12 brilliant young British and Irish poets had their debut collections short-listed, and our judge, prize-winning poet and scholar Vahni Capildeo, has read them all, and selected Rebecca Close as this year's winner of the Melita Hume Poetry Prize, following on Mark Ford's selection of Jenna Clake last year. Ms Close wins £1,500, and publication with Eyewear in October 2018. Our 2018 judge has been selected as major British poet Malika Booker.
In second place is the highly-commended poet Carina Hart.
Her book will also appear in 2018 and she will receive £200.
Carina Hart was born in Norfolk in 1987. She studied English Literature at Cambridge, York and UEA, where she completed her PhD in 2012. She has published poetry in InPrint, The Cadaverine and The Apple Anthology, and was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize in 2013. In 2017 she has been highly commended in the Aurora Competition for short fiction, and shortlisted for the Overton Poetry Prize. Carina Hart works as a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and lives in Nottingham and Malaysia.
Here are the judge's generous comments on ALL the 12 collections.
MELITA HUME POETRY PRIZE 2017 Winner: valid, virtual, vegetable reality - by Rebecca Close
This is a distinctive, urban voice, which holds on to speaking and feeling throughout states of fragmentariness. Through the fractures in its language, perceptions, and experiences, things still truly matter. This is evidenced in the habit of thorough delicate observation that translates into the ability suddenly, and aptly, to evoke a pastel dianthus or a satellite signal, or to draw unexpectedly on earlier, traditional forms without falling under their yoke. It is evidenced, too, in the engagement with ‘secondary worlds’ of film and other visual art, not ekphrastically, but as part of processing everything: the various figures, situations, scenes and would-be-meanings cracking with violent variety, unassimilable chasms in friendship, unnameable proximities, and tender moments of weird connexion. Even if you have not lived lives resembling those depicted here, whether their worlds of work or experimentation, you know that these lives are aspects of yours. As the Melita Hume Prize is for a first full-length collection, it seems good to award it to a book which made reading feel like a fresh adventure.
Highly Commended: Your Brain Cells Sing When They Die (by Carina Hart) simply must be read. This is absolutely cutting-edge poetry, in which the compressive absurdities of late capitalism and the actual living conditions of the lyric imagination, from the understated evils of canned tiger soup to the need to rethink the sweet old metaphor of the beehive, take shape via chapters and individual pieces so well-formed as to offer accessible and profound disturbance. This is energetic stuff, brilliant at discerning traps and potential. Nothing is so ordinary as to escape reconsideration, even ‘[…] dining / chairs of brute bare / wood, angling your body in / the shape of a / lightning bolt.’
SUMMARY These twelve books show a heartening and amazing variety of approach to placing words on the page. It is clear that the short-listed poets are conscious of reaching for, developing, breaking or risking whichever techniques of expression may best respond to, relay, or ritualize their engagement with the world. For these books do, for the most part, even when dealing with the tiny detail of an image or a ‘relationship’, show keen awareness of other lives, and of the old and new technologies and the greater historical and economic structures which condition poetic ‘selves’. This is not to say that they fall into the trap of studied ‘relevance’ or virtuous ‘sincerity’. Language is part of the world and a language-game does something to, as well as in and with, the world.
Needlework’s (by Jacqueline Thompson) attention to craft and historical research de-miniaturizes: it prickles with awareness of the considerable violence and triumphs in the confines of ‘feminine’ living. The distinction between the exploration of emotions and the attribution of emotion is a fine one. The pitch of the voice or emotion can be uneasy. This work dares to venture into the uncharted hearts of lives very different from today’s, and also into today’s extremes (pædophilia; captivity). The strong attempt to broach interiors permit an appreciation of the significant nuance of the exterior.
The gripping and eviscerating Venus in My Living Room (by Geraldine O'Kane) and Home in Three Tongues (by Caitlin Stobie) are also deeply concerned with lives, and poetry, as relational, while being willing to experiment with form. Here ‘the personal is political’ a rapid and whirling array of truths, taking on a kaleidoscope of potentially fatal colours.
Saturnine/Saturnalia (by Rhiannon Williams) contain poems which appear rooted in quotidian reality but tear themselves apart to offer surprises. This book of Cyprus, love and death keeps crossing boundaries. The internal, political border in Cyprus becomes a line which forbids natural inheritance from the dead to the living: ‘They told me I was not allowed to take anything back to the other side’ – and yet ‘Thieving’ narrates how scraps from a grandmother’s land make it across, while ‘Hallowed Home’ picks at the ‘veneer of territory’ from the Neolithic to the contemporary. The extraordinary concluding poem, of torment and sexual difference, more than makes up for some of the more conventional conclusions.
The poems in Beds in the East (by Jason Eng Lee) are tight-seamed, their subjects almost demanding fuller space. This book’s mature re-imagination of historical figures writes back to, and from, great men of the past, including ancient warriors and canonical poets. Via the everyday pleasures and cruelties of childhood, it incidentally but importantly registers the natural and cultural life of more locations than tend to enjoy space in mainstream ‘English’ nostalgic poetry. Such direction and sweep risk the occasional replication or recycling of spectres that perhaps had been meant to be raised for arraignment or ironization, e.g. when a head-scarfed woman’s gaze is described as ‘crescent’. The continuity of a determined intellect and voice leads the reader through stagings of and ruminations on felt vs. perceived mixity of experience or heritage. Acts of reclamation or resistance extend to a provocative, bravura thought-experiment in creating one’s own flag.
We that wither beneath (by Thembe Mvula) plays with and breaks the familiar: idoms from popular song, feminine stereotypes, faith, etc. It is a book that works itself out via images, sometimes raw, sometimes ethereal; it trials self-contradictory statements, and includes a poem about returning over time to the truth of first-draft status, having gone through and beyond edited states. These poems’ speakers may sound lapidary but are not at rest, whether arranging their thoughts under ‘Defining Okay’ or ‘Questions’, and often inhabit an after-love or anti-love status.
The books on the shortlist share an ability to feel through intellection rather than through overt sentiment, and in this The Beat of Beast (by Eloise Stevens) has kinship with its Melita Hume fellows. There are strong female protagonists, the intersection of whose lives via dramatic forms and presentation creates a sense of gendered and particular socioeconomic and cultural slicing into a capitalist city. Genuine hopes and richly bad decision-making abound. Sex and love, smells and food, hover in a Bombay which sometimes feels almost too recognizable.
Formally the most different from such sensuous, ‘thick description’ is I Don’t Love You (by Christian Wethered). Here white space reflects the reader back at themselves. The unsaid, the effortful minimalism, refigure the page as a zone of tragically arduous control and danger just beyond the print. With such paring-down, some of the poems slide from perspectives between the bars of the mind-prison to a world whittled away. Edinburgh Buses (by Alex Howard) is exceedingly clever, particularly in its eye for comparisons that throw unlikely but illuminating lights. These self-laceratingly self-aware poems are in love with language, while managing to map a real, grungy, and beautiful city through their personal traffic.
City of Rivers (by Mariah Whelan) appears poised between sincerity and satire as it reflects on a certain type of coming-of-age narrative and individualist lyric consciousness. The threads are smoothed and exactly knotted in this tale of intertwined lives and relatively privileged youthful experimentation and travel, which flips its patterns between obsession and limitation. Actions driven by emotion are described, but retold as if from a perspective aware of its own potential for future retrospective, until the ends catch up with themselves, in a late and too-late present. Feeling-through-thinking dominates here as well, and a narrative where life choices are never singular, all haunted by the multiplicity of communication.