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Warsan Shire announced as first ever winner of Brunel University African Poetry Prize

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The Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire has been announced as the first ever winner of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize.

Warsan Shire is a 24 year old Kenyan-born Somali poet and writer, based in London. Born in 1988, she has read her work all over Britain as well as in South Africa, Italy, Germany, Canada, North America and Kenya.

Her poetry pamphlet Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth was published in 2011 by flipped eye. Her poems have appeared in Wasafiri, Magma and Poetry Review and in the Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt, 2011). They have been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

The judges praised Warsan’s poetry for its combination of substance, beauty and drama. Her work was described as “…beautifully crafted, subtle and understated in its use of language and metaphor yet still able to evoke a strong sense of mood and place that touches the reader.”  

The Brunel University African Poetry Prize is a major new prize aimed at the development and celebration of poetry from Africa. It was founded by poet and novelist Bernardine Evaristo, who teaches Creative Writing at Brunel.

Describing her reasons for creating this new prize, she said: “I have judged several prizes in the past few years, including chairing the Caine Prize for African Fiction in 2012, an award that has revitalized the fortunes of fiction from Africa since its inception in 1999.

“It became clear to me that poetry from the continent could also do with a prize to draw attention to it and to encourage a new generation of poets who might one day become an international presence. African poets are rarely published in Britain. I hope this prize will introduce exciting new poets to Britain’s poetry editors.”

The prize is open to poets who were born in Africa, who are nationals of an African country, or whose parents are African, but who have not yet published a full-length poetry collection.

In this first year, entrants were required to submit ten poems. Organisers received 655 entries which were reduced to a shortlist of six.

The 2013 judges were Sharmilla Beezmohun, Dr Kwame Dawes, Karen McCarthy Woolf and Dr Mpalive Msiska.

Dr Kwame Dawes said: “With very few exceptions, Warsan’s poems reflect a remarkable instinct or freshness of language and insightful ideas. It is especially exciting to read a poet who manages to combine a commitment to substance and urgent subject material with the craft to turn it into illuminating and moving poetry. This was actually easy for me. Not so much because the rest were not strong, but because her work is of such quality and power.”

The prize of £3,000 is funded by Brunel University, Commonwealth Writers and The African Centre.

In collaboration with the African Poetry Book Fund, the Brunel University African Poetry Prize intends to develop a series poetry workshops and courses in Africa in its efforts to provide technical support for poets writing in Africa.

To read Warsan’s poems, visit the African Poetry Prize website.

Notes to Editors

For further information on the prize and to contact Warsan Shire for interviews etc, please contact Rebecca Griffiths at Communications Management on 01727 733885.

Judges’ Comments on Warsan’s Poetry

Sharmilla Beezmohun

Warsan's work is beautifully crafted, subtle and understated in its use of language and metaphor yet still able to evoke a strong sense of mood and place that touches the reader.

Dr Kwame Dawes

With very few exceptions, her poems reflect a remarkable instinct or freshness of language and insightful ideas. It is especially exciting to read a poet who manages to combine a commitment to substance and urgent subject material with the craft to turn it into illuminating and moving poetry. This was actually easy for me. Not so much because the rest were not strong, but because her work is of such quality and power.

Karen McCarthy Woolf

Warsan Shire is my selection too. Her work combines great power and energy with delicacy and surprise. She embraces difficult subject matter, both personal and political, and doesn't waver in her commitment. The poems are intimate yet universal, the emotion authentically felt and intelligently expressed. There is a beauty in their directness.

Dr Mpalive Msiska

I was especially taken by the contrast between a surface simplicity and a deeper mastery of technique, most particularly, irony, suspense and a sense of drama. Each poem is like a stage full of a variety of characters and the stories they tell each other end in surprising and dramatic fashion. The personas of the poems speak as individuals, but also as members of communities, even when those communities are in crisis. My favourite is the poem, ‘What we have.’ So, perhaps, there is here an interesting appropriation of orality.