Fiona Benson has won the Forward Poetry Prize for best collection with Vertigo and Ghost (Cape Poetry).
Benson's second collection, which explores female fear and desire, first casting the classical god Zeus as a contemporary sexual predator then foregrounding fierce maternal watchfulness, scooped the £10,000 prize last night (20th October).
She said: “Many of these poems came in what felt like an involuntary rush, and sometimes in the case of the Zeus poems, I felt I didn’t want them, or couldn’t keep up. I’ve been asked where the Zeus poems in particular came from – a long buried experience, and then a sudden pouring-in of words, that I can only explain as coming out of the woods. There was no plan.”
Stephen Sexton won the £5,000 Felix Dennis Prize for best first collection with If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin), which uses his childhood love of Super Mario World to examine his mother’s death, mapping loss into its bright digital landscapes.
L-R Stephen Sexton, Fiona Benson and Parwana Fayyaz (©Adrian Pope)
“I started this book as a kind of joke! The idea of writing poems, or little texts, or a whole book about Super Mario World seemed mildly absurd, and utterly compelling," said Sexton. "I started writing it around the spring of 2015, and soon thereafter realised that this particular game was so much a part of my childhood that I couldn’t write about it without thinking of my childhood, and I couldn’t think about my childhood without thinking about grief. So, I discovered I was actually writing an elegy for my mother, which came as a surprise to me. In terms of genre, it’s a pastoral elegy, and the digital landscapes of Mario’s world are put beside the actual landscapes of our world.”
Forty Names (PN Review) by Parwana Fayyaz won the £1,000 Best Single Poem award. Her poem reshapes a semi- mythical tale of 40 girls who died for honour in her birthplace, Afghanistan.
She said: “I first started writing poetry when I learned English as a second language in 2010. (I had) all these strange questions about all the things I encountered around me and that drew me to poetry. My poetry became my philosophy of life on little things I cared about. I realised that everything I wrote not only reflected my own life, but was also about the other women’s lives that surrounded me – in memories. I believe that a good poem in essence should captivate the reader in heart and mind. The poem communicates a story about forty women jumping off a cliff to preserve their honour. I have tried to give names to these women”
Chair of the 2019 jury, broadcaster and academic Shahidha Bari, said: “We are immensely proud of the winners of the 2019 Forward Prizes for Poetry. These are poets who inspired us with their conviction and impressed us with their fearlessness. They remind us of what poetry can feel like at its very best: politically urgent and emotionally resonant.”
The three prizes were awarded at a ceremony at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre with readings from the shortlisted collections, hosted by jury chair Bari. The five strong jury - poets Tara Bergin, Andrew McMilllan and Carol Rumens, with Jamie Andrews, head of the British Library’s Cultural and Learning Programme - read 204 collections and 183 single poems.