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T. S. Eliot Prize 2016
Welcome to the tenth of our eleven weekly T. S. Eliot Prize 2016 newsletters where we’ll have more about the ten shortlisted poets, with some of their poetry, reviews of their collections and some forthcoming poetry events.

The 2016 Shortlist

This year’s shortlist is distinguished by the quality and variety of the collections the judges have chosen. There are fewer established names in this list, although Alice Oswald, Ian Duhig, Denise Riley and Bernard O’Donoghue have all published strong collections this year. The new collection from Vahni Capildeo, who was awarded the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Collection, raises the familiar question of whether she will win the T S Eliot Prize as well with the same collection. The list is rich in poets who will be watched with interest - Jacob Polley and Rachael Boast - and also in lesser-known names who have delivered striking collections in 2016 - J. O. Morgan, Katharine Towers and this week’s poet, Ruby Robinson, with her debut collection.

All of them have accepted our invitation to read at the T S Eliot Prize Readings at Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall, so you can make up our own mind about which collection should win on 15 January. The Readings start at 7pm and tickets are still available online here or through the box office on 0207 960 4200.

Focus on Shortlisted Poet - Ruby Robinson

Ruby Robinson’s Every Little Sound is her debut collection and marks the arrival of a highly distinctive new voice. Other first collections have featured on the shortlist and last year, for the first time, the Prize was won by one, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade.

Ruby Robinson was born in Manchester in 1985, grew up in Sheffield and Doncaster and now lives in Sheffield. She studied English Literature at the University of East Anglia and has an MA from Sheffield Hallam University where she also won the Ictus Prize for poetry. She says she draws inspiration from writing which takes her ‘somewhere unexpected’. Her poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, Poetry (Chicago) and elsewhere. Every Little Sound (published by Pavilion Poetry, the new imprint from Liverpool University Press) is her first collection and it was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection at the Forward Prizes 2016.
Reviews of Every Little Sound

“Ruby Robinson is a real find. Her agile and poised poems play with scale, listen out and in, and crank the gain up on the world. It’s great to discover such an exciting debut.”
- Paul Farley   

“Ruby Robinson’s Every Little Sound (Liverpool University, £9.99) is an intelligent and disturbing debut that explores how family affects both our sense of self and our intimate relationships. Composed of free verse and occasional prose poems, it is stylistically original in its diction and syntax as speaker and poet grapple to render experience. It often gives rise to a surreal quality that appears menacing: “And what use am I, / half‑witted, unpicked, flaked / out, half a leg, a spewing mouth, brittle hair, / scooped-out heart crazed on the floor, / racked with side effects?”
- Carrie Etter, the Guardian

“The most vital poetry is fuelled by truth, even when it may expose us to the source of pain. Ruby Robinson’s poems enact this risk with great skill, reaffirming the power of the art. Every Little Sound is an extraordinary first collection from a very gifted young poet.
- Colette Bryce   

“These are taut, vibrant, intimate poems, structured in such a way as to replicate the complicated manoeuvres our brains make as we try to understand human behaviour. Repeated images and associative ideas resurface across poems like memories, suppressed memories, and false memories.  In this way, a gathering narrative is grippingly revealed in this tightly bound, cohesive collection…

The poems in Every Little Sound encompass uncertainties, unreliable communicators, narratives of confusion, and misinterpretation, while simultaneously creating a feeling of movement, growth, renewal, development and evolution.  In part, Robinson achieves this through her exquisite observations of the natural world, recorded in the midst of chaotic times: new tomatoes in a greenhouse are baubles; there is a smash glassed sea; an ash tree is shown sloping its nude shoulders to the night. Overwhelmingly, these poems transmit hope and a sense of the human capacity for resurgence beyond desperate damage.”
- Josephine Corcoran, And Other Poems

Her control of her material is demonstrated nowhere more powerfully than in ‘Apology’, an agonised and virtuoso incantation containing (acknowledged) allusions to Louis MacNeice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’. It’s the ‘Mother’ counterpart of Plath’s ‘Daddy’ in terms of concentrated power, for all that it’s longer and, emotionally, far more intricate.
- Carol Rumens in Poetry Review

‘It wasn’t until his second book that Don Paterson was inviting his reader into the “little church” of the poem. Ruby Robinson’s first book’s opening poem ushers us in through “the trap / door of a modern barn conversion” and though full of apparent comforts (paintings, chairs for guests, soup, bread, socks, duvet) it’s really a decidedly unnerving place. The walls are explicitly said not to have eyes, but the narrative voice surely knows too much about us: our loneliness, right down to our “deepest thread, like a baked-in hair”. And even if the walls do not watch, they are full of the “shadows of stags [. . .] cast like stalking giants”. There’s a lot in Robinson’s book which reminds me of another debut collection from way back in 1983 where the lovers describe themselves as “fascinated by our own anaesthesia, / our inability to function”, the TV buzzes half-watched in a corner, emotions grow ever more dysfunctional, “shorter and faster now”, and there is talk of separation in halting, heavily punctuated non sequiturs…”
- Martyn Crucefix

Science and Poetry interview - The poet Ruby Robinson discusses vocabulary, neuroscience and the articulation of trauma at Liverpool University.

