Friday 16 October 2020

On Mama Amazonica winning the inaugural Laurel Prize for ecopoetry


Three years after Mama Amazonica was published in 2017 by Bloodaxe, it has won the inaugural Laurel Prize. This prize was created by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage to recognise and encourage the resurgence of environmental or nature poetry, which he felt had not quite been noticed. It is run by the Poetry School and the judges were Robert Macfarlane, Moniza Alvi, and Simon Armitage. The first prize of £5,000 is donated by Simon and is his annual laureate honorarium from the Queen. Karen McCarthy Woolf was awarded second prize for her wondrous and experimental Seasonal Disturbances, on the theme of climate change, and Colin Simms was awarded third prize for Hen Harrier, a book that focuses on one precious species. There was an extra prize for the most promising debut and this was given to Matt Howard for Gall. The inaugural prize was for the best ecopoetry collection published in the last five years, and will follow with yearly selections now.

Mama Amazonica fuses two themes: my mother's abuse by my father, and consequent mental illness, and the abused and besieged Amazon rainforest. It's a book that took me 65 years to write, and in it I managed to change my relationship with my late, estranged mother, to one of empathy and compassion, and most of all – to one of love. I did this by placing her hospital bed, not in the psychiatric ward, but inside pristine primary deep jungle, where life is at fever pitch – the psychotic human mother superimposed on Mama Amazonica, our earth mother, who is abused and exploited by humankind. I've been obsessed by the Amazon forest for 25 years, and obsessed by my mother too, so it was a fertile doubling of subjects, which grew ever deeper as I wrote them. 

The book didn't get on any of the main poetry prize shortlists when it first appeared, and although I tried to ignore that, as I knew it's readers that count, I was discouraged. So much so, that I had cast it aside as a failure, and embarked on my next collection with renewed hope. It had got the Poetry Book Society's Choice, but what I'm trying to say is that it's so easy to lose faith in one's work, and I did. Then, miraculously, nine months after Mama Amazonica was published, it won the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize. It was the first time a poetry collection had won, and only the second time one had been shortlisted. Now that Mama Amazonica has also won the Laurel Prize, a poetry prize, I have to believe that what I set out to do with it worked for quite a few judges. But I also want to offer hope to other poets whose collections might be overlooked. It is so important to keep believing in your work – if you feel in your heart that it's achieved something valuable, keep faith, and you never know what might happen later. I also want to thank Simon Armitage for founding this visionary prize, at a time when the health of our planet is about to be damaged beyond repair unless we act. Even writing helps!

Here are some photos from my trips to the Peruvian Amazon where I researched for the poems.

view of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers from small plane to Tambopata from Puerto Maldonado (photo credit Pascale Petit)

On an oxbow lake off the Tambopata River (photo by Brian Fraser)

Giant river otter aka river wolf in oxbow lake near Tambopata Research Center (photo credit Paul F. Condori, our guide aka Jungle Paul)

Macaws at the clay lick near Tambopata Research Center (photo credit Brian Fraser)

The author under an ironwood (photo by Brian Fraser)

Monkey frog on night jungle trek (photo by Brian Fraser)

Sunday 19 July 2020

The Anthropocene – how I wrote a poem from Tiger Girl

A Gond myth tells how, "When the peacock dances in the forest, everything watches, and the trees change their form to turn into flaming feathers".

If there is a single sound that evokes the tiger forests of India it is the call of peacocks. When I hear that call I can see the trees watching as the male dances, his fanned tail shivering with an infrasonic hum, while a tiger prowls in the grass nearby, waiting to pounce. According to the Gond tribe, who once lived in these forests, the peacock's dance can turn the trees' branches into plumes, each evergreen sal leaf an eye.

I came across pictures online of a Chinese bride wearing a dress and train made from three thousand peacock plumes, and this, together with the Gond myth of the trees transforming into peacocks, and the series of storms and hurricanes circling the Atlantic at the time, sparked my poem 'The Anthropocene', which was recently featured in New Statesman, and will appear in my eighth collection, Tiger Girl, published by Bloodaxe this September.

