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Workshop report – the T S Eliot Prize shortlisted collections

Talking about the TS Eliot Prize shortlisted booksTonight it’s that lovely annual poets’ jamboree, the T S Eliot Prize readings at the Royal Festival Hall. This year I thought it would increase my enjoyment of the readings if I had an inkling about all of them beforehand, so yesterday I was at the Poetry School in Lambeth getting educated. Ten poets, ten collections – how on earth do you cover them all in a single day? The answer of course is you can’t, but as I found out yesterday it’s certainly possible to get a feel for them, with the right kind of guidance and through interesting group discussion.

Our guide was poet/teacher/blogger Katy Evans-Bush, she of the famous blog Baroque in Hackney (say it with an american accent to get the pun) and we were about 12 poets/readers from various backgrounds. It certainly helped to have at least one classicist and one native speaker of Welsh, not to mention someone who had experienced the 1980s miners’ strike first hand. Chuck in a big donated box of Thornton’s chocolates, and we were all set.

Katy started by explaining some of her overall impressions: that there were definitely some common themes and ‘over-archingness’, both within individual collections and across the lot.  While some of the books are single-themed or single-storied, such as the Ramayana, others had diverse threads that played out, poems that called to each other within the collection, and there even seemed to be some word-trends across the board.

We plunged in and did close readings of a poem or a couple of poems from each collection.  Katy encouraged us to get the ball rolling on discussions, and it was clear she had chosen the poems carefully. Where relevant, she explained why she had chosen each poem or extract, and how it related to the rest of the collection. What could have been a random collection of poems started to cohere through common themes but very different approaches and styles.

Opinions got stronger throughout the day – which could have been to do with the group feeling more comfortable, or maybe as we went through the books more comparisons were made and our thoughts fell more into place.

I did take notes, but this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive account of the day, more a mosaic of ideas, thoughts and quotes which may or may not make sense. I certainly came away feeling really excited about hearing the poets read this evening. So, who’s going to win??

Hill of Doors by Robin Robertson (Picador)

The poem we read was ‘The Coming God’, which set us straight into the ‘gods’ theme for the morning. This poem is ‘after Nonnus’ who I learned was a Greek poet. It concerns the birth and early life of Dionysus as he grew, his body apparently shifting from animal to human and back again, using his special powers as he

He tamed the wild beasts, just by talking,
and they knelt to be petted, harnessed in

Various things were noted – the free layout with ragged line endings, maybe suggesting the shape-shifting of the god in question, the meanings packed in the first line

Horned child, double-born into risk …

and the many words appearing twice in the poem (doubled): sky, goat, woman’s, kisses, and the name of Dionysus. For me, the poem had lots of technical interest and a mysterious ending. I was glad of the expertise of group members when it came to interpreting and understanding the myth behind the subject matter.

Hill of Doors contains a number of poems after Nonnus, and plenty of blood and guts apparently. A potential winner? ‘Funny about women and addicted to the apocalyptic’ was Katy’s feeling about the book.

Ramayana: A Retelling by Daljit Nagra (Faber)

Big change of register. I only had to see the exclamation mark in the title of the next poem to know it was by Daljit Nagra: ‘Prologue: Get Raaaaaaaaavana!’  (I may have missed out an ‘a’ there, sorry).

There was some talk about how some bookshops had placed this book on the children’s shelf, and the possible reasons. Perhaps because of the tongue-in-cheek chapter headings (eg ‘Sexing Big Bro’)? The seemingly rambling layout and joky language? The sudden bursts of typographic exuberance? The crazy neologisms (eg indestructibilitiness)? The sheer number of exclamation marks?????

Here’s a classic text, or rather a hybrid re-telling of a classic text, in the language of bollywood, anglo-indian, 70s TV sitcom vernacular.  As Katy said, it’s all about excess… but look more closely and you can’t deny the poetic technique involved.

Over the top, yes, but that’s the nature of the story – gods, worlds, the clash of the titans. He’s using language in an entirely appropriate manner for the subject matter.

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan (Faber)

A lot of poems here set in Maurice’s back garden, which sounds a bit limiting but of course there’s no need for it to be.

We looked at one, ‘Stars and Jasmine’: on the surface a cute tale in which the five key elements are introduced in the first stanza: the cat, the hedgehog, the tortoise, stars and jasmine. We get down to the view point of the three animals, resolving in the final stanza when we’re told what will happen to the ‘interloper’ tortoise once summer’s over. (Nothing horrid!)

There was much discussion about which of the animals was male and which female, the size of a tortoise and whether it was possible to ‘lower her through (a) letterbox’ (sadly, that was my contribution – I got a little bogged down with the ending as I couldn’t picture it) we enjoyed the sly humour of the title – suggesting one thing, delivering another. The different perspectives of the creatures, the minuteness of detail, it was all beautiful. Katy emphasised the gentle humour and warmth of this book.

I liked ‘Stars and Jasmine’ but I think I need to see more to know if this is a collection I’d reach for often.