Poetry from Every Little Sound

It was February. Snow
wouldn’t settle and things weren’t beginning
anymore. Bluebottles had taken to window ledges.
On the fairway: branches of trees, driftwood, tide wrack,
one IKEA bag like a dead bird whose wings won’t die
and the heart from a mammal, afloat; the lungs it was once
    moored to
thousands of miles apart; New Zealand, Jupiter.
The word thanks, rolling along the inside of your skull
like a marble in a bowl, a wagtail –
shocked to be on London Road: rush hour, snow storm
and notice a fragment of kebab, trodden into the kerb.
A yacht and a woman or a man, contact lenses, clothes,
anecdotes, books, cutlery, overboard. A search party
in the lobe of brain where a mother leaving the room
resides with rational thought, beige jelly
in the shape of a rabbit on a bright table cloth.

John Field Reviews the Shortlist: Ruby Robinson

For the 2016 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again and his final thought on this amazing debut collection is: “in Every Little Sound, the imperceptibly fragile achieves audibility and presence, and casts some hope into an unravelling universe.”

The teenage electric guitarist in me would have started the journey into effects pedals with something flashy – with a slice of heavy metal distortion, perhaps. However, the 40-something with the disposable income for this hobby started with something quite different: compression. Loud sounds are quietened and quiet sounds are amplified. The instrument feels more present, louder, in an odd sort of way and the essential details – the rhythmic click of funk, or the hammered notes of country – become possible. Robinson’s Every Little Sound opens with a summary of the concept of "internal gain": "an internal volume control which helps us amplify and focus upon quiet sounds in times of threat, danger or intense concentration". The result is a set of hyperreal observations which transcend the everyday, unlocking its latent Gothic menace.

The collection opens with ‘Reader, listener’, a staged invitation to enter a home, a home with all the authenticity of a MTV crib: "come in. I’m opening my door to you – the trap / door of a modern barn conversion with lots of little rooms, vast paintings on the bare brick walls, a daring colour scheme, / sofas and awkward plastic chairs for interrogating guests". The first delicious line break acknowledges the calculation behind the home visit – the barn’s humble rusticity repurposed behind seemingly honest, seemingly transparent "bare brick", which may amount to a double bluff, to another posture. The sofas too, are to interrogate guests and the poem’s incessant imperatives: "come in", "take off", "take some" start to sound less avuncular: "I know your deepest thread, like a baked-in hair". The quality of Robinson’s figurative writing is sensational. Everyday similes pulse with insight: ‘thread’ suggests life’s precious fragility but that hair in the food transforms it into something intolerably revolting. 

With its "porthole in your bedroom door", ‘Locked Doors’ reimagines the care home as prison-cum-boat, voyaging we can but wonder where, "cigarettes in a locked drawer", evoking the torture of Tantalus: food and drink eternally just beyond reach while, with sickening irony, beyond the locked doors, someone’s "noticing the warmth of a star, 93 million miles away". Robinson’s use of the second person makes it clear where we’re all heading.

The "burnt eyeballs" and "the collapse // of the food-chain" in ‘Watching TV’ present other inevitabilities. ‘Collapse’, teeters on the edge of the stanza and it’s all too easy for the reader to fill in the blank with any number of catastrophes in the time it takes to flick an eye to the next line. The sofa, usually sat on, becomes something sat "inside", as we insulate ourselves from the pain of digital images, self-medicating with whiskey and chocs – and then Robinson returns to the image of threads, as "The threads at the edge // of your rug were falling apart". This quietest of unravellings is amplified to destruction on a massive scale.
The couplets comprising ‘Tuning Fork’, one of the collection’s final poems, evoke the fork’s twin poles. Although its vibrations are virtually imperceptible to the ear, the speaker remembers that "our voices, raised // against each other, amplified // by the walls of this house, recall // the function of a resonator, // as simple as a table top, to which // the handle of the fork is pressed, // or a hollow wooden box" and, in Every Little Sound, the imperceptibly fragile achieves audibility and presence, and casts some hope into an unravelling universe.

Other Poetry News

York: North by North West Poetry Tour starts Friday 13 January New collaborative work in performance. Curated by the Enemies Project and zimZalla, this tour comprises over sixty poets collaborating in pairs to produce brand new collaborative works for performance, over six nights in January and February 2017. Free.

London, Blackfriars Friday 13 January. Free Open-Mic Poetry open to all. 5 minute mic-time available, all styles.

Manchester: Poets and Players Reading Saturday 21 January, Ian Duhig, Fiona Benson & Becky Cherriman with music by Chris Davies & Friends

Arvon has just released its 2017 programme. Amongst the many courses are writing and editing fiction, non-fiction and poetry, untutored retreats for those seeking a quiet space to release their imagination, and novelties such as Writing for Performance, Children’s TV and Ghostwriting. Tutors include acclaimed writers such as Moniza Alvi, Mark Haddon, Andrea Stuart and Simon Armitage. Grants are available to help with course fees.

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