The decision to have actors, not the shortlisted poets, read at last night’s first ever Forward prize-giving ceremony on the South Bank certainly got everyone talking. Mostly, in the poetry world, negatively. I wouldn’t have gone, had I known at the time we booked. It’s such an unusual thing to do that no-one would have thought to check whether it might happen. I don’t think the poets had the decision communicated well to them either. (They all read at an event in East London the previous evening, which wasn’t very well publicised or (I believe) attended, and I couldn’t go anyway.)
I tried to put aside prejudices, partly because any organisation that promotes poetry deserves respect, and especially when I learned that the actors were giving their services for free. But it was difficult. Actors do have a tendency to put too much expression into a poem. Actors and playwrights get recognition and sometimes celebrity status: in a line-up of thoroughly modern muses, Theatre is all glammed up while Poetry haunts the sidelines in rags.
If the motivation was doubt as to whether poets can read their own work well, that’s outdated. One only has to go to a TS Eliot prizegiving or a major magazine launch to understand that most good poets are somewhere between competent and excellent at reading.
It was an interesting evening, but didn’t really work. One poem was read for each shortlisted poet; each actor read one or two poems. Actors included Juliet Stevenson, Martin Jarvis and Helen McCrory. There was hardly any hamming-up. But most of the actors just didn’t inhabit the poems effectively. I think it was harder, hearing most of the poems for the first time and not knowing several of the poets’ work, to ‘get’ each poem than it usually is at readings. I don’t mean the ostensible subject, if any, but the motive force and the magical something that might make the listener/reader connect with the work. Quite a lot of poems passed me by, and I realised around half-way through (the whole thing only lasted around an hour, which was good) that I was bored.
Also a bit embarrassed – the whole arrangement felt awkward. The winning poets didn’t have a voice at all. Each winner was announced at the end of each section and invited onstage, where he/she was handed the prize but not allowed to say anything. Three pale, ghostly, voiceless poets... though at least not in rags for the near future. It was somehow humiliating, infantilising, patronising. As for the other shortlisted poets, they got no attention at all.
Also annoyed. Glamour and rags – poetry and poets hardly get any moments in the public eye. And cheated: of Hannah Lowe – first time a friend of mine has been shortlisted for something, and she’s a fantastically good reader. Of Patience Agbabi, supreme example of fusion of performance and page poetry, who would upstage any actor. What an irony that she was off-staged. Her shortlisted poem is here.
Ultimate test: would they have done this, had Seamus Heaney been still with us and on the shortlist?
Meanwhile, Rob Mackenzie has looked up the male/female ratio of Forward main prize winners: it’s 22:4. Which is 5.5 men for every woman. He’s also done the publishers: Faber & Picador get 6 each, OUP gets 3, Cape 2 (Cape published yesterday’s winner) and there’s a 1-each tail including Carcanet, Anvil, (Irish) Gallery and Chatto. But then the major publishers (apart from Bloodaxe and Seren, which have never won anyway) publish two or three times more books by men than by women, see statistics for 2010 onwards here; and the ratio may well have been higher in earlier years. NB: I doubt anyone would deny that Michael Symmons Roberts’ excellent Drysalter is a worthy winner.