Former refugee Ocean Vuong has won the £25,000 T S Eliot Prize for his “remarkable” debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Jonathan Cape). At the same time, the prize unveiled a raft of plans to mark its 25th anniversary.
Vietnamese American writer Vuong was presented with a cheque for £25,000 at the ceremony at the Wallace Collection in central London on Monday (15th January), while the nine other shortlisted poets received a £1,500 each.
Bill Herbert, chair of the judges, described Vuong as a “significant voice” and his collection as dealing “with the aftermath of war and migration over three generations”.
“It is a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice,” Herbert said.
To honour 25 years of the prize, the T S Eliot Foundation has revealed a partnership with the Poetry Archive as well as a special postmark from the Royal Mail, celebrating Vuong’s win.
A new collaboration between the foundation and the Poetry Archive will also celebrate the quarter-century landmark. From this year onwards, the T S Eliot Prize Winners’ Archive will present a celebration of 25 years of the prize with each winner inducted into the archive “so that their voice will be preserved and made available for posterity online”.
The Royal Mail will also be issuing a special postmark congratulating this year’s winner. The postmark will be applied to the majority of stamped mail that the company delivers to over 30 million addresses across the UK, which the T S Eliot Foundation described as “a wonderful boost for poetry”.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds was selected by judges Herbert, James Lasdun and Helen Mort from a shortlist of four women and six men, in which four Cape Poetry titles featured along with a number of indies. The three other nominated anthologies from Cape included James Sheard's The Abandoned Settlements, Michael Symmons' Roberts Mancunia and Leontia Flynn's The Radio.
(L-R) James Lasdun, Ocean Vuong, Bill Herbert and Helen Mort © Adrian Pope
Indie publisher Carcanet was shortlisted for Tara Bergin's The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, In these Days of Prohibition by Caroline Bird, and Robert Minhinnick's Diary of the Last Man. Douglas Dunn's The Noise of a Fly (Faber & Faber) was also in the running alongisde Roddy Lumsden's So Glad I’m Me (Bloodaxe) and Jacqueline Saphra's All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches Press).
Cape’s associate publisher Robin Robertson said Vuong was "an important new voice" when he acquired UK and Commonwealth rights to the collection from small independent publisher, Copper Canyon Press, in 2016. Robertson described it at the time as "the most unusual first American collection I’ve seen in many years”.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds also won the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and in September he scooped the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. His work has been translated into Hindi, Korean, Russian, and Vietnamese and is currently writing his first novel.
Born in a rice farm outside Saigon in 1988, at the age of two, after a year in a refugee camp, Vuong and his family arrived in the US, where he became the first literate member of his family, aged 11. He subsequently wrote the poems that would become part of the Night Sky with Exit Wounds at Brooklyn College while mentored by American poet and novelist Ben Lerner. Vuong now lives in Massachusetts where he is an assistant professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts.
The award ceremony was preceded by the T S Eliot Prize Readings on Sunday (14th January), at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, where the 10 shortlisted writers presented their work.
In 2016 the foundation took over the running of the T S Eliot Prize from the Poetry Book Society, the charity which established the prize in 1993 and ran it for 23 years. This continues the tradition started by T S Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot, who provided the prize money from the award’s inception.
Last year’s winner was Jacob Polley for his collection Jackself (Picador).