Luke Kennard has won the Forward prize for best collection for his “anarchic” response to Shakespeare’s sonnets, a work which judges are predicting could “transform” students’ relationship with the Bard.
Kennard’s Notes on the Sonnets, published by small press Penned in the Margins, took the prestigious £10,000 award in London on Sunday evening, beating shortlisted poets including Kayo Chingonyi and Tishani Doshi. Notes on the Sonnets is a collection of prose poems responding to Shakespeare’s, set at an awkward house party, with a line from a sonnet introducing each poem. Judges praised the way it captures “uncomfortable elements of human interaction and the changing nature of love”.
“It is an invitation to link contemporaneity with the very rigid way many students are forced to study Shakespeare,” said judge and poet Shivanee Ramlochan. “This book could transform that relationship in a profound, funny and moving way.”
Kennard said he wrote the opening piece, Sonnet 66, at a party, and “then I got hooked on writing reactions to all 154, generally just reading the original a few times and getting some thoughts down.
“Then it turned into this strange, dreamlike narrative set at the same house party,” said the poet, who was previously shortlisted for the Forwards in 2007. “Sonnet 6 is probably one of my favourites for how it responds to the original: ‘Ten times thyself were happier than thou art, / If ten of thine ten times refigured thee.’”
Sunday night’s ceremony also saw Caleb Femi win the £5,000 prize for best first collection for Poor, an exploration of life on a Peckham estate which also features photographs taken by the poet, and a poem dedicated to the murdered schoolboy Damilola Taylor, whom Femi knew. The 31-year-old poet has said that he set out to “articulate the lives and times of my community of north Peckham and explore how architecture and social policies influence the lives of many working-class communities like my own”.
Judge and poet Pascale Petit said Femi’s debut was “an astonishing and groundbreaking collection that grabbed me from the first page and dazzled me with its virtuosity”.
The £1,000 Forward prize for best single poem went to Nicole Sealey’s Pages 22-29, an excerpt from The Ferguson Report: An Erasure. Sealey, who flew in from the US for the ceremony, uses what judges called the “stifling obfuscations” of the report into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by members of the Ferguson police force in Missouri to create “new moments of lyrical beauty and contemplation”, and shine “a light on all that the report tries to hide”.
Ramlochan called it “a poem of resonant cultural and social value” which “lifts language off the page and so successfully shows there are poems literally embedded in all sorts of documents – reports, archives, ledgers – all around us”.
James Naughtie, who chaired this year’s jury, said the winning works showed “that the poetic imagination isn’t wholly introspective, although it cuts deep … It’s bold, limitless in ambition and it touches every part of our lives - our own hopes and fears, our communities, and the wider world that so often seems bewildering and overpowering. These poets find pathways into the deepest feelings and discover vantage points that take a reader (or a listener) to another place. In their hands we look at the world differently. This is a moment for poetry; and all these poets deliver.”