The Anthropocene


A bride wears a train

            of three thousand

                        peacock plumes


She walks down the aisle

            like a planet

                        trailing her seas


every wave an eye

            shivering with the memory

                        of the display


how the trees turned

            to watch as the bird

                        raised the fan of his tail –


emerald forests

            bronze atolls 

                        lapis islands


every eye

            a storm

                        held in abeyance

Photo credits of peacocks in Bandhavgarh National Park © Brian Fraser 


Saturday 27 June 2020

Prize Photograph, a new poem from Tiger Girl

Photograph with permission of the photographer Biplap Hazra

Biplap Hazra, who took this prizewinning shot, has kindly given me permission to post his image here and on this week's edition of One Hand Clapping magazine. This terrifying photo provoked my poem 'Prize Photograph', which is featured in One Hand Clapping, and will appear in Tiger Girl, my eighth collection, to be published by Bloodaxe on 3rd September. Biplap later said that the calf survived the attack.

I saw wild elephants in Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, though the ones I saw were ones that had just been captured by the park elephant handlers, to tame for tiger patrols, as poaching is such a threat to the tigers. Every morning the mahouts ride their elephants to scout for the cats and  check their safety – one bull came up to our gypsy jeep and demanded the banana he'd scented in my bag – I had no choice but to offer my breakfast. Being up close to those brandy topaz eyes – the Gypsy is open and I was on the top seat – is unforgettable, as is being felt by the soft but persistent trunk. Wild elephants don't usually include Bandhavgarh in their migration corridors, but they entered with newborns, so the zones they lingered in had to be closed to tourists. That they wander from their usual routes is worrying, as it can mean their migration forests are closed to them, or felled. In this photo, they are under siege from farmers, who are trying to protect their homes and crops.

Prize Photograph


And this wild elephant, crossing State Highway 9 –

his footprints lakes for dragonflies and bees –


does not yet know the chaff of a howdah,

ankle chains, or the sting of the bull hook.


His mother is ahead, her ears flapping

for his rumbles that she also feels through her feet.


Only now her feet are burning, and she’s

closed her ears to the firecrackers, the jeers


of the mob protecting their fields. Already

one farmer has hung himself when his crop


and home were trampled – how could he feed his family?

And one woman has been crushed to death.


The men lob tar firebombs at the invaders –

go back jungli haathi! they shout, banging


on tin drums. The matriarch runs from the noise,

doesn’t hear her calf scream, his back legs alight.


Hell is now and here the caption will say

as Biplap Hazra clicks the shot of his life.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Green Bee-eater – a poem from Tiger Girl

Tiger Girl will now be published by Bloodaxe on 3rd September 2020, postponed from June because of Covid-19, and in the lead-up I will post occasional poems from the book, together with photos of the Indian wildlife they celebrate. This is the green bee-eater, elusive to the lens, but captured here by my beloved (even his tongue!) when we were in Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, this time last year – what a contrast to this year! But the birdlife there is matched by the wonders that visit our garden in Cornwall this May, every day bullfinches, goldfinches, greater spotted woodpeckers, dunnocks, nuthatches, collared doves, blackbirds, and many many more, come to feed here. It is a rainforest lush with ferns and nettles and wildflowers. It has been a memorable lockdown, and continues to be. 

I wrote 'Green Bee-eater', out of fascination for this masked forest in miniature, and prompted by coming across his song being described as a "tree-tree-tree". I was so happy that Poetry magazine published it in the April 2020 issue, along with 'Swamp Deer', thank you editors. There are a number of short bird and deer poems threaded through Tiger Girl, and I hope this one offers us some hope. 

Green Bee-eater

More precious than all
the gems of Jaipur –

the green bee-eater.

If you see one singing

with his space-black bill
and rufous cap,

his robes
all shades of emerald

like treetops glimpsed
from a plane,

his blue cheeks,
black eye-mask

and the delicate tail streamer
like a plume of smoke –

you might dream
of the forests

that once clothed
our flying planet.

And perhaps his singing
is a spell

to call our forests back –

      by tree
                 by tree.