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Issue 16

Is the 2021 Laurel Prize for environmental poetry exclusionary with too many T & C ?

Ishita Ahuja

Only in its second year as a UK-based international award for environment-themed poetry, why are only the British winning the Laurel Prize? Open Axis offers a critical glance.

We passed the woman without comment,

though she stood there in her cloak of wood,

the globe held in the lathed green of her hands.” 

This is an excerpt from the 2021 Laurel Prize winner, Sean Hewitt’s poem, Dryad from his book Tongues of Fire. The winner gets a cash prize of 5000 Euros, a commission from the National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), a UK charity, to create a poem on their favourite landscape and the work gets wide media exposure. Twelve of the twenty long-listed poets of the 2021 Laurel Prize are from the UK, three are from the United States, two Australian, and one each is a New Zealander, Swiss and Canadian. English is the most commonly spoken language in three of these four countries, barring Switzerland. Of the three judges, Maura Dooley and James Thornton were born in the UK. The third, Imtiaz Dharker, though born in Pakistan, has lived in the UK for most of her life. The winner of the 2020 Laurel Prize, Pascale Petit too, is a British writer. Submissions, though, are accepted from poets all over the world. 

The work must have been originally written in English. Translated poetry from the world’s languages into English does not qualify. In 2021, that means about 1.34 million English-speakers of the 7.9 billion people in the world can apply (if they are poets). But if a poet is self-published, no chance either.

Since it is the poet’s publisher who is required to send five hard copies of the book to an address in Gloucestershire, by a certain date. The publishing process itself involves an author paying first for the composing unit’s work. That is type-set, digital printing, and proofreading. Secondly, the author pays for printing via a tracing sheet, for paper needed for printing, and for the cover image and/or illustrations in the book. Finally, the author pays for binding and must pay extra for a hard-back cover. Printing is then completed and the author earns only if the book makes money. Doesn’t this narrow down the number of poets who can afford to first get their books published, then pay for at least five hard copies to be sent to a UK address, at a relatively prohibitive cost for international entries? Not to mention the amount of paper being used.

That’s not all. All winning poets are expected to attend events to talk about their work and be at the award ceremony, without overseas travel being covered by the Laurel Prize organizers. 


2019 National Poet Laureate of the UK, Simon Armitage, started this award from his own honorarium received from the Queen, as part of the award (A British tradition visible back in the 17th century). This is “an annual award for the best collection of nature or environmental poetry to highlight the climate crisis and raise awareness of the challenges and potential solutions at this critical point in our planet’s life.” While the award sponsor’s message is urgent, how exactly is it reaching out to a diverse world, if it is accepting global entries, but not deepening equitable access?

What the message does confirm though is that ecopoetry as a subgenre within environmental themes is now increasingly being seen as distinct from just good old nature poetry. ‘The present is burning’ says The Guardian in Sean Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire. John Shoptaw, an American professor, teaching ecopoetry and looking at the poetry of climate change wrote in 2016, “Ecopoetry is nature poetry that has designs on us, that imagines changing the ways we think, feel about, and live and act in the world. Ecopoetry doesn’t supplant nature poetry but enlarges it.” 

In Greek mythology, a dryad is itself “a nymph or nature spirit who lives in trees and takes the form of a beautiful young woman.” Nature’s grace, coping with his father’s death, ideas of mortality intermingle in Hewitt’s poetry. In Black American poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s 2020 work Dub: Finding Ceremony, ‘Gumbs channels the voices of her ancestors, including whales, coral, and oceanic bacteria, to tell stories of diaspora, indigeneity, migration, blackness, genius, mothering, grief, and harm. Tracing the origins of colonialism, genocide, and slavery as they converge in Black feminist practice.’

Shoptaw also suggests “an ecopoem must be tethered to the natural world.” and that “human interests cannot be the be-all and end-all.”  Homero Aridjis, with over forty collections of poetry and prose has been called the “poetic soul” of Mexico’s environmental movement, is one answer to Shoptaw’s urgency possibly. ‘The monarch butterfly, with its tigerish orange wings and its ability to fly up to 100 miles a day during its 3,000-mile migration to central Mexico, has become Aridjis’s emblem, featured in numerous poems, in his 2000 novel La montaña de las mariposas [Butterfly Mountain], and in his 2015 children’s book María la monarca [Maria the Monarch], as well as in dozens of articles denouncing the destruction of forests by loggers protected by government officials.’ A 2016 poem by him goes,

A temple not in the temple

A temple apart from its form

A temple older than the stones

A temple speaking to us but not naming us

A temple without motion that moves on its way

A temple swifter than thought

I refer to air

the temple of air.

But if his new poem collection were to send in an entry for the Laurel Prize, it would remain ineligible. For its first tongue is Mexican. Even though, in speaking of air here, the poet connects us all.

Ishita Ahuja is a second-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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