Poetry Archive

Tune in for Ondaatje winner Robinson

Roger Robinson, winner of this year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize for A Portable Paradise (Peepal Tree Press), will be among contributors tonight to The Verb on Radio 3 (10pm), which looks at writing from the Caribbean diaspora. He is also the first guest to offer his choices in a new series of Poetry Please, starting this Sunday on Radio 4 (4.30pm).

Robinson wins Ondaatje Prize with ‘Trinidad in London’ poems

The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize was awarded tonight to Roger Robinson (right) for his poetry collection A Portable Paradise (Peepal Tree Press). He is only the second poet to win the prize, an annual award of £10,000 for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that best evokes “the spirit of a place”. 

  Thanks to the lockdown, the news was announced not at a black-tie dinner at the Travellers Club in London, as it usually is, but on YouTube and social media. 

  The poet Pascale Petit, one of the judges — and winner herself in 2018 with Mama Amazonica — said of Robinson’s book:

  “The spirit of place in this outstanding collection is the portable paradise of Trinidad in London. Roger Robinson’s profoundly moving book manages to balance anger and love, rage and craft. Every poem surprises with its imagery, emotional intensity and lyric power, whether dealing with Grenfell, Windrush, or a son’s difficult birth, [a poem on] which is also a tribute to a Jamaican nurse. This is a healing book, enabling us to conjure our own portable paradises.”

  A Portable Paradise had already won the 2019 TS Eliot Prize. Robinson, a writer and educator who has taught and performed worldwide, said that winning the Ondaatje was “great on many levels. Gaining wider recognition for the political issues that are raised in A Portable Paradise is one of the most important things for me, alongside more people reading about the struggles of black communities in Britain, which hopefully creates some deeper resonating empathy.”

  The prize, first awarded in 2004, is sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer. Last year’s winner was Aida Edemariam for The Wife’s Tale, a biography both of the author’s grandmother and of a country, Ethiopia. 

  You can read extracts from all six of the books short-listed for this year’s prize on the Telegraph Travel website.

RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

The short list was announced today for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, an annual award of £10,000 for a book that best evokes “the spirit of a place”.

  Unusually, there’s just one work of non-fiction among the six books, which also include three novels and two works of poetry.

 

  Surge by Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus), winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, is an extraordinary debut collection responding to the New Cross Fire of 1981 in south-east London — in which 13 young black people were killed in a house fire at a birthday party — and tracing a line from it to the Grenfell fire in June 2017.

  Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi (Bloomsbury Circus) is a novel about a woman whose mother’s death prompts her to leave her unhappy married life in the United States and rebuild her home and family back in India — where she discovers she has a sister.

  Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton), which was Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, takes us into the world beneath our feet and what we’ve made of it — physically, with mines and tombs, and metaphorically, with myths and legends.

  A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson (Peepal Tree Press) won the 2019 TS Eliot Prize. John Burnside, chair of the judges, said that the collection — which includes poems reflecting on the Grenfell Tower fire — “finds in the bitterness of everyday experience continuing evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life’”.

  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak (Viking) is a Booker short-listed novel that begins when the heart of its heroine, a sex worker known as Tequila Leila, stops beating. It is dedicated “To the women of Istanbul and to the city of Istanbul, which is, and always has been, a she-city.”

  A Small Silence by Jumoke Verissimo (Cassava Republic) is about the regenerative power of darkness and silence. An activist professor released from prison in Nigeria decides to live the rest of his life alone in the dark — until a young woman called Desire comes knocking on his door.

  The RSL’s Twitter account has brief passages read by each author and accompanied by animations by Liang-Hsin Huang, a Taiwanese film-maker who graduated from the Royal College of Art last year.

  This year’s judges of the RSL Ondaatje Prize are Peter Frankopan, Pascale Petit and Evie Wyld. The winner will be announced on May 4.

