James Berry Poetry Prize winners announced
– James Berry, Windrush Songs
The winners of the inaugural James Berry Poetry Prize were announced at an online event on Thursday 28 October. They are: Kaycee Hill, Marjorie Lotfi and Yvette Siegert.
The James Berry Poetry Prize is the UK’s first poetry prize offering both expert mentoring and book publication for young or emerging poets of colour.
Organised by Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA) with Bloodaxe Books, and supported by special funding from Arts Council England, the James Berry Poetry Prize was launched in April 2021 and open for four months, attracting nearly a hundred submissions. The three equal winners each receive year-long mentoring during 2021-22 plus £1,000 and publication of their debut book-length collections with Bloodaxe in 2023. They took part – with the other shortlisted poets – in a reading on Thursday as part of Newcastle University's NCLA events series hosted by two of the judges, Jacob Sam-La Rose and Theresa Muñoz.
On hearing the news of her win from the organisers ahead of the event, poet Yvette Siegert sent a personal thank-you to Newcastle:
“Shortly after my husband and I arrived in the UK, we attended a reading at the Lit & Phil, and I couldn't believe a place like this existed. That weekend visit to Newcastle was the first time that I began to feel “at home” in England – the fog and the books and the light: I've never experienced that feeling anywhere else – so it seems especially fitting that the prize should be tied to the poetry community of this city.
“I wish circumstances permitted me to meet you and the other judges in person to express how grateful I am to NCLA and Bloodaxe – for creating this prize, for reading our work. This opportunity is life-changing. Thank you.”
Marjorie Lotfi said: “I still can't quite believe that I've jointly won this prize! As someone who spends her days helping others to write and develop their work, I'm just thrilled to have the chance of poetry mentorship – someone to help me consider and shape my own first book-length collection.
“I'm particularly excited to dive back into poems exploring the meaning of home and belonging, subjects so many of us grapple with. And who wouldn’t be absolutely over the moon at the prospect of being published by Bloodaxe?”
And Kaycee Hill, the youngest of the three winners, said: ‘Winning the James Berry is a huge feat and an honour.
“When I graduated last year we were at the height of lockdown and any opportunities I had hoped for had been completely stoppered – as an emerging voice I was desperate to be heard, and winning the James Berry prize is testament to that.
“I feel so lucky to be involved in such a wonderful grassroots prize that will change my life completely, this is such a monumental moment for me.”
The other poets on the shortlist of seven were Dzifa Benson, Asmaa Jama, Minying Huang and Kim Squirrell.
The prize was judged by Neil Astley, Sinéad Morrissey, Theresa Muñoz, Jacob Sam-La Rose and Nathalie Teitler.
Theresa Muñoz said “I feel very privileged to have been a judge on the James Berry Poetry Prize on behalf of NCLA and in partnership with Bloodaxe Books. The judging process saw us whittle down nearly a hundred entries to a shortlist of seven poets including three equal winners whose voices will become even louder and stronger due to the expert mentoring and publication of debut collections made possible by the prize.
“The range of poetry we encountered was inspirational. Portfolios included poems set in all corners of the globe which explored issues of language, family, prejudice, political warfare, exile and imprisonment.
“I am proud that the James Berry Poetry Prize creates new opportunities for poets in the UK.”
The mentors for the winners of the inaugural James Berry Poetry Prize will be Mona Arshi, Malika Booker and Mimi Khalvati. The prize is part of an inclusivity project devised for Bloodaxe by Nathalie Teitler with Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo whose own debut poetry collection Lara is published by Bloodaxe. The prize is named in honour of James Berry, OBE (1927-2017), one of the first Black writers in Britain to receive wider recognition. He emigrated from Jamaica in 1948, and took a job with British Telecom, where he spent much of his working life until he was able to support himself from his writing. He rose to prominence in 1981 when he won the National Poetry Competition.
James Berry's many books included two seminal anthologies of Caribbean-British poetry, Bluefoot Traveller (1976) and News for Babylon (Chatto & Windus, 1981), and A Story I Am In: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011), drawing on five earlier collections including Windrush Songs (2007), published to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. James also inspired and helped younger poets who came after him, most notably Raymond Antrobus and Hannah Lowe – both shortlisted for this year's T.S. Eliot Prize – who returned the favour by giving him their personal support in his later years.
The winners will be invited back to launch their books in person in Newcastle when they are published, as well as being shown James Berry’s manuscripts and correspondence relating to his Bloodaxe titles in the Bloodaxe Archive at Newcastle University. The winners and shortlisted poets will also receive copies of James Berry’s books from Bloodaxe.
