Anthony Anaxagorou wins Ondaatje prize for collection of postcolonial poetry | Books
The poet Anthony Anaxagorou has won the £10,000 Ondaatje prize for a “beautiful” collection “that pushes the confines of form and language to locate a new aesthetic with which to address the legacies of colonisation”.
The award, run annually by the Royal Society of Literature, recognises an outstanding work of fiction, nonfiction or poetry that evokes a sense of place. Anaxagorou was awarded the prize for Heritage Aesthetics, a poetry collection that looks at time and place in its exploration of British imperial history and present-day racism.
The chair of judges, journalist Samira Ahmed, said Anaxagorou’s poetry “is beautiful, but does not sugarcoat. The arsenic of historical imperial arrogance permeates the Britain he explores in his writing. And the joy of this collection comes from his strength, knowledge, maturity, but also from deeply felt love.”
Anaxagorou’s collection is shaped by his family’s migratory history between Cyprus and the UK. Poet Mary Jean Chan wrote in their Guardian review that “intertextuality pervades the collection,” with excerpts from books and magazines woven experimentally through the poems.
Ahmed was joined on the judging panel by poets Roger Robinson and Joelle Taylor. Robinson, who won the Ondaatje prize in 2020, said Anaxagorou “lets the narrative of the poems fracture as if somehow there has been a traumatic event, and that fracture became a form by deconstruction of texts and literatures to make comment not only on them but also on the fact that Cyprus has been shaped by 2,000 years of colonial rule”.
Taylor said Heritage Aesthetics “pushes the confines of form and language to locate a new aesthetic with which to address the legacies of colonisation. A tour guide, an archive, a personal meditation on belonging. Beautiful.”
Anaxagorou runs Out-Spoken, a monthly poetry and music night at London’s Southbank Centre. In 2015, he set up Out-Spoken Press, which publishes poetry and critical writing with a focus on voices underrepresented in the publishing industry. The poet’s second collection, After the Formalities, was shortlisted for the 2019 TS Eliot prize. In 2020, he published How to Write It, a guide to crafting fiction and poetry, with Stormzy’s publishing imprint #Merky Books.
Other titles shortlisted for the Ondaatje prize were Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial and Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris.
The judges said of the shortlisted titles: “Cinematic in scope and description, we were enticed by personal stories connected to larger histories, rich and adventurous language, and revelations that sometimes bordered on an unexpected new form of creative documentary”.
Lea Ypi won the 2022 prize for Free, a memoiristic account of Albania during the collapse of communism. Other past winners include Peter Pomerantsev, Alan Johnson and Aida Edemariam. The award was established in 2004 by its funder, the financier and writer Sir Christopher Ondaatje.
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