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One step Forward, two steps back

It’s great news that Michael Symmons Roberts, wonderful poet and tutor and Arvon Trustee, has won the 2013 Forward Prize for best collection with the sublime Drysalter. Michael was present at the very downbeat event ceremony last night at London’s Southbank Centre. It was a wasted opportunity because all the poems were read by actors despite the gloriously talented, living poets being in the room. They had all been marginalised to read the night before at a record shop in Brick Lane.

However, I can only imagine it got worse for the shortlisted poets as they, and we, sat through a solemn, ponderous series of readings by a group of actors who made heavy weather of the poems. Martin Jarvis hamming it up, and Helen McCrory fluffing lines in both of the poems she read. The winning poets were rushed on and off the stage to collect their winnings, unable to even thank their publishers. They remained anonymous to the audience. At the end, the actors were thanked and the poets forgotten.

On the way in to the event, a Forward Trustee told me that the origin of the actorly coup came from the premise that poets can’t read their work. I contrasted the wooden and lifeless reading that night in the Purcell Room with the sparkling night of poetry I had enjoyed on Friday at The Tabernacle in Powis Square, where a host of poets read at a benefit for older Jamaican poet James Berry.  Try telling John Agard, Roger McGough, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Inua Ellams that they can’t read their poetry. Hannah Lowe was a poet featured at both events. For many at The Tabernacle she was a new voice. She was on fire and drew applause after her first poem. The whole room got it. That chance was denied to the Purcell Room audience.

The Forward Prize, which has been so surefooted in its support of poetry over many years, has got it badly wrong this time. The voices of living poets must be heard next year.


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