Judges praise Miller’s ‘distinctive voice’ as The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion takes £10,000 prize, Caroline Davies reports for London’s Guardian.
The Jamaican poet Kei Miller has won the prestigious Forward prize for the best poetry collection of 2014 for his “standout” book based on dialogue between a mapmaker striving to impose order on an unfamiliar land and a “Rasta-man” who queries his project.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion took the £10,000 prize, with judges relishing Miller’s ability to “defy expectations” and “set up oppositions only to undermine them”.
Miller, 35, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and financed his studies at Manchester Metropolitan University by winning poetry slams, currently teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway college, University of London.
The collection features a mapmaker who speaks the Queen’s English but sucks his teeth like a Jamaican, and a “Rasta-man” with a PhD who believes “the mapmaker’s work is to make visible/ all them things that shoulda never exist in the first place/ like the conquest of pirates, like borders/ like the viral spread of governments”.
The chair of the judges, the historian and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, said: “Kei is doing something you don’t come across often: this is a beautifully voiced collection which struck us all with its boldness and wit. Many poets refer to multiple realities, different ways of observing the world. Kei doesn’t just refer, he articulates them”.
The singer Cerys Matthews, one of the judges alongside the poets Vahni Capildeo, Helen Mort and Dannie Abse – who died on Sunday, before the final judging – said: “He has such a distinctive voice and it sounds so fresh and exciting.
“The title, it’s so current, when we think about all these borders fidgeting and wriggling and changing.It questions our traditional idea of what poetry is because he has such a Jamaican voice and his love of rhythm and performance poetry is evident in his work.”
The shortlist comprised Colette Bryce for The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, John Burnside for All One Breath, Louise Glück for Faithful and Virtuous Night and Hugo Williams for I Knew the Bride.
Liz Berry, a former infant school teacher, won the Felix Dennis prize for best first collection for Black Country, named after the place of her birth, and written in the region’s oft-disparaged dialect. Steven Santos, a language school teacher in Oxford, won the best single poem for In a Restaurant .
Miller first discovered the power of his own voice as a young preacher in Jamaica, but abandoned the church for an academic career in Britain. As a penniless student in Manchester, he earned money by winning poetry slams, becoming the 2004 Manchester slam poetry champion. He later said: “I am ashamed to have won that prize, and truth be told I am also ashamed that I am ashamed”.
In the eight years since his first collection was published he has produced two novels, a short story collections, three more poetry collections and a book of “essays and prophecies”, and he is a prolific blogger and tweeter. He attributes his productivity partly to his recently diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Matthews said Miller and Berry shared one thing in common: “That the central role of dialect and accent in their works is not your generic Anglo-American academic Oxford English”.
Paxman caused controversy at the beginning of judging when he denounced poetry as an art form, saying it had “rather connived at its own irrelevance” and poets must start engaging with ordinary people.
Matthews said poetry “is especially relevant now, I think, when we are all used to trying to get our message across in 140 characters. The value of words, the economy used, and how to pack a lot into a little, that is what we are dealing with every day just on Twitter”.
The Forward Prizes, now in their 23rd year, are the premier accolades in the UK and Ireland for established and emerging poets[ Former winners include Seamus Heaney for Human Chain, Ted Hughes for Birthday Letters and Carol Ann Duffy for Mean Times.
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