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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    Swims is a work of poetry that follows its author into open waters around the UK, where she finds both simple pleasure and more complicated political hope

    “What can I do as a person on the planet, as a human being, as a writer, as the unique set of things that I am?” asks Elizabeth-Jane Burnett. “How can I help the environment?” For a writer and scholar who has been exploring the natural world and alternatives to capitalism in pamphlets, exhibitions and academic papers, the response to environmental catastrophe was clear: poetry.

    Swims, her first book, is one long poem that follows the author as she dives into open water across England and Wales, plunging into rivers, lakes and seas in a watery circuit that takes in the Ouse, the Teign, the Channel, Grasmere and King’s Cross Pond in London. Some sections record a process or ritual – hopes and fears written across a swimsuit in black marker pen before immersion, or a group of swimmers inhabiting some non-human identity, entering the sea and then reporting back. Others focus on the feeling of not ending “where you thought you did / not with skin but with water / not with arms but with meadow / of watercress, dropwort, floating pennywort”, the sensation of “an upward force / greater than the weight of the heart”.

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    We toast the winners of the Goldsmiths prize, the National Book awards, the Warwick prize for women in translation and the Stephen Spender for poetry

    There were gongs galore this week. First to figuratively spray champagne from a podium was Nicola Barker for her formally tricksy novel H(a)ppy, promoted by its publisher William Heinemann as “a post-post-apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland”. It saw off shortlisted works by Jon McGregor and Will Self to take the £10,000 Goldsmiths prize for fiction that “embodies the spirit of invention”. Barker is the third female winner of a five-year-old award that has previously been given to Eimear McBride and Ali Smith (who both then went on to win the Baileys prize).

    Also on Wednesday evening, but five hours later in New York City, Cynthia Nixon hosted the National Book awards, a multi-genre jamboree resembling Britain’s Costa awards in both its lineup of categories and its ban on foreign entrants. A month after Jesmyn Ward made the squad for 2017’s MacArthur “genius” awards (worth £475,000 over five years), the African American author’s Mississippi-set family saga Sing, Unburied, Sing won the fiction prize. Acclaimed by Margaret Atwood and just published in the UK, it will clearly be a strong contender for both the Women’s prize for fiction and the Man Booker prize in 2018.

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    Instructions for spiritual exercises are retooled as a manual for presenting political evasion in the most attractive light

    Yoga for Leaders and Others

    Mountain Pose

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    Jackie Kay depicts a world of grief, joy, love and humour in the sparest terms

    This collection is a pick-me-up – fresh, upbeat and sympathetic. The tone is partly a matter of temperament. Jackie Kay writes about the past with uncommon spirit. She makes you realise how often poetry that looks backwards is written with a dead hand, how often, in memorialising verse, the unsmilingly elegiac obtains. She, by contrast, is loving, non-reverential and interested in the human predicament – in being quick not dead. Remembering the novelist Julia Darling in Hereafter Julia she exclaims: “Why – even dead, Julia, you’re still the life and soul.” And if you read the Guardian obituary Kay wrote about her friend, this is confirmed as she quotes Darling declaring she was “in no pain unless she tried to dance the hokey cokey”.

    When Jackie Kay closes one door, she opens another. There is a long poem, Threshold, about life’s doors and the collection can be considered in terms of its exits and entrances. She holds open a door into Scotland, imagines friends and refugees in a “building of pure poetry”. But having your heart in the right place would be no good were your pen to stray. Hers does not. Her poems are clear, skilfully engineered, and Threshold ends in an exuberant outbreak of foreign tongues before settling down into: “Wan patter is naer enough.” I am intrigued by the way Scottish dialect dresses – sometimes redresses – its subjects. How successful the national costume proves. Take A Day Like Today, which describes the sort of duff day that might seem past redemption. It begins: “If every there wis a day/A doon about the mooth day…” One wonders why “doon about the mooth” is so much perkier than “down in the mouth”. In plain English, the poem would be plainer, the day less worth recording. Perhaps it is the taste – the trace – of Burns, bracing as malt whisky.

