The all-male shortlist for this year’s prize is sadly true to form. But apportioning blame is not easy.
By Sarah Crown
Spot the similarity ... the Forward prize for poetry shortlist 2011. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/Murdo Macleod/PR
The 2011 Forward prize shortlist has been announced. It’s an anniversary year: the prize is celebrating its 20th birthday. And this year’s list oozes quality: former winners Sean O’Brien and David Harsent compete with Whitbread winner John Burnside, Oxford poetry professor Geoffrey Hill, Irish poetry colossus Michael Longley – and OK, D Nurske, a Brooklyn poet of whom I confess I’d never heard until now. But doubtless he’s wonderful too. A mighty list then, and nothing to complain about – except for the fact that there aren’t any women on it.
Does it matter? I’m not sure. It’s certainly noteworthy, however, so I mailed the chair of judges, Andrew Motion, to ask him where the women were. “Of course it was a matter of concern for us that the shortlist for the Best Collection was all-male,” he replied. “But equally of course the judges (three women and two men) had to choose the books they liked best as collections of poetry. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the same criteria led us to choose four books by women and two by men in the Best First Collection section, and two poems by women and two by men in the Best Single Poem category.”
Fair enough, you might think, and there the matter might rest. I have uneasy feelings about the issue of gender on prize shortlists, anyway: while there are certain areas in which balance ought actively to be sought (the ratio of male to female reviewers, for example), I don’t believe prize shortlists should be one of them. Some years there’ll be more good books by women, some years by men; the judges should feel free to reflect this, and things will, one imagines, even out over time.
Except, in the case of the Forward prize, they haven’t. I’ve just been back to check, and out of the 19 winners of the Best Collection award since the Forwards launched in 1992, only three have been women – Kathleen Jamie, Jo Shapcott and Carol Ann Duffy. Three out of 19 – and we know, of course, that this year, that count is about to rise to three out of 20.