Parallax by Sinéad Morrissey (Carcanet)

Interesting, coming after the Riordan poem about the different points of view – as that what the word ‘parallax’ is all about. The poem we read was ‘1801’ – a kind of found poem made up (it felt like anyway) short extracts from Dorothy Wordworth’s journal. Her day is composed of domestic tasks – shelling peas, boiling up pears and cloves, walking out ‘for letters’ and making observations on the landscape –

                      Either moonlight on Grasmere –- like herrings! —
or the new moon holding the old moon in its arms.

William appears just twice, ‘exhausted’ from his work. It’s a seductive viewpoint from a feminist point of view- the irony of Dorothy coming up with such lovely writing whilst still doing all the chores, while William gets some kind of ‘man flu’ from poring over a pesky adjective.

Katy tells us the book contains a number of such poems, giving voices to characters  who are usually sidelined.

Speak, Old Parrot by Dannie Abse (Hutchinson)

There was a big warm hug of a feeling in the room when Dannie Abse came up. We read Dafydd’s Oath, number 4 in a sequence entitled ‘The Summer Frustrations of Dafydd ap Geilym’. Dafydd was apparently a 14th century Welsh bard and notorious womaniser, partly explained by the fact that the love of his life, Morfudd, had gone into a convent. Alongside this we also looked at ‘Perspectives’. (Again, cleverly chosen by Katy and a good follow-on from the last two poems.)

‘Perspectives’ is set in L’Artista, the ‘local italian restaurant’ which features in many of the poems in Speak Old Parrot. Subtitled ‘Five paragraphs for Frank O’Hara’, the poem naturally called up comparisons with O’Hara’s lunchtime poems. With its precise time checks – ‘At 1.50pm I ordere Fusilli all’Ortolana’, ‘At 2.23pm I drink my cappuccino’ – someone pointed out that this was a very quick lunch, as we talked about the perception of time passing both quickly and slowly in old age. At one point, the poem addresses ‘Frank’ directly. Katy reminded us that if Frank O’Hara hadn’t died young, he and Abse would be contemporaries. Interesting!

We talked a lot more about this collection. But I’m already realising how long this blog post is getting and I don’t have much long to get through the next 5 books… aaagh!

At the Time of Partition by Moniza Alvi (Bloodaxe)

This is a very slim volume – Katy admitted she’d read it on the bus between the Geffrye Museum and Clerkenwell. It’s the story of Moniza Alvi’s family and how they had to flee to Pakistan when India was partitioned, one of the principal characters being her grandmother, another the uncle she never knew, lost in the upheaval. It’s in effect one long sequence and we read section 12: Seeking.

We noted the spaciousness of the line layout, the short lines, a sparseness. The figure of Amma (the grandmother) is larger than life, a kind of colossus, and she’s looking for her son, doing everything she can

Her mind’s eye was a torch
to beam through

the intricate darkness of a tailor’s workshop

While the writer is left helpless after the event, unable to look ‘as long and hard’  and certainly not ‘with any muscle of the imagination.’

Katy said she had found the book surprisingly easy to read but nonetheless very moving and  full of the ‘horrible flux of human weight’.

Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)

Here’s something different – one long sequence, presented in ‘newspaper’ columns – a few centimetres wide and justified text – broken up occasionally but without obvious breaks or chapter headings. I say ‘chapter’ because it read like a story.

This book sees two characters from Carson’s Autobiography of Red transformed and now known as G and Sad, as they go on what the literature describes as “a bizarre road trip through terrain that one critic has called ‘rural Canada meets Ring of Fire meets the Mediterranean circa 600BC’ …” Tee hee!

I surprised myself by really liking this work. Cinematic, dreamlike, dystopian, deadpan and yet I was touched by it, and the humour of it. Pretty much bonkers. Very hard to describe or quote from. But I want to read the whole thing.

Division Street by Helen Mort (Chatto & Windus)

Ooh! Some divisions here all right … we read the first and final parts of a five-part sequence, ‘Scab’. It’s the miners’ strike, and the scene is set:

A stone is lobbed in ’84,
hangs like a star over Orgreave.
Welcome to Sheffield.

At the end of the sequence, we meet the stone again, as we’re told ‘it crashes through your windowpane’ and ‘you’re left to guess which picket line you crossed’. Powerful? Well, yes, but the feeling in the room was that the sequence lacked authenticity. Unlike Alvi’s tale of her family coping with Partition, Mort’s miners’ strike felt one step removed from her lived experience – if there had been some kind of reference to her family, some kind of particular/specific point of view, rather than the big picture, maybe it would feel more powerful. People weren’t keen on the ‘you’ at the end. Is this the narrator? Or an inclusive ‘you’, implicating the reader?

I sensed a bit of ageism in the discussion – can a young poet who hasn’t done anything but been a poet really tell us anything new about our own lived existence? Well I get the argument, but Keats did OK. Plus, there’s still (for me) an energy, a dynamic, an excitement in the work of many of today’s young ‘professional poets’ such as Sam Riviere, Jack Underwood, Emily Berry etc. Should they stick to their own experience, like young actors not taking on King Lear until they’re mature enough? And the converse – should those of us in middle age and older not write about contemporary themes or things we don’t really know about or haven’t actually experienced?