Sinéad Morrissey, prize judge and Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University, said: “The prize builds on the vital partnership already in place between Newcastle University and Bloodaxe Books: one of the most important publishers of poetry in the world. The shared commitment by NCLA and Bloodaxe to help diversify UK poetry through increased publication and performance opportunities will be greatly strengthened by the James Berry Poetry Prize, which will mentor and support three talented poets from underrepresented communities and help to change the landscape of UK poetry for generations to come.”
Neil Astley, founder and editor of Bloodaxe Books and a prize judge said: “We are delighted to work with NCLA on the James Berry Poetry Prize, the first award which offers both mentoring and first book publication not just to one but three emerging poets of colour. We also benefit greatly from having experienced poets and educationalists of the calibre of Mona Arshi, Malika Booker, Mimi Khalvati, Theresa Muñoz and Jacob Sam-La Rose as mentors or judges."
NCLA has already worked with Bloodaxe on other projects relating to the promotion of previously underrepresented writers, such as Freedom City 2017, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. being awarded an honorary doctorate by Newcastle University. Part of this included the publication of a celebratory anthology, The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King. The partnership has also led to Out of Bounds: a national project promoting the work of poets of colour based around on another anthology co-published by Newcastle University with Bloodaxe.
The James Berry Poetry Prize was inspired by the success of the ten-year Complete Works mentoring scheme founded by Bernardine Evaristo and managed by Nathalie Teitler with funding from Arts Council England. This landmark programme has had a continuing impact on the landscape of British poetry and has seen the work of 30 emerging poets of colour showcased in three TEN anthologies of ten poets each co-published with Bloodaxe in 2010, 2014 and 2017.
The James Berry Poetry Prize is funded by Arts Council England and will also become a pilot for a scheme which Bloodaxe Books plans to develop as part of its Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation funding from 2023, under which three more poets will be mentored and published every three years. The prize was free to enter and open to poets of colour resident in the UK who have not published a book-length collection, with special consideration given to LGBTQ+/disabled poets and poets from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
Kaycee Hill is a poet, creative and professional writing graduate, and digital mixed media artist. Now based in Southampton, she was born in Winchester and grew up in a working-class, mixed-heritage household – British and Caribbean – in Andover. She was selected for Poetry Ambassadors during the height of the pandemic, was a shortlisted poet for the Poetry London Mentoring Scheme 2020, and has been commended for her poetry by The Young Poets Network. She read her poem ‘Scuffing’ in the British Museum’s Refugee Week YouTube event The Poetry of Witness: Writing about Displacement, Migration and Exile in 2021. Kaycee spent the past five years working within the healthcare sector as a domiciliary carer and as a support worker for adults with mild learning difficulties. She believes it is a role wherein you learn everything there is to know about humanity. Kaycee defines herself as an urban voyeur, with much of her urge to write taken from the spry mundanity of inner-city life.
Marjorie Lotfi’s poems have been published in journals and anthologies in the UK and US (including The Rialto, Gutter, Ambit, Magma, Rattle and Staying Human), included in Best Scottish Poems 2021 and performed on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 4. Her pamphlet Refuge, poems about her childhood in revolutionary Iran, was published by Tapsalteerie Press in 2018. She has been the Poet in Residence at Jupiter Artland, Spring Fling and the Wigtown Book Festival, and was commissioned to write Pilgrim, a sequence about migration between Iran and the US, for the St Magnus Festival in Orkney. Marjorie also founded the Belonging Project, considering the experiences of refugees with over 1,500 participants across Scotland, and is a Co-Founder and Director of the charity Open Book. She is an Ignite Fellow with the Scottish Book Trust and one of the 12 Collective of women writers.
Yvette Siegert is a poet, translator, and critic. She is the author of Atmospheric Ghost Lights, selected by Monica Youn for the 2021 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship Award. Her work has received support from CantoMundo, Ledbury Poetry Critics, Macondo, Bread Loaf, Arts Council England, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Visible Communities programme at the National Centre for Writing. Her translation of Alejandra Pizarnik’s late work, Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972 (New Directions, 2016), won the Best Translated Book Award. She is currently reading for a doctorate in Spanish American literature at Merton College, Oxford.
More about the three winning poets in The Bookseller here.
The James Berry Poetry Prize 2021 Reading can now be viewed on YouTube. The three winners began their readings at 30:04.
[28 October 2021]