British-Trinidadian dub poet wins TS Eliot prize

Tuesday, January 14, 2020 - 17:45

Roger Robin­son, the British-Trinida­di­an dub po­et, has won the pres­ti­gious TS Eliot prize on his first nom­i­na­tion for his col­lec­tion A Portable Par­adise.

The on­ly po­et­ry award judged sole­ly by es­tab­lished po­ets, the £25,000 TS Eliot prize has been de­scribed by the for­mer po­et lau­re­ate, Sir An­drew Mo­tion, as “the prize most po­ets want to win”.


Robin­son, who splits his time be­tween Lon­don and Trinidad, is a long­time per­former of dub po­et­ry—a form of spo­ken word with West In­di­an roots—and has served as a men­tor to many suc­cess­ful writ­ers, in­clud­ing the play­wright In­ua El­lams and au­thor and broad­cast­er Johny Pitts. The au­thor of three po­et­ry col­lec­tions and two pam­phlets, Robin­son was named the TS Eliot win­ner on Mon­day night for A Portable Par­adise, which is pub­lished by a tiny in­de­pen­dent, Peepal Tree Press. Tack­ling racism, vi­o­lence and the Gren­fell Tow­er fire, as well as mo­ments of joy and beau­ty, the col­lec­tion is built on ob­ser­va­tions of or­di­nary dai­ly life.

Robin­son made his­to­ry as the first Trinida­di­an to win the pres­ti­gious TS Eliot Prize, for his book A Portable Par­adise.

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. 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.

The po­et John Burn­side, chair of the judges, praised A Portable Par­adise for “find­ing in the bit­ter­ness of every­day ex­pe­ri­ence con­tin­u­ing ev­i­dence of ‘sweet, sweet life’.”


He said the judges had made pas­sion­ate cas­es for var­i­ous books for months, but Robin­son was the unan­i­mous choice in their fi­nal meet­ing on Mon­day.

“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, with­out be­ing rig­or­ous about it – there was a strong sense of hu­man­i­ty to the book,” he said. “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.”

Robin­son tri­umphed on a 10-book short­list that in­clud­ed pre­vi­ous win­ner Sharon Olds, this year’s For­ward prize win­ner Fiona Ben­son, and the ac­claimed young po­ets Jay Bernard and Ilya Kamin­sky. Burn­side praised the en­tire short­list as “am­bi­tious and wide-rang­ing” and said he and his fel­low judges—po­ets Sarah Howe and Nick Mako­ha—had been “very proud” of the short­list.

“It is a di­verse list—we hope for that, we didn’t plan it—as well as be­ing di­verse in terms of sub­ject and craft. If you were choos­ing 10 books to build a po­et’s ed­u­ca­tion, these would be a good choice,” he said.

Join­ing a pres­ti­gious list of pre­vi­ous win­ners, in­clud­ing Don Pa­ter­son, Ted Hugh­es, Ocean Vuong and Car­ol Ann Duffy, Robin­son will al­so be just the sec­ond po­et in­duct­ed in­to the new TS Eliot prize win­ners’ archive, which was es­tab­lished last year to pre­serve the voic­es of win­ning po­ets on­line for pos­ter­i­ty.

Sto­ry cour­tesy The Guardian