Jamaican poet Jason Allen-Paisant wins T.S. Eliot prize for second poetry collection

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Jamaican poet Jason Allen-Paisant won the coveted TS Eliot Prize for his second collection of poems, “Self-Portrait As Othello,” which reimagines Shakespeare’s hero in a modern landscape.

ANNOUNCEMENT

Jamaican poet Jason Allen-Paisant has won the prestigious TS Eliot Prize for Poetry, for his second collection of poems, “Self-Portrait as Othello.”

The book reimagines Shakespeare’s dark-skinned hero in a modern landscape, examining what Allen-Paisant calls “Othello’s missing backstory” and drawing parallels to the lives of black male immigrants in Europe today.

“For many, many years I have been struck by how the play (‘Othello’) fails to imagine, so to speak, everything that could be in a character like Othello,” he explained after being shortlisted for the award .

“If Othello was a stranger in Venice, as the play says, where did he come from? How did it get there? What was his native language? What was his background? The kind of questions an author living in Othello’s skin would want to ask,” he told her.

Judges Paul Muldoon, Sasha Dugdale and Denise Saul called the collection “a book with grand ambitions met with great imagination, freshness and technical flair.”

In a joint statement, they said: “As the title suggests, the poem is expressed with theatricality and in a range of voices and registers, across geographies and eras. It takes real courage to make a work like this with such style and integrity. We are confident that ‘Self-Portrait as Othello’ is a book that readers will return to for many years.”

The 43-year-old writer and academic was visibly emotional when he accepted the award on Monday evening. He had previously said that winning the TS Eliot Prize “changes your life as a writer”.

“I’m just a country boy from Jamaica. I traveled far to get here,” he told the BBC after the win, adding that he is the first person in his family to have achieved A-levels and gone to university.

“So if you look at it, there is nothing probable about this.”

Archival gaps, invented stories

“Self-Portrait as Othello” contains several sonnets and prose poems. Allen-Paisant said he wanted to find a balance between rigor and playfulness when it came to shaping. The first part of the book “is clearly written for performance,” he says.

In order to take on the skin of a black man who arrived in Venice during the Renaissance, Allen-Paisant said he had to do a lot of research, during which he was faced with an incredible lack of historical documentation.

“I spent a lot of time reading books about English travelers to Venice in the 16th and 17th centuries, (…) reading articles about Africans living in Venice in the Renaissance era,” he said.

“But also addressing a gap in the archives, a huge archival gap around the stories of these people in this period, which led me to visual art. So the work is in strong dialogue with the visual art around the black body and its history.”

The poem “The Picture and the Frame” describes the experience of being a black man in modern Venice, contemplating the depiction of dark-skinned people in Renaissance paintings, their stories that have never been told, and the story that must be invented.

Allen-Paisant’s body of work often overlaps between poetry and philosophy, exploring the lived experiences of Afro-diasporic artists and communities around the world.

Based in Leeds, he teaches critical theory and creative writing at the University of Manchester. His first poetry collection, “Thinking with Trees,” was awarded the 2022 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

His first nonfiction book, “Scanning the Bush,” will be published later this year.

Allen-Paisant was chosen as the winner of the TS Eliot Prize from a shortlist of 10 poets from across the UK, Ireland, Hong Kong and the US.

ANNOUNCEMENT

The TS Eliot Prize recognizes the best collection of poems published during the year. This year, judges said they received a total of 186 submissions from British and Irish publishers.

Additional sources • BBC

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