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    Inside the Wave, in which the poet reflected on her own impending death, joins diverse contenders in poetry, fiction, biography and children’s books

    Helen Dunmore’s final poetry collection, in which the award-winning author contemplates her terminal cancer diagnosis and impending death, has been shortlisted for the Costa poetry award.

    The line-up for this year’s Costas, which set out to reward the year’s “most enjoyable” books across novels, first novels, biographies, poetry and children’s books, is female-heavy, with 14 women on the 20-strong list.

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    From moving memoirs to far-reaching fiction, the wonders of science and the lessons of history, novelists, poets and critics pick their best reads of the year

    • Part one: George Saunders, Ali Smith and others share their favourites
    • Nominate your books of the year in the comments below

    Anything is Possible; Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls

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    The Verb’s hymn to spoken word was pure poetry, while a real-life story of adoption hit home

    The Verb Celebrates 35 Years of Spoken Word (Radio 3) | iPlayer
    The Adoption (Radio 4) | iPlayer
    5 Live Daily (5 Live) | iPlayer

    According to The Verb, spoken word poetry was born 35 years ago last week, which came as a surprise. Though I can’t really remember a time when spoken word wasn’t around. The surprise isn’t its age; it’s mine.

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    A dazzling sonnet captures the fizz and excitement of a firework display at London’s celebrated pleasure gardens

    Sonnet to Vauxhall

    The English Garden.” – Mason

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    The poet, writer and hip-hop artist on language, his new book and album, and the demonisation of Yassmin Abdel-Magied

    Being a migrant in Australia, according to the author, rapper and poet Omar Musa, is a lot like constantly applying for a visa to somewhere you already grew up.

    In twin releases due at the end of this month – a book of poetry, Millefiori, and a hip-hop album, Since Ali Died – Musa speaks of seeing too many non-white Australians caught out in the trap of the model minority: where you can spend your whole life trying to fit in, only to discover that some people never thought you belonged.

    Related: Gould’s Book Arcade: the political, literary legacy of Newtown’s dusty wonder

    Related: Peter Carey: 'You wake up in the morning and you are the beneficiary of a genocide'

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    The New Zealand poet explains the 90s sitcom references and unembarrassed passions that have gone into her eponymous debut

    It is an ungodly hour on a Wednesday morning and Hera Lindsay Bird’s disembodied head is telling me about the time that she wet herself at a supermarket checkout. “It was one of the great humiliations of my life,” she says, over Skype from her home in Wellington, New Zealand.

    The reason I’m dragging it up again is because it is referenced in the first poem of her debut collection, the self-titled Hera Lindsay Bird, which came out to acclaim in New Zealand in 2016 and is released in the UK this month. “To be fourteen, and wet yourself extravagantly / At a supermarket checkout,” the poem Write a Book begins, “As urine cascades down your black lace stocking / And onto the linoleum / Is to comprehend what it means to be a poet / To stand in the tepid under-halo / Of your own self-making / And want to die.”
    This sets the tone for the rest of the collection, which is presided over by a voice that is simultaneously sharp and confiding, sardonic and lugubrious, and peppered with references both gothic and pop cultural. “It’s a contemporary book of long, metaphor-laden love poems filled with exploding helicopters, outdated 90s sitcom references, and dick jokes,” the 29-year-old says, when asked to sum up a book that contains items such as Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind, and Monica, a five-page rant about the character from Friends and much else besides, (choice lines from the latter include “to be able to maintain a friendship / Through the various complications of heterosexual monogamy / Is enormously difficult / Especially when you take into consideration / What cunts they all were”). Both these poems went viral, gaining so much attention from overseas that her New Zealand publisher had to almost immediately reprint the book, which is now being picked up in the UK by Penguin.

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    The Art of Falling, by a Cumbrian poet and former trumpet teacher, joins illustrious former winners including Seamus Heaney and JM Coetzee

    A debut poetry collection that tackles the author’s own experiences of domestic violence, in poems that “jolt the heart”, has won the Geoffrey Faber memorial prize.

