Five for the Forward Prize: In Conversation with the Nominees for Best First Collection
L-R: Caleb Femi, alice hiller, Holly Pester, Ralf Webb and Cynthia Miller
Part of the prestigious Forward Prizes for Poetry, the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection rewards ingenuity, skill, and boldness. Previous winners and nominees have included Ocean Vuong, Kaveh Akbar, Tishani Doshi, Simon Armitage, Nick Makoha, Liz Berry, and Jay Bernard.
Here, the five shortlisted poets for 2021, interviewed by award-winning poet, editor, and translator Shash Trevett, discuss their lives and working practices, speaking about lending one’s voice, accessing memory, and tussling with drafts.
The books shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection Prize 2021 contain an eclectic mix of skill, talent, and viewpoints. Caleb Femi’s Poor is a searing indictment of the silencing of the historically underrepresented in modern Britain, alice hiller’s poems excavate both childhood trauma and the ruins of Pompeii in birds of winter and the words in Holly Pester’s Comic Timing talk to each other at exuberant speed, using linguistic tics and wordplay. In Rotten Days in Late Summer, Ralf Webb examines physical and mental deterioration: an elegy to his late father, and Cynthia Miller’s Honorifics honours her Chinese-Malaysian heritage, along with the women who have shaped her.
A huge congratulations to you all on being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. I so enjoyed reading your work; thank you for giving up your time to be interviewed for Wasafiri. First of all, where does your poetry come from?
alice: I hear phrases and see visual images almost like snatches of music. Through the process of shaping them, ‘meaning’ arrives. When I’m working with found materials, including erasure texts, my interactions with them locate and draw out energy they hold. It’s like divining for water. For other poems, I might get a rhythm. Words then rise to fit its heartbeat, as with ‘o dog of pompeii’.
Caleb: The places and people in my life, past and present and parallel.
Cynthia: Probably a desire to see poems that reflect my heritage, cultural identity and experience. It comes from wanting to not take poetry too seriously and experiment lots.
Holly: My small intestine. My dreams. My lunch breaks.
Ralf: Like lots of people I started writing poetry when I was really young: I was quite (privately) dramatic as a teenager, with a lot of outsize feelings. Poetry is a way of igniting the imagination; of expressing oneself. Perhaps the impulse to write poetry is the impulse to interpret and translate the mysteries of the world and the self.
How long did it take you to write this collection? Did you find it easy to write it, or was it a tussle?
alice: bird of winter arrived piecemeal over five years. I spent time discovering how to write poems that could hold the darkness of sexual abuse in childhood – but also express movement towards the light. They also needed to maintain their own creative buoyancy. The structure came together by tessellating the different voices into a polyphonic entity. I hit many brick walls along the way, but ultimately found doors through them.
Caleb: It was a tussle. A hard one and I loved it and so it was easy. It took me two years to write and shape POOR.
Cynthia: Although some of the poems in the collection are four years old (from Primers: Volume 2), the majority of the collection was written in an intense three or four-week sprint in spring/summer 2020. I think I wrote the jellyfish sequence at the heart of the collection in about a day – it just kept multiplying and growing out of control. There were certain poems that felt more like a tussle. Certain poems, that took a formal and visual risk, like ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Glitch Honorifics’ and went through several, strange iterations until it felt like they worked. I experimented with and abandoned some odd forms. There’s one version of ‘Homecoming’ in a form I dubbed the Lazy Susan that was concentric circles of lines that created new variations of a poem if rotated… I might still return to that form to see if it could go somewhere else.
Holly: ‘Tussle’ is a very good word for describing what writing poetry is; words, idea, time, speech, language, text, hormones, affections, all moving towards the recovery of a new thought in a barely held communion. It is a tussle! (It grew over about three years).
Ralf: Officially, it took a couple of years to write the collection – though many of the poems existed in earlier iterations, some dating back seven years. I was fortunate to receive some Arts Council England funding in late 2019, which enabled me to write for three days a week for a couple of months. One of the biggest tussles came with ‘Diagnostics’. Early versions just didn’t work. Eventually, I came to realise that I was, through writing ‘Diagnostics’, trying to convince myself that what had happened to my dad – and us, his family – was fated, inevitable, something bound to happen to ‘people like us’. The tendency to think in this way has – I believe – a lot to do with class; it has a lot to do with trauma, and inherited trauma. And it can serve to limit people, to trap them into patterns of living. I realised that early versions of ‘Diagnostics’ replicated this fatalism. The sequence finally began to work when I decided instead to acknowledge and diagnose this fatalism, to explore it and thereby challenge it – and to open up to the ambiguous, unknowable nature of death, loss and grief.
alice, could you talk to us about the significance of form in this collection, as a means of accessing and transcribing traumatic memories?
alice: Form in its most fluid sense, and a layered, archaeological construction, are central to bird of winter. Drawing on what happened to me, I wanted to make visible the arc of a child being groomed, then subjected to sexual abuse, but afterwards moving beyond this towards adolescent and adult self-reclamations. The collection’s three movements are framed by the shadow worlds of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Because excavating these sites revealed the violent eruption of Vesuvius, but also brought forth treasure, the implication is that witness can be realised along many channels – including through recovering beauty. I call back my lost child self, and the loving figures and positive experiences which helped me come through.
