Lemn Sissay

Pure Poetry: Five Writers For Your Autumn Reading List

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The voices making waves in poetry

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Author Allie Esiri rounds up the poets to add to your bookshelves this autumn 

While my previous books have largely focused on the poems themselves, A Poet for Every Day of the Year is invested in the individuals behind the lines. I’m delighted with the opportunity to include some of the very finest, if not duly recognised, poets, moving beyond the usual, rather stale, almost exclusively dead- white-male-dominated format. My book will introduce the reader to dozens of figures shaping the poetry world today, alongside all the classic names you’d expect to find in such a collection. And to give you a taster, in these pages I’ve chosen five of my favourite contemporary poets, those I think everybody should discover.

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My Name is Why

LEMN SISSAY

Many poets have had inspirational life stories, but few I think endured as much heartbreaking adversity as Lemn Sissay did before becoming a national poetry icon. The son of an Ethiopian immigrant, he was separated from his mother as a child after being mistakenly given up for adoption, when she had only intended him to be put into temporary foster care while she completed her studies. He was then sent to a Christian family who anglicised his name, ensuring he was lost in the system before they too returned him to care. But through all this pain he found a trusty companion in poetry. He began self- publishing his work when he was 18 and has since forged a career that has seen him win an MBE, become the official poet of the 2012 Olympics and be elected chancellor of the University of Manchester. His memoir My Name is Why (Canongate, £9.99) blew me away.

slam cover

NIKITA GILL

I’m honoured to be the chair of judges for the 2021 CLiPPA Prize, for which the effervescent spoken word poet Nikita Gill has just been shortlisted for her printed collection SLAM! You’re Gonna Wanna Hear This (Pan Macmillan, £7.99), in which she collects an array of spoken word slam poetry dominating the poetry scene today. Gill’s career as a writer began when she was just 12, after a non-fiction story she wrote about her grandfather was published in a newspaper. She’s never looked back, becoming a leading figure in a new generation of poets who achieved their breakthrough by posting their verse on social media. The fact that she’s now getting such critical recognition just goes to show that popularity and accessibility do not at all diminish a sense of literary legitimacy. Great poetry doesn’t have to be academic or obscure or even printed on the page – it just needs to speak to our humanity.

A portable paradise

ROGER ROBINSON

Roger Robinson is one of my favourite contemporary UK-based poets, and anyone who’s followed his career would have felt that the TS Eliot prize he won for his fourth collection, A Portable Paradise (Peepal Tree Press, £9.99), was a long time coming. A self-proclaimed ‘British resident with a Trini sensibility,’ Robinson spent much of his childhood in Trinidad before moving back to England in his late teens, and his most recent work has explored what it means to be Black and British. I would urge anyone who wants to better understand our country today to read his devastating poem about the Grenfell disaster, as well as his other brilliant poetic responses to the Windrush scandal, the London riots, and the NHS. More broadly, his work is about using poetry to break down barriers and build bridges between people from all backgrounds. He has said that poems are like ‘empathy machines’, and few people can have put it better.

Raymond Antrobus

RAYMOND ANTROBUS

Raymond Antrobus has become one of the biggest stars of the poetry world, the first to win the prestigious Rathbones Folio Prize for literature in 2019 with his collection The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins, £9.99) as well as scooping up the Somerset Maugham Award and the Ted Hughes prize. The latter was particularly bittersweet for Antrobus, who is deaf, since Hughes (who sounds a far from pleasant man) once wrote a poem in which he callously described deaf children as ‘alert and simple/ like faces of little animals’. In a bold response, Antrobus struck out Hughes’ words in black pen and wrote his own poem: ‘Ted is alert and simple.’ His second book, All The Names Given, is out now (Macmillan, £10.99).

Gillian Clarke

GILLIAN CLARKE

I love how proud the Welsh are of their poetic heritage– they still hold Eisteddfods (competitive poetry festivals) almost a millennium after the first recorded literary meeting of the kind. One of the biggest champions of poetry in Wales is its former national poet Gillian Clarke. As she once put it: ‘Poetry is the national art in Wales. It’s an unbroken ancient tradition.’ Her own work, most recently The Gododdin (Faber, £14.99), is defined by a musicality I find irresistible. Five years ago, she went on a road trip with fellow poets Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay and Imtiaz Dharker (all included in my book), a journey that took them from Falmouth in Cornwall to St Andrews in Fife. What wouldn’t I give to have been squashed into the back of their Mini with them.

A Poet for Every Day of the Year (Pan Macmillan) by Allie Esiri is out on 30 September

Photo: Lemn Sissay, © Aida Muluneh

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