    Cumbrian poet Kim Moore’s The Art of Falling covers everything from her experiences as a trumpet teacher to her father’s profession as a scaffolder, as well as the suffragettes and a tattoo inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In My People, she writes of how some “swear without knowing they are swearing … scaffolders and plasterers and shoemakers and carers, the type of carers paid pence per minute to visit an old lady’s house”.

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    The Pulitzer-winning poet on mortality, makeup and capturing life’s complexity

    The last lines of the last poem in Jorie Graham’s most recent collection, FAST, imagine dawn giving way to day: “Leaving / grackle and crow in the sun – they have / known what to find in the unmade / undrawn unseen unmarked and / dragged it into here – that it be / visible” – which is as good a way as any of summing up what Graham has tried to do ever since she began writing poems: to look hard at the world around her, especially the natural world, but also at the hard questions – what does it all mean and what is it all for? To stay as open as possible in order to catch whatever answer there might be unawares, and hold it up to the light.

    Nothing is out of bounds – geese, laundry, erosion, materialism, psychiatric wards, sex, Plato (she is not a fan), Heidegger, bots, relativity, the Holocaust, Genesis, classical mythology, Genesis, “the moral pleasure / of experiencing the distance between subject and object”, water (always water). Now, in FAST, her subject is mortality – her own (she was diagnosed with cancer five years ago), her parents’, that of intellect and culture (in dementia, in digital overwhelm), that of the planet. It is a collection of sensual poems so urgent that, by the end, they have abandoned traditional beginnings and are physically bunched up on the right-hand side of the page. And through it all, an unwavering, serious belief in the power of poetry, a repeatedly inhabited rejection of Auden’s assertion that poetry makes nothing happen.

    With poems, you can say: it’s fine to feel this way and that about an event – rage and curiosity, respect and horror

    Related: Jorie Graham takes 2012 Forward prize

    I was privileged, in those historic moments, to witness, up close, a few rare souls act with truly astonishing bravery

    My first typewriter was an Olivetti portable with a bullet hole in it

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    Julian Barnes, Margaret Drabble, Tessa Hadley, David Nicholls and others choose reading matter that would have been useful when young

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    The year was marked by a wealth of new black and ethnic minority voices and a rich haul of debuts

    Poetry’s multiverse expanded in 2017. What struck me most was the sparky power surge of black and ethnic minority writers – Karen McCarthy Woolf, for example, whose An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, £9.95) was an Observer poetry book of the month in 2014. Her new work in Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet £9.99) is a fine antidote to Brexit delusions and certainties: London-watching and form-reshaping, unpredictable and casually intense.

    Nick Makoha’s first full-length collection, Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree £8.99), was the 2017 debut which most excited me. Focused on Uganda during the Idi Amin dictatorship, his poetry is charged with ethical sensibility. The lines protest as they sing “the song disturbed by helicopter blades…” but they don’t simplify things: they explore, and complicate. Personal witness and artistry are one.

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    We ask industry insiders – publishers, editors, festival directors – for their pick of the new cream of the literary crop

    No writer is an island. Behind every blossoming wordsmith is a literary industry putting in the hard yards to discover, develop and share stories with as many readers as possible.

    Related: Tracker by Alexis Wright review – a weighty portrait of a complex man

    Related: Helen Garner, Peter Carey and Alexis Wright on what they're reading in November

    Related: 'We are not very caring’: Michelle de Kretser on Australian society

    Related: Peter Carey: 'You wake up in the morning and you are the beneficiary of a genocide'

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    A richly described Victorian painting of a harvest scene is full of innocent joy, shadowed by what history would soon bring to the fields of northern France

