Poetry News

Good grief: All-male shortlist for UK's £10,000 Forward Poetry Prize

By Harriet Staff

The Guardian asks: "Who got rid of the women?" It's a pertinent question for the judging panel behind the Forward Prize, which awards £10,000 to a single poet for Best Collection and is considered the UK's most valuable annual poetry competition. The 2011 shortlist was just announced, and it's all men: Geoffrey Hill, Michael Longley, David Harsent, DK Nurske, and Sean O'Brien will battle it out. "Sadly true to form," says the Guardian. Also: utterly questionable. So they emailed Andrew Motion, the chair of judges, to ask him where the women were. "Of course it was a matter of concern for us that the shortlist for the Best Collection was all-male," he replied. "But equally of course the judges (three women and two men) had to choose the books they liked best as collections of poetry...." The Guardian writer is still uneasy:

Fair enough, you might think, and there the matter might rest. I have uneasy feelings about the issue of gender on prize shortlists, anyway: while there are certain areas in which balance ought actively to be sought (the ratio of male to female reviewers, for example), I don't believe prize shortlists should be one of them. Some years there'll be more good books by women, some years by men; the judges should feel free to reflect this, and things will, one imagines, even out over time.

Except, in the case of the Forward prize, they haven't. I've just been back to check, and out of the 19 winners of the Best Collection award since the Forwards launched in 1992, only three have been women – Kathleen Jamie, Jo Shapcott and Carol Ann Duffy. Three out of 19 – and we know, of course, that this year, that count is about to rise to three out of 20.

I find this more interesting – and indeed alarming – than I might otherwise have done because I'm partially responsible. I sat on the judging panel for the Forwards in 2007 – the year Sean O'Brien won for the third time. Looking back, I see that our shortlist that year only included one woman, Eavan Boland. What's more, I recall from the judging meeting that she didn't make it into the final two: in the end, it came down to a lengthy fight between O'Brien and John Burnside. So if I want to go around accusing the Forwards of sexism, conscious or otherwise, I need to stick myself in the dock too.

And I don't want to level such an accusation, not really. I have no doubt that, every year, the Forward judges worked long and hard to give the prize to the collection that, in their estimation, was the very best in show. I know we did, and I fully stand by our choice. But that said, I find it difficult to accept that, over the past 20 years, male poets in the UK have outperformed female poets by a ratio of nearly 7:1.

So what's going on? Why do we find, again and again, in poetry and literature more generally, that men continue to dominate when it comes to prizes?

Weren't we just talking about gender bias, with relation to the Best American series? Looks like the UK needs their own VIDA!

Originally Published: July 15th, 2011