8:00 AM 17th October 2023

Forward Prizes For Poetry, 2023, Announced At Leeds Playhouse

Jason Allen-Paisant, Momtaza Mehri, Bohdan Piasecki, Malika Booker
Jason Allen-Paisant, Momtaza Mehri, Bohdan Piasecki, Malika Booker
At a packed ceremony at Leeds Playhouse, Chairs of Judges, Bernardine Evaristo and Joelle Taylor announced the four category winners for the 2023 Forward Prizes for Poetry, including the first ever Best Single Poem – Performed winner.

Following an electrifying evening of live performances from the shortlisted authors, the winners of the most coveted and influential prizes for poetry in the UK and Ireland were announced: Jason Allen-Paisant, Self-Portrait as Othello (Best Collection); Momtaza Mehri, Bad Diaspora Poems (Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection); Malika Booker, ‘Libation’ (Best Single Poem – Written) and Bohdan Piasecki, ‘Almost Certainly’ (Best Single Poem – Performed), with a total prize pot of £17,000.

Renowned for championing new poetic voices and internationally celebrated writers alike, the four winners represent the diverse excellence of contemporary poetry, and all its boundary-pushing innovations.

Jamaican writer and academic Jason Allen-Paisant collected the prize for Best Collection in Leeds, his hometown, for his seminal Self-Portrait as Othello (Carcanet). Chair of Judges for the Best Collections panel, Bernardine Evaristo, called it:

‘An exhilarating and propulsive read that sweeps through several European cities that become subject to the black male gaze, changing what is seen and who is heard. Playful, intimate and allusive, these poems interrogate masculinity and history, experiment with the myth of Othello, mourn absent fathers, and offer us a refreshing mash-up of languages that regenerate poetry so that it feels freshly minted.’

Former Young People’s Laureate of London, Momtaza Mehri, was awarded the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection for her critically acclaimed Bad Diaspora Poems (Jonathan Cape), described by Bernardine Evaristo as:

‘An exceptional debut collection that reinvigorates ideas around diaspora, migration and home. Wide-ranging and ambitious, her poetry shimmers with erudition and linguistic exquisiteness, while also having an emotional heart. Drawing on global cultures, Mehri is a truly transnational poet of the twenty-first century whose words pulsate out into the world-at-large.’

Malika Booker, also based in Leeds, became the first woman to win the Best Single Poem – Written category twice, first in 2020, and this year for ‘Libation’, originally published in The Poetry Review. 2023 judge Chris Redmond said:

‘Malika’s piece reads like a drink. A slow pour of linguistic libation that funnels the reader down into the depths of ritual, grief, culture and society. It works hard to tread so lightly and holds all of this with tenderness and love.’

Polish-born, Birmingham-based performer and professor Bohdan Piasecki became the inaugural winner of the widely-celebrated new category Best Single Poem – Performed, for his moving exploration of Polish and British communities in ‘Almost Certainly’. 2023 judge Chris Redmond said:

‘Bohdan’s poem is not only moving and meticulously crafted, his performance of it is electric. It’s a great example of how many things come into play for performance poetry to be more than a recitation. It’s the combination of physical and emotional presence, connection with the audience, command over voice, pace, dynamic range, and sensitivity at all times, to the poem itself.’

cq["I am indebted to the spoken word scene in the UK and internationally for showing me how to build the stage I stand on. It is a distinct art, and I am thrilled that the Forward Prizes have made this distinction relevant and important. The two poems that are awarded the prize from each category are technically brilliant but also navigate an emotional response that brought us here, to this room. They reminded us that at the heart of every poem is indeed heart. Chairing this year’s Best Single Poem Written and Performed categories has been exhilarating. I’ve been privileged to think alongside a panel of the most extraordinary thought makers and cultural activists in order to come to these decisions. We were drawn to the expanse of imagining, the detail in the delivery. In truth, everyone on the shortlists won. We know it, and we hope the shortlistees do too. A brilliant, wide future awaits everyone.
Chair of Judges for the Best Single Poems panel, Joelle Taylor
Bernardine Evaristo was this year’s Chair of Judges for the Best Collections panel, and was joined by judges Kate Fox, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Andrés N. Ordórica and Jessica Traynor. Joelle Taylor was this year’s Chair of Judges for the Best Single Poems panel, and was joined by Khadijah Ibrahiim, Caroline Bird, Chris Redmond and Sue Roberts.

2023 Best Collection Panels Judge, Kate Fox, said:

"Both Momtaza’s and Jason’s work is fluid and thrilling and readable and urgent and explores the clash and smash of multiple selves in the context of a world where the old certainties - and even the new certainties about the new uncertainties are rapidly shifting. They both show us that poets can be some of our best guides in this ever-changing landscape. The whole privileged process of getting to read and talk about work like this, and the wider shortlist and longlist, has personally made me feel more hopeful about poetry and its relevance than I’ve felt for a long time."

2023 Best Collection Panels Judge, Andrés N. Ordórica, said:

"Momtaza Mehri and Jason Allen-Paisant have offered us two collections that engage both with intellect and heart to great effect. Through their skilful excavation of colonialism and forced-migration, and its continued ramifications in the 21st century, they have proven poetry’s philosophical potential and ability to illuminate hard truths. And yet, at the heart of these poems is something deeply intimate, a reciprocity of emotions and experiences given to the readers who will be all the richer for it."

2023 Best Collection Panels Judge, Jessica Traynor, said:

"Reading these two collections I was struck by their range - both in terms of form and content - their erudition, and their ambition. Here we have two poets at the height of their powers, forging a new poetics in a changing world. I’m excited for the readers who have yet to come to the work, and to celebrate the achievements of these two excellent poets."