Jamie Cameron

Libation’s legacy: Malika Booker on her Forward Prize win

Malika Booker won the 2023 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem – Written, for ‘Libation’


Congratulations Malika on winning the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for the second time! How did it feel to win? Has the experience differed from the first time? 

I was really shocked because I did not expect to win. I was happy and content with having made the shortlist, while positive that there was no chance of winning considering the fact that I recently won this prize in 2020 for my poem ‘The Little Miracles.’ 

Yes, the experience was vastly different from the first time. In 2020 we were experiencing lockdown so I knew in advance of the announcement, as we had to record our thank you speeches before the event. It was a lonely experience as I had to keep the news to myself and was at home after the online ceremony with no one to celebrate. This time, I only found out once they made the announcement on stage at the Leeds Playhouse in front of an amazing audience. There was such love and cheers when it was announced and I got the opportunity to mingle, celebrate and speak to the other winners, poets, and audience members after the event. I was so overwhelmed. 

‘Libation’ is a really moving and skilful poem. I am fascinated by how it emerged – can you tell us something about the composition? Did it come quickly or was it something you edited over a longer period? Did anything surprise you as you wrote it? 

During lockdown, it was difficult to motivate myself to write, so a crew of us including Roger Robinson, Nick Makoha, Jason Allen Paisant, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Denise Saul, Raymond Antrobus and Elontra Hall – decided to write daily, each day someone set a prompt and we all responded. So the first draft of this poem was a response to one of these prompts. I responded to a Kevin Young Poem titled ‘Dreams the Day after Easter.’ I was contemplating a lot about Caribbean funerals and the fact we could not gather to mourn and celebrate our loved ones and the poem seemed to want to explore these Caribbean traditions including nine-night wakes, the altars we create to communicate with our ancestors, and the ceremonial pouring of alcohol.

Over that period we were attending so many funerals online and I was pouring so many solitary libations of rum in my house. The aim was to write a quick response to the prompt, so my first draft was more ideas and questions towards a poem, and the end was not fully realised, it just seemed to jump to these young men pouring libation (for no reason). Which was a surprise for me as the writer. I began to unearth the connection in later drafts. Also, the first few drafts were skeletons – I fleshed out details about my aunt’s favourite food, the alcohol burning the throat, as well as the superstitions about food falling from your mouth, however, I was surprised by the fact that the poem took on the tone of an address, and shocked by the links of this tradition to slavery and the way we slid easily into black on black violence. 

This disconnect between the act of ‘pouring one out’ which, as you say in the poem, has become something almost quotidian, and the deep sense of heritage and ritual which it represents is interesting. What made you want to explore this idea? 

Most of my writing to date seems to explore what we as Caribbean people inherit, and our legacy – what we pass on. I am rather obsessed with intergenerational conversations, the ways that we as a Caribbean Diaspora residing in Britain attend to our dead and the ways rituals become habitual even when the knowledge behind them has disappeared. I wrote a series of poems during COVID-19, obsessively examining and exploring libation, and this was one of them. On some chalks mark doors for our ancestors to visit us. In some ways, I wonder if they can still visit. I was obsessed during our daily practice with the following: ancestors, rituals, and responding to the King James Bible.

I think I began to wonder about the relevance of rituals when all else breaks down, how we make altars, and how we mourn/ celebrate. I will admit that the poem often possesses the writer during the act of crafting and editing by making surprising and associative leaps. The surprising volta-like turn in the poetic narrative occurred when we encountered the line “How we feed you to protect us, age-old customs slinking through slavery? And that Slavery seemed such a giant leap, but it was the precursor to entering into the ‘black youths’ – to enact such a surprising and tender ending, where the libation seems to be for both the living and the dead. It is a very poignant and powerful ending.

I loved the 2020 Best Single Poem winner, ‘The Little Miracles’ too, and enjoyed reading it in the context of Robin Robertson’s translation of Tomas Tranströmer. I know you say that without reading, you struggle to write. So was there any particular poem or poet that you were reading or looking to when writing ‘Libation’? 

Yes – I was looking at Kevin Young’s poem ‘Dreams the Day after Easter’ and then I kept rereading his book of elegies for his father titled ‘Book of Hours.’ I suppose what I found profound and inspiring about these poems is that they seemed on one hand to celebrate and mourn his father while exploring what it means to be living in the shadow of death. As a reviewer said of the poems in the book “Their concern is not with the dead but with the living and what it is like to be left behind with death.” The poems seemed to be in conversation with my reality of living during COVID-19 and contending with so much death especially knowing that my Caribbean community were dying in disproportionate high numbers compared to everyone else. Being in conversation with other poets is part of my creative practice as a poet as composition and desk work involves reading and writing.

Have you reflected on the connections between the two Forward Prize-winning poems? There’s the shared image of food being slipped into a family member’s mouth. Do those kinds of synchronicities matter to you when you’re writing?  

Thank you for pointing that out. I did not notice that at all. I suppose that food is integral to me as a Caribbean woman. Our food is rich, spicy, and can be so evocative of place, family, and life. I do know that my last collection ‘Pepper Seed’ is full of food as a symbol, as ritual, and as imagery. I suppose with this question and the connections that you have made – I have to admit that maybe this is a core element of my poetry.

In Pepper Seed I sit down to dinner with my dead aunt, I beg the ancestors for forgiveness for not honouring them with libation, I shop for food with an aunt in Brixton Market and so pondering this question is enabling me to make so many connections. One is that two favourite poems I constantly revisit are Lorna Goodison’s ‘The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner’ and Katrina Vandenberg’s poem ‘All those Women on fine September Afternoons,’ and as I respond to you I realise that they both deal with themes like family, inheritance, traditions, what we pass on and have quite evocative imagery of food. 

Finally, I feel it’s worth discussing the importance of shared heritage in this poem. In the past few years a number of British Afro-Caribbean poets have been shortlisted or won major literary awards, including Roger Robinson, Anthony Joseph, and Jason Allen-Paisant to name a few – what do you think it means to see this work not only being published but celebrated? 

I am over the moon, especially remembering the dire landscape for poets like us when the Free Verse report was published. And I have to applaud publishers like Peepal Tree Press and Bloodaxe who recognised the potential in our writing and published us. When Roger Robinson won the T.S. Eliot I felt a seismic shift occur in the British poetry landscape. It was such a revolutionary occurrence! I feel that interventions like The Complete Works, and Malika’s Poetry Kitchen have had an influence. So yes I was and am over the moon to see fellow British Afro-Caribbean writers being lauded for the quality of their writing. Watching Anthony Joseph and Jason Allen Paisant win major prizes, sharing the shortlist with literary giants like Roger Robinson and an innovative poet like Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa made my heart sing. I feel that we can only keep enriching the British poetic landscape while adding the unique multicultural voices we each bring to the table. But we must always stay vigilant. 

Malika, thank you very much. 


Malika Booker, currently based in Leeds, is a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, a British poet of Guyanese and Grenadian Parentage, and co-founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. Her poem ‘The Little Miracles’, commissioned by and published in Magma 75 (autumn 2019) won The Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (2020). Her poem ‘Libation’ also won The Forward Prize 2023.

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