POET Roger Robinson has made history as the first Trinidadian to win the prestigious TS Eliot Prize, for his book A Portable Paradise.
The £25,000 award was announced on January 13 at a ceremony in London. Nine other books were shortlisted for the prize, the most valuable in UK poetry, and considered one of the literary world’s highest-profile honours, said a media release. Robinson is only the second Caribbean writer to win the prize, following Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who won in 2011 for his book White Egrets.
Published by Peepal Tree Press, A Portable Paradise ranges in subject from family and ancestry to the perils of making art, but has been most celebrated for a sequence of poems addressing London’s tragic Grenfell Tower fire.
Chair of the prize judges, poet John Burnside was in high praise of the publication.
“There was a strong sense of humanity to the book,” said Burnside. “It came down to how moving the personal poems were and how relatable and accessible his poetry about his family was, alongside the more political parts about black history, Grenfell and the NHS. There is a wonderful balance of the public and the personal in this collection. It is passionate and sociologically engaged….
“Poets have always written about injustices like racism and misogyny, because poetry is a great medium for that, as it engages all of our faculties, our abilities as humans, our empathies. When people are overtaken about rationality, they forget humanity and pity. Poetry reminds us of those traits again.”
Born in London to Trinidadian parents, Robinson was raised in Trinidad. He returned to Britain at 19 and since then has divided his time between the two countries – calling himself “a British resident with a Trini sensibility.” Beginning as a spoken-word performer in the 1990s, he was chosen as a British Next Generation poet in 1999, and published his first collection, Suckle, in 2009. His book The Butterfly Hotel was longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in 2014.
In the media release, Marina Salandy-Brown, founder and director of the Bocas Lit Fest says of Robinson's achievement, “Roger Robinson’s win is a triumph not just for him but for Caribbean poetry. As well as for our partner Peepal Tree Press, the most prolific publisher of Caribbean poets over the past three decades. This is a time of great opportunity for our writers.”
Robinson is scheduled to participate in the 2020 NGC Bocas Lit Fest in May.
The TS Eliot Prize is the latest in a series of recent international successes for Trinidad-born authors. In November 2019, Ian Williams was named the winner of Canada’s Giller Prize, that country’s most prestigious award for fiction, for his novel Reproduction. (The Giller Prize was previously won by Trinidad-born Andre Alexis, in 2015.)
Also in 2019, Claire Adam won the Desmond Elliot Prize – “the UK’s most prestigious award for first-time novelists” – for Golden Child.
In 2016, Vahni Capildeo was named winner of the Forward Prize for Poetry for her book Measures of Expatriation, and in 2017 and 2018 poets Richard Georges and Shivanee Ramlochan were shortlisted for the Forward Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection.
Caribbean writers have taken home many other coveted prizes in the UK and USA in the last four or five years
The 2020 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, this country’s annual literary festival is set to take place May1-3 and the Bocas Lit Fest, which runs it, will launch its plans for its tenth year with an open house event on January 22 at the Writers Centre, 14 Alcazar Street, St Clair. Everyone is welcome.
For more info and to register for ongoing workshops: bocaslitfest.com/writerscentre.