Reading the Room: On Cultural Empathies at the 2018 TS Eliot Prize Readings

by Stephanie Sy-Quia

‘Welcome to our safe house!’ Thus began the 2018 TS Eliot Prize readings, which were hosted ten days ago, as they always are, in the the most eminent of the arts bunkers stationed on the South Bank. It was a Sunday night, and the Royal Festival Hall, capacity 2,900, was full, enthralled by the booming Doncaster tones of compere Ian McMillan. This year the prize was more diverse than ever before: full gender parity had been achieved, and not one but three non-white poets were included. There was even an Irishman. They were all excellent.

The most reviled art of poetry has always been one of the fastest to rise and meet the questions of our times; what its reward culture says about our empathies is what interests me here. The second poet to read was Zaffar Kunial, Birmingham-born and of Pakistani heritage. His collection Us was introduced by McMillan as being the product of a poetic practice which insists on repeating the question ‘Whose language is it anyway?’. Kunial himself brought attention to this between readings, in a passing reference to ‘our language – if I can use the word “our”’. The room shifted awkwardly on its seats, and remained quiet. Though the poems themselves were not particularly overt in addressing the tension between the two countries of Kunial’s background, his proper pronunciation of ‘Urdu’ and recitation of ‘Allah hu akbar’ was enough to give the audience a whiff of something it preferred not to smell – a non-white Briton expressing discontent at their treatment in British society.

By comparison, Richard Scott received whoops as he walked offstage. The long poem ‘Oh My Soho’ in his collection Soho is a walking tour of queer London: gay bars and clubs, establishments which suffered police raids. ‘We’re a people robbed of ancestors – they were stolen, hooded, from us’, he told the room, and was met with an appreciative murmur. A reading of ‘Public Library, 1998’ was followed by a brief explanation of life growing up under Section 28, what type of reader one becomes as a queer person seeking literary precedent for one’s desires under government censorship. He thanked us all for coming, commenting on how remarkable it was that he could now stand before us, in a building which legitimises in real time all utterances made therein, and share with us his ‘willy poems’. We laughed. The reaction was audibly one of approval, and a defiant jouissance in queer sexualities – which is, of course, to be applauded (we did). But the speed with which we have gained grounds in the fight for the full dignity of LGBTQ+ persons is in stark contrast to the progress we have made on other fronts.

Tracey K. Smith and Terrance Hayes made up the American contingent, and as African Americans they were received as victim emissaries from what we so often choose to see as a distant land to which we bear no relation. When Smith announced that she would read a poem entitled ‘The United States welcomes you’, she received an acerbic laugh. Though presumably one of solidarity, it testified to a particularly irksome culture of glass-house finger-pointing which we have in this country towards the US, as a way of avoiding reckonings with our own racism and history. The face of racism we prefer to proffer is that of the American Deep South, of burning crosses and overarmed, undertrained policemen. We have no equivalent – or, as Afua Hirsch has pointed out, at least we were canny enough to offshore it to the Caribbean. Like with our relationship to the Indian subcontinent, we are excused from the elements of our history which happened elsewhere, and we resent being reminded of them in the rarefied register of poetry. Homophobia’s guilts are easier to shoulder, and the manner of their dismissal is more joyful.

Hannah Sullivan’s ultimate win was thoroughly deserved, although it is interesting that the poetics of motherhood – the guts required, the gore involved – are enjoying a cultural vogue, and so her collection Three Poems is confrontational in ways to which we happen to be receptive at the moment. But if poetry is to be the angry art which rattles our cage and opens new ways of being, then we must learn to offer more than awkward silence when it forces us to consider uncomfortable truths. It is those poets who are using our language in manners most Nemean, whose work I am most excited to see in the coming years.