Wordsworth, 250 years on

 

The summit of Loughrigg Fell, from which Wordsworth had an early glimpse of what would become his first real ‘abiding place’: Grasmere

In A Guide Through the District of the Lakes, William Wordsworth (born 250 years ago today) was firm on the best time to visit — and it wasn’t in summer. The colouring of mountains and woods then was “too unvaried a green”. The rain, “setting in sometimes at this period with a vigour, and continuing with a perseverance… may remind the disappointed and dejected traveller of those deluges… which fall among the Abyssinian mountains, for the annual supply of the Nile.”

  Autumn was much better: “The months of September and October (particularly October) are generally attended with much finer weather; and the scenery is then, beyond comparison, more diversified, more splendid, and beautiful…”

Wordsworth’s study at Rydal Mount

  I took his advice. Researching a piece for Telegraph Travel to mark the anniversary  of his birth, I wandered around Grasmere last October, guided by the prose writer rather than the poet. That piece has been shelved for now, lest it encourage others to go wandering at a time when we should all be staying indoors. I hope it will appear later. Meanwhile, I’d like to say thanks to all the people at Cumbria Tourism, Wordsworth Grasmere, Rydal Mount and Allan Bank who helped to arrange my trip and show me around, and to the Wordsworth Hotel & Spa, where I stayed.

  And thanks, of course, to Wordsworth. He died in 1850, but he’s a writer whose work is essential in 2020, when we earthlings — as scientists remind us almost daily — are making the weather on Planet Earth. After all, he was telling us, in the 1800s, that human intervention in the landscape must be “incorporated with and subservient to the powers and processes of Nature”.

Poems for a planet in peril

In the Poetry Please slot on Radio 4 at the start of this month, the writer Owen Sheers shared a fine selection of poems that touch on humanity’s relationship with nature and which speak particularly powerfully to us at this moment, when we’re in the midst of an ecological crisis of our own making. One of his choices was So the Peloton Passed, by Simon Armitage, who on his appointment as Poet Laureate in May said it was “absolutely essential” that poetry respond to the issue of climate change.

  Sheers told his host, Roger McGough, that the climate crisis was something “all storytellers need to address, because on one level where we find ourselves is the result of a failure in narrative, in storytelling”.

  Novelists, though, have recently been responding to a planet in peril, as Robert Macfarlane pointed out in an essay last weekend for The Guardian on the rise of “the new animism”:

A turning back towards “nonhuman interlocutors” has also occurred in recent fiction where “land” is encountered as sensate, memorious and even intentful, rather than a static stage set for human actions. From Australia there is the towering body of work – both novels and essays – by the lands-rights activist and indigenous writer Alexis Wright, which explore “special acts” of rights-giving to nature in both modern law and “ancestral stories”. In Britain, I think of Daisy Johnson’s dazzling Fen and Everything Under, Max Porter’s Lanny, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk, Richard Skelton’s Beyond the Fell Wall, and Laura Beatty’s quietly brilliant Pollard and Darkling, in which trees grow through human lives in shaping ways. 

  Macfarlane also cited the work of Amitav Ghosh, who has tackled environmental catastrophe in both non-fiction (The Great Derangement) and fiction (Gun Island), and Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which has haunted me since I read it back in June.

Lines on the landscape with Dan Richards

Dan Richards’s latest book, Outpost (Canongate), is a sprightly tour of places on the edge — among them the bothy, the writer’s retreat, the fire lookout tour and the lighthouse — and the thresholds they mark, both on the ground and in the head. The author was invited by the excellent Five Books site to name his favourite works of landscape writing. His quirky selection, offered in an interview shortly before Alice Oswald was elected Oxford professor of poetry, includes her Dart, which she herself has described as “a river map of voices, like an aboriginal song line”.

RSL Ondaatje winners to summon ‘spirit of place’

Deskbound Traveller has now been doing its bit to promote the best writing on travel and place for more than five years. If you’ve been reading it even for a little of that time, you might know that one of my favourite literary awards is the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature. It’s an annual prize of £10,000, made for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that “evokes the spirit of a place”. The Ondaatje — sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer — has been going a little longer than this site, and in 2019, 15 years on from the first award, the society is adding a few frills.

