Claudia Rankineâ€™s Citizen, an exploration of everyday racism through lyric essays, scraps of film script and photography, might look far more like prose than the traditional definition of poetry, but the innovative work from the acclaimed American writer has made it onto the shortlist for one of the UKâ€™s top poetry prizes, the Forward.
Running to 160 pages, Citizen, subtitled An American Lyric, eschews the likes of iambic pentameter and rhyme to command the readerâ€™s attention with a second-person present narrative laying out a series of incidents in which black Americans â€“ sometimes the Jamaica-born Rankine herself â€“ encounter racism. Rankine also includes photo reels of Zinedine Zidaneâ€™s 2006 World Cup head butt, Obamaâ€™s oath of office and JMW Turnerâ€™s painting The Slave Ship. The Forward prize called it â€œa bold challenge to historic definitions of poetic formâ€.
â€œHe tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there,â€ Rankine writes near the start.
â€œYou think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicated this is an okay conversation to be having.
â€œWhy do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
â€œAs usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said.â€
Forward prize judge Carrie Etter said: â€œPeople who insist that poetry is only poetry if itâ€™s in lines are missing out. As Citizen is in prose, I anticipate some readersâ€™ definition of poetry will exclude it, and so some may object to its inclusion on the list. So be it.â€
Etter, an American expatriate poet, said the work comes out of the â€œdevelopment of the lyric essay in the USâ€. â€œAs with prose poetry, the lyric essay expands our awareness of what poetry can be and do, further nuancing our capacities for expression and understanding,â€ she said.
Already the winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry in the US, where it became the first work ever to be a finalist in two categories, poetry and criticism, and was cited for â€œbreaking racismâ€™s intractability down into human-sized installationsâ€, Citizen makes the Forward prize shortlist for best collection alongside four other works.
Paul Muldoon is selected for One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, his 12th collection â€“ previous collections have won everything from the Pulitzer to the TS Eliot â€“ and Peter Riley for Due North, a poem in 12 chapters looking at the human movement northwards.
Former winner Ciaran Carson makes the cut for the Â£10,000 prize for From Elsewhere, in which the Irish poet sets translations from the French poet Jean Follain against â€œoriginalâ€ poems inspired by those translations. Another award-winning Irish poet, EilÃ©an NÃ ChuilleanÃ¡in, is picked by judges for The Boys of Bluehill, a look at memory and time.
Etter was joined on the judging panel by the author AL Kennedy, who chaired this yearâ€™s judges, as well as the poets Colette Bryce and Warsan Shire, and the BBC producer Emma Harding. The panel also selected the shortlist for the Â£5,000 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection.
Mona Arshi, a Punjabi Sikh from west London, is shortlisted for the first collection award for Small Hands, the Chinese-British writer Sarah Howe for Loop of Jade, and Jamaican-British poet Karen McCarthy Woolf for An Aviary of Small Birds. British writer Andrew McMillanâ€™s Physical, and American Matthew Siegelâ€™s Blood Work, complete the line-up.
The Forward prize called the inclusion of three books by first and second-generation immigrants to Britain a â€œtransformative moment in poetry publishingâ€.
â€œTen years ago, just one per cent of contemporary poetry published by the major presses in Britain was by black or minority ethnic poets â€“ a depressing statistic, suggesting a failure to notice the existence of 14 per cent of the nation,â€ said Susannah Herbert, executive director of the Forward Arts Foundation. â€œSince then, poetry publishing has woken up, rubbed its eyes, taken action. The five judges for this yearâ€™s Forwards were not working to quotas. They were invited to make a selection of the best poetry collections published, and to bring them to the attention of the widest possible audience: the diversity of the best first collection list therefore testifies to a long-overdue cracking open of the poetry pantheon.â€
In 2005, the writer Danuta Kean edited the report Free Verse, examining why so few new black and Asian poets were published in the UK. It led to the mentoring scheme for black and Asian poets, Complete Works, which helped Arshi, Howe and McCarthy Woolf.
â€œItâ€™s taken too long, but it is so great to see graduates of the Complete Works programme recognised on this yearâ€™s Forward list,â€ said Kean. â€œThis programme was set up after Free Verse revealed the size of the disconnect between poetry presses and BAME poets. It shows that this kind of direct action can improve access to the pool of BAME talent and ensure that an important part of our diverse society has a voice with influence. I just want similar programmes for BAME novelists now.â€
More than 200 poetry collections were submitted for this yearâ€™s Forward prizes, which have been won in the past by Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes, and which are sponsored by content marketing agency Forward Worldwide.
The winner will be announced on 28 September.
Extract from Citizen
â€œThe new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
â€œAt the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?
â€œItâ€™s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, thatâ€™s right. I am sorry.
â€œI am so sorry, so, so sorry.â€
The Forward Prize for Best Collection
Ciaran Carson, From Elsewhere (The Gallery Press)
EilÃ©an NÃ ChuilleanÃ¡in, The Boys of Bluehill (The Gallery Press)
Paul Muldoon, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber & Faber)
Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Penguin Poetry)
Peter Riley, Due North (Shearsman)
The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection
Mona Arshi, Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry)
Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus)
Andrew McMillan, Physical (Jonathan Cape)
Matthew Siegel, Blood Work (CB Editions)
Karen McCarthy Woolf, An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet)
The Forward Prize for Best Single Poem
Maura Dooley, Cleaning Jim Dineâ€™s Heart (Poetry Review)
Andrew Elliott, DÃ¶ppelganger (Sonofabook)
Ann Gray, My Blue Hen (The Moth)
Claire Harman, The Mighty Hudson (TLS)
Kim Moore, In That Year (Poetry News)