Grace Nichols to be awarded Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, 2021

Buckingham Place has announced that The Queen has approved the award of Her Majesty’s Gold Medal for Poetry for the year 2021 to Grace Nichols. [For full article, see Bloodaxe Books.]

Grace Nichols will be the 52nd recipient of this award instituted by King George V in 1933 at the suggestion of the then Poet Laureate John Masefield. The award is made for excellence in poetry and will be presented in 2022.  She joins last year’s winner David Constantine, her husband John Agard, and four other Bloodaxe poets who have been honoured with The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.  David Constantine received his Medal for 2020 at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 28 October 2021. The Queen presented him with the award from Windsor Castle via video link.

The Poetry Medal Committee recommended Grace Nichols as this year’s recipient on the basis of her body of work, in particular her first collection of poetry I Is a Long-Memoried Woman (1983), her prose, and several books for younger readers.  The Committee is chaired by the UK’s Poet Laureate Simon Armitage.

Grace Nichols is a Guyanese poet who moved to Britain at the age of 27. Since 2009 her poetry for adults has been published by Bloodaxe Books, who also publish her husband John Agard.  This will be the first time that The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry has been held by both a husband and wife, with John Agard having been honoured by Her Majesty in 2013 with the award for 2012.  They both have work on the GCSE syllabus, and have toured the UK with GCSE Poetry Live!, bringing live poetry to thousands of students.

Grace Nichols and John Agard are the only UK-based Caribbean poets to be awarded The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Previous recipients from the Caribbean are the late Derek Walcott (1988), who lived in Saint Lucia, and Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison (2019), who is based in the United States.

Most of the poems from I Is a Long-Memoried Woman, winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, are included in Grace Nichols’ Bloodaxe retrospective I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (2010), along with a selection of poems from her four titles from Virago and some poems for younger readers. She has also published three collections from Bloodaxe, Picasso, I Want my Face Back (2009), The Insomnia Poems (2017), and her ninth collection Passport to Here and There (2020), which moves from coastal memories of a Guyana childhood to life in Britain and her adoptive Sussex landscape.

On hearing of the award, Grace Nichols said: “I was overwhelmed when I first got the news. It was both wonderful and humbling to be recognised in this way. As a poet you write your poems in solitude, never knowing whom they’ll reach. I feel so honoured and delighted to be given this award by Her Majesty and the committee, headed by Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage and to join the illustrious company of past winners from across the Commonwealth. In my own work I’ve celebrated my Guyanese/Caribbean/South American heritage in relation to the English traditions we inherited as a former British colony. To poetry and the English language that I love, I’ve brought the registers of my own Caribbean tongue. I wish my parents who use to chide me for straining my eyes, as a small girl reading by torchlight in bed, were around to share in this journey that poetry has blessed me with.”

The Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, commented: “Over the past four decades, Grace has been an original, pioneering voice in the British poetry scene. A noted reader and ‘performer’ of her work, she has embraced the tones of her adopted country and yet maintained the cadences of her native tongue. Her poems are alive with characters from the folklore and fables of her Caribbean homeland, and echo with the rhymes and rhythms of her family and ancestors. Song-like or prayer-like on occasion, they exhibit an honesty of feeling and a generosity of spirit. They are also passionate and sensuous at times, being daring in their choice of subject and openhearted in their outlook.

Above all, Grace Nichols has been a beacon for black women poets in this country, staying true to her linguistic coordinates and poetic sensibilities, and offering a means of ex-pression that has offered inspiration and encouragement to many. She is a moving elegist, and a poet of conciliation and constructive dialogue between cultures, but also a voice of questioning dissent when the occasion demands.”

Grace Nichols joins six other Bloodaxe poets who have been honoured with The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry: David Constantine (2020), Gillian Allnutt (2016), Imtiaz Dharker (2014), John Agard (2012), Fleur Adcock (2006) and the late R S Thomas (1964).

Born in Guyana, Grace Nichols has lived in Britain since 1977. Her first collection, I Is a Long-Memoried Woman (1983), won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Four subsequent poetry collections were published by Virago: The Fat Black Woman’s Poems (1984), Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman (1989), Sunris (1996), winner of the Guyana Prize, and Startling the Flying Fish (2006), poems which tell the story of the Caribbean. A generous selection of poems from these five books, along with some of her poetry for younger readers, is included in her Bloodaxe retrospective I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (2010).  She has also published three collections with Bloodaxe, Picasso, I Want My Face Back (2009), The Insomnia Poems (2017), and Passport to Here and There (2020), a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation. She has also published several poetry books for younger readers, including Come on into My Tropical Garden (1988), Give Yourself a Hug (1994), Everybody Got a Gift (2005) and Cosmic Disco (2013). She lives in Sussex with the poet John Agard and their family. She was made a Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature in 2020.  Grace Nichols lives in East Sussex and is available for interview.

For review copies of Passport to Here and There or any other Bloodaxe titles by Grace Nichols, or for interview/jpeg requests, please email Christine Macgregor at publicity@bloodaxebooks.com (currently working from home).
For films of Grace Nichols reading from her books, see her title page for Passport to Here and There.
An interview with Grace Nichols is featured in The Observer of 28 June 2020 here.
For further information on The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, please contact Royal Communications on 020 7930 4832.  Announcement on the Buckingham Palace website: here.

[Photo of Grace Nichols above by Suki Dhanda/The Observer; from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/dec/10/grace-nichols-pioneering-voice-wins-her-queens-gold-medal-for-poetry.]

Many thanks to Peter Jordens for providing addition links; see below:

Guyanese poet awarded Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry
Dillon De Shong, Loop News, December 11, 2021
https://caribbean.loopnews.com/content/guyanese-poet-awarded-queens-gold-medal-poetry

Grace Nichols’ ‘pioneering voice’ wins her Queen’s gold medal for poetry
Lucy Knight, The Guardian, December 10, 2021
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/dec/10/grace-nichols-pioneering-voice-wins-her-queens-gold-medal-for-poetry

Queen’s Medal for Poetry 2021
The Royal Household, December 10, 2021
https://www.royal.uk/queens-medal-poetry-2021

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