  For the first time, there will be a long list, which will be published on March 26. A short list (it’s usually of six books) will follow on April 16, after an event at the British Library, in London, where four previous winners will speak on “the challenges and delights” of trying to summon the spirit of a place. The writers are Pascale Petit, who last year became the first poet to win, with Mama Amazonica, which tells the story of her mother’s mental illness and her own damaged childhood while celebrating the fragile beauty of the rainforest; Peter Pomerantsev, whose Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is an electrifying portrait of Putin’s Russia; Alan Johnson, former Home Secretary, whose This Boy is a memoir of poverty in post-war London; and Hisham Matar, whose debut novel, In the Country of Men, is narrated by another boy, one growing up under the repression of Gaddafi’s Libya.

  The event will be chaired by the presenter Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough and broadcast by Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme and available as an Arts & Ideas podcast. Members of the RSL may book through the society’s website; non-members will be able to book through the British Library site from March 8.

  The judges for this year’s prize are Sabrina Mahfouz, Michèle Roberts and Ian Thomson (who in 2010 won not only the Ondaatje but also the Dolman Travel Book Award for The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica). The winner will be announced, as usual, at a dinner in the Travellers’ Club in London, to be held on May 13.

Border-crossing bard

Every day, hundreds of people take the train between Belfast and Dublin, or vice versa, and never notice they have crossed a border. Where are they heading, and why, and how will their journeys and lives be affected if that border becomes  a land frontier between the United Kingdom and Europe? Those are questions addressed by the poet Leontia Flynn in Crossing the Border, a programme for Radio 4.

Bookmark: travel at October’s festivals

Cheltenham is the festival to head for in October if you want to pack a lot of vicarious travelling into 10 days. These are some sessions from the programme touching on travel, place and nature…

Cheltenham Literature Festival (October 5-14) 

In “Reading Europe: A User’s Guide”, the novelist Sebastian Faulks assembles a crack team of translators, writers and publishers committed to getting us to read beyond our borders: the novelist and Man Booker International judge Elif Shafak, the acclaimed translator Daniel Hahn, the European literature specialist Rosie Goldsmith and the publisher Christopher MacLehose, who has introduced British readers to authors as diverse as Javier Marías and Stieg Larsson. 

   Guy Stagg (The Crossway), who walked 3,440 miles from Canterbury to Jerusalem in the hope of mending himself after mental illness, and Leon McCarron (The Land Beyond), who travelled 1,000 miles on foot through the Middle East, discuss with Julia Wheeler the transformative power of walking and what role pilgrimage and slow travel have in our contemporary turbulent world.

  Peter Moore, author of Endeavour: The Ship and Attitude That Changed the World, and Laura Walker, co-curator of the celebrated British Library exhibition James Cook: The Voyages, join Steven Gale to discuss Cook’s remarkable journeys.

  Malachy Tallack (The Valley at the Centre of the World) and Melissa Harrison (All Among the Barley) discuss with Julia Wheeler their much-praised renderings of the natural world.

  Sulaiman Addonia (Silence Is My Mother Tongue), a novelist who fled Eritrea as a refugee in childhood, and Olivier Kugler (Escaping War and Waves), a reportage illustrator who has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières, join Lliana Bird (radio presenter and co-founder of the charities Help Refugees and The Kindly Collective) to share their stories of encounters with refugees.

  In “Windrush Journeys: Mixtape Stories”, Anthony Joseph, Nick Makoha and Roger Robinson offer a night of poetry and prose, music and image. They tell public and private stories of the lives of those who have come from elsewhere but who have all, for better or worse, called Britain “home”.

  The television presenter Kate Humble talks about Thinking on My Feet, her  new celebration of the pleasures of walking.

