The Forward Book of Poetry has long been regarded as an annual barometer for the state of contemporary poetry published over the preceding year in the British Isles. 2020’s edition once again exemplifies UK poetry is in rude health.
Out of the nominations from both Best Collection and Best First Collection, two poets writing about the deaf experience, and in very different ways, particularly stand out.
Nominated for Best Collection, Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, ‘Deafness, an insurgency, Begins’ skilfully converts deaf experience to a position of absolute defiance against the brutality of war: ‘Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers.’
The young women in the poem, so often victimised and repressed under such regimes, are yet more defiant:
‘When soldiers compliment girls in the alleyway,
the girls slide by, pointing to their ears.’
Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us
This subversive idea of silence as a strength is echoed in the final line of the poem before a sketch of the fingertips of two hands together concludes the piece:
‘In the ears of the town snow falls.’
Raymond Antrobus, nominated for Best First Collection, uses deaf experience in a more personal way. The title poem of The Perseverance, named after a pub his father used to regularly frequent, deals with the poet’s feelings of isolation as a boy hard of hearing, waiting outside the pub, while his dad popped in for a drink or two:
‘I’m outside counting minutes,
waiting for the man, my father
to finish his shot…
His father gives him 50p to make him disappear ‘…like a coin in a parking meter before/the time runs out. How many minutes/will I lose listening to the laughter/spilling from THE PERSERVERANCE/while strangers ask, where is your father?’
And like so many kids with drinking fathers, the boy is forced to make excuses for his father’s conduct and explain his own temporary isolation and abandonment:
‘I stare at the doors and say, my father
is working. Strangers who don’t disappear
but hug me for my perseverance.’
The regular appearance of the word, ‘perseverance’ in the poem, suggests an ongoing battle of putting up with a flawed father and the boy’s own frustrations at the hearing world around him.
A brilliant example of a poem reflecting the state of the world we live in is Lavinia Greenlaw’s quietly devastating ‘The Break’:
‘Deep in the dark of that year
I issued a warning, I’m going to break, I said
but quietly and so often that it sounded like a refrain.’
‘You have every reason to be in such pain.
They had looked inside me and found reasons.’
While this poem suggests this pain is physical as well as mental, it speaks to us in the wider context of our own fears of breaking in such turbulent and divisive times.
There’s also the obligatory short poem that always seems to sneak into Forward anthologies. These poems usually centre around a startlingly simple idea that other poets, at whatever stage of their writing journeys, will inevitably rage to themselves, ‘I could’ve written that. What’s so bloody good about this poem!’ One might recall an inclusion of a poem in a Forward anthology a year or two after September 11th which more or less went like this: ‘Woke up. Watched the news.’
In 2020’s edition, the short poem most of us could have seemingly written was penned by Scott Manley Hadley:
Is a lot like sex
With a long time partner
You’re not in love with anymore:
Even when it’s good
It’s still kinda boring
Of course, while many of us could have written this poem, we didn’t. Scott Manley Hadley did. And such poems obviously speak to the judges precisely because they are so simple and say something about a particular subject which resonates and lingers long after such poems have been read. One might glean from the inclusion of ‘Untitled’ that the judges loved it’s gentle mockery of this often misunderstood art form that the wider public indeed find boring, despite poetry’s recent resurgence. The poem’s inclusion might also inadvertently reflect that, despite the increasing popularity of performance poetry, exciting the likes of big publishers, Picador (perhaps because such poetry is certainly not boring to the wider public judging by the books sales of such poets), one rarely finds such poets within the pages of a Forward anthology, with the odd occasional exception of Luke Wright and Kate Tempest.
Elsewhere, the anthology is heaving with many exceptional contributions from poetry heavyweights such as Carol Ann Duffy, John Kinsella, Hugo Williams and Liz Berry. It does seem to be a year when the bigger names have returned in force. Time will tell if more performance poets make their way into this annual barometer of what’s happening in poetry in The British Isles because their absence seems to be particularly obvious in this latest edition. Maybe it’s because poems written with performance in mind rarely work as well on the page. Whatever the reason, the notable absence of such poems in an anthology that purports to reflect what’s going on out there in poetry in The British Isles, will continue to raise questions as to why such work is consistently ignored.
Mark Connors is an award winning writer from Leeds, UK. He has had over 170 poems published in magazines, anthologies and webzines.
Mark’s debut poetry pamphlet, Life is a Long Song was published by OWF Press in 2015. His first full length collection, Nothing is Meant to be Broken was published by Stairwell Books in 2017. His second poetry collection, Optics, was published in 2019 by YAFFLE. A joint collection, Reel Bradford, written with fellow writers from the team behind poetry publishers, YAFFLE, in partnership with Bradford City of Film, will also be published in 2019.
Mark’s debut novel, Stickleback was published by Armley Press in 2016. Stickleback was long listed for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. His second novel, Tom Tit and the Maniacs was published by Armley Press in 2018. It was selected as one of Culture Vulture’s novels of the year.
Mark is a writing workshop facilitator and bibliotherapist. He is the managing editor of the independent poetry publishers, YAFFLE.
You can email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org