    Walter Osborne: Apple Gathering, Quimperlé

    Weep for the green orchards of northern France
    before the two world wars, their apple-rich largesse
    bound ripely to the sap and to the sun
    in fertile villages. At Quimperlé,
    two girls are harvesting a tree bent sideways
    by the weight of apples, one wielding a long stick
    to bring them to earth, the other in her wake,
    bending to gather. Just now their backs are turned
    to the blockish bell-tower on the hill.
    They seem composed in their rough working clothes,
    and are aiming to fill that barrow with a fresh
    cargo of apples. The promise of baking and brewing
    is a scent in the air, and the prospect of rest
    after, say, one more tree, is what keeps them going.
    Each of them will wipe an apple on her dress
    and close her eyes and eat it slowly
    until the ringing of the angelus bell
    sets them moving to the next tree. Now their work has a taste,
    now they can taste the work of the orchard
    and will soon, for all we know, begin to sing
    as their arms resume stretching.
    Weep for the green orchards of northern France
    before the two world wars …

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    The first version of Homer’s groundbreaking work by a woman will change our understanding of it for ever

    Homer’s Odyssey, probably composed around 700BC, is one of the oldest poems in the western tradition, with a concomitantly long history of translation. The first into Latin was in the third century BC by a slave called Livius Andronicus. The first into English was by George Chapman in 1614-15; there have been at least 60 others. Now comes the first by a woman.

    Emily Wilson’s crisp and musical version is a cultural landmark. Armed with a sharp, scholarly rigour, she has produced a translation that exposes centuries of masculinist readings of the poem. (Wilson studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford – as, full disclosure, did I – and is now a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania.) She has also written a work of limpid, fast-moving verse, in English epic’s home metre of iambic pentameter. This translation will change the way the poem is read in English. When Keats first looked into Chapman’s Homer, he felt like “some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken”. So it is with Wilson’s Odyssey.

    Tell me about a complicated man.
    Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
    when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
    and where he went, and who he met, the pain
    he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
    he worked to save his life and bring his men
    back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
    they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
    kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
    tell the old story for our modern times.
    Find the beginning.

    Wilson has written a work of limpid, fast-moving verse. This translation will change the way the poem is read in English

    The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
    Suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
    And weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
    Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
    A luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
    And scented cypress.

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    Slavery, a dub musician as Noah and memories of a Jamaican childhood inform a collection that subverts history’s grand narratives

    In an elegiac essay on the late Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, Ishion Hutchinson recounts finding Walcott’s poem “Landfall, Grenada” in his local library at the age of 16. Reading in the half-light of evening, the budding poet is galvanised by Walcott’s forceful image of the “blown canes”. These revelatory, sharp words are loaded with the violent history of plantation slavery. Indeed, a ubiquity of cane, the sugar trade of empire and transatlantic slavery inform the landscapes of Hutchinson’s second collection, House of Lords and Commons. But they do not define his subject.

    Like his first, more autobiographical collection, Far District, published by Peepal Tree, Hutchinson’s second book expands on experiences from his Jamaican childhood. In the opening poem, “Station”, an absent “stranger, father” is greeted by his son, the “Cerberus”-voiced speaker.

    The reader is transported from ancient Mesopotamia to the horrors of the “whipped backs” of slaves

    In the voice of a seafarer, the speaker once more draws upon the age-old dialectic of conqueror and victim

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    Humour and anger combine in this story of the Native American experience

    Sherman Alexie has emerged as one of the US’s greatest writers. And because he has always written of the terrible beauty of Native American life with an honesty and humour that makes white people uncomfortable, his work has been deemed controversial. Alexie’s young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has appeared near the top of annual US “banned books” lists. Each year, new challenges arise to his thinly veiled autobiography of his years growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state.

    In addition to his fiction, Alexie is also well known for his poetry. All told, he has written 26 books, and he wrote and co-produced the film Smoke Signals. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is his long-awaited memoir. In it, he focuses much of the story on one particular year – the year in which his irascible mother, Lillian, died, but also the one in which he underwent brain surgery to remove a large tumour.

    Related: Profile: Sherman Alexie

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    Finding the poetry in scientific vocabulary, this work is alive to the marvels of its discoveries as well as the ecological peril it reports

    Microbial Museum

    April ship sets sail, sea freezes ripples, leaves Rothera
    behind. One hundred and fifty thousand years of snowfall in

    Related: Poem of the week: To Himself by Jeffrey Wainwright

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