Caleb Femi, la former young people’s laureate for London, has been shortlisted for one of the prestigious Forward prizes for poetry for his first collection Poor, an exploration of growing up Black in Peckham.
Femi, a former English teacher who took on the laureate role in 2016, is one of five first-time poets in the running for the £5,000 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection. Poor combines poetry and photography as Femi sets out, in his words, to “articulate the lives and times of my community of north Peckham”. It includes a poem dedicated to the murdered schoolboy Damilola Taylor, who Femi knew.
Poor is up against debut collections including Alice Hiller’s bird of winter, a work of creative witness to Hiller’s childhood sexual abuse that she began writing aged 50, and Ralf Webb’s Rotten Days in Late Summer, an examination of class, youth and adulthood in the working communities of the West Country. Cynthia Miller’s Honorifics, mostly written during what Miller described as the “heady first-lockdown blur” of last summer, and Holly Pester’s Comic Timing, complete the lineup.
Two former winners of the Forward prize for best debut are shortlisted this year for the £10,000 prize for best collection. Tishani Doshi, who took the debut prize in 2006, makes the cut this year for A God at the Door, which draws on nature to give power to the powerless, while 2019’s debut winner Stephen Sexton is in the running for Cheryl’s Destinies, an exploration of how the fantastical can be comforting when reality is hard to bear.
The shortlist for best collection is completed with Luke Kennard’s Notes on the Sonnets, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s sonnets at an anxious house party, Selima Hill’s Men Who Feed Pigeons, a series of reflections on men and different kinds of women’s relationships with them, and Kayo Chingonyi’s deeply personal A Blood Condition, which moves from the bank of the Zambezi River to London and Leeds. Chingonyi said it was gratifying to find that “the kind of work which is my wheelhouse, which is sometimes considered quiet, subtle, understated”, had resonated with judges.
James Naughtie, who chaired the jury, said the shortlisted poets “find pathways into the deepest feelings and discover vantage points that take a reader (or a listener) to another place”.
“The shortlists for 2021 are a reminder that the poetic imagination isn’t wholly introspective, although it cuts deep. It’s bold, limitless in ambition and it touches every part of our lives – our own hopes and fears, our communities, and the wider world that so often seems bewildering and over-powering,” said Naughtie. “This is a moment for poetry; and all these poets deliver.”
The winner will be announced in October, joining former recipients including Carol Ann Duffy, Kei Miller and Claudia Rankine.