Sarah Howe Wins Prestigious T. S. Eliot Prize

The news in brief:

  • Awesome and talented woc poet wins top UK poetry prize!
  • White men feel their ivory tower is under attack and retaliate with sexism
  • Throngs of poetry harpies infiltrate judging panel and use their incantatory witchy powers to call up Twitter Hurricane #derangedpoetess!

If, like me, you love all things bookish and poetry/spoken-wordy, and want to see women excelling in the arts and everywhere else, you may have been pleased to hear about Sarah Howe winning one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes, the T. S. Eliot prize, with her debut collection Loop of Jade. How awesome is that?!

Chair of the judges Pascale Petit said, “Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade shone with its startling exploration of gender and injustice through place and identity, its erudition, and powerful imagery as well as her daring experiment with form. She brings new possibilities to British poetry.” The collection also explores Howe’s Chinese heritage, and what it means to have roots in two cultures.

But some haven’t been so chuffed about Howe’s win, and by some, of course I mean the middle-aged white men whose voices are over-represented in the arts and media. Private Eye suggested Howe’s success was down to her physical beauty, rather than her talent and hard work. Oliver Thring’s interview with Howe in The Sunday Times couldn’t hide Thring’s bafflement in the face of Howe’s success, and accused his readers of being ‘deranged poetesses’ when they pointed out his barely-concealed tone of distaste. And of course, all this is throwing implied shade at the judging panel, among them Pascale Petit and Kei Miller – as if these two amazing, celebrated poets could possibly know better than the white Oxbridge media oligarchy!

Interesting to me is that Thring has fallen into the trap of invoking the ‘hysterical woman’ trope in defending himself – not the best way to prove you’re not a misogynist. When women protest against sexism, it’s easy (and sexist) to cast them as a baying, whingeing crowd of menstruating harpies who have lost control of their uteruses and attendant mental faculties. #derangedpoetess has allowed women working in poetry and the arts to expose this trope for what it is, and to point out its continued prevalence.

But just as dangerous is the application of this trope to women artists themselves, and it’s not just ivory-tower critics and media types who do this. The likes of Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, Amy Winehouse and many many more have all become the subject of a morbid fascination. Critics and fans alike love it when women excel in the arts, provided we get to watch as they crash and burn in spectacular fashion. Along with this, women artists are often seen in the context of the men in their lives – the figures of Ted Hughes, Diego Rivera and Blake Fielder-Civil play their part in the myth-making of the hysterical woman artist. Those poor men, having to put up with their insane females. At least Hughes and Rivera made some excellent and award-winning art out of their suffering!

Most importantly of all, however, January seems to be the month that just keeps on giving in terms of evidence that arts and media moguls are more than happy to carry on shitting on women and people of colour. #derangedpoetess should serve as a reminder that we in the UK also need to get our act together – #OscarsSoWhite isn’t just something happening ‘over there’ to ‘other people’ an ocean away, and it certainly isn’t absent from ‘high’ culture. Women and people of colour are consistently excluded, mistreated and unrecognised for their talents and contributions over here, too. And we should not extricate Sarah Howe’s status as a woman poet from the fact that she is writing explicitly about what it means to be of dual Chinese/British heritage.

Sarah Howe doesn’t fit these stereotypes, especially with her considered, powerful writing. For once, it’s time to cut the crap and celebrate the deserved success of a poet who is unafraid to write about issues that matter.

Words by Flo Reynolds