  All roads used to lead to Rome. Today, we’re told, they lead to Beijing. Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads, brings the story of his 2015 global bestseller up to date, and reminds us that we live in a profoundly interconnected world. 

  The singer-songwriter Nick Harper presents “A Wiltshire Tale”, a journey through his home county’s history, landscape and wildlife in poetry, spoken word and acoustic music.

  The poet Helen Mort, editor of Waymaking, and some of her contributors share their crowd-funded anthology of prose, poetry and artwork created by women and inspired by wild places, and discuss how we can get more women both out in the wild and on to the page.

  Anna McNuff (The Pants of Perspective: One Woman’s 3,000km Running Adventure Through the Wilds of New Zealand) and Phoebe Smith (Wilderness Weekends; Extreme Sleeps; and Wild Nights: Camping Britain’s Extremes) discuss breaking down the barriers facing women in the outdoors and offer practical tips for building an adventurous life.

  Jan Morris, who has been one of the great chroniclers of our world for well over half a century, looks back on a life of travel and words in a special pre-filmed interview complemented by live discussion from her son Twm Morys and the writer Paul Clements plus a musical performance by Tym and the Welsh singer Gwyneth Glyn. Chaired by Philip Collins.

  Julian Sayarer, whose Interstate: Hitchhiking Though the State of a Nation was 2016 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, and Tim Moore, whose latest  book, Another Fine Mess: Across Trumpland in a Model T Ford, is due out in November, discuss with Georgina Godwin their unconventional journeys and taking the political temperature through encounters with everyday Americans.

   Other events featuring writing on travel, place and nature in October include the following:

Birmingham Literature Festival (October 4-14)

In a session on “The Call of the Wild”, Abi Andrews (author of The Word for Woman Is Wilderness), Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder and editor of a forthcoming anthology, Women on Nature) and the writer and gardener Alys Fowler (author most recently of Hidden Nature: A Voyage Of Discovery) discuss “the life-changing impact of travelling across lesser and greater spaces”. 

  Jasper Winn, author of Waterways, and Nancy Campbell, the current Canal Laureate (appointed by the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust), share their passion for Britain’s canals. 

  David Lindo, author of How to Be an Urban Birder, and Kate Bradbury, author of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, discuss “the new nature writing” and finding inspiration in urban settings.

  Hometown Tales, a new series from Weidenfeld & Nicolson, focuses on fiction and non-fiction from the regions, pairing in one volume a previously unpublished writer with an established one.  Maria Whatton, who has written Hometown Tales: Birmingham with Stewart Lee, and Kerry Young and Carolyn Sanderson, who share bylines on Hometown Tales: Midlands, will discuss their stories in a session chaired by the lecturer and author Anna Lawrence Peitroni. 

Yeovil Literary Festival (October 25-29)

Picture: © Shoot and Scribble

A talk by the globe-trotting adventurer Simon Reeve (left), whose memoir Step by Step: The Life in My Journeys has just been published, is sold out, but there are still tickets for the following:

  The illustrator Jackie Morris talks about The Lost Words, the book of “spells” she created with Robert Macfarlane, which has worked magic in encouraging children and their schools to reconnect with the natural world.

  The adventurer and explorer Benedict Allen tells “the whole unvarnished truth” of his expedition to Papua New Guinea, from which he was rescued by helicopter from a warzone, suffering both malaria and dengue fever.

  The film-maker David Parker presents “Laurie Lee: The Lost Recordings”, in which the writer, on his 80th birthday, shared memories of his early life; and “Flying Scotsman & The Golden Age of Steam”, with clips from Parker’s filming of a project to rebuild the locomotive.

Berwick upon Tweed Literary Festival (October 18-21) 

The journalist Neil Ansell talks about The Last Wilderness, based on a series of solitary walks in the Northwest Highlands in search of wildlife encounters, and explores the pleasures and pains of being isolated in the wilds.

Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film & Music (October 11-14) 

Adam Sisman talks about More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, his second selection from the travel writer’s correspondence.

