Robinson triumphs at T S Eliot Prize

Robinson triumphs at T S Eliot Prize

Roger Robinson has won the £25,000 T S Eliot Prize for his "searing" poetry collection A Portable Paradise (Peepal Tree Press). 

Writer and performer Robinson beat off competition from previous winner Sharon Olds and début poets Anthony Anaxagorou and Jay Bernard. Judges John Burnside, Sarah Howe and Nick Makoha unanimously chose the winner. 

Chair of the judging panel Burnside, who presented Robinson with the award at a cermony at the Wallace Collection in London tonight (Monday 13th January), said: "This ambitious and wide-ranging shortlist speaks to all that poetry can be. The winner, Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, finds in the bitterness of everyday experience continuing evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life’."

Robinson, who lives between London and Trinidad, is an alumni of The Complete Works and was a co-founder of both Spoke Lab and the international writing collective Malika’s Kitchen. He is the lead vocalist and lyricist for King Midas Sound and has previously won the People’s Book Prize and the Oxford Brookes Poetry Prize. His first full poetry collection, The Butterfly Hotel (Peepal Tree Press, 2013), was shortlisted for The OCM Bocas Poetry Prize.

Speaking to The Bookseller, Robinson said: "I've been practising poetry on a big level for 25 years. To some extent when I started a lot of black and minority ethnic writers were not visible so part of the thing I have tried to do is to try and create situations where black and minority ethnic writers can be seen. If I could get people who look like me to start reading and writing poetry then this award means the world to me. If I can be an example to start a whole revolution of people who thought they can't be poets, they can't write, they can't be literary, or they can't move from an open mic performance, if you think you can't move from there to there, you can. Let me be an example."

Discussing his process, he added: "I said there should be nothing in me by the time I've finished. It was a process of letting go of what anybody expects, what can happen. The publisher was saying with the new poems they keep on getting better and better so keep on going, you have until this hour on this day. We went to the last possible minute and because they are a small publisher and they can turn it around quickly, I was allowed to take it to the wire. The title poem came on the last day."

The win marks a major victory for Leeds-based indie publisher Peepal Tree Press, which saw off competition from Cape Poetry and Picador with two nominations each. Cape received nominations for Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson and Arias by Olds, who won the T S Eliot Prize in 2013, while Picador was shortlisted for The Caiplie Caves by Canadian Karen Solie and The Mizzy by Paul Farley.

The 2019 shortlist also included débuts from British-born Cypriot Anthony Anaxagorou for After The Formalities from indie publisher Penned in the Margins and non-binary poet Jay Bernard for Surge (Chatto & Windus), which won last year's Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Vidyan Ravinthiran received a spot on the shortlist for his second collection The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here (Bloodaxe), Deryn Rees-Jones was shortlisted for Erato (Seren), a book named after the Greek god of lyric poetry, and Ukraine-born Ilya Kaminsky for Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber).

Praising the shortlist, Robinson said: "They all are genius, any one of them could have easily had it. All of them champion writers, it was just luckily my time."

Each shortlisted poet was presented with a cheque for £1,500 in recognition of their achievement in winning a place on the most prestigious shortlist in UK poetry. The judges chose the 10-strong T S Eliot Prize shortlist from 158 poetry collections submitted by British and Irish publishers. Last year Hannah Sullivan won the prize with her "astonishing" début collection Three Poems (Faber).

Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree Press founder and managing editor, said: "We're absolutely delighted with Roger Robinson's achievement and very busy processing the orders for Portable Paradise that started flowing in yesterday evening after the prize was announced. This is no overnight success. Roger's first book of poetry came out in 2004 and he's been on an upward trajectory ever since. At the ceremony last night people told us how much Roger's poems had moved them." 

Peepal Tree first published Robinson in 2013. Poynting added: "Immediately, I hope the prize means some good sales. What I hope it signals in the longer term is that whilst Empire has been speaking back for many decades, the metropolitan literary establishment is beginning to listen and that in some sectors of society, at least, we are starting to regard 'diversity' not as some desirable add-on but as an essential quality of our culture."