Additionally, I use form to confer agency, even while navigating danger. I drop the reader down, somatically, into the terror of my childhood, but offer ladders out again towards places of healing. To enact the vulnerability arising from predation, the poems often curl up small on their white sheets. At the same time, this visual prompt reminds us that they are contained artworks – with a defined endpoint (unlike trauma). Interleaving found materials with my own words generates the disruptive static and breaks of a story which can never be fully articulated.
Form also embodies childish play and mess. Some poems circle round. Within the erasures, white tunnels of words are dug out from smudgy, hand-blacked rectangles. Elsewhere you have to puzzle out the links between the historical fragments as you jump from one to another – like stepping stones or hopscotch. Those sorts of engagements help generate active, empathetic readings.
Caleb – In ‘Barter’ you write ‘I was reaching for my voice box / I rarely use it to its full potential’. Can you talk about lending your voice to those who cannot speak anymore, or who are voiceless?
Caleb: My voice is one of many that exists in my community. Each as intriguing as the other, we should all be heard.
Cynthia – Images of stars permeate this collection, especially in the poems that speak so beautifully of your family. In ‘Scheherezade in the Care Home Part III’ you speak of the ‘old light left behind’ by a ‘collapsed star’. Could you talk of how you trapped this cultural, historical and generational ’old light’ within the poems in this collection?
Cynthia: This is a lovely question, thank you. I’ll try and answer it in two parts – how I captured that light, and why I kept coming back to star imagery.
The how was a piecemeal approach of excavation and curation. So many of the cultural, historical and family stories that permeate the collection were collected from weekly WhatsApp catch-ups with my mother, capturing second-hand family stories that had been passed down to and through her, desk research into the history of Chinese communities in Malaysia, trying desperately to find written records of specific honorifics in a dialect that’s largely verbal. Some of the generational stories had been hidden away for so long they’d become ossified and had to be chipped away, slowly, over a series of conversations with family over a period of years. I still don’t think I understand them completely.
I think of the long tradition of fortune tellers at temples. Star-charts and fortune sticks and divining the placement of the heavens. My mother, I’m sure I recall her telling me, went to one when she was pregnant with me. I think about our millennial version: astrology apps and our modern oracle, Chani. I think about how there’s something comforting and unknowable and mysterious about stars, how we navigate ourselves by their position and our position in relation to them. And it seemed to fit – all the poems in my collection about stars are really poems about family, longing and displacement (such as ‘Scheherezade’, ‘Summer Preserves Haibun’, ‘Proxima b’), and how acute and destabilizing that feeling of disorientation can be.
Holly – In ‘Eccentric Attire’ you say that ‘Surely, the throat is a neuron’. How do you contain the energy of your words? Do you impose any scaffolding on the free association you employ?
Holly: There’s always form, no matter what or how you write. Prosodic formation, patterned and embodied language, politics, timing, it’s all there as structure whenever there’s writing and subject. I like playing into sonic shapes that come towards me when writing, it’s like a dance, it’s like sexuality. Again, tussle!
Ralf – I noticed splashes of pink throughout this collection. What is the significance of this colour to you, and how does it invade and set alight both the heartbreak of the ‘Diagnostics’ sequence, and the self-scrutiny of ‘Treetops’?
Ralf: When I think of the colour pink I think of carnations, earthworms, anemic-looking plums; I think of the huge rose quartz crystals on my childhood bedroom windowsill; I think of pink moons and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon; I think of hematology and bone marrow biopsies; I think of Pepto-Bismol, pills, the skin under the nail; I think of how the sunrise would have looked to my parents, alone, driving to or back from work at dawn.
When writing a first draft do you use a pen or a computer? Are you at your desk or in a public space like a library or a coffee shop? Finally, do you listen to music or prefer silence?
alice: I write first drafts with a pen or by speaking into my phone. Silence can be valuable – but so are outdoor urban environments and cafes with plenty of ambient noise. They distract your own self-policing and engender safety while exploring difficult materials.
