'Pioneering voice' awarded Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry
Guyanese poet Grace Nichols has been awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, it has been announced. Nichols moved to Britain in 1977. Her first poetry collection, I Is a Long-Memoried Woman, was published in 1983 and won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Her work celebrates her Guyanese and South American heritage while touching on issues of racism and immigration in Britain. The Poetry Medal Committee unanimously nominated her for the medal to honour her “pioneering voice.”
Her work is studied by secondary students across Britain; in addition to her poetry, she has published prose works and several books for younger readers. In 2011, she served on the inaugural judging panel for Anthologise, an annual poetry competition in schools.
Nichols said of winning the award: “I was overwhelmed when I first got the news. It was both wonderful and humbling to be recognised in this way. As a poet, you write your poems in solitude, never knowing who they’ll reach. I feel so honoured and delighted to be given this award by Her Majesty and the committee, headed by Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage and to join the illustrious company of past winners from across the Commonwealth.”
King George V established the Gold Medal for Poetry in 1933 to celebrate excellence in poetry from a British or Commonwealth poet. Simon Armitage, the current poet laureate, is the chair of the Poetry Medal Committee. He said: “Grace Nichols has been a beacon for black women poets in this country, staying true to her linguistic coordinates and poetic sensibilities and offering a means of expression that has offered inspiration and encouragement to many. She is a moving elegist and a poet of conciliation and constructive dialogue between cultures, but also a voice of questioning dissent when the occasion demands.”
Most of her first book is included in her later retrospective, I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (2010). Four subsequent poetry collections were published by Virago: The Fat Black Woman’s Poems (1984), Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman (1989), Sunris (1996), winner of the Guyana prize, and Startling the Flying Fish (2006), poems which tell the story of the Caribbean. She has published four books with Bloodaxe: Picasso, I Want My Face Back (2009), I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (2010), The Insomnia Poems (2017), and Passport to Here and There (2020), a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation. She has also published several poetry books for younger readers, including Come on into My Tropical Garden (1988), Give Yourself a Hug (1994), Everybody Got a Gift (2005) and Cosmic Disco (2013). She lives in Sussex with the poet John Agard, who was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal in 2012, and their family.
Grace Nichols told the Guardian: “In my own work I’ve celebrated my Guyanese/Caribbean/South American heritage in relation to the English traditions we inherited as a former British colony. To poetry and the English language that I love, I’ve brought the registers of my own Caribbean tongue. I wish my parents who use to chide me for straining my eyes, as a small girl reading by torchlight in bed, were around to share in this journey that poetry has blessed me with.”
PHOTOGRAPH: BLOODAXE BOOKS