The awarding of this year’s Ted Hughes prize for new poetry to Jay Bernard could be seen as a step-change in the long running, and increasingly sour, debate over the relative value of poetry for page and stage.
The 30-year-old Londoner, who uses the pronoun “they”, won the £5,000 prizewith a moving and timely multimedia sequence exploring the unresolved issues arising from the New Cross “massacre” – a fire at a 16th birthday party in south London in 1981, which killed 13 young black people.
Bernard began work on Surge: Side A during a residency at the George Padmore Institute – a north London research centre devoted to black history – between the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. Such details are important to a poet, archivist and film programmer who took time out from presenting a two-week LGBTQ+ film festival on London’s South Bank to receive the award, and who is self-described as “a dork at heart”.
The 10 poems that emerged in its early stages were printed as part of a short archival book in 2016, and more will join them in Bernard’s first full poetry collection, due out next year. But the work that won the award had a one-off performance at London’s Roundhouse in the summer of 2017 and is unavailable in its entirety, even to the judges who awarded the prize.
Surge is, Bernard says, “a text in flux”; in performance it became clear that to write about the dead in the first person raised ethical issues.
Tracking Bernard’s work involves a fair amount of multimedia sleuthing. One of the original 10 Surge poems relives the New Cross fire in incantatory patois, with a dancefloor chorus, which only comes to full, haunting life at live poetry recitals captured in YouTube videos.
Another part of it is a free-standing eight-minute film, Something Said, which, in Bernard’s own summary, is an imaginative retelling of the night after the fire. It places Yvonne Ruddock, the teenager whose birthday party it was and one of those who died, “at the centre of an inquiry into how the event has echoed through history and what it means in a new cultural context of rising fascism” after the Brexit referendum. This inquiry combines with an investigation into Bernard’s own transgender journey, not least because “as someone who is masculinising and has a lot of privileges and experiences, thinking back to 1981, I wouldn’t exactly have been welcomed with open arms”.
t is not coincidental that the word “surge” suggests tumultuous change. “I am black, queer and as wedded to the -isms of the 20th century as anyone else,” Bernard wrote, introducing the project in 2016. “But I sense these terms – racism, sexism, classism – are losing their descriptive powers because they no longer invoke the knot of current social and political relations … we are facing an adjectival crisis, as much as anything else. How do we speak? And from what position? And how can we ensure that we are heard not only by those who oppose us, but by our allies, who are also lost for words?”
The political challenges of the surge era are also enmeshed with technological ones – “the way technology is undermining as well as augmenting democracy” – and this inevitably influences artists such as Bernard. “Intersectional” is a word that crops up a lot, applied to both content and form. “One of the barriers I knew I had to break down was the hierarchy of registers,” Bernard has said, recalling a conversation with a fellow poet who pointed out that rappers could talk about the present in a way literary writers could not.
Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is one inspiration for Surge, in its use of a relay of voices to excavate a historical narrative; another is Twilight City, an “essay film” about London by Reece Auguiste, produced in 1989 by the Black Audio Film Collective, which stands out “for its combination of documentary, poetic narrative, politics and social analysis, with a real sense of history”. Bernard was just a year old when Twilight City was released – the middle child of three who were born and grew up in the outer London borough of Croydon. At the local girls’ comprehensive school Bernard defiantly scrawled graffiti on loo walls, while demonstrating star quality by winning both a poetry slam and a Foyle young poets of the year award.
They published their first poetry pamphlet at 19, during a two-year post-school break, then took their inner dork off to Oxford for an English literature degree which turned out to be “neither creatively nor politically nor personally nourishing. But my parents were very proud and it was challenging and challenge is good.”
A year’s creative writing fellowship followed, in “desperately conservative” Singapore, since when they have done “loads of stuff”, including working in a Fleet Street “Statewatch” archive (the current day job), taking part in a multigenerational virtual reality project on the intersection of queerness and politics, and publishing two more poetry pamphlets.
While Bernard’s earlier poetry was largely personal, 2016’s The Red and Yellow Nothing plunged a little known Arthurian knight, Sir Morien, reputed to be “black from head to toe”, into “a queer, black, techno, medieval misadventure” involving Kendrick Lamar and Super Mario (among others). It was duly shortlisted for last year’s Ted Hughes award.
But Surge – in all its iterations – is “what I feel I’ve been gearing myself up for since I started writing. The final structure of it I don’t know, but it feels inevitable. To be nominated for something that’s partly formed and still forming is kind of cool, because it’s all about being partial and half-understood”