Jamaica-born Jason Allen-Paisant is the latest Caribbean poet to win the esteemed T.S. Eliot Prize

Jamaican-British poet and winner of the 2023 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry Jason Allen-Paisant. Photo by Carcanet Press, courtesy Bocas Lit Fest, used with permission.

On Monday, January 15, at an award ceremony held at the Wallace Collection, London, Jamaica-born poet Jason Allen-Paisant was announced as the winner of the 2023 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for his collection “Self-Portrait As Othello,” which explores Black masculinity and immigrant identity. Always unafraid to talk about uncomfortable subjects and citing the late Caribbean-British poet Benjamin Zephaniah as an influence, he used his platform at the prize-giving ceremony to draw attention to Israel's war on Gaza.

His win makes it the third time in five years that a poet with Caribbean roots has won the prestigious prize. The 2019 winner was Trinidadian-British poet Roger Robinson for his stirring work “A Portable Paradise,” and the 2022 winner, also a Trinidadian, was Anthony Joseph, who won the judges’ nod for his collection “Sonnets for Albert.” Allen-Paisant's award predecessor posted a photograph of them at the prize ceremony, calling the occasion “a historic night for Caribbean poetry tinged with a beautiful sense of deja vu.”

The 2023 shortlist also included another Jamaican, Ishion Hutchinson, for his book “School of Instructions.” At the top of the pantheon of Caribbean winners of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, however, is St. Lucian Derek Walcott, who won the award back in 2011 for his book “White Egrets.”

The GBP 25,000 (USD 31,693) purse is awarded each year to the best collection of new verse in English first published in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Allen-Paisant, however, is no newcomer to accolades; his collection “Thinking with Trees” clinched the 2022 OCM Bocas Prize for Poetry. “Self-Portrait as Othello,” which won him the T.S. Eliot Prize, was also awarded the 2023 Forward Prize for Best Collection last October.

On Facebook, celebrated Caribbean-British author Monique Roffey commented, “Double hat trick for this fast rising star!” “Self-Portrait as Othello” has also made it onto the 2024 Writer's Prize shortlist.

Chair of the T.S. Eliot Prize's judging panel Paul Muldoon, along with fellow judges Sasha Dugdale and Denise Saul, praised “Self-Portrait as Othello” as “a book with large ambitions that are met with great imaginative capacity, freshness and technical flair […] delivered with theatricality and in a range of voices and registers, across geographies and eras. It takes real nerve to pull off a work like this with such style and integrity.” They added that the collection had all the characteristics of a book that readers would come back to, time and time again.

As its title suggests, Allen-Paisant draws poetic parallels between Shakespeare’s Othello, the dark-skinned Moor who feels himself to be on the periphery of Venetian society, and the modern-day Black immigrant experience, with his poems often being brought to life with a sprinkling of Jamaican Patois, or French, or Italian.

Calling his collection a “strong book,” the poet told The UK Guardian that although winning the prize wasn't beyond the realm of possibility, he believes part of the reason the collection resonated with people is its ability to finely balance “several interesting questions,” including the ways in which masculinity — especially Black masculinity — intersects with vulnerability. It's a question he says isn't addressed enough. His work also examines the impact of an absentee father.

Allen-Paisant does a deep-dive into the Othello character, refusing to accept that he simply “becomes demented” as per the play: “Is there some cultural baggage he’s carrying? Is there something in his background?” The poet himself grew up in rural Jamaica with his grandparents, who were farmers. At the tender age of five, he eventually went to live with his mother, who had by then qualified as a teacher, and remembers being traumatised by the revelation that his grandmother — who features as “Mama” in the collection — wasn’t actually his mother.

“Mama” was the one who encouraged him to read and helped set his mind on what education could help him accomplish. He earned his first degree at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, completed the first year of his PhD in medieval and modern languages in Montreal, then secured a scholarship to complete his doctorate at Oxford, a year of which was spent at Paris’ École normale supérieure in Paris.

Allen-Paisant isn't very well known in Jamaica, however, likely because he's UK-based; he also admits to trying to “turn [his] back” on Jamaica for much of his life. Facing past traumas, however, both through his work and in real life — he plans to meet his estranged father for the first time — has opened up new horizons for him.

Next on the agenda for Allen-Paisant is a memoir/nature book hybrid, “Scanning the Bush,” which is scheduled to be published this year, even as he continues teaching critical theory and creative writing at the University of Manchester.

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