Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Forward Prize event: actors or poets?

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If the motivation was doubt as to whether poets can read their own work well, that’s outdated.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. 


  1. Please bear in mind - for some of us aspiring poets performing our work is out of the question for a variety of reasons - some of them health-related. Writers can dread all manner of things - from writer's block.. to crises of confidence... to never getting recognition - but the prospect of having to appear in front of others to read can be enough to make you question whether it's worthwhile carrying on writing. I am always being told that the poem should 'stand alone' without any additional explanation or story necessary - in that case surely the poem should 'shine' regardless of who reads it??

  2. Thank you Babs… I agree that reading is scary at the best of times (I’ve been there), and of course there are circumstances in which it just isn’t possible.

    The poem ‘shining’ regardless is the ideal. That’s easy enough to achieve on the page, but less so in performance.

    At the level of a major prize-giving, which is what I was discussing here, most authors make their own poems shine, some very brightly indeed – but you raise the interesting question of what happens when someone can’t. An example is Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish poet, who can’t speak following a stroke some years ago. When he came to London a year or two ago, a Swedish actor (one of TV’s various Wallanders) spoke his poems, and did it well, so far as we non-Swedish speakers could tell.

    On Facebook a couple of people mentioned Live Canon, who are a group of actors who perform poetry – I’ve yet to see them but would like to do so. Their director is a reader of poetry who coaches them. It seems unlikely that any of the actors reading the other night had had coaching (they hadn’t been in contact with the poets).

    It would be interesting to hear from anyone who has been in an audience for Live Canon and was also at the Forward ceremony.

  3. Dear Fiona

    I notice that your pamphlet is titled 'The Only Reason For Time'. If you ever get a free moment, please check out my 'Seasonal Affective Disorder' (A 110 stanza meditation on the nature of Time and its effects) on which I hope you will enjoy.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    P.S. Sorry for repeating my surname but otherwise it doesn't show up on Google. Sometimes I look back at my old comments and think: 'God, did I really write that? I must have been drunk!'

    1. Thank you Simon, I'll have a look. You seem to be right about repeating the surname - all we get on here is your blogging name.

  4. Agree with you that sidelining the poets was disgraceful - after all they were key to the event. I wasn't there but it seems very odd (and not designed to encourage future shortlistees/prize winners to attend) not to allow the poets to say "thanks".

    Generally though, I think it has to be the poet's decision as to whether they would prefer an actor to read their poem(s) or not and there should be an opportunity for the actor to meet the poet and discuss the poem - need only be a brief meeting but it would the actor chance to get a feel for the poet's voice and the poet to explain how they would like the poem read.

    The actors may have brought extra publicity but that should not have been at the expense of the poets.

    Emma Lee

    1. Thanks Emma. It will be interesting to see what they do next year… and, if they use actors again, how popular the event will be.

      Thinking along the same lines as you, before the event I asked one of the readers if they’d discussed their poem with the actor who was to read it. I was expecting the answer yes, but in fact there had been no contact.