Kei Miller: lyrical, sophisticated, engaging, ambitious
Keisha Hill, Gleaner Writer
Jamaican poet Kei Miller has quite a repertoire under his pen - novels, collections of short stories, essays and poetry. His 2014 book, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, won for Miller the prestigious Forward Prize for Best Collection.
In 1991, British philanthropist, entrepreneur and publisher William Sieghart created the Forward Prizes for Poetry with the aim of extending poetry's audience, raising poetry's profile and linking poetry to people in new ways. The prizes do this by identifying and honouring talent. Each year, works short-listed for the prizes - plus those highly commended by the judges - are collected in the Forward Book of Poetry.
The winners of the 2014 prizes were awarded in late September with the 23rd Forward Book of Poetry, an anthology of all the poems shortlisted for the prizes or highly commended by the judges, launched at the same event.
Miller's standout book is based on dialogue between a mapmaker striving to impose order on an unfamiliar land and a Rastaman who queries his project. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion took the £10,000 prize, with judges relishing Miller's ability to "defy expectations" and "set up oppositions only to undermine them".
According to Miller in a recent interview by Arts & Education, the recognition for him is a personal accomplishment, a sobering feeling that creates a different kind of sound in the world. "I have become the first person of colour to win the Forward Prize for Best Collection. They thought Derek Walcott might have won it in 2010, but in the end, he was not even shortlisted, which was a shame because he deserved it for his book, White Egrets," Miller said.
"So my feelings are complicated. It's strange to me that in 2014, there are still so many ways in which black people have not been celebrated. I am not glad to be the first; I wonder what voices in the past we weren't listening to," Miller added.
Miller, 35, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, financed his studies at Manchester Metropolitan University by winning poetry slams, becoming the 2004 Manchester poetry slam winner. He first discovered the power of his own voice as a young preacher in Jamaica, but abandoned the church for an academic career in Britain.
According to the chair of the judges, historian and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, Miller's work is doing something you don't come across often. "This is a beautifully voiced collection which struck us all with its boldness and wit. Many poets refer to multiple realities, different ways of observing the world. Kei doesn't just refer, he articulates them," Paxman said.
In the eight years since his first collection was published, Miller has produced two novels, a short story collection, three more poetry collections and a book of "essays and prophecies", and he is a prolific blogger and Tweeter.
"An award is a truly fantastic thing, but it isn't the only way your work is validated. Besides, the Caribbean has been really good to me. The Institute of Jamaica gave me the Silver Musgrave Medal about four years ago, and this year, I won the OCM Bocas Prize for non-fiction for another book. I also get to teach what I like and travel to give readings," Miller said.
Miller currently teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Earlier this year, he won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean literature in the non-fiction category for Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies at the OCM Bocas LitFest in Trinidad. His other books include Fear of Stones and Other Stories (short stories) Kingdom of Empty Bellies (poems), There is an Anger That Moves (poems), The Same Earth (novel), The Last Warner Woman (novel), and A Light Song of Light (poems).
His poetry has been shortlisted for awards such as the Jonathan Llewelyn Ryhs Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Scottish Book of the Year. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Phyllis Wheatley Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and has won the Una Marson Prize.
"My work has been paying off and I feel very fortunate in that. At the end of the day, I am a writer. That is what I do and I will continue to write whether I had won this award or not," Miller added. Former winners include Seamus Heaney for Human Chain, Ted Hughes for Birthday Letters and Carol Ann Duffy for Mean Times.
"This prize would seem to say that many doors are being opened and the work is being accepted by a large cross-section of people. But there is a pressure in all of this that the work we produce has to be good - it has to think more deeply than it has before, it has to read more widely and do something lyrical and sophisticated and engaging and ambitious. Doors are opening all the time and you just have to be ready to take advantage of it," he added.
Miller has a master of art in creative writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and a PhD in English literature from the University of Glasgow; and in 2013, the Caribbean Rhodes Trust named him the Rex Nettleford Fellow in cultural studies.
"This collection was written largely with the help of the Rex Nettleford Fellowship in Cultural Studies, so I have to give much thanks to the man and his legacy. But there are still other strands in that fellowship that I have to do, including a piece that's almost finished that has to do with zinc, and is only for Jamaica, and should be seen in April 2015," Miller said.
The Forward Prizes for Poetry are among the most coveted annual poetry prizes in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The three prizes are unusual in honouring the work of established poets (Best Collection £10,000) alongside newcomers (Best First Collection £5,000). The Best Single Poem award (£1,000) is a prize for which only award-winning poems and published works not yet collected in book form are eligible.
To listen to works by Kei Miller visit www.poetryarchive.org/poet/kei-miller or visit his blog page-underthesaltireflag.com