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Jo Shapcott wins Costa Award
Wed 26 Jan 2011
NAWE member Jo Shapcott has won the Costa book of the year award, for her collection 'Of Mutability'. The book includes a poem commissioned for The Black Page exhibition at Shandy Hall in 2009.
(Re-printed from The Guardian)

For the second year in a row, poetry has triumphed at the Costas. Jo Shapcott's painful, plangent collection Of Mutability has tonight taken the title of Costa book of the year.

On the surface, it's a surprise result. In the first place, the prize tends not to favour poets when it comes to the final cut. The form had a good run back in the late 90s, when Seamus Heaney's victory for The Spirit Level was followed by Ted Hughes's double-header – for Tales from Ovid in 1997 and Birthday Letters in 1998. Since then, poetry has only scooped the prize once, and that was last year, when Christopher Reid won with his piercing exploration of grief following the death of his wife, A Scattering, meaning that the chances of a poetry collection winning again this year seemed slim. In the second place, Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes – a gloriously rich, burrowing investigation of the history of his collection of netsuke – was touted up until tonight as the firm favourite, and not without reason. As anyone who's read the book will agree, it's a remarkable achievement.

But there's something about Shapcott's collection that won't be denied. I first read the poems half a year ago, when I interviewed her for the Guardian Review, and was struck by them then. Conceived in the wake of Shapcott's 2003 diagnosis of breast cancer, they grapple not with the process itself but with the transformation it enacted on Shapcott's psyche; what she describes as her "changed sensibility" in the wake of a brush with mortality. "I've had to carry out reconstruction on my brain," she said at the time. "I've had to remake myself as a poet."

In the case of her poetry, the reconstruction has been keenly effective. These are singular poems, as full of light and verdure and fresh air as they are of waiting rooms and hair loss. They have stayed with me all year and I even found myself turning to them during a period of illness I experienced a month or so ago. Someone did ask me later whether they ought to give the poems to a friend going through treatment for the same disease – and while Shapcott herself might demur ("The reader," she explained to me, "doesn't get an account of my experience with breast cancer … the poems are emotionally autobiographical, but not factually so,") I'd say yes. They may not function as a handbook for surviving the experience of breast cancer, but they offer a fresh perspective, a bright, clean insight into the murky depths in which anyone suffering from a serious illness finds themselves swimming. As any great poems should – and these are great poems. Congratulations, Jo Shapcott, on a well-deserved victory.

Jo Shapcott
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