Bad Machine by George Szirtes (Bloodaxe)

George Szirtes is another one for the popular vote. His amazing output, his seemingly indefatigable work ethic, the stream of pithy tweets, erudite blog posts, big personality – just put it all aside, people! The jury cannot take personal charm into consideration at this time!

We looked at ‘Snapshots from a Riot’ – interesting choice after Mort’s ‘Scab’. These snapshots are indeed images many of us will remember from the TV or news at the time of the London riots a couple of years ago. Some are neat rhyming quatrains, eg

Sheneka Leigh, aged twenty-two,
was simply trying on a shoe,
footwear her besetting sin:
this is the box they threw her in.

Others ironic commentary on the commentary (meta commentary? Oh dear I’m getting a bit tired now) and the ending is enigmatic, unresolved:

A boy holds up a pair of jeans appraisingly.
It goes with the hood and the mask.
It is an aesthetic matter.

Three one-line statements, sparse, even cold. Szirtes somehow manages to judge and yet not judge, which puts the reader in an awkward position. Just the same as watching all this on the TV, I was made to feel a bit of a voyeur. It’s yet another take on perspective – you can’t say for sure where you’re looking at this from, or what to make of it.

Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape)

The last book we looked at, and while not the biggest (that must go to the Ramayana) it must be classed as some kind of ‘tour de force’ – 150 poems, each 15 lines long. Drysalter has already won the Forward and the Whitbread Poetry Prizes, so as Katy said ‘whether or not he wins, I think the drinks should be on him!’

We read three poems, ‘Something and Nothing’, ‘Elegy for John Milton’ and ‘On Grace’.

‘Drysalter’ we learn is an old word for a trader in powders, salts, paints, dyes, chemicals and cures.  The collection has a vast sweep; there is a play on the word ‘psalter’, there are a number of poems of the type ‘Portrait of the Psalmist as …’ and invocations start with ‘O …’

The three poems we looked at all contained themes of ripening, over-ripening, decay but also carrying on, not re-birth as such but transformation. In ‘Something and Nothing’ we have the earth as a ‘bruised fruit’ which is then hidden in a bowl of fruit but ‘this orb just ripens, softens, stays’ while the fruit rots.

In the ‘Elegy to John Milton’ there’s a strange list of things he hears ‘in his last hour’, ranging from sellers and beggars to car alarms, bomb scares and marching troops, as if all the world present and future is passing through. This is a transformational world that’s ‘evolving’ and, as ‘On Grace’ ends,

There are worlds out here to long for.
And we are not lost yet.

Drysalter is probably the book I feel most like going out and buying right now. That and Red Doc>.  Of course I might change my mind after tonight’s readings. Who knows!

There ends the whistle-stop tour. It was an informative and inspirational day. The sun shone. And we had some lovely cups of tea. We are not lost yet, indeed.

T S Eliot Prize 2014 shortlisted books

Published inBooksClose readingsCompetitionsEventsInspirationPoemsReadings


  1. thank you so much Robin – what a useful, inspiring blog post. I’ve read it twice and looked stuff up and i’ll read it again, and again i expect. I already have 2 or 3 of the collections but thanks to you I might have more, before long. Wont be able to resist. As long as you go to these things and give us such a full report on them I wont have to move to London!

    • Ha ha! thanks Meg, glad you found it useful. Written in haste so spotted a few typos but I think I’ve caught them all now.

  2. Can’t wait to hear the readings. Should be a fantastic night. Thanks for intro, very helpful.

  3. Greetings from the professor! Hmm. lots of organizational needed indeed. Personally this professor was attracted to the red owl at the end is he Punchyish by any chance?

  4. Thanks for this, Robin. I’ve only read ‘Drysalter’, ‘Bad Machine’ and ‘Parallax’ and the Morrissey is my personal favourite. I loved some of the poems in the other books but I keep re-reading ‘Parallax’ (and I’ve bought ‘Through the Square Window’, her previous book, because of it.) You’re right, she does often give voice to characters who would otherwise be silent or have been silenced and this appeals to me. I also love her poems of motherhood and domesticity which are never twee. I really felt a strong connection with the poems. I hope you enjoy her reading – and all the readings. Looking forward to your next report!

    • Hi Jospehine – a belated thanks for your comment – and well done for spotting the winner!

      • Haha! I didn’t spot the winner but I was delighted about the result. I’m looking to read all of her work, now.

  5. jaynestanton jaynestanton

    Thanks, Robin, for such a full account of the workshop and the shortlisted collections. ‘Parallax’ and ‘Division Street’ are already on my ‘To Read’ pile. ‘Drysalter’ is on my To Purchase list and it looks as if I’ll be adding at least the Abse and Alvi collections!

    • Thanks Jayne … sorry, just catching up with comments and realised I’d missed this one!

      • jaynestanton jaynestanton

        My pleasure, Robin! 🙂

  6. […] and workshopping processes. Take this, about a workshop which left her questioning her work. Or this, about a workshop with Katy Evans-Bush on the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist, which is both newsy and a […]

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