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British-Trinidadian dub poet Roger Robinson wins TS Eliot prize


Judges praise A Portable Paradise for finding evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life’ in the bitterness of everyday experience

British-Trinidadian dub poet Roger Robinson wins TS Eliot prize

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”.

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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.

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.

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson

And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

Writer

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