Sinéad Morrissey wins £10,000 Forward poetry prize
Armagh poet wins Best Collection prize for ‘On Balance’. Ocean Vuong and Ian Patterson also honoured
Sinéad Morrissey: “The poems in On Balance are beautifully written, emotionally charged and filled with a wonderful complexity,” said jury chairman Andrew Marr
Sinéad Morrissey has won the £10,000 Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection for On Balance at the Royal Festival Hall in London tonight, cementing her reputation as the leading Irish poet of her generation.
Ocean Vuong was awarded the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection (£5,000) for Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Ian Patterson was awarded Best Single Poem for The Plenty of Nothing, an elegy to his late wife, the writer Jenny Diski.
Jury chairman Andrew Marr said: “The poems in On Balance are beautifully written, emotionally charged and filled with a wonderful complexity. This is writing that successfully comes right up to the edge, again and again. We were taken by the openness, the capacity and the exuberance of this work. On Balance is a collection that readers will keep and go back to for a long time to come.”
Morrissey, who was born in Co Armagh in 1972, is professor of creative writing at the University of Newcastle. Her previous work, Parallax, won the £15,000 TS Eliot Prize and the Irish Times Poetry Now Prize in 2015. On Balance is her sixth collection. John McAuliffe’s Irish Times review said: “Morrissey’s clarity and confidence mean that On Balance approaches each of her subjects with great fluency and command. The essayistic flourishes of her longer poems and sequences are always impressive, but what is just as memorable and engaging in On Balance is Morrissey’s networked framing of images and themes.”
Morrissey was a poetic prodigy, repeatedly winning Irish Schools Creative Writing Awards and becoming the youngest winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award when she was just 18. She studied English and German at Trinity College Dublin and lived in New Zealand, Japan and Germany before coming back to Ireland to undertake a PhD in 18th-century literature.
Combining a subtlety of touch with a powerful turn of phrase, On Balance revisits some of the great feats of human engineering to reveal the states of balance and imbalance that have shaped our history. In poems that touch on the launching of the Titanic to a ninth-century Arabic manual of crankshafts and valves, via the Beatles, the Moscow State Circus and Napoleon’s horse, Morrissey highlights all forms of precarious equilibrium – physical, structural, gender, ecological, life-death – holding narrative and lyric in delicate relation.
The jury also comprised the poet Ian Duhig, poet and academic Sandeep Parmar and former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell. Duhig said: “Sinéad Morrissey marries the genius of Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley’s magic with all the influences of a woman’s experience. ‘Sing whatever is well-made’, Yeats urged in Under Ben Bulben and Sinéad Morrissey certainly does that in On Balance.
“In an unstable world characterised by what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’, Morrissey’s beautifully poised work seeks equilibrium, imaginatively inflected by Belfast’s engineering traditions as well as its poetry, as in The Millihen, the title referring to a fanciful unit of applied pulchritude sufficient to launch a ship. However, she roams the world from its melting ice-caps to Austerlitz and Stalingrad, history’s revolutions as well as those of devices, a line from her poem on Ismail al-Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices seeming to me to describe her work as well: ‘A wonder of understanding’.
“She is also seriously concerned with gender imbalance and the soft machines we are, kinship networks, family and friends, The Human Chain as Heaney phrased it, and she has spoken of being inspired by her son’s dyspraxia as well as writing of her grandfather digging the coal that fed the machines, a man interned in the second World War for republican sympathies, feeding her families’ communist heritage. Machines have ghosts and her they animate film and photographs though drained colour, all balanced by full-blooded poems of love. The Forward Prize aims to widen poetry’s audience among people of all ages and circumstances and this year, in a very strong international field, there was no worthier winner.”
Fintan O’Toole wrote: “If anyone could be said to have been raised to be the laureate of a postconflict Northern Ireland it is Sinéad Morrissey. She grew up with deep sectarian division in Portadown, Co Armagh, and, later, in north Belfast. But she never identified with either of the two main traditions: her parents were active communists, and she and her brother were reared in the politics of socialism, feminism and proletarian revolution rather than those of the Troubles. The results of that upbringing can be seen in a deep, if often ironic, sense of a history that is not part of the grand narratives of either the Irish or the British tribes.”
Morrissey has said she cannot explain why Northern Ireland is such a fertile breeding ground for poets. “I think there is something distinctive about Northern Ireland and I think the poetry tradition from that very small place with that very small population is extraordinary. Why that is, I don’t know,” she said.
Vuong, who was born near Saigon, Vietnam, arrived in the United States as a two-year-old refugee and was the first member of his immediate family to be able to read or write. He lives in Massachusetts, where he works as assistant professor at Umass-Amherst while writing his first novel. His debut collection, praised for its “precise, stark” imagery, can be read both as a personal story – of gay sexuality, absent fathers and hyphenated identities – and as a highly erudite exploration of poetry’s possibilities.
Marr said: “Ocean Vuong is a truly remarkable new voice. This exciting poet navigates different terrains, from personal traumas to history and mythology, with great skill and imagination. Formally daring, and rich in images, Night Sky with Exit Wounds is an incredibly accomplished first collection by an extraordinary talent.”
Patterson has taught English for almost 20 years at Queens’ College, Cambridge. His academic books include Guernica and Total War and he has published numerous works of poetry. Marr said: “The Plenty of Nothing speaks to the reader with great force and skill. Both complex and bold, this is the kind of poetry that will inspire other poets to take greater risks.”