Borderlines Carlisle Book Festival (September 27 – October 7) 

Jim Crumley will talk about his new book, The Nature of Winter, and its predecessor, The Nature of Autumn, the first two volumes in a quartet based on thousands of hours of fieldwork. He will also present a workshop on nature writing, explaining “why it is literature’s problem child”, and why a healthy body of such work is essential in the 21st century.

  The writer and radio presenter Stuart Maconie will talk about Long Road from Jarrow, his account of the country he saw as he walked the 300 miles to London in 2016 in a retracing of the “Jarrow Crusade” of 1936.

  Graham Robb will talk about The Debatable Land, his story of a territory that once lay between Scotland and England, and of how contemporary nationalism and political turmoil threaten once again to unsettle the cross-border community.

Dorchester Literary Festival (October 17-21)

Jasper Winn will be talking about Waterways: A Thousand Miles on Britain’s Canals, and Tony Juniper  (campaigns director for the Worldwide Fund for Nature) about Rainforest: Dispatches from Earth’s Most Vital Frontlines.

Durham Book Festival (October 6-14)

Damian Le Bas discusses The Stopping Places, his account of what it means to be a Gypsy in Britain today.

Isle of Wight Literary Festival (October 11-14)

Robin Hanbury-Tenison talks about Finding Eden, his story of a year in the Borneo rainforest leading the team of scientists that launched the rainforest movement and his time with the Penan people, for whom he still campaigns as president of Survival International.

  Angus Roxburgh, who has been a foreign correspondent in Moscow for The Sunday Times and the BBC and a translator of Tolstoy, draws on his memoir  Moscow Calling to talk about Russia’s past and present.

  The writer and broadcaster Paul Heiney talks about One Wild Song, his account of the epic sailing trip he embarked on after his son’s suicide.

North Cornwall Book Festival (October 4-7)

Neil Ansell (see Berwick, above) talks to the historian Lisa Cooper about The Last Wilderness.

  Philip Hoare, who seems as much at home in water as on land, talks about RisingTideFallingStar, his compendium of human and animal stories of the sea, which was short-listed for last year’s Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award.

  Horatio Clare, who has travelled on container ships and in pursuit of swallows, talks about Icebreaker, his account of a voyage to the far North. (Next month, Little Toller is due to publish Clare’s latest book, Something of his Art: Walking to Lübeck with JS Bach, in which he recreates a journey across northern Germany that the composer took in the winter of 1705.)

  Laurence Rose, former head of the RSPB’s European programme, introduces The Long Spring, in which he tracks the season’s progress from southern Spain to the Arctic. 

Off the Shelf Festival of Words, Sheffield (October 6-27)

Iain Sinclair talks about The Last London, which is billed as the final chapter in his life-long odyssey through the streets of the Big Smoke. 

  John Harrison reads from his first collection of short fiction for more than 15 years, You Should Come With Me Now, a work that his publishers say crosses boundaries between horror, science-fiction, fantasy and travel writing — “weird stories for weird times”.

  Richard Morris, author of Yorkshire: A Lyrical History of England’s Greatest County, tells how the county took shape as a place and an identity. 

  Kate Humble (see Cheltenham, above) talks about Thinking on My Feet.

  Helen Moat, author of Slow Travel: Peak District, introduces a guide with an emphasis on car-free travel.

Wells Festival of Literature (October 19-27)

Harriet Sandys introduces Beyond That Last Blue Mountain, the story of how she “abandoned her comfortable life in the suburbs of Cumbria and travelled to the North-West Frontier of Pakistan to see the plight of the Afghan refugees who settled there after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan”.

Pascale Petit and the RSL Ondaatje Prize

I was travelling last week when the awards dinner was held for the RSL Ondaatje Prize, for “a book evoking the spirit of a place”. In case you missed the news, the winner, for the first time, was a poet: Pascale Petit for Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe Books). On the author’s Twitter feed this morning I learnt that the book sold out on Amazon shortly after the announcement but is now in stock again.