Bhanu Kapil’s ‘How to Wash a Heart’ migration perspective wins top UK poetry prize

Bhanu Kapil’s ‘How to Wash a Heart’ migration perspective wins top UK poetry prize

Indian-origin author-poet Bhanu Kapil has been named the winner of the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize, named after the renowned 20th-century American-British poet.

Kapil, who was born in England and grew up in London, beat nine other shortlisted entries with her winning title ‘How to Wash a Heart’, which explores the relationship between an immigrant guest and a citizen host. The prize is seen as the most valuable prize in British poetry and the only major poetry prize judged purely by established poets. It comes with a winner's cheque for £25,000 and all the shortlisted poets are presented with cheques for £1,500 each.

“I wanted to write something that could be read in the time it took to make a drink, a cup of tea. I wanted to write about migration, about host and guest relations; I wanted to think about a threshold and what a welcome might portend” said Kapil, in reference to her winning work.

“Poetry is an antidote to the loss of place or home. It’s how you carry memory in your body and it has the great power to make contact with radical others, beloveds of all kinds across the great space and time that separates each from its other one,” she said.

Radical and arresting

The 53-year-old, who lives between the UK and US, where she spent 21 years at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, has six books of poetry/prose to her credit, including ‘The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers’, ‘Schizophrene’ and ‘Ban en Banlieue’. Last year, she also won the coveted American award, the Windham-Campbell Prize, in the poetry category in recognition of her literary achievements.

“Our shortlist celebrated the ways in which poetry is responding to profound change, and the stylistic freedom that today’s poets have claimed. From this impressive field, we unanimously chose Bhanu Kapil’s ‘How to Wash a Heart’ as our winner. It is a radical and arresting collection that recalibrates what it’s possible for poetry to achieve,” said Lavinia Greenlaw, Judges’ Chair for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2020.

After months of further reading, Greenlaw and fellow judges, Mona Arshi and Andrew McMillan, chose the winner from a shortlist which included a mixture of established poets and relative newcomers, including three debut collections, work from two Americans, as well as poets of Native American, Chinese Indonesian and British, Indian and mixed race ancestry.

Impressive shortlist

Nine publishers were represented, more than for many years, with five titles from new or recently-established presses.

The panel had sifted through 153 entries to finalise their 10 finalists in October last year. The shortlisted titles included Natalie Diaz for ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’; Sasha Dugdale for ‘Deformations’; Ella Frears for ‘Shine, Darling’; Will Harris for ‘RENDANG’; Wayne Holloway Smith for ‘Love Minus Love’; Daisy Lafarge for ‘Life Without Air’; Glyn Maxwell for ‘How the hell are you’; Shane McCrae for ‘Sometimes I Never Suffered’; and J.O. Morgan for ‘The Martian’s Regress’.

The prize was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the Poetry Book Society’s 40th birthday and honour its founding poet, T.S. Eliot. The prize, run by the T.S. Eliot Foundation, is awarded annually to the author of the best new collection of poetry, published in the UK and Ireland.

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