Caleb: I tend to write anywhere. Pen or computer or phone, I swap between them all, keeps things fresh and present, which I think poetry needs to be, at least in the writing of it. My edit sessions are more routined: on my laptop in a quiet place or sometimes music.
Cynthia: It depends on the poem, on the setting, on my mood. Drafts usually start on my laptop, in a new Evernote file where I have easy access to: previous snippets of lines I’ve stashed in a ‘Cutting Room Floor’ file, a million open tabs on Chrome, and Twitter for inspiration. I don’t think I could ever write in silence! I tend to open Headspace and listen to their soundscapes of rainstorms or ocean waves, just to have something in the background. If I’m working deeply on a poem I’ll usually listen to one song on repeat for hours… like putting myself into a strange poetic trance, if that makes sense. Last summer it was one song from Taylor Swift’s folklore for days, followed by random EDM tracks.
Holly: All of those and also on my bike, flopped out of the side of bed, on the train home from work, toilet, flopped out the side of the bath, while on the phone, on the sofa, flopped over the side of the sofa. With a lot of the poems in this book I wanted to keep intact the ‘note to self’ feeling of a phone note or notebook, so the voice of it is something still quite provisional. I have terrible handwriting, and this can be a blessing when going through notebooks – the act of deciphering is really generative. What I wrote, what I read and the new voice connecting them is a nice method (tussle).
Ralf: I use a computer! When I was younger and didn’t have a laptop, I’d draft everything in notebooks, though, and I miss that – but I’ve found it’s a difficult habit to get back into. I find that, for writing a first draft, or zero draft, I quite like to be completely alone, doing my own thing in my own space. And I need to have that for a decent stretch of time, in order to work myself into the sort of deluded, fantastical state that I seem to need to reach if I am to believe that writing is something I can actually do. For all the other endless stages of drafting poems – the tinkering, cutting, chopping, changing – I love doing that in very busy and sometimes hectic public places. Maybe it has something to do with being exposed to movement, being in-between things, watching the world go by. Music! Usually. Often the same record or even the same song again and again and again. Music can infiltrate the writing or drafting, it can find its way into the poem, and I think that’s a good thing, personally.
What will you be working on next?
alice: I’m already working on a prismatic memoir. It’s the prose companion to bird of winter. My second collection will explore living within the post-abuse adult female body.
Caleb: Another collection. A novel. Maybe.
Cynthia: I’m not in any rush to write another poetry pamphlet or collection. My day job is in strategy and innovation, and I’d love my next project to focus on bringing that skillset to poetry. I want to experiment with disrupting the business model of books, redesign how readers could experience different versions of a poem. How might I get the reader to step into the smells and sounds of Kuching, Malaysia? Get them to hear an excerpt of a voice note story that inspired ‘Voicemails from my mother’? This stuff sets my brain on fire. I so desperately want to do a series of poetic experiments that has nothing to do with words and everything to do with the experience around it.
Holly: A long, long, long poem about cafes.
Ralf: I am currently writing several tangentially-related short stories – I think I am in love with the form, and used to write mostly short fiction, but haven’t in a long time. I find it challenging, and I’d like to finish a collection at some point. I am also always working on the next collection of poems, in that writing and thinking about poetry is something that I can’t seem to stop doing.
And finally, if you could resurrect a poet for one afternoon, who would it be and what would you talk to them about?
alice: Elizabeth Bishop about writing from a child’s perspective.
Cynthia: Bridget Pegeen Kelly. No chance I’d be in any way articulate, I think I’d just fangirl and gush irritatingly.
Holly: (Don’t make me cry!) I’d like to try and seduce Mayakovsky.
Ralf: Oh man. I’m struggling to come up with an answer. I feel like it would be bad taste to resurrect anyone from after, say, the nineteenth century. Maybe someone ancient… like, Catullus and/or Sappho. We could talk about obscenity (or the lack thereof) in contemporary literature. We could talk about love songs, Lorde, and superstardom.
Thank you all for so generously sharing the influences which helped shape these collections. It has been fascinating reading your answers and I wish you all the very best of luck on October 24.
Shash Trevett is a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the UK as a refugee to escape the civil war. She is a winner of a Northern Writers’ Award and her pamphlet From a Borrowed Land was published by Smith|Doorstop in May 2021. She is currently co-editing (with Vidyan Ravinthiran and Seni Seneviratne) an anthology of Tamil, English and Sinhala poetry from Sri Lanka and its diaspora communities. Shash was a 2021 Visible Communities Translator in Residence at the National Writing Centre, and is a 2021 Ledbury Critic. She is a Board Member of Modern Poetry in Translation.