Young poet was recognised for Brand New Ancients, which reincarnates the gods of old in members of two London families
Kate Tempest – one of the few well-known poets to have performed at Glastonbury and with grime MCs – has pipped six others to win the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry. The 26-year-old Londoner, who started out rapping on night buses and at raves, is one of a new generation who are bridging the divide between poetry and theatre.
She won the £5,000 prize with Brand New Ancients, an hour-long "spoken story" with orchestral backing, which – in the spirit of Hughes' own engagement with classical myth – reincarnates the gods of old in members of two London families.
The award was presented at a ceremony at the Savile Club on Wednesday by Carol Ann Duffy, who funded it with her poet laureate's stipend as part of a mission to "recognise excellence and innovation in poetry – not just in books, but beyond".
Artist Cornelia Parker, who with poets Ian Duhig and Maura Dooley was on the judging panel, said: "The brief was to choose the poet who has made the most exciting contribution to poetry in the last year and I think Kate's performance piece is a shining example. I read it first as a piece of prose and thought it was compulsive. But when I heard it as an audio piece it was electrifying. It's a new departure which has informed the way I see the world since. It rings in my head."
Seven poets were shortlisted for the award, including Mario Petrucci, whose Tales from the Bridge was billed as "the world's largest 3D poetry soundscape" when it began life on London's Millennium Bridge during the Olympics.
Tempest – who released her debut album Balance in 2011 and has written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Channel 4 and the BBC as well as performing on the festival circuit – is one of the rising stars of a performance community that is viewed with some suspicion by the poetry establishment.
On hearing of her shortlisting, she tweeted: "Brand New Ancients been shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award for poetry!! And people love to say 'performance' poets arent proper. Yes Mate." She spent the afternoon before the awards performing her work for inmates in Holloway prison.
Lavinia Greenlaw, Kaite O'Reilly and Alice Oswald have previously won the prize, which is now in its fourth year.
Brand New Ancients was co-produced by Battersea Arts Centre and featured a score composed by Nell Catchpole. The Guardian's reviewer, Lyn Gardner, wrote: "Spoken-word theatre is often heavy on words and light on theatre. Tempest's piece follows these conventions, but transcends them. Just as in her narrative, the ordinary is lifted into the extraordinary; score, writing, band and voice come together to create a package that never makes you question why you aren't just reading or listening to this.
"That's because Tempest, fierce and shy in the same moment, is such a genuinely galvanising presence and acutely responsive to her audience. It matters that we are there; it matters that these stories are told. It matters that we listen."