor for the Best Single Poems. Along with many others I will be waiting, when summer comes, to hear the results of their hours of careful reading and thought, and to investigating the recommendations of the 2023 shortlists.