2012 Forward Prize Awarded to Jorie Graham

First US woman to win beats Geoffrey Hill to the £10,000 prize.

Last night at Somerset House the 2012 Forward Prize was awarded to the American poet Jorie Graham for her latest collection P L A C E (Carcanet). Graham, about whom the New York Times has written, “For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption – intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic – rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems,” is yet to receive much attention in the UK. Chicago’s Poetry Foundation refer to her as “perhaps the most celebrated poet of the American post-war generation.”

The coveted award for Best First Collection (£5,000) went to Sam Riviere for 81 Austerities, which began life as a blog applauded by Ruth Padel as “a vision of a world ruled by twin demons, Austerity and Information Overload.” Riviere is, alongside his many online, print and performance projects, currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. We published a poem from the collection, “When it came”, earlier this year, which you can read online by clicking here.

The prize for Best Single Poem went to Denise Riley, whose poem “A Part Song” was published by the London Review of Books in February. The poem deals with the poet’s grief following the death of her son, neatly arranged into stanzas which paradoxically imply the experience is all but monovocal: “She do the bereaved in different voices / For the point of this address is to prod / And shepherd you back within range / Of my strained ears”. Leonie Rushford, chair of the judges, said “A Part Song struck us all powerfully. It is a really searing poem”.

P L A C E, which defeated stiff competition from Oxford’s Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill and Australian poet Barry Hill, “explores the ways in which our imagination, intuition, and experience – increasingly devalued by a culture that regards them as ‘mere’ subjectivity – aid us in navigating a world moving blindly towards its own annihilation”. The collection opens on Omaha Beach in Normandy on 5th June, the day before the anniversary of the “historical” 6th, when the allied forces landed on the beach, also known as the D-Day landings. Graham is the first ever American woman to win the prize, and the first female recipient since 2004. Rushforth said of the collection: “It is a challenging collection of unusual force and originality, forging connections between inner experience and a world in crisis.”

The Forward Book of Poetry, a collection of winning and highly commended poems from this year’s prize, will be published on Thursday, National Poetry Day, by Faber and Faber.

Someset House, venue for last night's Forward Prize ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism