The recipient of the TS Eliot poetry prize reflects on his tumultuous childhood: “It was a truly traumatic experience.”
“Let’s take a look at the adjectives,” states Jason Allen-Paisant. He seems to emphasize his identity as a poet as he responds to my inquiry about how he is feeling the morning after being awarded the TS Eliot prize for poetry. “I feel wonderful, overwhelmed, ecstatic, and privileged.”
Despite his warm and attentive demeanor, it is important to note that the 43-year-old writer and academic is also quite exhausted. After the ceremony, he had trouble sleeping and even took a walk through London in the early hours of the morning. He admits that he was not surprised to win, as his book Self-Portrait as Othello had already received recognition, winning the Forward prize for best collection and being shortlisted for the Writers’ prize (formerly known as the Rathbones Folio prize). However, he finds it “crazy” to have been chosen as the winner from a shortlist that included “at least two” poets whose work he has taught to his students at Manchester university, where he holds a position as a senior lecturer in critical theory and creative writing.
Described by its publisher Carcanet as a “poetic memoir and ekphrastic experiment”, Self-Portrait as Othello imagines the backstory of Shakespeare’s character, exploring his experiences of immigration and Blackness via the poet’s own life. Allen-Paisant thinks one of the reasons it resonated with readers and prize judges is because “it balances several interesting questions”, exploring “masculinity, Black masculinity, and how that intersects with vulnerability. Which is not a conversation that’s had enough.”
Othello is also “in”, he informs me, citing productions last year at the Lyric Hammersmith and Riverside Studios in London. He, just like these productions, wanted to ask questions about the character that are not addressed in the play. (One poem in Self-Portrait as Othello is titled “What Shakespeare did not write about”.)
According to Allen-Paisant, it is easy to assume that the man becomes demented without considering any other factors. He wonders if there are any cultural influences or personal background experiences that contribute to this behavior. As a poet, he was also interested in exploring the shared identities of himself and Othello as men of color and immigrants. Allen-Paisant grew up in Manchester, Jamaica with his mother who was studying to be a teacher and his absent father. He spent his early years living with his grandparents, who were yam farmers, in a small village called Coffee Grove. In his collection of works, he describes this village as a place where hope is scarce, much like the dry root of a red dirt rockstone.
He explains that for a significant portion of his life, his goal was to distance himself from his hometown. His focus was on moving up in society through education and attending university. As a younger person, he avoided discussing his family or where he grew up because being a farmer was not considered desirable and being from a low-income background brought feelings of embarrassment.
At the age of five, he departed Coffee Grove to reside with his mother in Porus. She had recently become a teacher and was living there. This experience was when he first became aware that his grandmother, referred to as “Mama” in his poems, was not his biological mother. He describes it as a traumatic event. His grandmother had brought him to his mother’s house, but then left without saying goodbye while he was in the bathroom.
Despite her own lack of formal education, Allen-Paisant’s grandmother ensured that her daughter and grandson received a proper education. She taught Allen-Paisant to read on her veranda using a blackboard and emphasized the importance of taking reading seriously. As a result, he obtained a degree from the University of the West Indies and then pursued his PhD in medieval and modern languages at the University of Montreal. He was able to complete his doctorate at Oxford with the help of a scholarship, and also spent a year studying at the École normale supérieure in Paris. While he had been writing poetry since his undergraduate years, it wasn’t until his time at Oxford that he truly began to take it seriously.
Perhaps due to their similarities, his thoughts turned to Othello and the various perspectives that can be applied through a Black lens. As he explored themes of Black masculinity in his writing, he couldn’t help but contemplate his own father – or lack thereof – a central theme in his work “Self-Portrait as Othello.” Through conversations with his paternal grandmother, the poet learned that his father was a traveler who lived in both England and the US before ultimately settling in Ethiopia. In a fittingly poetic twist, Allen-Paisant will be flying to Ethiopia for the first time after our interview to finally meet his father.
As a father now, the poet desires to share his family history with his two children. He clarifies that he does not require any material or emotional support from his own father, but rather wishes to listen to his perspective. He remains composed as he reveals his upcoming journey, which he has not yet discussed with his father.
It may not be unexpected that a poet who tackles challenging topics in their writing would also engage in tough conversations in real life. They express, “I enjoy discussing uncomfortable subjects and those that are typically avoided.”
During his acceptance speech for the TS Eliot award, he expressed his shock and dismay at the ongoing conflict in Gaza and expressed his desire to address it in his speech. Winning the award gave him a platform to speak about an issue that he believes is important to his fellow poets. He mentions Benjamin Zephaniah as someone who inspired him, particularly when Zephaniah declined an OBE. He interpreted it as a reminder to reflect on one’s actions and beliefs, which ultimately influenced his decision to speak out about the war in Gaza.
Currently, Allen-Paisant is setting aside poetry to focus on a memoir-nature book that is scheduled for release in 2025. He has also been crafting fiction in private, with the possibility of publishing it in the future. However, he is taking a calm approach and not pushing himself to the point of exhaustion.
The poet exudes a sense of tranquility, possibly due to his acceptance of his heritage after attempting to separate himself from it for many years. He declares, “I understand myself now,” and playfully acknowledges that his chosen name, “Paisant,” meaning “peasant” in Breton, pays homage to his family’s background. He remarks, “It feels like I’ve come back to where I began.”