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)